More 1911 than 2011 in U.S. biology classes

In 1911, the name of the town of “Palmerston” was changed to “Darwin” when its control was transferred  to the Commonwealth of Australia.

One hundred years later, as reported in the N.Y. Times, the journal  Science has released a survey of the way U. S. public high school biology teachers present their subject, one firmly based on the principles explained by Charles Darwin.

The survey’s result: barely a quarter of surveyed teachers “consistently follow the recommendations of the National Research Council to describe straight-forwardly the evidence for evolution and explain the ways in which it is a unifying theme in all of biology.”

What’s going on here? Is it 2011 — or 1911?

What’s going on, of course, is the persistent, anti-intellectual aberration that is American Bible fundamentalism. “Persistent,” because it won’t go away. “Anti-intellectual,” because it refuses, often proudly, to believe the overwhelming physical evidence. “Aberration,” because nowhere else do so many with an otherwise modern education cling to such fervent religious literalism.

As the New York Times reports, “Teaching creationism in public schools has consistently been ruled unconstitutional in federal courts, but according to a national survey of more than 900 public high school biology teachers, it continues to flourish in the nation’s classrooms.”

Researchers found that only 28 percent of biology teachers consistently follow the NRC recommendations, while 13 percent actively teach creationism. (One surprising result was the finding that there was little connection between geography and creationism. Creationism was taught in biology classes scattered around the country, and not concentrated in one area, like the conservative South.) The rest of the teachers are what the survey authors call “the cautious 60 percent,” the controversy-avoiders. The New York Times reports:

The survey, published in the Jan. 28 issue of Science, found that some avoid intellectual commitment by explaining that they teach evolution only because state examinations require it, and that students do not need to “believe” in it. Others treat evolution as if it applied only on a molecular level, avoiding any discussion of the evolution of species. And a large number claim that students are free to choose evolution or creationism based on their own beliefs.

Imagine the equivalent situation in other high school subjects. “Good morning, class. Today, we’re going to look at the Founding Fathers. I know that some of you don’t believe in Thomas Paine, for religious reasons, but he’s on the final exam, so we have to talk about him. Just learn what the textbook says for the test, and go on believing what you want to about whether or not he wrote The Rights of Man.”

Or, to take a science example, let’s make “belief” in gravity optional for physics students — after all, it’s gravity that supports the evil lie that the Earth is not the centre of God’s universe!

Of course, “belief” — as the Bible literalists mean it, anyway — has no place in the teaching of the empirical outcomes of scientific investigation (please note the carefully-chosen and limiting phrasing before objecting). Despite what the Kuhn-inspired poststructuralists claim, teaching students that you can reasonably choose whether or not to “believe” in facts like evolution and gravity is a great deception, a betrayal of the nature — and daily utility — of our hard-won knowledge of ourselves and the world.

Since more high school students take biology than any other science course, write the researchers, and for about a quarter of them it will be the only science course they take, the influence of their Biology teachers is considerable.

One analyst cited by the New York Times suggests that the “cautious 60 percent” of science teachers would do a better, more confident job of explaining — and, sad to say, defending — evolution if they were better educated themselves. They “would be more confident in their ability to explain controversial topics to their students, to parents, and to school board members.”

But another expert is doubtful that more education is the answer:

These courses aren’t reaching the creationists. They already know what evolution is. They were biology majors, or former biology students. They just reject what we told them….This is the biggest failure in science education. There’s no other field where teachers reject the foundations of their science like they do in biology.” (my emphasis)

So while it may be 2011 for most sciences, in too many high school Biology classes, it’s still 1911, and the Scopes trial is still fourteen years — or more — in the future.

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For a closer look at the atypically dominant role of religion in American life, you might want to read the two-part article O pray, can you see?, which can be found on this blog, in the “AVAILABLE ARTICLES” sidebar.

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The graphic image that accompanies this article was found on a site that sells what it calls “Christian T-shirts.” This and several other T-shirts for sale convey the idea that evolution is the equivalent of a dangerous drug, to which the unwary can become addicted, to their eternal ruin.

The irony that those who’ve already drunk the Bible literalism Kool-Aid are warning the faithful to stay away from addictive drugs is amusing — and depressing.

