Is it possible to teach evolutionary biology “sensitively”?

Michael Reiss, a professor of science education at University College London and an Anglican Priest, suggests that “we need to rethink the way we teach evolution” largely because conventional approaches can be unduly confrontational and “force religious children to choose between their faith and evolution” or to result in students who”refuse to engage with a lesson.” He suggests that a better strategy would be akin to those use to teach a range of “sensitive” subjects “such as sex, pornography, ethnicity, religion, death studies, terrorism, and others” and could “help some students to consider evolution as a possibility who would otherwise not do so.” [link to his original essay and a previous post on teaching evolution: Go ahead and teach the controversy].

There is no doubt that an effective teacher attempts to present materials sensitively; it is the rare person who will listen to someone who “teaches” ideas in a hostile, alienating, or condescending manner. That said, it can be difficult to avoid the disturbing implications of scientific ideas, implications that can be a barrier to their acceptance. The scientific conclusion that males and females are different but basically the same can upset people on various sides of the theo-political spectrum. 

In point of fact an effective teacher, a teacher who encourages students to question their long held, or perhaps better put, familial or community beliefs, can cause serious social push-back  – Trouble with a capital T.  It is difficult to imagine a more effective teacher than Socrates (~470-399 BCE). Socrates “was found guilty of ‘impiety’ and ‘corrupting the young’, sentenced to death” in part because he was an effective teacher (see Socrates was guilty as charged).  In a religious and political context, challenging accepted Truths (again with a capital T) can be a crime.  In Socrates’ case”Athenians probably genuinely felt that undesirables in their midst had offended Zeus and his fellow deities,” and that, “Socrates, an unconventional thinker who questioned the legitimacy and authority of many of the accepted gods, fitted that bill.”  

So we need to ask of scientists and science instructors, does the presentation of a scientific, that is, a naturalistic and non-supernatural, perspective in and of itself represent an insensitivity to those with a super-natural belief system. Here it is worth noting a point made by the philosopher John Gray, that such systems extend beyond those based on a belief in god(s); they include those who believe, with apocalyptic certainty, in any of a number of Truths, ranging from the triumph of a master race, the forced sterilization of the unfit, the dictatorship of the proletariat, to history’s end in a glorious capitalist and technological utopia. Is a science or science instruction that is “sensitive” to, that is, uncritical of or upsetting to those who hold such beliefs, possible? 

My original impression is that one’s answer to this question is likely to be determined by whether one considers science a path to Truth, with a purposeful capital T, or rather that the goal of scientists is to build a working understanding of the world around and within us.  Working scientists, and particularly biologists who must daily confront the implications of apparently un-intelligent designed organisms (due to ways evolution works) are well aware that absolute certainty is counterproductive. Nevertheless, the proven explanatory and technological power of the scientific enterprise cannot help but reinforce the strong impression that there is some deep link between scientific ideas and the way the world really works.  And while some scientists have advocated unscientific speculations (think multiverses and cosmic consciousness), the truth, with a small t, of scientific thinking is all around us.  

Photograph of the Milky Way by Tim Carl photography, used by permission 

 A science-based appreciation of the unimaginable size and age of the universe, taken together with compelling evidence for the relatively recent appearance of humans (Homo sapiens from their metazoan, vertebrate, tetrapod, mammalian, and primate ancestors) cannot help but impact our thinking as to our significance in the grand scheme of things (assuming that there is such a, possibly ineffable, plan)(1). The demonstrably random processes of mutation and the generally ruthless logic by which organisms survive, reproduce, and evolve, can lead even the most optimistic to question whether existence has any real meaning.  

Consider, as an example, the potential implications of the progress being made in terms of computer-based artificial intelligence, together with advances in our understanding of the molecular and cellular connection networks that underlie human consciousness and self-consciousness. It is a small step to conclude, implicitly or explicitly, that humans (and all other organisms with a nervous system) are “just” wet machines that can (and perhaps should) be controlled and manipulated. The premise, the “self-evident truth”, that humans should be valued in and of themselves, and that their rights should be respected (2) is eroded by the ability of machines to perform what were previously thought to be exclusively human behaviors. 

Humans and their societies have, after all, been around for only a few tens of thousands of years.  During this time, human social organizations have passed from small wandering bands influenced by evolutionary kin and group selection processes to produce various social systems, ranging from more or less functional democracies, pseudo-democracies (including our own growing plutocracy), dictatorships, some religion-based, and totalitarian police states.  Whether humans have a long term future (compared to the millions of years that dinosaurs dominated life on Earth) remains to be seen – although we can be reasonably sure that the Earth, and many of its non-human inhabitants, will continue to exist and evolve for millions to billions of years, at least until the Sun explodes. 

