googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Why even teach evolution?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Why even teach evolution?

I don't have anything against education. As a matter of fact, if I won the lottery and didn't have to work anymore, I'd be a professional student for the rest of my life. I love learning. Some people like to study very narrow subjects – something like Russian literature. These might not be very practical degrees to have when you look for a job but, if you like Russian literature, then go for it. Studying evolution is sort of like studying Russian literature. No, it's actually more like studying Big Foot. There's no practical use to it, really, but if you're interested in pseudo-science, then the theory of evolution is for you. I won't stop you – not that I could anyway – but I do object to the way evolution is being taught in many public schools now.

Several years ago, I wrote about a NY Times article that talked about teaching evolution in the classroom. The article cited a dilemma faced by a FL biology teacher:

ORANGE PARK, Fla. — David Campbell switched on the overhead projector and wrote “Evolution” in the rectangle of light on the screen.
He scanned the faces of the sophomores in his Biology I class. Many of them, he knew from years of teaching high school in this Jacksonville suburb, had been raised to take the biblical creation story as fact. His gaze rested for a moment on Bryce Haas, a football player who attended the 6 a.m. prayer meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the school gymnasium.
If I do this wrong,” Mr. Campbell remembers thinking on that humid spring morning, “I’ll lose him.”

Never mind the Constitutional concerns for a moment, where a government employee sees it as his personal mission to rid his students of a religiously held belief, I'm more interested in this idea that learning evolution is somehow critical to kids' education. Bill Nye, my arch-nemesis (at least, my “would be” arch-nemesis,” if he knew I existed), is on record for saying the following:

[T]here are more people in the world — another billion people all trying to use the world’s resources. And the threat and consequences of climate change are more serious than ever, so we need as many people engaged in how we’re going to deal with that as possible.... My biggest concern about creationist kids is that they’re compelled to suppress their common sense, to suppress their critical thinking skills at a time in human history when we need them more than ever.... There are just things about evolution that we should all be aware of, the way we’re aware of where electricity comes from.

I'm just puzzled by this idea that a kid can't understand technology or science unless he believes in evolution. I've seen no evidence, anywhere, to support the idea that people who believe in creation suffer academically (except perhaps being discriminated against by teachers). Furthermore, I've never seen a compelling example of how a belief in evolution is critical to any other field of study.

I've linked before to an article by Dr. Jerry Bergman: a survey of college text books showed that most barely discuss evolution. The anatomy and physiology text books examined didn't mention evolution at all. Of the colleges surveyed in Ohio and Michigan, biology majors were required to only take one class in evolution. Also from the article, National Academy of Science Member and renown carbene chemist, Professor emeritus Dr. Philip Skell of Pennsylvania State University (see Lewis, 1992), did a survey of his colleagues that were “engaged in non-historical biology research, related to their ongoing research projects.” He found that the “Darwinist researchers” he interviewed, in answer to the question, “Would you have done the work any differently if you believed Darwin's theory was wrong?” that “for the large number” of persons he questioned, “differing only in the amount of hemming and hawing” was “in my work it would have made no difference.”

If colleges are supposed to be equipping scientists in their various fields of research, they must not think evolution is very important, considering it's barely mentioned. And you can see that even people who work in biology have admitted that evolution isn't really relevant to their research. Consider this too: can anyone name a single invention or technological advance in the last century that hinged upon an understanding of evolution? Maybe somebody could name one but that is dwarfed by the virtual explosion of technology we've seen in the last 100 years that didn't depend on evolution at all!

If evolution is so ancillary to science, if there is no study linking understanding evolution to improved test scores, if evolution is something that kids learn in school but never use again, then why is there this grim determination that students still must learn evolution? We're facing an education crisis where kids lack proficiency in critical skills like reading, math, and history. Why are we wasting time and resources teaching them a skill that is so useless yet still so controversial? Why force public schools into court to defend a sticker in a text book or to remove a teacher who mentions creation? Let's just stop the controversies altogether. I'm not saying, “give equal time to creation.” I'm not saying, “teach the difficulties.” I'm saying stop teaching evolution!


Steven J. said...

Stand firm in your refusal to remain conscious during algebra. In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra. -- Fran Lebowitz

Of course, there are a lot of engineers who need algebra on a daily basis. But there are huge numbers of good jobs where you can get by for decades without it, even for people who sat through algebra classes (when their teachers weren't discoursing on eschatology).

If evolution is so ancillary to science ...?

