Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Teaching evolution at closed minds

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Fascinating article by James Krupa in Orion magazine:

i’m often asked what I do for a living. My answer, that I am a professor at the University of Kentucky, inevitably prompts a second question: “What do you teach?” Responding to such a question should be easy and invite polite conversation, but I usually brace for a negative reaction. At least half the time the person flinches with disapproval when I answer “evolution,” and often the conversation simply terminates once the “e-word” has been spoken. Occasionally, someone will retort: “But there is no evidence for evolution.” Or insist: “It’s just a theory, so why teach it?”

At this point I should walk away, but the educator in me can’t. I generally take the bait, explaining that evolution is an established fact and the foundation of all biology. If in a feisty mood, I’ll leave them with this caution: the fewer who understand evolution, the more who will die. Sometimes, when a person is still keen to prove me wrong, I’m more than happy to share with him an avalanche of evidence demonstrating I’m not.

Some colleagues ask why I bother, as if I’m the one who’s the provocateur. I remind them that evolution is the foundation of our science, and we simply can’t shy away from explaining it. We don’t avoid using the “g-word” when talking about gravitational theory, nor do we avoid the “c-word” when talking about cell theory. So why avoid talking about evolution, let alone defending it? After all, as a biologist, the mission of advancing evolution education is the most important aspect of my job.

TO TEACH EVOLUTION at the University of Kentucky is to teach at an institution steeped in the history of defending evolution education. The first effort to pass an anti-evolution law (led by William Jennings Bryan) happened in Kentucky in 1921. It proposed making the teaching of evolution illegal. The university’s president at that time, Frank McVey, saw this bill as a threat to academic freedom. Three faculty members—William Funkhouser, a zoologist; Arthur Miller, a geologist who taught evolution; and Glanville Terrell, a philosopher—joined McVey in the battle to prevent the bill from becoming law. They put their jobs on the line. Through their efforts, the anti-evolution bill was defeated by a forty-two to forty-one vote in the state legislature. Consequently, the movement turned its attention toward Tennessee.

John Thomas Scopes was a student at the University of Kentucky then and watched the efforts of his three favorite teachers and President McVey. The reason the “Scopes Monkey Trial” occurred several years later in Dayton, Tennessee—where Scopes was a substitute teacher and volunteered to be prosecuted—was in good part due to the influence of his mentors, particularly Funkhouser. As Scopes writes in his memoir, Center of the Storm: “Teachers rather than subject matter rekindled my interest in science. Dr. Funkhouser . . . was a man without airs [who] taught zoology so flawlessly that there was no need to cram for the final examination; at the end of the term there was a thorough, fundamental grasp of the subject in bold relief in the student’s mind, where Funkhouser had left it.”

I was originally reluctant to take my job at the university when offered it twenty years ago. It required teaching three sections of non-majors biology classes, with three hundred students per section, and as many as eighteen hundred students each year. I wasn’t particularly keen on lecturing to an auditorium of students whose interest in biology was questionable given that the class was a freshman requirement.

Then I heard an interview with the renowned evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson in which he addressed why, as a senior professor—and one of the most famous biologists in the world—he continued to teach non-majors biology at Harvard. Wilson explained that non-majors biology is the most important science class that one could teach. He felt many of the future leaders of this nation would take the class, and that this was the last chance to convey to them an appreciation for biology and science. Moved by Wilson’s words, and with the knowledge that William Funkhouser once held the job I was now contemplating, I accepted the position. The need to do well was unnerving, however, considering that if I failed as a teacher, a future Scopes might leave my class uninspired.

I realized early on that many instructors teach introductory biology classes incorrectly. Too often evolution is the last section to be taught, an autonomous unit at the end of the semester. I quickly came to the conclusion that, since evolution is the foundation upon which all biology rests, it should be taught at the beginning of a course, and as a recurring theme throughout the semester. As the renowned geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” In other words, how else can we explain why the DNA of chimps and humans is nearly 99 percent identical, and that the blood and muscle proteins of chimps and humans are nearly identical as well? Why are these same proteins slightly less similar to gorillas and orangu­tans, while much less similar to goldfish? Only evolution can shed light on these questions: we humans are great apes; we and the other great apes (gibbons, chimps, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans) all evolved from a common ancestor.

