Saturday, September 8, 2012

Hand of God, hand of Darwin

Too often high school biology teachers take the soft way out when confronting challenges in the classroom.

"Science and religion answer different questions."

This is more convenient than true. How humans came to be is a religious question. It's also a science question. Trying to placate a student by insisting otherwise diminishes science, religion, and your student. If you think guiding a child's grasp of the natural world matters, then teach science.

If you think convenience matters more, get out of the classroom.

We have Disneyfied Darwin. (To be fair, we have a habit of sanitizing just about all the great thinkers in history.)

Darwin did not come up with the idea of evolution any more than Newton discovered gravity or Columbus proved the world is round.

Darwin's genius, the reason Darwin's ideas are so powerful and frightening, is this: once life was here (for whatever reason),  natural selection is sufficient to explain how humans (or any other organism alive today) came to be.

If natural selection is sufficient, then the Hand of God becomes superfluous. Not wrong, of course, and certainly not falsifiable--the supernaturalists will always have that edge over science--but folks get understandably peeved when the Almighty becomes a footnote.

If you're a 15 year old child with a firm belief in the omnipotence of a creator, and you get even an inkling of the repercussions of Darwin's concept of natural selection, you're going to feel like someone just ripped your world apart.

Because someone just did.

So, yes, science doesn't have much to say about whether God's Hand directed the traffic of evolution--it's no longer an interesting scientific question. Most of my students, like the vast majority of adults, do not get this. Heck, most people who "believe in" evolution don't get this, either.

It's easy to hide in this cloud of ignorance, to pretend science and religion serve different masters. I suspect many biology teachers (who, for the most part, are not biologists), do not themselves have a deep understanding of the repercussions of natural selection.

If Darwin was right, humans were not inevitable. That can be profoundly disturbing to a sophomore high school student.

I know it's disturbing to at least one 53 year old science teacher....
Michelangelo drew those hands, of course....


Mark Hammond said...

Profoundly disturbing, yes. But also exhilarating, puzzling, fascinating... all the things that make me want to be a scientist.

Self Replicate said...

I'm not sure how scientists feel about Tyson, the post-Sagan people's scientist, but this is the best story I've heard to ~abosrb the relationship between...the things mentioned in your post.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: The Perimeter of Ignorance (30min)

doyle said...

Dear Mark,

Absolutely! But until we meet the disturbing part head on, we're going to continue to create a nation of magical thinkers.

Dear Self Replicate,

Thanks for the link!

John T. Spencer said...

We've Disneyfied him, true. But we've done that to all scientists. We've made the subject boring and safe, which are two things it should never be.

I was called out by another teacher this week, because the way I teach science is too "messy" and because I didn't start with lessons on safety goggles and lab rules.

My God, I just wanted them to learn to look and to listen and to ask.

doyle said...

Dear John,

I could live with boring and safe if it were still possible to convey the profound implications of evolution.

Impossible.Life is messy.

(Ah, the safety thing--every year I debate starting off with a lab on the first day, and every year I back off. I'm not sure the kids get as much out of formal safety training as they do from my 1,046 prompts every day we're in the lab....)

John T. Spencer said...

Your labs have the potential to get dangerous. Mine very seldom do. Chaotic, sometimes. Messy, often. Not pretty for sure. But only seldom is there the element of danger when I teach science.

Jeffrey Michals-Brown said...

I agree that natural selection is a universe-shattering idea. (One of the prominent creationist organizations, the Discovery Institute, wants to overturn evolution not because it's false, but because they believe it has bad consequences for society.)

Stephen J Gould spoke of science and religion as "non-overlapping magisteria" (ahh..what aay with words!).* I've taught it that way myself, saying that any WHY question (that isn't really a HOW question in disguise) is not answerable by science. These are often questions of meaning, beauty, right and wrong, or the nature of knowledge. Kenneth Miller (Finding Darwin's God), on the other hand, thinks religion is untenable WITHOUT science, since he thinks only the uncertainties of quantum physics release religion from the tyranny of a deterministic universe (though he's a cell biologist, not a physicist). (And I do hope I'm not oversimplifying Ken Miller's ideas too much.)

As far as evolution not being Darwin's idea, Loren Eiseley (Darwin's Century) found the idea all over the place, while Ernst Mayer (The Growth of Biological Thought) shows that, though many seemed a hair's-breadth from natural selection (Charles Lyell had all the pieces virtually in place), only Darwin (and Wallace) were free enough from the predjudices of their age (mainly platonism and hard uniformatarianism) to put the whole thing together.

*(Later remarks imply he may have been insincere, andd only trying to keep the peace.)

Jeffrey Michals-Brown said...

SR, Thanks for that Neil DeGrasse Tyson talk! I like his nutshell: "Intelligent design, while real in the history of science, nonetheless a philosphy of ignorance."
" is a philosophy of discovery; intelligent design is a philosopy of ignorance." And "when you bask in the mystery of God, diacovery stops." (He blames this attitude for prematurely ending, for example, Newton's discoveries in celestial mechanics.)

Anonymous said...

Descent with modification is extremely well established. On the other hand, significant issues confront us with the upper and lower reaches of life. For now I'll focus on the lowest level. At the bottom end, even the simplest cell is so complex that some scientist who have run the numbers, such a Fred Hoyle have come to the conclusion that there hasn't been enough time for life to have emerged by chance on Earth. Such considerations have given rise to the notion that perhaps spores from outer space were the source of life on Earth. For my part, I find agree with the physicists (my subject) who've noted that the universe seems to have been finely tuned for the emergence of life, and sentient life at that! You may wish to take a look at DARWIN'S BLACK BOX or THE EDGE OF EVOLUTION by Michael Behe.


Mark Antley, MA, MS