I would say (and of course you would not) "to the rest of science." The test of science is not that it raises the gross national product, provides gadgets for Apple to market, or kills obnoxious foreigners. It is that it provides testable explanations for natural phenomena. The value of these explanations to aircraft engineers, farmers, or dress designers is not a measure of their truth.

Evolution does provide such testable explanations. Evolution is part of science. It is worth noting, I think, that you do not assert otherwise in this post. Your argument is not "evolution is false," but "come on, our preferred delusions about Earth history are harmless; why do you insist on teaching facts that contradict or at least raise questions about them?" Or at least, you are taking a belt-plus-suspenders approach: "we have these arguments against evolution, but if they fail, couldn't you just please leave us in blissful ignorance of the subject anyway?"

As the wife of the Bishop of Worcester probably didn't really say, "My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known."

Is covering evolution in biology class strictly necessary from a utilitarian view? I suppose you could raise similar questions, for most students, about music, art, and large swaths of history (how many people will ever need to know about the manorial system in medieval Europe?). Traditionally, education is supposed to be distinct from vocational training in that it equips you with a broad sense of how the world works and what people have thought about it. From fossils to comparative genomics to biogeography, there is abundant evidence that evolution is part of the way the world works.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

It's funny because my son (who is 14) was just saying to me the other day that he wishes schools would teach things like buying a house, applying for a job, and other real-life skills. I gave him this hypothetical example: if you're buying a house for $110,000 and the down payment is 5%, how much would you need to save? He was able to do that math in his head. I explained that the math he's learned does apply to real world situations. I then asked him if he could multiply 9x47 in his head. I could tell he was trying to do the math but I told him he was taking too long. It's a lot easier if you make it an algebraic express like 9(40+7) or 47(10-1). Even in my down payment example, a person might use algebra; if I already have $750 saved, how much more would I need to save for the down payment? X = (110,000 x .05) – 750.

Music and art might not seem practical when finding a job but they are more practical than you might think. Our society consumes art. We go to movies, we decorate our homes, we listen to songs on the radio, we read books, and there have to be people who produce these things. What's more, a case could be made that teaching art and music also sparks imagination and creativity which are useful to many other areas of life. Certainly, I'm not against students learning these things in order to be well rounded.

In any event, what you've failed to address is the controversy. There's been much debate over public funding of groups like the NEA or PBS but I doubt there is much concern over kids learning arts in school. There may be an occasional uproar over a school using a particular book or questionable songs but I've never heard of a parent suing a school simply because it taught music or reading! On the other hand, some parents strongly object to the teaching of evolution – especially when it's done by zealots like the FL teacher I quoted in my post. If evolution is of such questionable utility, if many parents would prefer their kids not learn it, and if nearly ½ the population doesn't believe evolution is true anyway, why does your side still insist on teaching it? It sounds much more like indoctrination than education.

One thing I didn't mention in my post is that scientists don't get to write the school curriculum. Parents, teachers, and local school boards decide what is taught. Evolution is the only scientific theory that seems to have its own political lobby. Any attempt to down play evolution or soften the “evolution is FACT” rhetoric is met with a subpoena. Go ahead and teach science, teach biology, teach math, teach geology, just stop teaching evolution. What's wrong with that?

Thanks for your comments. God bless!!


Steven J. said...

... if many parents would prefer their kids not learn it, and if nearly ½ the population doesn't believe evolution is true anyway, why does your side still insist on teaching it?... Evolution is the only scientific theory that seems to have its own political lobby.

If there were many parents (rather than a handful despised even by their fellow creationists) who objected to heliocentrism in astronomy, it would have its own lobby as well. Ditto for germ theory, atomic theory, etc. You answer your own question, assuming that you accept, at least in principle, that truth is not settled by majority vote, or scientific theories accepted based on the consensus of people who don't understand either the theory or the facts it seeks to explain.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

I think you're missing the point. Did you know that there have been 6 KY Derby winning horses whose names began with “A” since 1960? What if schools made that required learning for students? Some parents might object to their kids learning about race horses on the grounds that it promotes gambling. Furthermore, it's rather trivial information. It doesn't matter if it's true or not I'd say it's a waste of our time to teach it and it causes more trouble than it's worth. If Churchill Downs sued any school that stopped teaching it, I would say it's Churchill Downs that are the zealots.

Evolution is trivial and controversial. I don't believe it's true but, even if it were, it's more trouble than it's worth. The zealots who insist that we teach it have an agenda besides educating our kids.

God bless!!