Monday, August 25, 2008

Evolution vs. Creationism

The NY Times has a wonderful story about the difficulty a Biology teacher in Jacksonville FL is having trying to educate his students about evolution. It seems that it actually required the recent passing of legislation requiring evolution to be taught. Nevertheless, problems persist.

But in a nation where evangelical Protestantism and other religious traditions stress a literal reading of the biblical description of God’s individually creating each species, students often arrive at school fearing that evolution, and perhaps science itself, is hostile to their faith.

David Campbell is the courageous Biology teacher who is striving to overcome the prejudices of his students, many of whom come from fundamentalist Christian families who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible.

The poor treatment of evolution in some state education standards may reflect the public’s widely held creationist beliefs. In Gallup polls over the last 25 years, nearly half of American adults have consistently said they believe God created all living things in their present form, sometime in the last 10,000 years.

Even within the fundamentalist movement there is reason to hope that reason and common sense will prevail. Last year interviewed Rev. Michael Dowd, former evangelical minister who now works as an itinerant evolution apologist. Rev. Dowd sums it up like this:

There's a difference between flat-earth faith and evolutionary faith. In flat-earth Christianity, the core insights -- sin, salvation, heaven and hell -- are understood in the same way as when people first formulated ideas. I still value the same concepts, but interpret them in a radically different way.

What's your opinion? Although I'm no expert on this business, I tend to think the United States probably cannot afford to impede the education of its young people. I'm hoping for improvement, encouraged by the example of Rev. Dowd.


  1. I gotta say This issue really bugs me. But I have a short simple solution:

    #1: At the beginning of the lesson mention that Evolution is a Theory, not a fact, and make sure to cover alternate scientific theories to it as well as the data that supports all of them.

    #2. On the last day of the unit mention that some people believe that this was done by God or some other supernatural being or effect, and if you are interested in further reading you should attend a religious studies class. This can also be the time for the teacher to express his or her personal views. (My HS Biology teacher mentioned that he believed in God, and felt that he created the science of the universe and in that was the evolution that created life...I rather like that one)

    That's it! Right-or-Wrong (and sure it could be wrong!) evolution is a big subject and really has a lot to offer students. In the end there are too damn many creation stories for them to be taught in one class alone...let alone one UNIT in a class like evolution is. I understand that most places that stories like this arise from just want to teach the Judaeo-Christian creation story...but what about the countless Native American Creation stories? What about Rudyard Kipling's GREAT Children's Book "The Just-So Stories"
    Or even more modern accounts:

    Its one thing to question the fairness to only teaching evolution...its another to "Balance" it out by ONLY teaching one creation story.

  2. weerd, take care not to make yourself part of the problem.

    evolution is both theory and fact. there are no other scientific theories that adequately explain the variety of life on earth as we see it. when you speak of "alternate scientific theories", i can only imagine you perhaps mean "intelligent design" --- but that is neither scientific nor a theory.

    other than that, though, i can't argue with what you're saying. good points.

  3. Evolution should be taught in the classroom.

    Creationism (even Intelligent Design) should be taught at home or in Religious Studies.

    Let {insert religious entity of your choice} sort it out.

  4. Why can't there be the possibility of both? Until somebody accidentally grows an ameoba or paramecium in a lab from scratch with no DNA roadmap to start with i.e. NO CHEATING by reverse engineering, I'm inclined to believe that there very well could have been an outside architect or architects of the universe we are familiar with. You can't prove that it didn't happen that way.

    Life came into being somehow and things have evolved. Both.

    We don't know how life originally came into being and anybody who says they know it for a fact exactly how is a bald faced liar. The THEORIES can't be disproved or proved because nobody alive was there to see it (that we know of).

    Some people want to have apples, some oranges, I like both.

    The debate is more like people arguing over football teams more than a scientific debate.

  5. the United States probably cannot afford to impede the education of its young people.

    Huh. Is that what public schools are for? Education? Huh. Who'd'a thunk it? And here all along I was thinking that they were for producing compliant taxpayers eager to support the ruling class. Huh.

    I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. --Mark Twain

  6. @Thomas
    There can be both. No one is saying that there shouldn't be both. Just not at public schools.

    There is the fact of evolution (the observed changes in organism over a period of time) that at least supports the theory of Evolution. No faith involved. Creationism et al requires faith. That's why I prefer to leave it up to my preist, rabbi, imam or whatever.

