Evolution, Education and Culture: a solution?

Opposition to evolution is cultural. It isn’t because people are laying awake at night worrying about gaps in the fossil record.

          Michael Ruse

How does this opposition persist and spread in our culture? A new paper in PLoS Biology documents the fact that our public school biology teachers play a significant role. A national survey of high school biology teachers found that about one sixth of them are young earth creationists. Of the remaining 5 sixths, most are in a large muddled middle. I recall another survey (but not the reference) that defined creationists more broadly and more correctly than just YEC’s and found that about one third of science teachers are creationists.

After looking at numerous correlations, the paper concludes

Our study suggests that requiring all teachers to complete a course in evolutionary biology would have a substantial impact on the emphasis on evolution and its centrality in high school biology courses. In the long run, the impact of such a change could have a more far reaching effect than the victories in courts and in state governments.

Is this correct? And what other measures might be effective?

There is an unsurprising correlation between having completed a course in evolution and both agreeing with it and doing a good job of teaching it. However, those teachers who took a college course in the subject may have been required to do so for certification, or may have been self selected persons predisposed to accept and teach evolution. (A few may be determined to learn evolution the better to undermine it.) A survey correlation between a treatment and a self selected group does not guarantee a correlation between the treatment and a random group. And stronger certification requirements but the same salary might just lead to more uncertified teachers. Come the first day of school, the principal has to get someone to stand up in front of the class. Raising teacher’s salaries may be the simplest way to improve results overall.

Three Questions:

  • If we want teachers to have a course in evolution, what sort of course is best?
  • Are there key groups other than teachers on which to focus educational effort?
  • If opposition to evolution is cultural, what specific steps should be taken?

I’m going to leave the first question to commenters, and offer a surprising answer to the other two:

Explain the matter to pastors!

Many people see clergy as experts on all things mysterious, and the workings of nature are mysterious to many. Clergy for their part want to explain things as well as they can. Over 11,000 individual clergy and some whole denominations have already joined the Clergy Letter Project. I’m sure many others would but for the fact that they too are products of our schools and our culture and are rather unclear on how nature works. How might one explain the matter to clergy? What would get their attention in the first place? This is where creationism comes in handy. Creationism makes religion look dumb and dishonest. If you start by saying to clergy or indeed to anyone “Creationism makes religion look dumb and dishonest”, you have a chance to get a conversation started. Of course you have to be able to follow up and explain why creationism makes religion look dumb and dishonest. Thanks to Ben Stein it’s now easier than ever. Creationism is also rather unattractive theologically. The God of creationism has to be constantly tinkering behind the scenes because nature supposedly isn’t good enough. At best it is God of the gaps, and if you follow the gap arguments of scientific creationists like Behe God is directly responsible for terrible diseases.

What of evolution? Life on earth evolved over a very long time. Evolutionary processes are plainly going on still. Unless chemistry and physics were radically different in the past, these same evolutionary processes must have occurred then too. Just as with evolution in the present, there is no basis for thinking an intelligent agent modified the course of evolution in the past unless specific evidence is found for this. None has been found, so from a theological perspective the evidence indicates that natural evolution is God’s method.