Sunday, January 3, 2010

Evolution a Must in Primary School Education

My Evangelical Christian friend, Pastor Gregory Dickow, has often expounded the principle, “In the essential teachings, let there be unity, in the nonessential teachings, let there be liberty, and in all things, let there be charity.” For Dickow the essentials are that Christ died for your sins, and his blood was shed as a human sacrifice once and for all time to atone for all sins of humanity. Nonessentials are the points of sectarian disagreement (esp. the focus on petty subsequent sins after acceptance of Christ). Charity of course is love, the sort of love that should be exhibited by all Christians to all people, regardless of their sectarian differences. On his radio show, “Ask the Pastor” the other day I asked him where exactly the acceptance of evolution fit into this scheme, and if it was OK for Christians to come to such a conclusion.

Dickow answered that the acceptance of evolution does not award one a trip straight to hell on a greased pole. Because the only mortal sin that one can really have is the rejection of Christ, there might be many points of view that Christians can have that will not keep them out of heaven. I got the impression that he sort of expects believers to come around and eventually reject many of the perceived misconceptions that they might have as they “grow in Christ,” acceptance of evolution included. But as I hung up I thought that Dickow’s response seemed to represent a very interesting and satisfying admission coming from a biblical fundamentalist. I have listened to Christian radio quite a bit (more monitored it) to bear witness to the various machinations of the religious right, and in order to gain an understanding of what they tell each other in regards to the acceptance of evolutionary theory. Many of these folks spit God’s future vengeance on those that would even presume to give evolution a fair hearing, let alone accept it. For many you can’t be a Christian and accept evolution. But Dickow’s position is that Evangelical Christians can accept evolution, if tentatively, and not jeopardize their salvation. Wow. This man may be unique amongst fundamentalists, but many people listen to his radio show. I think he’s an influential man, if only regionally.

Dickow has often stated that the evidence of the historical Christ is incontrovertible, but also believes that adequate proof of evolution has not been established (“It’s only a theory, not fact”). I suspect that he has not spent the amount of time that would be required to review the comprehensive and multidisciplinary evidence for a rational person such as himself to come to the conclusion that evolution indeed has a factual basis. And like many creationists, the limited amount of time upon which he bases his seemingly certain conviction that evolution is “only theory, not fact” is spent on reviewing creationist literature. He may be specifically unaware of the deceit and duplicity exhibited by the Intelligent Design advocates that was exposed in a court of law in the Kitzmiller versus Dover case in 2005 (see Dawkins 2006 for a good account p. 157-160). For this reason many intelligent yet religious people will never critically review the best possible literature on the subject, that which is generated by the scientific community, which is readily available in our modern age of copious scientific information. I use Gregory Dickow as an example of the most rational Evangelical Christian that I know. So how can intelligent people reject evolution? What should be advocated to change that?

We all know that a staggering proportion of American populace does not accept evolution. But what can be done to change that such that evolution is finally seen for what it is, an actual process found in nature and the central unifying principle in biology? There’s a good review on the subject by Williams (2009). Williams cites a UK poll by a religious think tank that found that only 37% thought that evolution is a thoroughly established scientific theory, and 19% believe that it has little or no supporting evidence. He also cites Mazur (2008), whom posits that rejection of evolution is not a character flaw, but is a response to the social attachments developed early in life, and subsequent attachments to religious spouses, associates and friends. Many may secretly accept evolution or at least have enough savvy to realize that the religious right is certainly misrepresenting evolutionary theory, yet their social commitments may keep them from actively seeking out the scientific literature. Fear of rejection or ridicule by co-religionists are probably keeping many silent.

Williams quotes Duschl (2007), and states that the lack of acceptance of evolution stems from “the natural intuitive development of ‘creationist’ ideas as a very young child,” that the rejection of evolution comes from an “initial essentialist bias-that is, their initial tendency to believe that things have a true underlying nature (Williams quoting Duschl 2007).” Essentialist beliefs represent the sort of typological thinking (such as the creation of ‘kinds’ of organisms found in creation stories as in the bible) that was prevalent in the 19th century and a basis for early rejection of Darwinism (Mayr 2001). Williams also blames inadequate primary school education of evolutionary theory, the sloppy language that some scientists use that seems to imply design in the natural world (that creationists love to exploit), and even young science graduates inability to distinguish scientific theory, law, and fact. It’s no wonder that the general public confuses the difference between belief in a metaphysical position and acceptance of the factual basis of evolution. The answer as Williams correctly states would be to begin the education of evolutionary theory as early as possible in the public school curriculum. This very thing seems a very good possibility at least in England for this past November a bill was introduced into the British Parliament that will make the teaching of evolutionary theory compulsory in primary schools (Anonymous 2009).

The goal really is not to begrudge anyone their faith as long as science education is not impeded or waylaid by religious fundamentalism. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens suffer no fools and take no prisoners, and actively refute religious beliefs in order to change them. They would like to see religion neutered. If the goal is to break the nefarious hold that religion can have on society, then this is certainly a laudable position. At some point we would then bolster science education in the process. This seems to me a top-down strategy that, although satisfying to many atheistic ideologues, may not be particularly successful if a potentially more important and tangible goal of strengthening and advancing science education is desired. A more bottom-up strategy of early education would certainly diffuse some of the early misconceptions that children may develop. Williams and Dawkins (2006) claim that the targeting of youth by creationists even constitutes a form of intellectual child abuse, a charge that on the face of it seems pretty grave, but is difficult in my opinion to outright deny given some of the insidious tactics of ID crowd.

Evolution is taught to some degree in secondary schools, and at colleges and universities, and is widely promoted in museums and other institutions. But we have to admit that this influence has been insufficient as the high number of enemies of Darwinism in the U.S. attests to our failure to adequately defend and promote it. We must be careful, however, because early attempts in the courts to promote evolution education in the schools such as the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 lead to successful creationist strategies that stripped evolution from American textbooks and marginalized evolution education (Shermer 2006). On the other hand today such marginalization may not be quite as easy as modern texts are often written by experts and some are explicitly tackling the social milieu around creationism as in Evolution (Futuyma 2009).

Rationally convincing liberal Christian thinkers like the influential Gregory Dickow may help us gain some inroads into the hold that creationist dogma that Christian fundamentalists seem to have over many. Developing relationships with such individuals and getting them to realize and admit that evolutionary theory didn’t originate from the pit of hell is certainly a good start. Evolutionary theory is not responsible for Social Darwinism, all of social ills, or eugenics. The factual basis of evolution is in any case independent of its social implications. Liberal Christian thinkers may be reached if we take a more compassionate and reasoned approached. Only then can we diffuse the inevitable backlash that would come from advocating early childhood education of evolutionary theory.

References:

Anonymous. 2009. Evolution and history compulsory. BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/8369172.stm

Duchl, RA, Schweingruber HA, and Shouse, AW. 2007. Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8. National Academies Press.

Futuyma, Douglas. Evolution. Sinauer Associates p. 609-633.

Dawkins, Richard. 2006. The God Delusion. Bantam Books.

Mayr, Ernst. 2001. What Evolution Is. Basic Books p. 74-75.

Mazur, A. 2008. Implausible Beliefs. Transaction Publishers p. 246.

Shermer, Michael. 2006. Why Darwin Matters. Henry Holt and Co.

Williams, James D. 2009. Belief versus acceptance: why people do not believe in evolution? BioEssays 31 pp. 1255-1262.

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