Over at the Center for Inquiry, Michael De Dora has published a controversial piece arguing that while we can teach the evidence for evolution in public school biology class, we should not at the same time overtly refute the claims of creationism. While it’s okay to teach that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, says De Dora, and to outline the evidence for that age, it’s wrong to add that the earth is not 6,000-10,000 years old, for that is a religious idea, not a scientific one. And, says De Dora, that violates the Constitution’s provision of church-state separation:
More specifically, the purpose of biology class is not to reject religious ideas; it is to inform students about biology*. There is no scientific reason for the textbook to discuss Christianity or label its creation story a “myth”; it has nothing to do with teaching the theory of evolution or biology generally. And While Zimmerman overstates his case to some degree — the passage does not refer to the entire Bible as a “myth”– directly rejecting specific stories in The Bible still shows preference. . .
Science classrooms should teach science. Biology class should, at least on evolution, cover the work of Charles Darwin and other early scientists theorizing about evolution; it should tackle the meaning of the word “theory” in science; it should discuss the enormous advances in evolutionary biology since Darwin’s time; it should talk about the multiple lines of evidence supporting the theory of evolution; and much, much more. By the end, there should be no doubt that evolution is as close to a fact as we have. Talk about discouraging students from believing in creationism…
Even if biology courses were going to teach background on the theory, as I would admit they probably should to some minor extent, then textbooks obviously have to acknowledge the existence of dissent. But I don’t see a church-state issue with merely mentioning that religion exists. Denying religious ideas is the step that puts us in a bind.
And, in the comments (De Dora’s responses to the commenter’s questions are in italics):
@Deen: “If the biology textbook is even halfway decent, the rest of the book should have already established that the creation story couldn’t have been true anyway. How could it be problematic to point it out explicitly?”
Because it is one thing to teach biology; it is another to deny religious ideas.
@Deen, “Are you saying that it’s OK to teach people that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, but it’s wrong to teach them that the earth isn’t 6000 years old?”
Yes. One imparts scientific knowledge. The other denies a religious idea. One is constitutional; the other is not. There is no reason for a high school biology teacher to get into denying specific religious ideas in a high school biology class.
I think De Dora is wrong here, and for several reasons. First, the claim that the earth is 6,000 years old is not a religious idea, it is an empirical claim. Yes, it’s an empirical claim that’s derived from a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, but it is not a “religious idea.” Refuting the idea is not the same thing as attacking religion. It’s simply showing that one of the claims that some religious people make about the world is wrong. (As I argued in a recent post, because these empirical claims come from specific notions about the supernatural, testing them is, in effect, testing the idea that gods have intervened in the universe in certain specified ways.)
But why go after those ideas in the first place, especially in biology class? I think there are several reasons. The first is that there is an important social context in which biology, geology, and cosmology are embedded and other sciences are not. Much of the American public rejects evolution precisely because those sciences make empirical claims that contravene empirical claims that come from other sources, mainly faith. If there are widespread views of the world that contradict biological fact, it’s important for students to know that. This equips them to be not only good citizens, but also to think scientifically. Telling the students that “here is a feathered theropod dinosaur that lived about 150 million years ago, which is strong evidence that birds evolved from dinosaurs” is not the same as telling them that and adding that “this contradicts the notion that birds and reptiles were separately created.” One way of teaching gives positive evidence, the other not only gives that evidence but dispels an alternative hypothesis—the most widespread alternative hypothesis.
And that brings us to the second reason: teaching evolution and dispelling creation provides students with a valuable lesson: it teaches them to think scientifically—surely one of the main points of a science class. They learn to weigh evidence and to show how that evidence can be used to discriminate between alternative explanations. It’s of little consequence to me that one alternative explanation comes from a literal interpretation of scripture. Indeed, it’s useful, for this is a real life example—one that’s going on now—of how alternative empirical claims are fighting for primacy in the intellectual marketplace. What better way to engage students in the scientific method?
