Saturday 29 January 2011

The Thin Evolutionary Line

A lot has been mentioned recently of the article "Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom" (Berkman & Plutzer, 2011).

The main quoted criticism is that, among teachers in the USA there is "a pervasive reluctance [...] to forthrightly explain evolutionary biology". Slightly fewer than one in three teachers were considered to be "effective educators" in evolutionary biology, described thus:
"They unabashedly introduce evidence that evolution has occurred and craft lesson plans so that evolution is a theme that uniļ¬es disparate topics in biology."
While the study was carried out on American teachers, this ratio seems reasonable to me - the overwhelming majority of my science department is creationist in nature, which I expect is a barrier to effectively educating students about evolution (am choosing my words carefully...).

I try my hardest to do a good job when teaching evolution. I try not to make a big deal out of it, and treat it like any other branch of biology (which it is), teaching it from a position of authority as though it was the Krebs Cycle. Mostly, a matter-of-fact approach is effective. However, all it takes is for a student to say "Yeah but you don't really believe this, right miss?", and the class instantly degenerates into a discussion of religion and philosophy, while I feel like I'm struggling to hold it together and return to science.

Add into the mix the common interpretation of Equality and Diversity Guidelines:
"Acknowledging diverse cultural backgrounds enables learners to bring their own life experiences to the classroom"
is usually interpreted as:
"So as not to hurt the feelings of the students whose creation narratives exclude evolution as a valid explanation, make sure you stress that evolution is only a theory and that lots of groups have different views of the origins of species."
And having seen a colleague's Scheme of Work, this is only marginally paraphrased from the actual E&D notes.

This is starting to bother me, as I am researching effective teaching methods for evolution, and one of my PGCE lecturers is a little too keen that I treat evolution as being just another philosophical viewpoint, rather than a very well supported scientific fact. How do I do evolution justice in my classes without being perceived as being bombastic, not taking into consideration students' diverse backgrounds, or "forcing" my "beliefs" onto impressionably young minds?

I want to be "unabashed" in my teaching of evolution, but I am also afraid of complaints from students and criticism from colleagues. And that is a rotten situation to be in.

Berkman, M.B. & E. Plutzer. 2011. "Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom. Science 301: 404-305. DOI:10.1126/science.1198902.


  1. A position I have often taken with "difficult" students is as follows: Evolution is seen as the only viable explanation for a very large number of observations that have been made in biology, and it has very nearly 100% support from serious biological scientists. That does not mean we understand every detail, nor that all of our conjectures are correct. My goal in teaching this is not have you *believe* it: that is entirely your choice. But I do expect you to *understand* it. Even if you choose to regard it as a fiction- and again. almost no scientists do- you should be able to explain processes, results and implication of evolution. Your evaluation hinges on your comprehension, not your belief.

  2. Actually go back to the basic postulate of the theory, that the laws of the way things are are the same everwhere and everywhen. This implies strongly that there are no supernatural interventions in the world, because the laws would differ around the time of the intervention. Then say we will basis our teaching on the postulate, and just like with the question of how many lines parallel to a given line run thru a point, there are several versions of the postulate and we pick one to make a system. (In Geometry the answer is 0, 1 or many depending on which geometry you want to use elliptical, Euclid's or hyperbolic). The question of which version to pick here is a metaphysical and theological one, for the purposes of this teaching we will assume the non intervention postulate.

  3. To get more information on the theory go to Charles Lyells book Principals of Geology which Darwin took with him on the Beagle. A quote from Wikipedia on the base idea
    "The central argument in Principles was that the present is the key to the past - a concept of the Scottish Enlightenment which David Hume had stated as "all inferences from experience suppose ... that the future will resemble the past", and James Hutton had described when he wrote in 1788 that "from what has actually been, we have data for concluding with regard to that which is to happen thereafter."[8] Geological remains from the distant past can, and should, be explained by reference to geological processes now in operation and thus directly observable."
    So if someone does not wish to take this postulate (for it is indeed an assumption not proven) then one may set up any logic system one wishes to be we choose to study the logic system derived from Lyell.

    Of course this is actually a position derived from serious study of the life of Darwin and of Geology, and may be to hard to teach, depending on what is taught in geometry.
    But to go to Lyell's basic principal stated above that the present is the key to the past, and use that as a basis.

  4. Might it also be worth considering evolutionary philosophy in different cultures? Rather than taking a purely Darwin-centric perspective, you could discuss non-Western thinking on the nature of nature. I can't say I know much about it, but a quick online search suggests there are some interesting avenues of exploration.

  5. Has teaching changed?
    I know it was thirty years ago but there was no discussion in class as far I recall. The teacher taught us the facts, demononstrated where applicable/possible and that was that. The only discussion was wher clarification was required r further detail asked for!

  6. Thanks all for some very interesting food for thought. I'm going to reflect further on these ideas and do some research, especially on arguing more from a philosophical point of view. Sadly, GrumpyOldMan, teaching has changed an awful lot. Perhaps in many ways for the better. The students seem to have a lot more guts than I did to argue with their teacher like mine do, and no one would call me a soft touch.


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