So how do we teach scientific conclusions and their empirical foundations, which combine to argue that science represents how the world really works, without upsetting the most religiously and politically fanatical among us?  Those who most vehemently reject scientific thinking because they are the most threatened by its apparently unavoidable implications. The answer is open to debate, but to my mind it involves teaching students (and encouraging the public) to distinguish empirically-based, and so inherently limited observations and the logical, coherent, and testable scientific models they give rise to from unquestionable TRUTH- and revelation-based belief systems. Perhaps we need to focus explicitly on the value of science rather than its “Truth”. To reinforce what science is ultimately for; what justifies society’s support for it, namely to help reduce human suffering and (where it makes sense) to enhance the human experience, goals anchored in the perhaps logically unjustifiable, but nevertheless essential acceptance of the inherent value of each person.   

  1. Apologies to “Good Omens”
  2. For example, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

5 thoughts on “Is it possible to teach evolutionary biology “sensitively”?”

  1. Great post thank you! One commonly observed phenomenon is that both teachers of science and teachers of religion both create a false forced dichotomy for their students. Either students choose religion, or science. They cannot be reconciled. This is a problematic practice, as both approaches have meaning and utility. By creating a false dichotomy teachers will loose half, and that is what seems to be happening in the US.

    Perhaps science teachers and religious scholars can help learners reconcile both sides together….without losing meaning? I like the suggestion by the author of approaching it To “enhance the human experience” and “reduce suffering”.

    We may also want to consider modeling the spiritual path of others to reconciliation of evolution and creationism. Show examples of scientists who believe in God…..there is literature that shows success in evolution acceptance when modeling happens.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. All I know is that you can’t take Eve out of evolution. The bite of that fruit displayed how naked and unaware humans are.
    The greatest scholars of the Bible or scientific journals have struggled to comprehend as well as explain the universe and the processes occurring over time. The progress we’ve made in one hundred years is monumental compared to our hunter-gatherer ancestors over eons.
    Either way, we humans from the beginning have put our beliefs to the test and that will continue until events greater than us determine our fate as a species.
    Literal orthodoxy in religion or science has not adequately explained the many questions remaining. From creation to AGW, humans have an inflated view as to how wise they actually are and a denialist view as to how prone they are to making mistakes.
    Teach the children well on the historical understanding of science and religion. We learn to reveal the mysteries ahead and hope the past has taught us well -metaphysically or literally.

    Like

  3. The article reflects exactly the kinds of things I have been thinking for a while; thanks for articulating them so well! Biology teachers in schools in highly religious communities probably would benefit from making the point that the science of evolution does not make any religious claims whatsoever and the two are perfectly compatible. I would mention the work of modern theologians such as John Haught who have written extensively on how evolution can actually deepen theology and its understanding of the divine nature (see both God After Darwin and Science and Faith). Then there is the whole field of Process Theology in which evolution is a central component. But in our biology classes, we study the scientific underpinnings of evolution and the modern synthesis, and try not to get sidetracked by interpretations individuals might make into larger world views.

    In teaching evolution, it is central that genetic mutations are a key feature in creating variation in populations, but I would avoid the premise that these mutations are necessarily random because we really don´t know that they are. If you think about it, if the universe truly is deterministic then true randomness doesn´t exist but if the future is open, we might not know all the causal factors involved, including how quantum indeterminacy resolves itself when moving from potential to actual. And we already know that certain sequences in the genome are more prone to mutation than others, so at best we may have biased randomness. My point is how individual genetic mutations arise is irrelevant to the science of evolution, the study of changes in _populations_ over time, and we can avoid a potential point of conflict with the religiously inclined by not insisting they are, a priori, random, which they may or may not be and implies a world-view that may not be correct.

    My last point addresses the article´s ponderings about how insignificant we seem to be in the grand scheme, considering the vast distances of the Universe and of time. This is a common sentiment amongst the non-religious but it misses one important point. The vastness of space and time is not so impressive as the fact that the most complex system ever discovered in the known Universe is the human brain. We ARE the possessors of this marvelous achievement of the Universe and I think that makes us pretty darn significant. I think it was Fred Spier who calculated that the degrees of freedom of the billions of neurons of the human brain (meaning potential states it could be in) was equivalent to the degrees of freedom of an area of space roughly 300,ooo ly in diameter, fitting almost our entire local galaxy cluster.

    For many, the religious sentiment ignites at the interface of the human mind relating to the mystery of its own being, arising out of the Universal Process via evolution. I say let biology teachers teach the science of evolution and let theologians figure out how to put it into a religious context. And let them both respect the remit of the other.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s