Soon, every topic and lecture in my class was built on an evolutionary foundation and explained from an evolutionary perspective. My basic biology for non-majors became evolution for non-majors. It didn’t take long before I started to hear from a vocal minority of students who strongly objected: “I am very offended by your lectures on evolution! Those who believe in creation are not ignorant of science! You had no right to try and force evolution on us. Your job was to teach it as a theory and not as a fact that all smart people believe in!!” And: “Evolution is not a proven fact. It should not be taught as if it is. It cannot be observed in any quantitative form and, therefore, isn’t really science.”

We live in a nation where public acceptance of evolution is the second lowest of thirty-four developed countries, just ahead of Turkey. Roughly half of Americans reject some aspect of evolution, believe the earth is less than ten thousand years old, and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Where I live, many believe evolution to be synonymous with atheism, and there are those who strongly feel I am teaching heresy to thousands of students. A local pastor, whom I’ve never met, wrote an article in The University Christian complaining that, not only was I teaching evolution and ignoring creationism, I was teaching it as a non-Christian, alternative religion.

There are students who enroll in my courses and already accept evolution. Although not yet particularly knowledgeable on the subject, they are eager to learn more. Then there are the students whose minds are already sealed shut to the possibility that evolution exists, but need to take my class to fulfill a college requirement. And then there are the students who have no opinion one way or the other but are open-minded. These are the students I most hope to reach by presenting them with convincing and overwhelming evidence without offending or alienating them.

Some students take offense very easily. . .

Continue reading.

And Phil Plait in Slate offers some answers to questions asked by creationists:

After writing yesterday about the now-famous/infamous debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, I don’t want to make this blog all creationism all the time, but indulge me this one more time, if you will. On BuzzFeed, there is a clever listicle that is a collection of 22 photos showing creationists holding up questions they have for people who “believe” in evolution.

These questions are fairly typically asked when evolution is questioned by creationists. Some are philosophical, and fun to think about, while others show a profound misunderstanding of how science works, and specifically what evolution is. I have found that most creationists who attack evolution have been taught about it by other creationists, so they really don’t understand what it is or how it works, instead they have a straw-man idea of it.

Because of this, it’s worth exploring and answering the questions presented. Some could be simply answered yes or no, but I’m all about going a bit deeper. With 22 questions I won’t go too deep, but if you have these questions yourself, or have been asked them, I hope this helps.

I’ll repeat the question below, and give my answers.

1) “Bill Nye, are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?”

I’m not Bill, but I’d say yes, he is. More than just giving them facts to memorize, he is showing them how science works. Not only that, his clear love and enthusiasm for science is infectious, and that to me is his greatest gift.

2) “Are you scared of a Divine Creator?”

No. In fact, if there is a Judeo-Christian god, that would have fascinating implications for much of what we scientists study, and would be a rich vein to mine. Perhaps a more pertinent question is, “Are you scared there might not be a Divine Creator?” There is more room for a god in science than there is for no god in religious faith.

3) “Is it completely illogical that the Earth was created mature? i.e. trees created with rings … Adam created as an adult ….”

It might be internally consistent, even logical, but a bit of a stretch. After all, we can posit that God created the Universe last Thursday, looking exactly as it is, with all evidence pointing to it being old and your memories implanted such that you think you’re older than a mere few days. Consistent, sure, but plausible? Not really.

4) “Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove evolution?” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 March 2015 at 3:26 pm

2 Responses

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  1. As they say, one man’s patriot is another man’s revolutionary. So too evolution is science to some, but not to others. After all, the world was once considered flat, right?

    chicagoja

    26 March 2015 at 3:29 pm

  2. Not quite sure I get your drift, but certainly evolution (theory and fact—as described in the article) is science to scientists. Insofar as “science” has an actual meaning—e.g., reasoned explanations based on evidence-based facts), evolution is science. But I do agree that there are those who don’t understand evolution, and that some of those who don’t understand it don’t like it. That does not, however, alter the facts and reasoning on which evolution is based.

    The world is still considered flat by some: Flat-Earthers still exist. (And yet the Earth is not flat: the fact that people believe this or that does not establish it as a fact.) There are some who think the moon landings were faked in the Southwest somewhere. And you can probably even find some who think they have a magical tapeworm in their brain that feeds them bad thoughts.

    The fact that someone or some group has some particular belief is really just the starting point. Belief is easy, proof is hard. You have to look at the evidence on which the belief is based and how that fits with other evidenced-based beliefs to explain what we see in the world. There is MUCH evidence that shows that the belief that the Earth is a flat disk is flat-out wrong, which is why so few believe it today. All the evidence we have shows that evolution is a fact. No one is offering evidence that shows otherwise.

    LeisureGuy

    26 March 2015 at 3:39 pm


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