    I don't understand why anyone has a problem with that. Learn one side of the story here, learn the other there and then make up your own mind.

  7. I'd be happy if they taught in schools evolutionary theory BUT did not say they had scientific proof as to the initial origin of life as some are want to say. Leave religion entirely out of it.

    I wasn't suggesting teaching Judeo-Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or Islamist thought in science classes.

  8. Hey, Mike, thanks for the comment and the great Mark Twain quote.

    I agree with you other guys that we can have both. Since I'm not an athiest, it seems quite acceptable to me that God created evolution, so to speak.

  9. "I'd be happy if they taught in schools evolutionary theory BUT did not say they had scientific proof as to the initial origin of life as some are want to say."

    Seriously? I've gone through a shitload of Biology classes (and meaty text books) and the most tip-toed around subject out there is the origin of life. We have a nice repeatable process that turns an undeveloped planet atmosphere (common elements found in the air on this planet and found in the atmospheres of other planets in our solar systems,like Methane, exposed to electric sparks will create some fairly long organic molecules over time....essentially we're talking about naturally occurring engine heads, and engine blocks....but say, no bolts or where did the first "car" come from?) building blocks of living creatures But how did it become alive? We haven't the faintest idea, and maybe we'll never.

    Oh and as for my "Alternate Theories" I mentioned in my first part, I wasn't speaking of "Intelligent Design" ...I did a little looking up on what I was talking about (I took my last Evolution class in 1999...I'm a little rusty) I was actually talking about non-Darwinian Evolution theory.

    But definitely I personally believe in Evolution because of the repeatable genetic experiments that can be easily done in animals that can easily show genetic drift that can easily turn into species differentiation....couple that with the freakish hybrids of animals (Mules, Hinnies, Ligers, et al) and the mapping of different species genome shows that things that are far apart as they may appear....of course the intelligent design people would point out the similarity between the operating action of the Browning Auto 5 Shotgun, and the Browning M2 Machine gun...

  10. @Thomas & Weer'd
    Yeah, I don't believe they are saying they have scientific proof of where life came from. What they teach is the science of evolution (that observed species can evolve over a period of time) and the scientific theory of evolution that comes from those facts.

    I believe in the scientific theory of evolution, but I'd be hard-pressed to believe that someone could factually prove where life came from. I really don't think they do that. I could be wrong.

  11. "I really don't think they do that. I could be wrong."

    All the ones I've ever known don't cross the line...still the amount of teachers in America, and the low standard schools put on them, I'm sure you are wrong.... : (

  12. Weer'd, You are a real pistol (pun definitely intended).

    "of course the intelligent design people would point out the similarity between the operating action of the Browning Auto 5 Shotgun, and the Browning M2 Machine gun..."

  13. I tried twice to comment yesterday but was apparently not able to. Perhaps it was too long and got caught in your spam filter? Oh well, thanks for the plug!


    ~ Micahel

  14. Rev, Dowd, Thanks for sending that comment. I'm honored to hear from you and would love to see the longer comment you sent.

  15. Thanks for the plug, Mike! Given the discussion thread, I thought you all might enjoy seeing the following, which is excerpted from pages 77-81 in my book, Thank God for Evolution (2008 Viking edition):

    Facts Are God’s Native Tongue

    "Is evolution a theory, a system, or a hypothesis? It is much more: it is a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, and all systems must bow and satisfy henceforth if they are to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow." --PIERRE TEILHARD DE CHARDIN

    Flat-earth religion has its scripture, its words revealed by God. These words of God represent the standard against which believers reconcile their thinking. Believers conform to these words, they submit. Evolutionary religion’s alternative to reliance on ancient scriptures is empirical data. In a way, the data are our scriptures--and to these we submit.

    What about theory? Scientific theories represent a kind of sacred commentary, a midrash, on the data. Theories are well informed, empirically based products of our reason and imagination. The data themselves are products of observation. Theories do not command the same knowledge status as do observable data. Theories must submit to the data.

    To elevate a theory to the level of data would, to my mind, be a kind of idolatry. So there’s a humility that we, as honest seekers of truth, must cultivate. But an evolutionary trajectory, as well, can move theory into fact.

