Thursday, February 23, 2012

A modest proposal: Please make us teach creationism

Many of you want us to teach other theories alongside evolution in science classes.

No problem!

We agree whole-heartedly and apologize that we have appeared to resist you, causing such consternation and turmoil.

Evolution is fundamentally important to teaching the natural sciences (as you've probably heard us say a million times), but teaching other theories alongside it can be extremely effective. So we are blushing with embarrassment that this curricular adjustment continues to be thwarted at the local, state, and federal levels.

Granted, there's a deep history of strife and for good reason. In order to get evolution into science classes, we demanded that creationism be taken out. But now with all that behind us and with evolution in the science classes where it belongs, not only are we cool with including the other theories, but we want you to know that we need them!

See, those of us who teach from an epistemological perspective try our best to convey to students not just what we know but more importantly how we know what we know. This is an eye-opening and empowering way to learn which is why we try to create this experience for students. The only way to do that is to teach about evolution now--how scientists have come to understand it--compared to how people used to explain the natural world, which greatly influenced unscientific beliefs about nature that people still hold today. This epistemological approach means that we strive for a non-dogmatic and non-indoctrinating presentation of the material, upholding prized scientific ideals that aren't shared by many of those who support creationism. 

Here's a taste of the experience. 

Look around the world. (You don't have to go anywhere. Click here,, and look at pangolins, cuttlefishes, polar bears, wolverines, belugas, aye-ayes, gorillas, etc.) Now that you've made observations, what can you make of all those common traits, features, trends, behaviors, that we see among all living things?

With generations upon generations of humans making these observations, there are still only two main theories for explaining them: 

1. At some point in history, a divine or supernatural force created all the living things exactly as we see them today. Patterns of similarity among groups are only the whim of the creator, nothing more: CREATION.

2. Similarities among groups indicate shared ancestry, just like family resemblance but on a larger scale. Any two living creatures on Earth share a common ancestor at some point in history. And so on. If you trace all lineages back far enough, everything alive today shares a common ancestor. Organisms did not always look as they do now because over deep time, all lineages have accumulated changes generation after generation: EVOLUTION.

For #2 there is a subset of important and exciting theories--some more popular and better supported than others--as to how evolution unfolds and how separate lineages arise. And that's partly because there is more than one way to evolve. Darwin's adaptation by natural selection is a good example of a process that's got lots of supporting evidence. Lamarck's ideas, which aren't so different but receive less support, are also useful in the classroom for contrasting with natural selection, for putting modern genetics in context, and for introducing our burgeoning understanding of epigenetics. Mutation, genetic drift and gene flow are some other processes that are fundamental to evolution, so are concepts of deep time, competition, cooperation, symbiosis, and metabolic and developmental constraint.  

But given all those scientific theories, creation theory is the most effective way to put evolution in scientific context. It's a perfect foil for evolution, illuminating the scientific nature of evolutionary theory by demonstrating what science is not and what the scientific method cannot address.

It's not just hand-waving, creation theory is also arms-in-the-air-tossing and shoulders-shrugging. To apply such a dead-end theory to all lines of inquiry would prevent all science, not just the natural sciences, from advancing with our young people. This is powerful stuff that students can appreciate when we're free to be open about creationism during evolution lessons.  

So, again, we're really embarrassed that it's come to such political fisticuffs. There's really no need for all this fighting because we're all on the same side. Please sign those scientific curricular demands into laws. We want you to force us to teach creationism and intelligent design in science classes. Being not only free but legally required to cover competing theories will only strengthen science education!

Thanks for all your efforts to strengthen science education.

Note:  "We" refers to Holly Dunsworth and anyone else who supports her by commenting here or elsewhere.


Ken Weiss said...

And God said, "Let there be Life, and there was Life."

It's a perfect theory, since it explains entirely everything in one Go, so to say. It can't be shown to be wrong, the way our paltry human-devised theories can (and in various ways) usually are.

But since it's declared to be True there's no need to show it, and indeed since all this happened way back SometimeWhen, it can't be shown to be true in the paltry way science shows that life used to be different from the way it is today.

So, Holly, this is a great, great advance that you have suggested. It has another advantage that you didn't mention, which everyone but the teacher/professor profession should appreciate: The Creation theory can be stated in one sentence (given at the top of my Comment), and it needs nor can it be given any explanation or elaboration.

Why is that a problem? Because it means the semester for science teachers only needs to be about 15 seconds long--enough to state the explanation of Life. So, it means we can fire all science teachers (including--be warned!--professors who teach science!).

That's a great saving for society, but it might be dangerous for professors (like you) to advocate it!

Margaret said...

