Learning About Evolution in a Climate of Science Denial

This rant about learning the facts of evolution will make a lot more sense if you realize that I’m a Christian, specifically a Presbyterian, a member of the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). I also have degrees in Molecular Biology and Neuroscience and have studied Philosophy of the Biological Sciences at the University of Arizona. You should probably also know that my wife, recently the Moderator of the Presbytery of the West in ECO, graduated with her degree in Physical Anthropology with a minor in Geology before becoming a minister of the Word and Sacrament.

Why start off with a pedigree like this? Because I want my readers to know that I can wholeheartedly share information about the fact of evolution in my science classroom without casting one shred of doubt upon my life of faith. I want you to know that my wife has an equally easy time reconciling her job and her faith with the facts of changed and changing species and a changeable Earth. Its possible to “believe” in both religion and science.

Now to the rant: here’s an observation from 15 years of high school science teaching:

The science teachers that I’ve known seem to fall into three general categories (with apologies for pigeonholing people on a very complex issue):

  1. Classroom Evolutionists: Regardless of/in spite of/because of their personal beliefs about God and science, these folks jump in and teach the facts and theories of evolution with the understanding that evolution is a capital-T Theory and as such that means that there is a massive amount of evidence and philosophy of thought that students should engage with when learning about evolution. These are the teachers who routinely point out that there are state and national standards that support, if not require, that students learn about evolution in school.
  2. Equal Timers: These folks think that science teachers should somehow present “both” sides of the “evolution debate” in their classrooms. These teachers show the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate in class to prove that there is indeed a debate, and that there are exactly two sides to this issue. These teachers often share alternative sources of information that usually paint the scientific community as “Darwinists” that follow “Darwinism” (which does seem to be a real religion, judging by those bumper stickers of fish with legs).
  3. Conflict Avoiders: These folks recognize that evolution is a central idea in biology, but they just don’t feel that they can accurately teach about evolution without betraying their faith or the faith of their students. For these teachers, evolution is recognized as a state standard, it is listed in the curriculum, but at the end of the year, and often the evolution unit simply does not happen as the school year runs out of time.

I’m not going to argue with the Classroom Evolutionist approach, because that’s my style. I’ve been working on the “Argue from Evidence” skill with my classes even before the NGSS appeared. If students don’t leave my biology class with at least a basic understanding of the multiple lines of evidence that the earth has changed, species have changed, and will continue to change, then I haven’t done my job very well.

I’m not even going to argue with the Equal Timers, because I can’t change their minds. Their religious beliefs are so important to them that any challenge to their perceived precepts is met with denial of the facts. I value and share their faith, but I can’t shut out the results from thousands of years of scientific inquiry into the nature of the universe and our place in it.

I am going to take issue with the Conflict Avoiders, however.

Please take the time to get educated about what evolution is and isn’t so you can feel comfortable discussing it with students from a variety of religious (or not) backgrounds. To help you out, here is your summer assignment:

  • Go check out BioLogos to help your students learn that this isn’t a two sided brawl between atheists and Christians.
  • Go read The Language of God by the nearly godlike Francis Collins, Human Genome stud and Director of the NIH.
  • For a little fiber, read Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker to get a sense of why atheists love evolution too.

Conflict Avoiders, it is a terrible thing to let time run out on your biology class without having helped students learn the science behind species change, the “descent with modification” that continues in our lives and in all of God’s creatures. You might as well let time run out on your Earth Science class without having discussed the merits of the evidence for the human impact on global climate change.

Science deniers arise when we deny them the chance to learn about these and other core scientific principles. Let’s please not make any more science deniers. There are plenty in the world already.

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  1. Sarah’s avatar

    Hi Chris,

    Thank you for your insightful post. I think it was beneficial to learn of your personal beliefs and educational background. As a Biology student teacher, I have been a part of several discussions on the very subject you present in this post. Conversely to your position and that of many other educators, I was never in a position to give the controversy of evolution much thought. I was naive to it since I did not grow up in a religious household and the sensitivity of the topic never surfaced among my friends and I. I very much understand the struggles that some teachers might face when they want to be true to their own religious beliefs, be effective biology teachers and respect their students’ views.

    I want to become more knowledgeable of the conversations and issues that people have with the concept of evolution. I want to be sensitive towards my students’ beliefs. I appreciate the links that you posted to blogs and books that will be useful for teachers that are more in the Conflict Avoider category. I most certainly want to check them out the books and I have already been utilizing ideas presented on the BioLogos blog. I think I definitely am in your Classroom Evolutionist category but I would like to relate to my students as they grapple with the theory of evolution and potential contradictions that it might present with their faith. Do you have tips or suggestions of resources that would be useful to someone like me?

    Thanks,
    Sarah

    Reply

    1. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

      Sarah,
      Thanks for the comment! I applaud your wanting to know more about where your students may be coming from on these issues. I just finished leading a study of the book Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design by Deborah and Loren Haarsma, a couple of the main scientists featured on the BioLogos site. I thought their book (and DVD if you can find it) does a great job of laying out all of the possible perspectives that Christians may be coming from on these issues. The various perspectives are surprisingly complex and span much more than a simple binary atheist vs. creationist battle. Their book describes ways that your students might successfully integrate their faith with what you’ll be teaching them about the natural world in your biology classes. I think its worth a read, especially if you aren’t familiar with some of the theological positions on Biblical interpretation that Christians have been arguing about for centuries. It really does a great job of summarizing all the possible positions that your students might hold, or perhaps come to hold some day with your help and encouragement.

      Hope that helps. Good luck as you move into your teaching career!

      Reply

    2. Sarah’s avatar

      Chris,

      Thank you for the timely and insightful response. I will continue to read BioLogos as it seems that the authors of Origins: Christian Perspective on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design will provide regular, useful information that is practical for my future classroom. Thank you for the text recommendation. I will be putting it on my reading list.

      I look forward to reading more about your pedagogy and experiences in the classroom.

      Best,
      Sarah

      Reply

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