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12 thoughts on “More 1911 than 2011 in U.S. biology classes

  1. Public education has become a kind of bureaucratic service where the customer’s demand rules and the associates had better pay attention. The customers who come to the complaints desk and shout loudest tend to be heard. Self-censoring tends to become the rule when the pension is on the line.

  2. True. I used to do much the same in Lit, telling students that they didn’t have to believe what Milton wrote about God, but they did have to learn it, since it was on the final exam. Of course, in that very different case we were talking about cultural beliefs and not empirical facts.

  3. //Imagine the equivalent situation in other high school subjects. “Good morning, class. Today, we’re going to look at the Founding Fathers. I know that some of you don’t believe in Thomas Paine, for religious reasons, but he’s on the final exam, so we have to talk about him. Just learn what the textbook says for the test, and go on believing what you want to about whether or not he wrote The Rights of Man.”//

    The idea of “not believing in Thomas Paine” is absurd. He is a historical figure about whom we have eye witness testimony of his existence. It is a poor argument to compare belief in his existence with belief in either creation or evolution* since we have no human eye witness testimony of either one.

    (*by this I refer to molecules to man, not minor variations)

  4. Yes, the Paine comparison was, intentionally, provocative, if not egregious. I admit it. (I’ve long been sensitive to the marginalization of Paine, the greatest neglected founding father, due to his unacceptable views on religion.)

    But I’ll stand by the gravity comparison.

    If by “molecules to man” you’re invoking a variation of the “show me the missing links” argument, that’s one I can’t buy.

    To call acceptance of the evident physical features of this world, including evolution, a “belief,” is, in my view, a misapplication of the word, which I reserve for something held to be true without direct evidence. I believe that Bach was the greatest composer. That it’s raining is a fact.

    By this definition, evolution is also a fact. There is overwhelming physical evidence that living things have evolved. There is no counter-evidence. Natural selection is the current theory to explain how that fact comes to be. As far as we can say, it’s also true (in Hawking’s “model-dependent” sense).

  5. Ron… I hear you about Paine. I sometimes say things just to get a rise, too. 🙂 Regarding gravity, while it may not be fully understood, it can be repeatedly tested and not be falsified under any known circumstance. I think would agree so far. But to compare support for “belief” in gravity with support for “belief” in evolution is imho a stretch.

    I’ll grant that far more scientists across most scientific disciplines accept evolution as fact without significant question than do not. Facts and truth are not democratic, though conclusions about them may be. Evolutionists and creationists have the same raw material evidence to work with. They simply draw different conclusions based on predispositions (worldviews). You might not accept the creationist position as remotely plausible because you do accept the evolutionist position and you accept the weight of testimony (broad worldview) as your predisposition. Creationists, in much the same way, start with the worldview predisposition that scriptural revelation is accepted and other (ie evolutionary) positions are not plausible. None of this proves one is right and the other is wrong.

    As to the evidence, by your comments I think it is fair to say you are either unaware or you summarily dismiss any “evidence” that appears to invalidate m2m evolution in favor of creationism. Is this fair?

    I hold a very different worldview from you. I look at the evidence and draw very different conclusions – based on that different worldview. I am confident we both have plenty of arguments for our respective positions. I am not so vain as to think I’ll change your mind, but I do hope we can be straight with each other about what we believe (ie. hold to be true). My real question, before I invest any more mental energy in this conversation, is whether we can speak about this honestly without the hostility that so often rises over this topic? If you are not interested in open dialog with dissent, just say so and I’ll quietly leave you in peace.

    • Please continue. A low-volume discussion of these subjects would be a nice change.

      Facts and truth are not democratic, though conclusions about them may be. Evolutionists and creationists have the same raw material evidence to work with. They simply draw different conclusions based on predispositions (worldviews).

      This is not the first time that you’ve presented a version of the notions of Kuhn, et al, about science — the ones that led postmodernists to declare all facts interpretations and all truths culture-bound. If that’s what you mean, it intrigues me how a (presumed) literalist can be comfortable with such relativism. Shouldn’t that also apply to your own beliefs? Or do you rather accept a “mysterious ways” limitation to human knowledge? Or something else I’m not seeing?

      You might not accept the creationist position as remotely plausible because you do accept the evolutionist position and you accept the weight of testimony (broad worldview) as your predisposition.