In some anthropology classes we teach about others ways of knowing the world - other cultures (non-western cultures) have very different ideas about the origins of the world, and what makes it all work. What are the repercussions of advocating western scientific ways of knowing and denigrating others? That is, you could insert "belief-in-a-giant-water-monster" (Cipactli, who the Aztecs believed gave birth to the cosmos) for "creationism" and pit science against that. It's an interesting question, and should give us pause for thought. If we advocate so hard for the teaching of science in schools, then why would we teach about animism or other such belief systems, too? When you denigrate creationism, how do non-western belief systems fare? I'm genuinely curious about this point. There appears to be some real tension here between pushing for a dominant mode of thinking (science), and recognizing that there are a diversity of belief systems held by various groups in our species.

Ken Weiss said...

Of course, the point of Holly's commentary is clearly that if we don't just end the course after 15 seconds, but actually compare the nature of the evidence--which is what science is about--then we see that one explanation accounts for all sorts of details in specific ways, while the other just asserts that things are as they are.

As to other ways of knowing, that's a separate question, as you note here. 'Religious' ways of knowing, if I can use that adjective as a summary term, use different kinds of 'evidence' and clearly gives meaning to life (if not Life) to many or even most people who have ever lived.

Some scientists, to be sure, claim that all ways but their way are delusions, but they would bolster that claim by saying that from the point of view of providing material explanations for material aspects of the world, other approaches just don't do that. Water-monster stories in that sense may be edifying in many ways for people, but they don't actually account for things as we see them.

These are different worldviews, and some scientists are certainly as intolerant as others (though usually not to the point of burning at the stake); but the other views really aren't alternatives to science, because only 'science' in its various imperfect forms seeks strictly material explanations for material things.

There is every reason to teach students about the diversity of these non-science worldviews, about how they are important to people, how they shape social and cultural life (and, in many ways, peoples' interaction with the material world). Students should know that different worldviews are comparably valid in this sense, even if they are mutually incompatible explanations for the world, and students should even learn that societies work very well without formal science (as all our ancestors did, before the dawn of modern science). But only science has brought many of the things people value very highly.

But these other views are not alternatives to science per se, and that's why they should not be mixed in with science in class; they should be separate. They deal with other aspects of life and should be seen as such.

Otherwise, Holly's classes would quickly learn that Mountain Mother or Great Water-Monster explanations (or Genesis ones) simply cannot compete in the arena of explanations for the observed material world. And if they learned their lessons, the students would then abandon these other aspects of understanding life, and with that would be lost the valuable things those aspects of life bring to the table of our existence.

Holly Dunsworth said...

There is no denigration of creationism in my post.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Unless one simultaneously values science and believes in creationism, then I guess my post does denigrate it.

Holly Dunsworth said...

A science teacher does not need to present creationism with snark or any negative value judgment in order to present it as an effective tool to teach evolution.

Ken Weiss said...

I would not say 'denigration' except in the sense that the two kinds of explanations can't stand up to scrutiny when it comes to the kinds of things we want to explain in science. For that, creationism in its usual forms can't account for many aspects of life except just to say that they are what they are because God wanted them to be that way.

The snarky or denigration element comes in when one sees what the creationist political movement is up to, because of the common pretense that creationism is a form of science.

Anyway, for me, your point is a manifestly instructive one: evolution simply accounts for things and predicts things that other views cannot.

Also, many 'creationist' views simply assert that what we refer to as God created the universe and its properties and let it run. And even biology asserts an initial creation process for the ancestry of all of life.

The difference there is that biology asserts that this was simply a chemical phenomenon, however it worked, rather than an intentional act by an external force (or, that we have no way to get to that level of assertion)

Holly Dunsworth said...

The poster above may (or may not) have been describing my post as denigration. Hence my comments.

Holly Dunsworth said...

My depiction of "CREATION" was intended to include the things you mention, but I stick to discussing "creationism" in the rest of the post because that (which includes ID) is the only competing theory that's taken seriously in the USA.

Jason Antrosio said...

Thank you for writing this. I've recently linked to this from my post on "Evolution and natural selection anthropologically" as I think there is some overlap:

Interestingly, the textbook I use for Intro-to-Anthropology, Lavenda & Schultz _What Does It Mean to be Human?_ precisely does juxtapose an Amazonian creation account with an origin account from a physics textbook. The authors say that in an anthropological sense--a special way of looking at things where we suspend truth judgments--both stories are indeed "myths": they both are stories that say something about the world, human life and its meaning. However, they go on to say that for any story to continue to be considered a scientific story, it must confront evidence in the world, and must be rejected if it does not fit.

Ken Weiss said...

A problem with this uniform-mythology viewpoint is that it does end up asserting a particular truth to be truly true. The issue here I think has to do with the nature of evidence. Some religious truths are about nonmaterial aspects of existence, such as communicating directly with God or spirits.

Scientists may or may not accept reports of such communication as being 'factual', but it is a kind of evidence not recognized by science since it is purely subjective.

If, someday, somehow, even that is brought under the umbrella of material science, things may change. But at present the differences are not just about the theories that people hold but the kinds of evidence they accept as legitimate or cogent.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Thanks so much for the link and mention Jason!

