Teaching evolution in Kentucky—with accommodationism

Author:whyevolutionistrue

Emphasis Mine

When I first gave a talk at the University of Kentucky in 2010 (could it really have been five years ago?), I had the pleasure of meeting Jim Krupa, a biologist and natural historian with wide interests, and with a reputation as an excellent teacher (see here for my visit to his lab).

Krupa has now written an article in Orion called”Defending Darwin“, which has also been abridged in Slate. It sums up his experiences of teaching introductory biology for 20 years in a state where resistance to evolution runs high. (I learned that when a group of religious students removed all the posters advertising my talk about the evidence for evolution, and the biology students had to put the posters back up—twice!)

Krupa decided early on to heavily infuse his introductory bio course with evolution—just as E. O. Wilson did when he taught a similar class at Harvard (I was a t.a. for that course for two years). And it works, for it’s exactly what Jack Brooks did in Introductory Zoology at William and Mary—the course that set my feet on the path of evolutionary biology. After beginning with a lesson on what a “theory” really means in science, Krupa bravely waded into the waters of evolution. And he faced strong resistance from some students, especially when he talked about human evolution. (As most of us know, lots of religious people don’t mind evolution so much—until it tells us that our own species evolved, too!):

Soon, every topic and lecture in my class was built on an evolutionary foundation and explained from an evolutionary perspective. My basic biology for non-majors became evolution for non-majors. It didn’t take long before I started to hear from a vocal minority of students who strongly objected: “I am very offended by your lectures on evolution! Those who believe in creation are not ignorant of science! You had no right to try and force evolution on us. Your job was to teach it as a theory and not as a fact that all smart people believe in!!” And: “Evolution is not a proven fact. It should not be taught as if it is. It cannot be observed in any quantitative form and, therefore, isn’t really science.”

. . . The story of [human] evolutionary history captivates many of my students, while infuriating some. During one lecture, a student stood up in the back row and shouted the length of the auditorium that Darwin denounced evolution on his deathbed—a myth intentionally spread by creationists. The student then made it known that everything I was teaching was a lie, and stomped out of the auditorium, slamming the door behind him. A few years later during the same lecture, another student also shouted out from the back row that I was lying. She said that no transitional fossil forms had ever been found—despite my having shared images of many transitional forms during the semester. Many of her fellow students were shocked by her combativeness, particularly when she stormed out, also slamming the door behind her. Most semesters, a significant number of students abruptly leave as soon as they realize the topic is human evolution.

Ceiling Cat bless those who teach evolutionary biology in the South! Well, I never faced that kind of resistance, but I’ve taught most of my life in Chicago, not the South. But what this clearly shows is that many people’s opposition to evolution rests largely on the claim that humans evolved by the same processes as ferns, squirrels, and squid. I think it was Michael Ruse who said that what keeps people awake at night is not worrying about the fossil record of other species, but the idea that if humans evolved, where can we find morality?

Krupa’s lesson plan, as outlined in his piece, is very good, and I’m sure his course is terrific. I have just one beef, and it’s based on this:

AFTER A SEMESTER filled with evidence of evolution, capped off with a dose of evolutionary medicine, one might expect that every last student would understand it and accept it as fact. Sadly, this is not the case. There are those who remain convinced that evolution is a threat to their religious beliefs. Knowing this, I feel an obligation to give my “social resistance to evolution” lecture as the final topic.

This lecture lays down the history of the antiscience and anti-evolution movements, the arguments made by those opposing evolution, and why these arguments are wrong. I make it clear that one can accept evolution and maintain their religious beliefs. They are not mutually exclusive. Among the religious groups and organizations that support the teaching of evolution are the Episcopal Church, Lutheran World Federation, United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church, United Unitarian Universalists [JAC: those are largely atheists!], Roman Catholic Church, and the American Jewish Congress. In fact, 77 percent of all American Christians belong to a denomination that supports the teaching of evolution, and several high-profile evangelical Christians are ardent defenders of it, including former President Jimmy Carter and Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health. Even Pope John Paul II acknowledged the existence of evolution in an article he published in The Quarterly Review of Biology, in which he argued that the body evolved, but the soul was created. Pope Francis has made it clear that he accepts evolution as well.