    For example, it was once just a theory that the Earth orbited the Sun. This was the theory that Copernicus proposed, based on his new interpretation of the observed data that astronomers and mathematicians of his day and earlier had found repetitive enough to be regarded as fact (science’s form of “truth”). To propose a Sun-centric theory was a radical move in his day, and for several generations to come. Five hundred years later, that the Earth orbits the Sun is now itself a fact, as humans and our machines have actually left our planet and have seen it from the outside. As more and more reliable data (facts) are marshaled in support of a theory, and as attempts to disprove the theory fail, a theory can itself become a fact--as Earth’s movement relative to the Sun has so become.

    Similarly, less than two hundred years ago, when Darwin proposed that the complexity and diversity of life on Earth were not the result of supernatural and instantaneous creation, that proposal was just a theory--an outlandish, scandalous theory at that. Today, that life on Earth came into being over a vast span of time, and that complex forms emerged from simpler forms is fact. You may or may not feel comfortable calling this biological history of life on Earth evolution. To be sure, our scientifi c understanding of the causes of biological change are still very much in the discovery phase (witness the fascinating new science of evolutionary development, or “evo-devo”). Nevertheless, Darwin’s theory that life emerged over a long history, and by means internal to natural Earth processes, has now become fact.

    Nearly a half century ago, Thomas Kuhn wrote a now-famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He asked, Does science progress additively or does it lurch haphazardly by replacement of one paradigm, or understanding, with another? On the one hand, our scientific understanding has grown like a great edifice that we keep adding to. On the other hand, there have been episodes in which scientific ideas once widely held have been scrapped and replaced with very different ideas. The Copernican Revolution, the Newtonian Revolution, the Darwinian Revolution, the Einsteinian Revolution, the Information Revolution are examples of grand new theories replacing (or including and transcending) the old. From both points of view, however, facts are foundational. Thus, facts are God’s native tongue.

    Facts are God’s native tongue!

    If there are scriptures beyond the holy texts of Earth’s various religious traditions . . .

    If God didn’t stop communicating knowledge crucial for humans centuries ago . . .

    If it is possible for new understandings to arise in ways more widely available and testable than what can be channeled through the hearts and minds of lone individuals . . .

    Then surely this is it: God communicates to us by publicly revealing new facts.

    The discovery of facts through science is one very powerful way to encounter God directly. It is through the now-global community of scientists, working together, challenging one another’s findings, and assisted by the miracles of technology, that “God’s Word” is still being revealed. It is through this ever-expectant, yet ever-ready-to-be-humbled, stance of universal inquiry that God’s Word is discerned as more wondrous and more this-world relevant than could have possibly been comprehended in any time past. (I go into this subject in more detail in the final chapter.)

    “Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science.” —ALFRED NORTH WHITEHEAD

  16. Evolution: Theory AND Fact (Quotes from leading scientists on the subject)

    “Let me try to make crystal clear what is established beyond reasonable
    doubt, and what needs further study, about evolution. Evolution as a process that has always gone on in the history of the earth can be doubted only by those who are ignorant of the evidence or are resistant to evidence, owing to emotional blocks or to plain bigotry. By contrast, the mechanisms that bring evolution about certainly need study and clarifi cation. There are no alternatives to evolution as history that can withstand critical examination. Yet we are constantly learning new and important facts about evolutionary mechanisms.” --THEODOSIUS DOBZHANSKY

    "In the American vernacular, 'theory' often means 'imperfect fact'--part of a hierarchy of confi dence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus creationists can and do argue: evolution is 'only' a theory, and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is less than a fact, and scientists can’t even make up their minds about the theory, then what confi dence can we have in it? ...

    "Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories for explaining them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in midair pending the outcome. And human beings evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other means yet to be discovered. ...

    "Evolutionists have been clear about this distinction between fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred. Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great and separate accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory--natural selection--to explain the mechanism of evolution.” --STEPHEN JAY GOULD

    "Today, nearly all biologists acknowledge that evolution is a fact. The term theory is no longer appropriate except when referring to the various models that attempt to explain how life evolves . . . it is important to understand that the current questions about how life evolves in no way implies any disagreement over the fact of evolution.” --NEIL A. CAMPBELL

    "Biology without evolution is like physics without gravity." --SEAN B. CARROLL

  17. Thanks Rev. Michael for that wonderful post and those great quotes.