Jason Antrosio said...

Hi Ken, thank you for the reply. Yes, it is certainly a simplification which is not without problems, and I am myself simplifying a longer piece here, as it is then important as you say to discuss what counts as evidence. I guess I was trying to get at that with the shorthand phrase "evidence in the world" but the differences do need to be better spelled out as you do above.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Thanks so much to a friend on Facebook who helped me rediscover this article that I wanted to link to above. It supports the practices I outline in my post: Link to Verhey's article on JStor

Chris said...

The idea of teaching them side by side is interesting, but it still makes me uncomfortable to think of creationism being treated as anything more worthy of mention then a children's story.

The idea is good, but people that may already believe in literalistic versions of creationism often selectively have little critical thinking once anything conflicting with the bible is mentioned.

This is another blog post on the subject that more completely sums up feelsing fairly close to my own.

Holly Dunsworth said...

My previous comment was based on a total misunderstanding of your comment! So I deleted it. Now with a clearer take...

I don't agree that it's little more than a children's story when so many people now and in history have believed it. It's what early evolutionary thinkers had to work with and against. So it's very much a significant part of the epistemology of evolution. And that's a teaching approach that I really care about because I think it is the strongest way to experience learning--discovering as much of the world yourself, that is. Also, I don't share your worry over such extremely closed minds! The ones on the extreme are probably too extreme for anybody to expect otherwise. Not being a k-12 teacher, perhaps I'm privileged to say such a thing.

Unknown said...

I loved my biological anthropology class at Penn State. My path has led me away from anything close to science as a career, but I find the lessons from all my anthropogy classes really do make life more rewarding even today. Thanks for all you do. I know someday your students will look back at their time with you and appreciate its worth. Here's a little thing I wrote on a personal blog about your post. Maybe you'll enjoy it.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Jeffrey, your blog post is so encouraging and inspiring. Thank you!

Clay Dunsworth said...

I kind of lurk your site, I simply find it amusing, and causes thinking. (a bad habit of mine). One of the things that I see here, is that your refereing to "law" in what is or isn't educated and creation in the same post. This causes some nural short circuit twitching with me... So I appologize with this before hand.

societal belief in genral is a cultural misnomer, being totaly irratic and random. Problem is that societal belief, is based on the same thing a "religious" belief is, and we can agree that science is a "religion" to those who practice it.

This would lead me to belive that placing caos theory in evolution teachings would be as productive, if not moreso than creationism.

Belief, and the bigger word FAITH, is something that will always be wroght out with bloody knucles, in science and in theistic religions. Being that the history dictates that religion has always ruled science, a stent where science is "blind" to religion, or even disregarded of addressing it's views, is needed.

In the second grade, a teacher ridiculed my "truth" in class. The teachers plan, stated that "planet's could not be seen with the naked eye." Me in my lack of wisdom of the reprocusions of "social beliefs" jumped up and said NAY.... "i looked at saturn last night...." This belief i held, was torn apart by a teacher that had no other motive, but to up hold, the "law" curriculum.
I was a herratic, and my classmates let me have it.

Perhaps, i dont completely understand the following...
"To apply such a dead-end theory to all lines of inquiry would prevent all science, not just the natural sciences, from advancing with our young people."

I think its faith that drives any science, and is "shoulder shrugging" at times. All my advancing has started with a shrug!

I would imagine from your expressions, that you are good at "co-mingling" different faiths, but you would not have an exactly normal ability if you can.

Again, thanks for the many great reads.
Its amazing what dictated curriculum, in the wrong hands can do to faith.
In my opinion, this is the evolution of sciences bigger problem. Indevidualy, we can re-evaluate, society however has a different game.

Ken Weiss said...

We don't have answers to questions that are important, but we like to try to show what the questions are and why people should think about them. Maybe somebody will answer them....or we will be forced to understand and acknowledge that there aren't any easy answers.

So if we've been useful to you in provoking thought about important issues, then that makes our day!

Holly Dunsworth said...

I think "twitchy" describes most people's reaction to the idea of enacting a law to teach creationism! :) And, you're probably onto something with my co-mingling ability... I was raised Episcopalian and attended a Lutheran school with mostly Southern Baptist peers for the first 12 years of my life. Skip to the present where I have no belief in the supernatural. I think there's value in this transformation of mine and so I try to share that value. So glad someone picked up on it!

Holly Dunsworth said...

I've repeated that line from the #1 CREATION definition up there where I say patterns are "the whim of the creator" and it has seriously offended a seemingly kind, intelligent man that I collaborate with on an education project. I hesitate, obviously, to continue saying it. Not because I worry about offending close-minded people but because offending open-minded people is one quick way to closing theirs. Ugh. But isn't that what it is? The whim of the creator? What else is it? Is a whim so bad? My whims aren't but maybe god's too good to have mere whims... god must have reasons, not whimsy I guess. Too bad. A whimsical god would be just lovely wouldn't she?