      I would put that the other way around, with the weight of evidence (I won’t let so important a word as “testimony” slip by without notice) leading to the conclusion that evolution is a fact. At its simplest level, stripped of all nuance and elaboration, I rather see the difference between our positions as an induction-deduction contrast.

  6. Ron, thank you for that thoughtful reply. Clearly we see things very differently even if we don’t seem to see each other’s position so clearly. LOL.

    //This is not the first time that you’ve presented a version of the notions … that led postmodernists to declare all facts interpretations and all truths culture-bound. If that’s what you mean, it intrigues me how a (presumed) literalist can be comfortable with such relativism. Shouldn’t that also apply to your own beliefs? Or do you rather accept a “mysterious ways” limitation to human knowledge? Or something else I’m not seeing? //

    Fair question. I hope this doesn’t sound like a dodge, but I’ll try to explain. To me personally truth is absolute. I’m not sure literalist is the best label. What I mean is, with respect to scripture anyway, I believe what scripture has to say about original creation in Genesis 1-11 is revelation and is meant to be read literally, but that does not mean all scripture is literal. Now, to answer your question about relativism and my beliefs… I acknowledge that humans can and do look at almost anything relative to themselves. I expect most humans to interpret what they see as they wish rather than as it really is. I’m not being a relativist by this admission, but I am acknowledging relativism as a real trait among people. And yes, I do think humans have limitations – we are not God – though that isn’t exactly what I was getting at. I do believe in objective truth. I also believe that our perception of truth is highly subjective – and yes, that’s because we are limited. It is natural human psychology to seek agreement, so it stands to reason that we try to work with each other to resolve conflicting subjective views. None of this negates objective truth, though it may very well simply ignore it. I’m human. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I am generally held to a higher standard, though, because I have the audacity to claim awareness of objective truth and that this objective truth is revealed in the pages of scripture and personal interaction with Living Truth commonly called God, Jesus, and/or Holy Spirit. I hope that answered your question about how I have comfort with what seemed to you to be an internal conflict on my part.

    Regarding the induction/deduction thing… maybe, though I don’t think we’re so different in that regard as you do.

    • I have difficulty understanding the basis on which one could decide which selected parts of scripture are literal and which are not. Why Genesis and not, say, Leviticus? (Always the atheist’s favourite Bible book, I realize — you must tire of hearing about it as much as I tire of explaining watch manufacture.)

      If creation is revealed truth, does that also mean a six-day creation? The limitations of science are such that the assertion of a divine hand in the universe can be declared by any honest nonbeliever as only vanishingly improbable, not impossible. However, there is tangible and, it seems to me, utterly convincing evidence that the procession from ape to human has taken enormous spans of time — and we’re not even talking about the just plain wrong “young earth” claim, which invites little children to ride the mechanical dinosaurs at creation theme parks, just like other little children did 6,000 years ago. Although you haven’t made a “young earth” claim in this venue, I have to say that to my way of thinking it’s the most indefensible part of the entire Bible literalism catalogue.

      As far as induction-deduction goes: at least with relation to evolution, if one starts from a position of absolute faith in a divine creation, then an entirely natural origin of life is wrong, by definition, no matter what the facts on the ground may be. It has been my experience that the evidence for evolution and an old Earth are systematically denied or explained away by invoking a presumed or asserted non-physical creator into an otherwise physical process. I have yet to encounter any argument against the visible evidence that does not rely on an appeal to an invisible alternative. If, on the other hand, one starts with the physical evidence, then evolution becomes descriptive, not proscriptive. The “belief” processes are not the same. One starts with the belief; the other ends with it. Yes?

  7. Ron,

    //I have difficulty understanding the basis on which one could decide which selected parts of scripture are literal and which are not.//

    Two big clues are linguistic form (voice) and context. Biblical literature falls into a few categories. The two biggest being historical/literal and the other being poetic. It is my understanding that voice is largely measured by verb form. Prophecy can take either form or may appear as what the Greeks would call rhetoric or as my teenage son would call trash talk. I am not a linguist, but this is all pretty much common knowledge.

