Critical ThinkingEducationScience

Part 4: Creationism – when you teach science there is no controversy.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by animal behavior.  At the age of six I embarked on a career path from which I never wavered.  Except once. Almost.

As a sophomore in college I took two semesters of Astronomy to round out my non-biology science electives.  It was an exciting time in cosmology.  The final deciding battle was still being fought over whether the universe existed in a steady state or was expanding from an initial big bang.  No one knew if black holes actually existed or were just a mathematical contrivance.  Red shifts in starlight suggested against all apparent logic that the universe was not only still expanding, but doing so at an increasing rate.  All of these issues were presented in class by a dynamic young professor.  More than just presenting settled dogma, he went through the logical arguments for and against each proposition.  It was mind blowing – the idea that one could: hypothesize about what an expanding universe ought to look like; make a prediction from that hypothesis; and then test it!  If I had been religiously inclined, it would have been tempting to view my class as actually looking into the mind of God.

In contrast, I sat in my Evolution class as lecture after lecture slogged through eras of extinct organisms.  The dinosaurs came and then went, without explanation or comment.  Yet unbeknownst to me at the time, there were also raging evolutionary controversies.  Did dinosaurs succeed for so long because they, like mammals and birds and not like reptiles, were warm-blooded?  What about that heretical idea that their extinction was due to an asteroid impact and not the inevitable rise of mammals?  None of that!  Apparently controversy was not something undergrads could be expected to wrap their minds around.  Thus, evolution was presented as just a string of known facts with little of the “how and why” to connect them.  And so, too, unfortunately were most of my other biology courses.

“Astronomers ask big questions and try to figure out how to answer them – biologists just memorize stuff.”  This is what it seemed like to me, and for a few weeks I actively thought about switching majors.  I didn’t – the University of Kentucky had no astronomy major.  I’d have to do a physics major and from the courses and syllabi I perused, the math was both too daunting and not that appealing.  So I stayed in biology.  But here’s a belated and much appreciated shout out to you, Professor Frank O. Clark.  Maybe astronomy never got a math-challenged adherent, but thanks to you, biology did get someone who realized that the best science does ask all those big questions about how and why we’re here.

This is also why when I teach courses on evolution, I make damn sure to include a hearty dose of creationism and intelligent design!  Yes, there is no controversy among us scientific ‘elitists’, but how did it get to be that way?

My previous posts have showcased the new creationist attack on evolution.  It is that all science is done to support scientists’ pre-existing views.  Anything that cannot be replicated in a lab and held in your hand is “Historical” and is always interpreted through a biased lens.  Thus, inferential and deductive hypotheses are guesses, and facts are opinions.  This is the ideological cudgel used against evolutionary biology and any other scientific pursuit that dares to contradict a literal reading of the bible.  As I argued, the greater societal problem this presents extends far beyond objecting to Darwin.  Climate change denial is just one example where inferential science is similarly denigrated as no more than the opinions of people with political agendas.

Therefore, I give creationism complete scientific respect in my evolution classes.  I do teach it!  Whether the folks at Answers in Genesis like it or not, Genesis is a predictive and quite testable model for how the world should look.  What would we expect the fossil record to look like if all species were created within a few days of each other?  What ought the genetics of all living species look like if they never had common ancestors and if every one went through an extreme population bottleneck about 4000 years ago?  And so on.  What becomes evident is that evolution by natural selection is the dominant “theory” for biological origins because of its remarkable success of having observation match prediction.  Creationism fails because, to bastardize the famous Dobzhansky quote, “Nothing in biology makes sense in the light of a 6000 year old earth.”  If a scientific hypothesis like creationism requires sets of miracles in order to make it true, then it is false.

I teach by demonstrating how evolution is the logical conclusion that arises from following the scientific process.  It is not, as someone like Ken Ham would have you believe, a set of cherry-picked facts massaged to fit an anti-God agenda.  If my students can clearly understand why I accept evolution as being true, they will also see how radically different that is from why Ham accepts Genesis as being true.  And why only the former can truly be called science.

The greatest failure in teaching evolution is in how it was initially taught to me – a set of facts to be accepted as true (and memorized for the test!) because a bunch of experts say so.  If this is the only exposure one gets to Darwin and the legions of great thinkers that followed him, then maybe it is not surprising that so many in the US can dismiss evolution as just somebody’s biased opinion.  So, I make a plea to my biology colleagues to go beyond the ‘what’ of evolution into the ‘why’ of it.  Teach the controversy – and especially teach how it has been resolved!  Further, I extend this plea to all science teachers for their disciplines as well.

I don’t know if introductory astronomy courses still present the intellectual combat over the origin of the universe, black holes, and all the other exotic cosmic questions that almost changed my career.  Or if these are now presented as well-established facts to be accepted as such.  I certainly hope not.  But beyond today’s exotica of dark matter and energy, there is still much to learned from how today’s mundane, universally-accepted facts were first discovered.  Imagine if students were shown how the ancient Greeks could deduce that the Earth was round and closely estimate its circumference.  Or how we know what powers the sun and all the stars although we will never venture into their interiors.  Or how we know other galaxies are billions of light years away from us.  All of these things we know to be true without being able to bring them into the lab or replicate them.  Hooray for historical inferential and deductive science!

In an ideal world, students entering evolution classes would already bring with them a rich exposure to the scientific method across a variety of disciplines.  Think; hypothesize; predict; test – and repeat – in biology, chemistry, and physics.  Then the Ham’s of the world could find no purchase for their farcical distinctions between types of science. My previous post for why debates on evolution versus creationism are good would be vitiated.  Such encounters would become be as silly as debating whether chemistry is true, and evolutionary biology would take its rightful and wholly non-controversial place as just another way to understand the universe around us (and perhaps for an impressionable sophomore, one more window into the mind of God?).

UP NEXT: Can evolution and God coexist?  Yes.

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Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.

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