Monkey Girl and teaching evolution in the US

I’ve just finished Monkey Girl by Edward Humes, an account of the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District court case about the constitutionality of teaching Intelligent Design in biology lessons. I was slightly underwhelmed by the book—you can read my review here—but the subject is interesting. How do you manage science education in a country where so many believe that the mainstream scientific orthodoxy is not just false but offensive and morally suspect?

If you have to resort to the court system and the separation of church and state to keep evolution in the classroom, and creationism out, you’ve already lost. It seems clear that teaching religious beliefs in state-run schools is unconstitutional, and that principle is worth defending; but evolution should be taught in biology lessons not because it’s the secular option, but because it’s what working biologists believe to be true. Teaching anything else isn’t just a victory for religion over secularism, it represents a complete collapse of respect for education and scholarship.

And although keeping religion out of the classroom is vital, it sounds like the equally important battle to keep evolution being taught is nearly lost. Even in places where evolution is specified on the curriculum, it sounds like many or most biology teachers teach as little evolution as possible and glide over the most potentially controversial areas of speciation and human origins; not necessarily because they themselves doubt evolution but because they know it will create too much awkwardness with the parents.

Since I am occasionally fairly forceful about my atheism, I imagine this post might come across as part of that, but really it’s not. It’s as an enthusiast for natural history that I find this most troubling. Children should be exposed to the ideas of natural selection and evolution because they are beautiful, surprising and have enormous explanatory power even about the most directly observable life around you. Of all the great theories of science, natural selection is the most approachable by an interested amateur. It can be explained without reference to mathematics. The subject matter—birds, fish, people—can be seen without the aid of a radio telescope or a particle accelerator. Of course the study of modern biology gets you on to statistics, biochemistry, genetics, radiometric dating and other more technical disciplines, but an enormous amount of the study of evolution was done, and is still being done, by direct observation of easily approachable things: digging up fossils, dissecting animals, breeding pea-plants, watching finches.

7 Comments

  1. 25 March 2007 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Harry – I agree that evolution shouild be taught in the classroom for the reasons you suggest. I don’t think religion should be taught in biology class. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that keeping religion entirely out of the classroom is a good idea. Ignorance of religion is a gateway to future misunderstanding, and if RE is done well, it should make future generations better informed about one another. That’s different from suggesting that any religion should be taught as truth of course – that’s up to each individual – and I don’t see any problem in including forms of humanist atheism in the RE curriculum.

  2. Harry
    25 March 2007 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I didn’t really express that properly. I have no objection to religious education, particularly if it takes the form of comparative religion rather than learning about Christianity—though even that’s OK if it’s done properly; I’m happy to acknowledge that Christianity is, for good or ill, an important part of our cultural heritage. Whether or not religious education is the best use of the lesson time is another question.

    I had both RE lessons (which spent more time on Christianity than other religions but did do both) and regular more-or-less religious assemblies complete with hymn-singing. And, as old public-school types used to say about corporal punishment, it never did me any harm. But then I went to a school with a largely irreligious intake which dealt with it in a very low-key manner. I was frequently bored by it but no worse than that. The handful of students from other religious backgrounds who would sit out the religious sections of the assemblies and just come in for the announcements may have felt the exclusion more keenly, of course.

    The problem is if it either interferes with the quality of the education, as in the case of taking evolution out of biology, or if it makes students from minority religions (or none) feel uncomfortable. And I think that makes it quite difficult to have any kind of organised worship in school. Personally, I don’t mind sitting through a sermon if the opinions expressed aren’t too outrageous, and I don’t mind singing a hymn; but to this day I feel genuinely uncomfortable if I’m asked to join in prayer, even at a wedding or a funeral, because I don’t wish to appear disrespectful but I’d rather not pretend to pray, either. I think it’s a Bad Thing that in England and Wales, secondary schools are legally required to hold a daily act of collective worship which is “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”, even if 80% them don’t actually do it.