Weighing alternatives was also important in the history of evolutionary biology. As we all know, Darwin’s rhetorical strategy in The Origin was to constantly present the reader with facts about biology that could be understood in light of his ideas but not in light of religiously-based creationism. Eventually, the case for creationism collapsed under his persuasive weight. This strategy was crucial in promoting the rapid acceptance of Darwin’s views among biologists (except, of course, for natural selection, which wasn’t widely accepted until about 1920).
In fact, under De Dora’s view, it would be not only wrong but illegal to teach Darwin’s Origin of Species in public-school science class (or perhaps any class!), since the book is loaded with explicit discussion about facts that contradict creationism. I’ll limit myself to citing a few passages from Darwin’s discussion of biogeography in chapters 11 and 12. I’ve put the “illegal” passages in bold:
In discussing this subject, we shall be enabled at the same time to consider a point equally important for us, namely, whether the several distinct species of a genus, which on my theory have all descended from a common progenitor, can have migrated (undergoing modification during some part of their migration) from the area inhabited by their progenitor. If it can be shown to be almost invariably the case, that a region, of which most of its inhabitants are closely related to, or belong to the same genera with the species of a second region, has probably received at some former period immigrants from this other region, my theory will be strengthened; for we can clearly understand, on the principle of modification, why the inhabitants of a region should be related to those of another region, whence it has been stocked. A volcanic island, for instance, upheaved and formed at the distance of a few hundreds of miles from a continent, would probably receive from it in the course of time a few colonists, and their descendants, though modified, would still be plainly related by inheritance to the inhabitants of the continent. Cases of this nature are common, and are, as we shall hereafter more fully see, inexplicable on the theory of independent creation. . .
Before discussing the three classes of facts, which I have selected as presenting the greatest amount of difficulty on the theory of `single centres of creation,’ I must say a few words on the means of dispersal. . .
These cases of relationship, without identity, of the inhabitants of seas now disjoined, and likewise of the past and present inhabitants of the temperate lands of North America and Europe, are inexplicable on the theory of creation. We cannot say that they have been created alike, in correspondence with the nearly similar physical conditions of the areas; for if we compare, for instance, certain parts of South America with the southern continents of the Old World, we see countries closely corresponding in all their physical conditions, but with their inhabitants utterly dissimilar. . .
We now come to the last of the three classes of facts, which I have selected as presenting the greatest amount of difficulty, on the view that all the individuals both of the same and of allied species have descended from a single parent; and therefore have all proceeded from a common birthplace, notwithstanding that in the course of time they have come to inhabit distant points of the globe. I have already stated that I cannot honestly admit Forbes’s view on continental extensions, which, if legitimately followed out, would lead to the belief that within the recent period all existing islands have been nearly or quite joined to some continent. This view would remove many difficulties, but it would not, I think, explain all the facts in regard to insular productions. In the following remarks I shall not confine myself to the mere question of dispersal; but shall consider some other facts, which bear on the truth of the two theories of independent creation and of descent with modification. . .
We have evidence that the barren island of Ascension aboriginally possessed under half-a-dozen flowering plants; yet many have become naturalised on it, as they have on New Zealand and on every other oceanic island which can be named. In St. Helena there is reason to believe that the naturalised plants and animals have nearly or quite exterminated many native productions. He who admits the doctrine of the creation of each separate species, will have to admit, that a sufficient number of the best adapted plants and animals have not been created on oceanic islands; for man has unintentionally stocked them from various sources far more fully and perfectly than has nature. . .
This general absence of frogs, toads, and newts on so many oceanic islands cannot be accounted for by their physical conditions; indeed it seems that islands are peculiarly well fitted for these animals; for frogs have been introduced into Madeira, the Azores, and Mauritius, and have multiplied so as to become a nuisance. But as these animals and their spawn are known to be immediately killed by sea-water, on my view we can see that there would be great difficulty in their transportal across the sea, and therefore why they do not exist on any oceanic island. But why, on the theory of creation, they should not have been created there, it would be very difficult to explain. . .