This lecture should put students at ease knowing that religion and science need not be at odds. Of all the lectures I give, this one provokes the most discussion after class. And yet it often results in students expressing concern that I might not be saved. I never say anything about my personal religious beliefs, yet it is assumed I am an atheist. One student told me she hoped I could find God soon. When I again pointed out that John Paul accepted evolution—and he certainly wasn’t an atheist—the student countered that Catholics aren’t Christians. Several simply let me know they will be praying for me and praying hard. One student explained that as a devout Catholic he had no choice but to reject evolution. He accused me of fabricating the pope’s statements. When I explained that he could go to the Vatican website for verification or call the Vatican to talk to a scientist, he insisted that there was no such information available from the Vatican. He then pointed his finger at me and said the only way he would believe me is if Pope John Paul II came to my class to confirm these quotes face-to-face. The student then stomped out, again slamming the auditorium door behind him.

I can well understand Jim’s motivation here. After all, if most of the resistance to evolution comes from religion (and that’s something the students should be told), why not try to defuse it by telling them that it doesn’t have to be that way? In other words, at the end of his course Krupa becomes an accommodationist, telling students all the ways that religion isn’t in opposition to science. And that’s where he goes off the rails.

Yes, lots of religions publicly accept evolution, but many don’t. Does Krupa mention the Southern Baptists? And even those faiths whose doctrinal statements do accept evolution harbor many parishioners who don’t. Take Catholics, for example. As I say in Faith versus Fact, “Nevertheless, 27 percent of American Catholics cling to biblical creationism, believing that humans were created instantaneously by God and have remained unchanged ever since.” Does Krupa mention that? If 77% of American religions embrace evolution, how come 42% of all Americans are young-earth creationists when it comes to human evolution? (That figure rises to 73% if you take all Americans who think that God had a role in evolution.) Do they reject the dictates of their faith? Apparently so.

So what Krupa is telling his students is only a partial truth. Francis Collins, for example, has argued publicly that innate morality could not have evolved, but must have been vouchsafed us by God. Does Krupa mention that? No, because he’s on a mission to harmonize evolution and faith.

And as for Catholicism, well, I mentioned that many Catholics are young-Earth creationists. But even the Vatican itself isn’t totally down with evolution. It maintains, for instance, that humans, unlike every other creature, were endowed by God with a soul somewhere in the course of evolution. Krupa admits that, but does he explore the scientific problems with such an assertion? And does he tell them that the official stance of the Vatican is that Adam and Eve were historic figures, the progenitors of all humans—and that this flatly contravenes the findings of modern science? I could refer the Catholic student who confronted Krupa to Catholic websites affirming this. The fact is that many religions, including Catholicism, can be comported with human evolution only by either watering down our naturalistic view of evolution (and saying, “Yes, yes, God could have made some mutations”), or turning those religions into pure exercises in metaphor.

Finally, telling students that religion is compatible with evolution is a theological view, not a scientific one. Yes, Krupa’s motivations are good here, but he’s still skirting the First Amendment by telling the students what religion says, and—in my view—doing so in a distorted way. My opinion is that while it would be okay for Krupa to tell the students that almost all resistance to evolution in the U.S. comes from evolution—for that’s simply a fact—it’s not okay for him to twist the data on religion to suggest that there’s no inherent conflict between faith and fact. Remember that 64% of Americans have said that if science comes up with a fact that contradicts one of the tenets of their faith, they’ll reject the science in favor of their faith.

Lest you think that I’m being too hard on Krupa here, let me add that I have exactly the same objection to professors who tell their students that evolution is incompatible with religion. That, too, is a theological (or philosophical, depending on your take) add-on that shouldn’t be taught to students in a science class. When David Barash taught that incompatibilism to his evolution students at the University of Washington, I objected as well. Regardless of your desire to make students accept evolution by comporting it with religion, that is an exercise not in science, but something else. It may work (Barash does recount one student who was “converted” this way—the first case I know of), but it’s straying far away from science. I wrote a book asserting that science and religion are incompatible, but I don’t mention those views that in my evolution course.

Let me finish by saying that I have a lot of respect for Krupa’s drive to teach evolution to students who largely resist it, and for the enormous work he puts into his classes. I’m dead certain he’s a far better teacher than I am. But I think that Krupa should keep theology out of the science classroom. If students can’t be convinced that evolution is true from a simple presentation of the facts, let them go to their ministers and priests to find out whether and how it fits with their faith.

h/t: Joyce

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