Saturday, October 17, 2009

Teaching the controversy

Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection almost 150 years ago. Most people who debate its merits have never read it, and here in the States, his work has been reduced to whether one "believes in" evolution, as though it falls in the same category as astrology, elves, and Santa Claus.

To understand Darwin's work, you need to understand his reluctance to acknowledge his own conclusions. Evolution per se was not the difficult part--heck, Darwin's grandfather Erasmus published that decades before Darwin's work, and it wasn't original then.

If you grasp why Darwin was so torn by his own words, then you get the controversy.


We make connections, even (or maybe especially) when we're children. The universe revolves each of us.

Rally caps, inside-out pajamas, horoscopes, and sidewalk cracks--all have power. We spend our time living in supernatural universes that do not yet (nor ever will) exist.

Starfish were designed to eat clams, alas....

We look at creatures, and of course they were designed--the dolphin has flippers to swim, the bee has a stinger to sting, humans have brains to think and thumbs to grasp tools. Every species alive today fits very neatly in its niche, as though designed just to do so.

Any child paying attention can reasonably conclude that organisms as complex as lightning bugs and robins and catfish were designed to be a part of the world, a specific part of the world.

That much is true. No matter what side you fall on, critters are obviously designed for their environments.

You can know this and not believe in the supernatural.


The crux of Darwin's theory, the crux of the controversy, is this--natural selection reasonably and completely explains the diversity of life here on Earth.

This upset Darwin. It upsets a lot of people. It's a big deal.

You cannot fully explain Darwin's importance if you do not understand what the fuss is all about. Most of my students enter their sophomore year believing that Darwin formulated the theory or evolution.

He did not.

He developed a reasonable explanation for the diversity of species through natural selection alone. Others had similar ideas, but his work was cogent, concise, and readable.

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection reads as though it was written by a man trying very hard to convince himself he was mistaken, but failed to break through the chains of rational thought. The man Darwin was trying to convince was himself.

The theory of evolution removes the need for any other explanation for the diversity of life here--supernatural or otherwise. It requires no further layers to explain how species form.


On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection does not, however, preclude a Creator. It does not explain how life began, nor makes any attempt to do so.

One of the first people to read the book was the Reverend Charles Kingley, a writer and a Protestant priest, who sent a note to Darwin congratulating him on his treatise. In the letter the Rev. Kinsley noted:

I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful pro tempore and pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He Himself had made. I question whether the former be not the loftier thought.


As for the "controversy," the attempt by a few folks with a perverse interpretation of the Gospels to create a scientific curriculum that includes Intelligent Design, well, I present the thrust of their argument--that organisms clearly designed for their environment require some sort of intelligence behind the design--without presenting their motives.

It's the way my sophomores think anyway--they're still children. Heck, it's how we all think.

The whole point of Darwin's work is that it demolishes the need for a designer. The Intelligent Design hypothesis is not a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution--it is that very idea that Darwin destroys in his book.

Calling Intelligent Design a scientific alternative to evolution is like recognizing the Flat Earth Society as a reasonable alternative to a round Earth.

I wish Darwin was wrong. I wish Santa Claus still brought me presents. I wish people would start thinking.

And I still wish upon stars....just not in science class.

*Even more important, you can know this, believe in the supernatural, and still accept,
indeed embrace, the theory of evolution, without any appeal to the supernatural.

Oh, my thoughts on a Creator? On cosmological origins? On energy? On mass? All great mysteries.
Let the mystery be--once you try to explain a mystery to me, you're no longer dealing with a mystery but a myth.


John Spencer said...

"Rally caps, inside-out pajamas, horoscopes, and sidewalk cracks--all have power."

One of the best written pieces of prose I've ever read. I realize we sometimes venture into the Unknown on our blogs and I wonder if that's where we might differ. What strikes me, though, is how similar we view our world.

Can I add to your list of magical talisman, a few from the ed-world: a shirt and tie, a lesson plan format, a pyramid of interventions.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you should read this article by particle physicist Martin Counihan for some balanced perspective...

doyle said...

Dear anonymous,

Ah, yes, the anonymous "some balanced perspective" arguing that evolution must be "progressive" and therefore must have some design....

I like the article, not because I agree with it, but because it highlights some misconceptions.

The thrust of the argument is that evolution must be progressive, contrary to Darwin's hypothesis (as opposed to today's version of evolution by some biologists), and this leaves open the possibility of a Christian progressive evolution.

It cannot be overstated that Darwinism, in the sense of non-progressivism, is not a necessary feature of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

It cannot be overstated that "progressivism" (in the sense that we are headed to a higher being) is not a necessary feature--that is indeed the point. You do not need a particular goal for evolution to work--natural selection explains how populations become more fit for their environment. We still progress in the sense that refinements and changes are made through time, but not in the sense of some pre-determined destiny.

Science is all about developing reasonable mechanisms based on observations of the natural world.

As for your belief (I am presuming you accept the tenets of the article, but who knows, the monicker "anonymous" gives folks slippery powers) that Christianity requires some march towards a higher cosmological existence, well, the Gospels do not address this.

I'd be glad to discuss either the Gospels or evolution--trying to dismantle evolution by appealing to the words of The Christ, however, is an exercise in conceit.

doyle said...

Dear John,

I realized after responding to Mr. (or maybe Ms.) Anonymous that I had not responded to your kind words.

Our similar world view does not surprise me--you are a careful reader, and a thoughtful one. The Gospels are not easy, but they are not complicated, either. Might say the same for On the Origin of Species....

Lee said...

Thanks so much for this post. I'm trying to learn to talk and write about this issue with grace and clarity, and I so appreciated your tone here. It's such a tough issue, and it's so easy for our words to be land mines that others step on. You didn't do that in your post. You were thoughtful and inviting, honest and intriguing.

doyle said...

Dear Lee,

Thank you kindly for your words--it's rare that published authors poke around here, rare when professors do. It's a nice boost.

High school science teachers are tackling this as well as we can, but it's amazing how misunderstood Darwin's ideas are even among science teachers. Do you ever have students yelling "Jesus!" in the middle of class when a student starts to get uncomfortable with new ideas?

(It would help many of my students if they knew my beliefs outside of science, but it would hurt others. It's certainly not my place in the science classroom to chase the unobservable. We do, however, have a leprechaun wandering around class, a mythical student made up during the first week. The scary thing is that our mythical leprechaun may becoming real for a few of my kids.)

Lee said...

Doyle: You're kind, but I'm probably not your typical professor and author. Most of my work is spent teaching teachers, and I love being with and hearing from science teachers. If I had all of my choices in the world, I'd be back teaching high school in a flash.

I haven't had the "Jesus"-yelling student, but I can certainly imagine that happening. I grew up in a small town in Mississippi, and I was raised in Christian fundamentalism. I know the beauty of that world, but I also know the mean-spirited side of fundamentalism as well.

I got to hear Ken Miller speak last week at my university. I watched him field questions from close-minded people on both ends of the spectrum (religious and anti-religious). I don't know if you've ever heard him speak, but I was so impressed with his graciousness. He's making me think hard about how best to respond to kids like the one you mentioned. (See if you want to know more.)