And finally, one of my favorite passages from The Origin:
The most striking and important fact for us in regard to the inhabitants of islands, is their affinity to those of the nearest mainland, without being actually the same species. Numerous instances could be given of this fact. I will give only one, that of the Galapagos Archipelago, situated under the equator, between 500 and 600 miles from the shores of South America. Here almost every product of the land and water bears the unmistakeable stamp of the American continent. There are twenty-six land birds, and twenty-five of those are ranked by Mr Gould as distinct species, supposed to have been created here; yet the close affinity of most of these birds to American species in every character, in their habits, gestures, and tones of voice, was manifest. So it is with the other animals, and with nearly all the plants, as shown by Dr. Hooker in his admirable memoir on the Flora of this archipelago. The naturalist, looking at the inhabitants of these volcanic islands in the Pacific, distant several hundred miles from the continent, yet feels that he is standing on American land. Why should this be so? why should the species which are supposed to have been created in the Galapagos Archipelago, and nowhere else, bear so plain a stamp of affinity to those created in America? There is nothing in the conditions of life, in the geological nature of the islands, in their height or climate, or in the proportions in which the several classes are associated together, which resembles closely the conditions of the South American coast: in fact there is a considerable dissimilarity in all these respects. On the other hand, there is a considerable degree of resemblance in the volcanic nature of the soil, in climate, height, and size of the islands, between the Galapagos and Cape de Verde Archipelagos: but what an entire and absolute difference in their inhabitants! The inhabitants of the Cape de Verde Islands are related to those of Africa, like those of the Galapagos to America. I believe this grand fact can receive no sort of explanation on the ordinary view of independent creation; whereas on the view here maintained, it is obvious that the Galapagos Islands would be likely to receive colonists, whether by occasional means of transport or by formerly continuous land, from America; and the Cape de Verde Islands from Africa; and that such colonists would be liable to modifications; the principle of inheritance still betraying their original birthplace.
Now I’m not saying that we should all go into public-school biology classes and gloat, “See—religious ideas are wrong!” And I doubt that any of us think that we should use this teaching strategy to explicitly dump on those strains of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism that promulgate creationist ideas. There’s a sensitive way to do this. Too, when we do teach evolution, we don’t need to constantly criticize empirical claims about creationism. In my own classes, I mention creationism only during the first two lectures—the lectures on the evidence for evolution.
Over my years of teaching, I’ve given many talks about evolution in public schools. I’ve also taught evolution at the University of Maryland, a public university. And I’ve found that the mention-and-dispel-the-alternatives approach is pedagogically useful. Now this isn’t the same as “teaching the controversy,” because 1) I don’t spend a lot of time on the creationist claims, and 2) I show the students that those claims don’t stand up.
I’ve also written a book on the evidence for evolution, and explained in its introduction that my theme made sense only in light of ongoing controversies. We don’t need books about Why Atoms are True or Why the Germ Theory of Disease is True. The reviews of WEIT were almost uniformly positive, and, more important, I can’t think of a single one who took me to task for bashing religion, though I frequently discuss creationist claims. (Note: I’m going on memory here, so I may have forgotten some criticism.) Further, not a single one of the many people who have written me thanking me for the book have added, “Hey, you know, it would have been more persuasive if you had laid off creationism.” At any rate, there is no evidence that my strategy in writing that book impeded its message.
Yes, we have to admit that some students may begin questioning religion if they see that their faith makes incorrect claims about the world. But, as I’ve said before, that doubt can arise not just from teaching biology, but from teaching geology, astronomy, or any form of logic, philosophy, or rational examination. Indeed, many people have rejected their faith because of what they’ve learned in religion class, at seminaries, or in courses on Biblical scholarship. There’s no need to bash faith in public schools, but neither should we make religion’s false claims about biology immune to critical scrutiny.