    The book of Genesis is mostly written in historic prose, as is most of the Torah (first 5 books). Ex 15 contains poetry, for example, but most of it is in a “literal voice” in the Hebrew. The book of Job, on the other hand, is mostly written in poetic voice except the opening and closing passages. Most of Psalms, Proverbs, and large chunks of the prophets (esp. Minor Prophets) are written in poetic voice. This doesn’t make them untrue or otherwise not serious, but it does mean the language may be much more symbolic than literal. The second method is more subjective. Context matters in anything you study, whether its the bible or auto mechanics. There are passages in scripture that are obviously hyperbole. There’s also some difference between passages where the author makes a direct claim to divine revelation and others where the author appears to be simply relating information. Who is being quoted and is the thought being projected human or divine? Who is the author and who was the original audience? These are all valid questions when testing context.

    //If creation is revealed truth, does that also mean a six-day creation?//

    I believe so. Since I accept it as revelation, I immediately view with skepticism any claims contradicting a “plain reading” of Genesis, whether those claims come from the hardest atheist or the softest Christian.

    //The limitations of science are such that the assertion of a divine hand in the universe can be declared by any honest nonbeliever as only vanishingly improbable, not impossible. However, there is tangible and, it seems to me, utterly convincing evidence that the procession from ape to human has taken enormous spans of time//

    I understand your point of view even though I respectfully disagree. There are mountains of “evidence” we could wade through. Let’s not do that here in your comments section of this post. I’m not a scientist, although I do read both pro-creation and pro-evolution material with interest, including some relatively technical material. Based on what little conversations we’ve had to this point I would guess you do too. I think we can agree that science is very interesting even if we look at it with different lenses.

    //little children to ride the mechanical dinosaurs at creation theme parks//

    I find some of that sort of thing pretty funny myself. Then again, some of the attractions for little children at temples of evolutions (secular museums) are just as ridiculous. 😉

    //if one starts from a position of absolute faith in a divine creation, then an entirely natural origin of life is wrong, by definition, no matter what the facts on the ground may be.//

    Granted.

    //It has been my experience that the evidence for evolution and an old Earth are systematically denied or explained away by invoking a presumed or asserted non-physical creator into an otherwise physical process.//

    I believe you. This is too often the case. There are sound reasonable arguments to be made and all too often believers duck behind a “wall of faith” when reason abandons them. I’m probably guilty myself at times. I am frankly very frustrated with the masses in who claim faith but do not understand what they believe or why and cannot effectively defend their faith when questioned. We provide a lousy testimony to our faith and frankly it is no surprise the world is skeptical. The appearance of godliness without power, as the bible says. Having said all that, the reason for faith must be based on personal experience, not a collection of facts, or it is as hollow as you suspect.

    //I have yet to encounter any argument against the visible evidence that does not rely on an appeal to an invisible alternative.//

    While the presentation of arguments (made by believers you’ve encountered) may be weak, God is invisible and ultimately either God is real or not. The believer believes. Sorry, but its just that simple.

    //If, on the other hand, one starts with the physical evidence, then evolution becomes descriptive, not proscriptive. The “belief” processes are not the same. One starts with the belief; the other ends with it. Yes?//

    For you perhaps. For me, just the opposite. I considered myself a Christian from an early age, but for many years I believed in Jesus without believing in the historical accuracy of Gen 1-11. I was raised on evolution in the public school system and I had no good reason to doubt what my teachers said. It wasn’t until much later I lost my faith in Darwin. I was very skeptical of claims of a young earth until I spent years researching the subject. It started as a curiosity, but over time I became much more interested. I have seen some of the kinds of weak arguments you mentioned, but I also read material that was well reasoned. I scanned a very broad spectrum of sciences. One of the last holdouts for me was astronomy. Most creationist theories have weaknesses as great or greater than the prominent “old earth” theories like Big Bang. Reading the work of Russell Humphreys and independently (as much as possible) researching his work against Einstein’s, I came to see there is at least a plausible explanation for what I observe in the heavens fitting into the admittedly very specific and limiting text of Genesis. Other things like irreducible complexity, mind-brain neuroscience, radiometrics, paleontology, and anthropology are among some of the areas I’ve found very convincing explanations of raw evidence that favors the young earth position. As a former reactor operator, I am knowledgeable enough about radiometrics to see and easily grasp the difficulties with conventional radiometric dating methods. Recently published information on radiohalides, helium diffusion, C14 data, and high-weight long half-life tests strongly supports young earth claims. Sorry for mentioning specifics – I do not mean to start any sort of technical discussions under this post. I only mention these to say I found what I personally accept as soundly reasoned support for the young earth interpretation of observations of nature. I am satisfied on the one hand by my personal experience with the divine and I am satisfied on the other hand with what my mind perceives to be sound reasoning which fits astoundingly well with what is revealed in scripture.

