Teaching evolution
Teaching evolution
High school science education gets diluted when debate about creationism discourages teaching and learning about Darwin’s research
BY HILARY MATFESS - Augusta Metro Spirit - 9/3/2008 - original
AUGUSTA, GA - Laura Noblett is uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the sun assaulting her eyes, but it’s more likely that she has just come across a question she doesn’t know the answer to.

The conversation is Miss Manners’ nightmare: a combination of religion and politics, two subjects that have ended friendships, business deals and nations. Noblett is discussing the teaching of evolution and creationism in public schools.

Noblett, a student at Greenbrier High School and a self-described “traditional, religious creationist,” says, “They should teach both evolution and creationism. But obviously, you can’t teach religion in a public school.”

Noblett proudly says, “I think public schools should introduce creationism and say that some people believe this; but should also definitely teach evolution.”

What has her so uncomfortable is when asked, by following her logic, if in a religion class they should interject with scientific facts concerning the impossibilities of Biblical accounts.

After a tense moment she says, “I really have no clue.”

She recovers with a smile. “People are going to come up with different opinions and should be aware of the other side of the story.”

So what caused the controversy? In the beginning, there were Adam and Eve. In Sunday School, that means Adam and Eve were humans, exactly as we appear today. However, in secular, public schools, Adam and Eve were single-cell bacteria that, over a mind-numbing number of years, evolved into Homo Sapiens.

Only the latter is the product of science; scientists have observed this change in fossil records as well as everyday life. In biology class, faith taught to a student for more than a decade is challenged by a scientific theory; the result is a mental wrestling contest for students who have both faith and desire to learn.

A court ruling that Intelligent Design, a form of creationism, cannot be taught in schools (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) in no way ends this debate. If anything, it paves the way for ordinary citizens to stand up for what they believe should take place in a science class.

We hear much from dry experts and religious zealots about the teaching of evolution, but few others can get in a word. America’s scientific education is shameful. In light of our recent failures in scientific education, teachers, students and others are asking questions about what’s valued in a science class.

Across religious and political lines, students wish to be taught and taught well.

Robbie Capps, an honor student at Greenbrier High School and a science buff, says, “The word ‘science’ comes from a Latin word ‘scientia,’ meaning ‘knowledge.’ To the extent of our current knowledge, the story of creationism just doesn’t check out. There is no proof anywhere to say that an intelligent being created each and every organism that we see today.”

Capps doesn’t leave theists out in the rain, though. He continues, “Evolution can be an accepted belief, even by evangelists. Evolution just means that change occurs. Really, fundamentally, it doesn’t mean that people were derived from apes and it doesn’t mean that things change shape overnight. It just means that certain changes occur within a species over long periods of time.”

Alex Yates, also an honor student and an adamant believer in the secular nature of public schools, states, “Evolution is the only explanation that should be offered to students to explain the origin of life. In a science-oriented class, Intelligent Design has no place. It cannot be recreated, observed or measured. Thus, the basis for Intelligent Design does not come from observation, but rather a belief in paranormal occurrences.”

In Yates’ opinion, paranormal occurrences have no place in a government-run operation — particularly a school.

Often, theistic students such as Laura are angered by the teaching of evolution. How can anyone blame these students for acting out when their beliefs are challenged?

In regards to how evolution should be approached in a classroom setting, Alex suggests, “It’s important for a teacher to have a discussion with his or her class in order to address the resistance many students will have against being taught about evolution. Among the subjects taught in school, evolution is unique in the controversy it causes and the concern students may have about studying it.”

On the other side of the spectrum is Kathryn Bonner. She is a strong Christian who can rattle off her beliefs with an eloquence and ferocity. She’s is also an honor student with a “passion” for history.

Bonner wrote, “Evolution will obviously be discussed more because of its ‘scientific backing.’” If disdain can be transmitted through a keyboard, she has accomplished it. “But both concepts should be presented.”

Personally Bonner is a proponent of Intelligent Design, the theory rejected in Kitzmiller. “Calling evolution truth and forcing students to take exams keeping that belief at the forefront is simply inaccurate and forces a certain mindset upon those students.”

In essence, she says she’s disregarding evolution because it is simply a theory. Doing so, she implies that students should be able to choose which theories to be taught. For instance, yes to the theory of relativity and theory of gravity but no to the theory of evolution. That’s a troubling notion for educators.

Many teachers are afraid to express their honest beliefs for fear of retribution. Teachers are often caught in the crossfire of the curriculum and the audience.

Dr. William Fowler, a teacher at Greenbrier High School, says he would not “teach the controversy,” (teach that creationism is a scientifically viable option and that evolution is seriously flawed) because “that sounds like a mixture of science and belief.” Fowler believes that it is not a public school’s arena to teach faith. What Fowler views as most important, however, is for both parents and students to keep an open mind in regards to evolution.

Fowler is both an evolutionist and a creationist, a view that he defends. “I am an evolutionist because one can not deny the great connectedness of living organisms... I am a creationist because I believe that God could have begun life on our planet (or many others as well) as a single cell. It does not matter at what stage or form that life began but simply that a creator initialized it. If God started life as a single cell and let it change over time to become the wonderful things today wouldn’t that mean God is even more powerful or knowledgeable.”

Fowler is a respected teacher at GHS and in his professional opinion, “We must teach evolution and the interrelationships of living things in school. We should not and cannot teach religion because that is a belief."

Fowler understands the struggles people of faith encounter as they learn evolution, but asserts, “These two areas of thought are not dependent upon one another. If we could view Genesis as God beginning life and not a recipe of exactly how life began, we might be open to thoughts of evolution.”

What makes this whole debate so difficult is that both sides end up losing. Creationists are depicted as either die-hard fundamentalists who use knock-down drag-out techniques to defeat evolution, or as hacks with no intellectual passion. Those who accept evolution, even in the smallest ways, are depicted as “Darwinists,” a term that is synonymous with atheism and a sneering disregard for anything other than evolution.

The legitimacy of Intelligent Design is questionable, according to the courts, and evolution is a strongly supported theory.

The question for schools is not simply whether to teach Intelligent Design. It’s whether schools should allow strong belief in such things as miracles to water down the scientific curriculum.

More on teaching evolution