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.

Learning algebra

Something Kevin said sent me towards an article in the Washington Post about the uselessness of algebra to normal life, and the ensuing mouth-frothing response in the comments over at Pharyngula.

Two things I’d say. It rather makes me despair to see people talk about algebra as though it was advanced mathematics. Algebra is hardly even a branch of mathematics; it’s just a notational tool to allow you to move beyond arithmetic. It’s not quite true to say that it’s impossible to do any maths more advanced than arithmetic without algebra; the ancient Greeks managed without, for example. But it’s certainly completely central to the way maths is done today. Unless you think that high school should be satisfied with achieving no more than basic literacy and numeracy, passing a one-year course in basic algebra is not an outrageously high standard to hold for high-school graduation. Depending what you think a high-school diploma should stand for, it might even be an outrageously low standard. Judging by the article, this girl who couldn’t graduate because she didn’t pass algebra actually didn’t have basic numeracy skills, which means both that she shouldn’t be qualifying high school and that the school system has competely failed her.

The other point I’d make about the ‘I’ve never needed to use maths since I left school’ argument is that we all forget a large proprtion of what we learned in school unless we use it frequently. I did maths to quite an advanced level at school; I did two maths A-levels, which, for non-UK readers, meant I got as far as complex numbers, basic calculus, polar functions, basic mechanics, some statistics including things like Poisson distributions.

I can’t actually do any of that maths anymore. But having done it does mean that I’m not intimidated by equations; that I know what a standard deviation is, and a tangent and a function, and what binary numbers are, and what calculus is useful for so on. It’s not enough to enable me to do anything much, but understanding the concepts makes it easier to read popular science books, for example, or to make some kind of judgement about how useful a statistic is.

I also think that as a result, I’m much more comfortable than I would otherwise have been doing the kind of maths that *does* come up in everyday life. It’s good that schools teach a bit more than the students will really need, because hopefully that means the important suff will have a chance to really get properly absorbed.