    • This doesn’t make them untrue or otherwise not serious, but it does mean the language may be much more symbolic than literal. The second method is more subjective. Context matters in anything you study, whether its the bible or auto mechanics. There are passages in scripture that are obviously hyperbole. There’s also some difference between passages where the author makes a direct claim to divine revelation and others where the author appears to be simply relating information.

      Thanks to your careful phrasing about claims to revelation, your explanation is both interesting and entirely unobjectionable. As a retired teacher of both composition and literature, I appreciate the nuance in your understanding.

      //If creation is revealed truth, does that also mean a six-day creation?//

      I believe so. Since I accept it as revelation, I immediately view with skepticism any claims contradicting a “plain reading” of Genesis, whether those claims come from the hardest atheist or the softest Christian.

      With respect, you seem to have made my point about deduction.

      //little children to ride the mechanical dinosaurs at creation theme parks//
      I find some of that sort of thing pretty funny myself. Then again, some of the attractions for little children at temples of evolutions (secular museums) are just as ridiculous.

      I don’t recall there being a coin slot on the Darwin statue at the Museum of Natural History in Kensington — but I have to admit that what flashed into my head was the amusing thought “It’s the Great God of Biology!” the first time I entered the building and looked down the sweep of the long vault of the entrance hall, past the enormous dinosaur, and up the grand staircase, to said statue.

      There are mountains of “evidence” we could wade through. Let’s not do that here in your comments section of this post. I’m not a scientist, although I do read both pro-creation and pro-evolution material with interest, including some relatively technical material. Based on what little conversations we’ve had to this point I would guess you do too.

      No, let’s not. Yes, I do, too. And I agree that there is no need to instruct each other on the basics.

      God is invisible and ultimately either God is real or not. The believer believes. Sorry, but its just that simple.

      No need to apologize for stating the issue in its purest form.

      On the days when I’m feeling most fundamentally a materialist, I would put it somewhat differently: “God is outside our apprehension if he exists and an illusion if he doesn’t. Yet the believer believes.”

      Your statement is at the basis of your faith; my statement is at the basis of my disbelief.

      I was raised on evolution in the public school system and I had no good reason to doubt what my teachers said. It wasn’t until much later I lost my faith in Darwin.

      My experience was the opposite. My family was strictly Catholic, and I was a thoughtless believer. When I went to university, thanks to the Jesuits I finally encountered the supposedly rational basis for the faith in which I had been raised. Like Peggy Lee, I found myself asking “Is that all there is?” The “Four A’s” — Aristotle, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas — demonstrated clearly to my mind that religion was essentially a web of assumptions and word games with the primary purpose of social control. That view has not changed in the decades since. And while faith and religion are obviously not the same thing, cognitive science adequately explains for me the impulse to belief, while physical science lacks any empirical evidence for the existence of a divine force.

      I only mention these to say I found what I personally accept as soundly reasoned support for the young earth interpretation of observations of nature. I am satisfied on the one hand by my personal experience with the divine and I am satisfied on the other hand with what my mind perceives to be sound reasoning which fits astoundingly well with what is revealed in scripture.

      In my view, in very simple terms — what follows could be discussed without exhausting the topic from now until Judgement Day, should such an event happen to transpire — God is an unnecessary hypothesis, one which may be invoked if one insists but one which need not be invoked to account for the observed universe. Occam overstated his parsimony principle, perhaps, but even if all of the evidence of all of the sciences were somehow to be wrong, even if all of the present theories were no more substantial than phlogiston, there would be no logical basis to go from that to “therefore, God exists.”

      In the absence of compelling evidence, and with no logical necessity, I consider the leap of faith unreasonable, so I don’t take it.

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