    There are always ways to try and minimise the awkwardness—like letting the Muslim students sit out the religious part of the assembly—but I would be happier if the practice of religion (as opposed to the study of religion) was kept out of schools completely. I don’t think the Local Education Authority are the right people to be taking responsibility for children’s religious beliefs.

  3. 25 March 2007 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    I did RI (Religious Instruction as it was called then) in school as well, and like you, Harry, it didn’t do me any real harm back then either. Again, it was mostly Christian-based RI with just the barest smattering of comparison of other theologies. In the end, it just became another subject, like history and geography, that I didn’t much enjoy. I too, would prefer to keep RI/RE out of schools and in the hands of parents, mainly because it always seems/seemed to be such an intensely personal subject and unlike maths or metalwork where a teacher could display a certain level of skill and enthusiasm for imparting his/her knowledge on the subject, enthusiasm where this subject is concerned just came across as less of the imparting of knowledge and more of a preaching-from-the-pulpit thing.

    Today, I don’t have much trouble joining in a prayer over a meal to give thanks, out of respect for my hosts, but I stop short of using any terms like Lord or Amen, etc. I don’t pray or pretend to, nor do I feel I need ‘saving’ from myself.

    As for what should be taught? Well, would those with a faith be comfortable if they were allowed to teach faith in schools on the proviso that evolution must likewise be taught in church? I don’t think so. I can hear the arguments now. “That’s a stupid comparison. Church is for the teaching of God’s word, life, etc, and evolution doesn’t belong in here.”

    That being the case, how then, is your objection any different to that of people who wish to keep RI out of schools, hmm? If church is the place for teaching that particular subject, why aren’t you content to keep the teaching there?

    A place for everything, and everything in its place…

  4. 26 March 2007 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    Good post and comments. Teaching *about* religion is perfectly within the U.S. Constitution, and back during the Clinton regime, the government went so far as to circulate guidelines to public schools on how to do so, but most still do not because they fear the backlash from liberal parents… even while they teach a watered-down science curriculum out of fear of conservative parents. Everybody loses.

  5. 26 March 2007 at 3:45 am | Permalink

    Dave,
    teaching *about* religion would probably be okay (even to me as an agnostic) if that’s exactly what( and all) it was, a class that teaches a broad spectrum of different theologies from across the world with the sole intention of allowing students to draw their own conclusions about which faith, if any, they might choose to follow.

    More often than not though, the teaching *about* religion is just a poorly hidden agenda from higher up the educational/political chain in which students are force-fed the ‘one and only true faith’ line of thought (at least it was when I went to school)- how many different religions that you know of proscribe to that particular line of thought anyway? I can think of several mainstream religions that preach (and sometimes quite vehemently too) the “My God is the one and only true god; all other gods are false and anyone who follows those is a heathen’ line. So, unless and until that line of thinking disappears, it will always be a case of nobody can ever convince me of the merits of having a faith any more than I could convince anyone who does have one to give up theirs. It’s an exercise in tail-chasing.

  6. 26 March 2007 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Agreed on all points, but not so sure the situation is so bad as all that. I went to Midwestern American public schools, and I was taught evolution in grade school (4th grade, aged 10) science classes. My science teacher did in point of fact mention the controversies involved in teaching what he was teaching, and he encouraged students who had been “taught something different by their parents” to discuss it with them. Otherwise it was a quite straightforward introduction to the subject.

    On the other hand, pity the high school teachers who have to try to get across the basics of human sexual reproduction (including how to avoid same). Abstinence-only sex education, preferably with no actual mention of, say, genitalia, is the federally funded rule of the day.

  7. Harry
    26 March 2007 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Abstinence-only sex education, preferably with no actual mention of, say, genitalia, is the federally funded rule of the day.

    Another example where you start to think that maybe ‘education’ isn’t quite the right word.

    I’m sure that the biology teaching varies from school to school, and I have no idea what the norm is—any impressions I have are about fourth-hand.

    One aspect of this which is weird for me is the micro-democracy of directly elected school boards, complete with party politics. It sets up a very direct pressure on the teachers in a case like this to know that the curriculum is being shaped by people who were elected by their neighbours; who indeed might be their neighbours.

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