Monday, October 19, 2009

Recreating Creationism

Every time you turn around there's some new lecture, Forum, or working group on teaching evolution in the schools. Audiences are usually packed. These all sound like they are serious, sober academic discussions about policy and the like. But since this is anything but a new phenomenon, and the issues have been aired countless times, and science invariably wins in the courts, why is it still going on?

It is not really that we have to arm or prepare our selves in any technical sense to present compelling new facts--the evidence for evolution is solid, and has been for a long, long time. The facts are out there, in public and on daily television. Instead, these meetings are a kind of recreation: again and again it's the re-creation of creationism as a sporting event.

And they are generally preaching to the converted. The audience already knows the facts, and likes to cite them aggressively, needing no cue cards to know when to give a derisive snort. In fact, as sincere as they may be, and as much public service as they may be doing, some advocates for teaching evolution don't really understand evolution at a very deep level relative to the knowledge we now have in genetics and population biology.

These meetings are not being held because creationism has amassed legitimate arguments that threaten evolution and require careful rebuttal. Anyone who is even halfway aware of biology and geology knows that literal creationism is simply bunk, and truthfully, most Intelligently Designed Creationists know this too, in their heart of hearts. They know the Devil didn't plant Ardipithecus to mislead us into lives of sin.

But bashing these benighted people has become something of a self-congratulatory blood sport. Indeed, many biology blogs--that get thousands of hits--cover this subject tirelessly, usually with great glee, but rarely is anything new being said. For that reason we try to avoid evolution-creation 'lectures', and don't regularly follow the food-fight blogs. Our open minds are closed to the point that we've never been to an Intelligent Design-sponsored event, and we'd be willing to bet that anyone reading this who has didn't go to honestly weigh the evidence in favor of intelligent design.

Indeed, we all come at this "debate" with our preconceived notions safely intact--and leave with them untouched. See the Lola comic we posted on Saturday. At these events it is repeatedly said that the organizers want 'dialog', not confrontation, but that's insider-code for "we want to educate these poor souls, so they'll convert to our point of view."

This is the 150th anniversary of Darwin's 1859 Origin of Species but the evolution-creation debate, with all of its current vituperation, goes back well before Darwin. Darwin in fact tapped into discussions that had been fueled (in the UK) by an 1844 book called Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, by an amateur naturalist named Robert Chambers, and as Darwin acknowledged in his Preface, it made the environment more receptive to his own book. And even Chambers basically rested on already known facts and ideas.

People often cite figures about the large proportion of the US population that doesn't 'believe in' evolution as evidence that science education is failing in this country. But, this is not about educating the uneducated. If our kids, or your kids, were taught ID in school, we, and you, would unteach what they'd learned as soon as they got home. Symmetrically, when evolution is taught, this is what fundamentalists do when their kids get home. Every child is largely home-schooled, or at least home-acculturated--in spite of the number of hours they spend in class.

And even if science education demonstrably is lacking, and should be seriously upgraded, the divide is not about the facts anyway. Most creationists readily accept that animal breeds can be molded by artificial selection, that bacteria can evolve antibiotic resistance, and so on--it's not about whether evolution per se can happen. It's partly at least about not being able to accept that humans aren't above Nature, and weren't landed intact on Earth by a Creator.

But, really, how much difference does it make? Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said, in the context of the school debate in 1973, that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. This statement is cited almost religiously by evolution proponents. But it's not really true--much of biology can be done very productively with no reference to evolution at all. Many life scientists, especially for example in biomedical research, have little more than a cardboard cutout understanding of evolution and do their work perfectly, or imperfectly, well without it.

And whether or not creationists accept the truth of evolution is not an issue with many practical implications to speak of--it's not like not accepting vaccinations or the importance of clean water.

We said above that this was only 'partly' about the fact of human origins. No matter how manifestly uneducated the uneducated truly are in this area, this is a clash of world views, a conflict over cultural and even economic power, a battle against fear (of death), for feelings of belonging to a comforting tribe, and so on. And the often vehement intolerance of biologists, equally convinced about their own tribal validity, is of a similar nature.

Perhaps it's easy for us to be cavalier about this because science always wins in court in the long run. Indeed, we followed the 2005 Dover trial here in Pennsylvania with interest, and we like others found Judge Jone's decision to be brilliantly argued, and routinely assign it to our students, generally when we also teach about the somewhat symmetric misconceptions about the 1926 Tennessee Scopes Trial (see Ken's article in his Crotchets & Quiddities columns: you may be surprised about that trial!).

Many if not most senior evolutionary biologists alive today were trained with evolution-free textbooks in their high school biology, in public schools in which they (we) recited a morning prayer, every school day from grades 1 through 12. Evolution had deliberately been purged by the textbook publishers to prevent loss of sales to states in certain regions of our country. Lack of early evolutionary training clearly doesn't hamper later learning. And evolutionary training manifestly doesn't generate understanding. Other factors are involved.

What the answer is, is unclear, if the question is "Why can't they be like us???" Maybe it's a selfish one: let those in the Creationist world have their schools as they want them. That will mean those with correct knowledge, your children and ours, will face fewer competitors for the desirable jobs in science and and other areas where properly educated people are required.

At least, those who can't stay away from the Creationist food fight should recognize that they are largely exercising their egos--and recreating Creationism over and over, to knock it down again and again. It's their tribal totem-dance, war paint and all. Serious resolution will come at a much higher price than blogging, no matter how many followers anti-creationist bloggers pull in, and it will come in a form as yet unknown. But that form will almost surely have to involve increased teacher salaries, higher education-major SATs, and education certificates given to those whose major was science and not education.

-Anne and Ken


Holly Dunsworth said...

Here here! Hear hear!

Anne Buchanan said...

Upon rereading this post I note that it looks as though we're saying that science education isn't the problem, but that better science education can be part of the solution. If it's not clear, what we mean to say is that good science teaching can never hurt (teachers who actually understand evolution could at least give future evolutionary biologists a headstart!). But, science education by itself, no matter how good, can't by itself bridge the cultural divide reflected by the evolution-creation tug of war. Darwin is but a pawn in a much bigger cultural conflict.

John R. Vokey said...

You wrote: "But that form will almost surely have to involve increased teacher salaries, higher education-major SATs, and education certificates given to those whose major was science and not education."

The last phrase is brilliant! I will quote it, frequently.