Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Moving on up!

We start evolution soon.

I've already had enlightening literature left on my desk:

If you reject Jesus, your Creator, that will be your worst mistake ever! You'll be in the lake of fire with billions of others who believe we evolved from monkeys.

I never tell anyone we evolved from monkeys, because it's simply not true. Half of teaching descent with modification is unteaching the nonsense people already believe. I'm not talking about religion; I'm talking about bad science.

Again, I will start with a seemingly simple question: which is more evolved, a sophomore high school student or an earthworm?

It's a trick question--humans and worms have been descending from a common ancestor for a long time now, but neither holds an advantage in time.

I suppose the correct answer would be that neither is more evolved than the other. Since earthworms have had more generations to evolve, though, I'll give the edge to them this year.

That will go over well at dinner--"Mom, Dr. D says earthworms are more evolved than you are."


Our universes collided yesterday, human and earthworm. I was doing a human thing, diverting water using my brains, my fingers, and my credit card. The earthworm was doing its thing, munching through soil, warmed by the composting earth I just dug up to bury a discharge pipe.

Which of us is better adapted for its environment? Which of us will successfully reproduce ten thousand more generations?


The mysterious appearance of Moving On Up, as creepy as it is, does have a bright side--at least a few of my students will be unusually attentive, looking for chinks in my armor.

Hey, they're only 15 years old--there's hope.

I fear more for my students who believe in evolution, and try to rise to my defense when the monkey muckers start tossing pamphlets at me. Their smug acceptance of a theory they do not yet grasp is ultimately more dangerous.

The heart of Darwin's work, the dark and terrible beauty that makes On the Origin of Species such a powerful work, is the overwhelming evidence that natural selection is sufficient to explain speciation from common ancestors.

Chance variations in heritable characteristics separated me from the earthorm, both of us from a common ancestor, both of us now reasonably suited for our respective habitats.

When you grasp this, your universe shifts.

Best I can hope for now is to expose my kids to the evidence, and at least keep monkeys out of the equation.

I don't need believers. I need skeptics.

Maybe I'll even shift a universe or two.


halpey1 said...

Wow, you've got this kindergarten teacher's head SPINNING... so for that, thank you. :)

I'm not exactly sure what you believe/teach though... it sounds like you are dismissive of both sides so I'm a little confused.

doyle said...

Dear halpey1,

Head spinning is good.

I am not dismissive of evolution per se--it is a marvelous theory,and holds biology together in a wonderfully coherent way.

I am dismissive, though, of "both sides"--science is not about taking sides. While scientists debate models all the time, the essence of the debate gets down to what models best explain observable phenomena.

There is no need to "believe in" evolution. It is not a belief system. It is a well-constructed theory, and it works.

While natural selection is not particularly difficult to grasp, huge periods of time are. I fear that many people who believe in evolution know about as much of it as falsely described by Jack Chick in his fear-mongering pamphlets.

I teach the theory of evolution as best I can to high school sophomores, many of whom have little concept of what 1000 means, never mind millions or billions. The heart of the theory is natural selection. In my classes, we focus on what natural selection means (and also what it does not mean).

Thanks for your words!

KCL said...

My husband and I were watching the science channel the other day. The particular show was about a evolutionary biologist, gently moving through some jungle, looking for insects that were the epitome of beauty, biomimicry, and grace. We do not "believe" in creationism. Now that you've challenged, wonderfully, the word choice of "believe," you have articulated the essence of what we hold valuable and important in our household. The point of mentioning the young,earnest, scientist moving through steamy leaf jungle soup, looking for bugs, is we were in awe of the amount of time, passion, and knowledge-seeking that goes into looking for scientific facts/truths/meaning. We were wondering if any creationists ever got off their fannies and walked through the jungle seeking such truth, or do they sit on their brains and take what's served to them? We all have colleagues who "believe" in creationism, and that the world began 6,000 years ago, and while I am horrified that they are educators, I've had to come to terms with it (although still struggling). The terms are I need to be tolerant of the pamphlet-tossers. They do not enjoy skeptism we critical thinkers do. It is a blessing and a curse, I guess. These are the same colleagues that teach day by day, direct instruction, from the textbook, never varying from script(ure). I think is there are other forces at work for our little blue planet, the small thinking embarrasses "them." But what do I know?

doyle said...

Dear KCL,

I suppose there's some reassurance in certainty, and critical thinking can be a double-edged sword in a culture that rewards mindlessness.

Critical thinking got Socrates and The Christ killed.

Still, to be fair to many of the Creationists, many of them do walk outside in the wilderness, marveling at the world, and for them, attributing such profound beauty to natural selection is unimaginable. (I think it was Wendell Berry who noted that the Bible makes a whole lot more sense when read outdoors, and I agree with that.)

Faith can withstand skepticism--if there's no skepticism, there's no true faith. Accepting dogma without thinking requires no leap.

Small thinking is a problem in all disciplines.

I apologize for rambling--your thoughtful reply has my brain rumbling.

KCL said...

That's the blessing and the curse bit.

My faith comes from exactly what you said - faith can withstand skeptism. It's those who cannot tolerate it that gum up the spirit.

All of this is my opinion. As I said, 'what do I know?'

Love the conversation - ! - it's a pleasure to read and consider your thoughts. Thank you!

JoeVol said...


First, apologies for my links not working. Getrealscience is bugged down or something. I'm working on it.

Second, right on with this post. I was always very careful with the use of the word "believe" when I was talking about anything in science with my kids. It's a Powerful word. Having said that, I also worry about us not arguing at a strong enough level for things that science does tenuously "know". It's a big tension in science, and the fact that you're even addressing it with your kids means you're doing great work.

Keep it up.

doyle said...

Dear JoeVol,

I wrestle with that "big tension" daily.

It's tempting to teach some things as dogma, especially given the corrupt public discourse going on that passes itself off as "debate." It would certainly make teaching easier for both me and the students.

I get especially disheartened when my perceived lack of "beliefs" in central tenets of modern science get misinterpreted as some sort of code for being a closet fundamentalist.

This much I do believe--thinking, rational adults (as few as they may be) will come to accept these tenets as well, on their own, without my help.

My job is to get my lambs to mature into thinking, rational adults.

(I must confess there are days I want to jump up and scream Look at the bloody evidence, the world is older than 6000 years!, but it won't change any opinions now, and may keep opinions from changing later.)

I'm open to advice.