Anthony B. Wight
Creation myths and stories—the mineral-rich bedrock of religious thought—offer explanations for the origins of human life as experienced by the peoples from whom the myths developed. Whether serendipitous act, Supreme Intelligence, godly conflicts, or other “first cause” is identified in the myths, they have in common the attempt to explain human interactions and foibles, interdependence and relationships among living things, relation of life to earth, or purposes of life. The heart of religion is searching for meaning and in this quest curiosity about what came before as well as what might follow is often addressed.
In biology, evolution is often presented historically as an idea or concept which gradually replaced the early 19th-century concept of a “static” creation in which not much had changed since “the beginning.” Geological evidence accumulated during the 18th and 19th centuries to such an extent that scientists became convinced Earth had a very long history of changes. Examination of the evidence for physical changes of the earth revealed forms of life that were no longer existent. None of the present life forms had been on the earth throughout its entire history and human beings seemed to be newcomers to a comparatively very old planet.
It is commonly believed that science and biblical (revealed) religion have always been at war with each other. Such belief is not supported by historical study. Western science and religion went hand-in-hand in the reading of earth’s history for centuries. The static view of the world had been the commonly accepted interpretation of both the physical data and the biblical creation story. It is reasonable to venture that science did not advance until scientists overcame their religious assumptions and viewed evidence from a new perspective.
Perhaps, surprisingly, biblical imagery—an orderly creation by a dependable, consistent God—was one factor that freed the reins of science and gave a strong push toward development of understanding of the natural world. In a world which religion had proclaimed both “good” and the product of Supreme Intelligence, observation, measurement, description, and prediction were both possible and necessary. Galileo, a devout Christian, is reputed to have said that the Bible “taught how to go to heaven” but science explained “how the heavens go.” (Of course, it must be noted that Galileo spent the last years of his life under virtual house arrest because he refused the Roman Catholic Pope’s demand that he repudiate his observations of the orbits of planets about the sun, in contradiction to official church doctrine that the earth is the center of the universe. It was not until the early 1980s, 300 years after Galileo’s death, that the Roman Church officially acknowledged modern science by quietly publishing an edict pardoning Galileo!)
Even in Darwin’s time, many religious believers accepted evidence for great changes over long periods of geological time without losing faith that such changes were ultimately the work of a Supreme Being. They were comfortable with separating questions of when new forms of life appeared from questions of how this happened. “the modern picture of how life changed over time was developed by geologists who believed in divine creation. The geologic column and the basic facts of fossil succession were established in science (and accepted by most theologians) by about 1840, some twenty years before Darwin proposed a mechanism to explain how such changes had taken place.”
Human interest in evolution had always been more complex than simply the opposition of scientific versus religious viewpoints. As legal historian Edward J. Larson had pointed out, science teachers deal not so much with science itself but with “public science”—a compromise between scientific thought and public policy which has a complicated history.
After the famous Scopes trial during 1925 in Tennessee, evolution nearly disappeared from American high school textbooks, reappearing only after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957.
Sensing an urgent need for improved mathematics and science education, the federal government funded a variety of curriculum development projects including the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS). Several high school biology texts produced by BSCS were integrated around evolutionary concepts. BSCS has kept up with the explosive growth of information and ideas in biology since the first publications and its sixth edition of
Biological Science — A Molecular Approach
published in 1990 offers an exceptionally thorough treatment of current biological concepts for advanced high school students. Although evolution remains a key organizing concept, the latest text has been broadened to include among its unifying themes diversity, genetic continuity, environment, science and society, history of biological concepts, and science as inquiry. This text is most highly recommended for students studying topics in genetics and the unfolding of evolutionary thinking.
Even with the virtually universal acceptance by scientists of evolutionary theory and the publication of highly acclaimed, authoritative, and clearly explained texts such as the BSCS editions, there is still some lingering controversy over human origins and evolutionary development in the realm of “public science,” which is, after all, where we all teach. Within the last two decades dedicated, well-organized groups have promoted the teaching of “creationism” or “creation-science”—perhaps the best example of “pseudoscience” since the Midas and the alchemists. Numerous court battles have been waged in attempts to promote “theories of creation” as deserving of equal time with theories of evolution in science classrooms. In every case, culminating in 1990 with the U.S. Supreme Court decision
Edwards v. Aguillard
, the creationists have been defeated, primarily because creation concepts do not fit the fundamental definition of science which holds that theory derives from data collected through observation and experimentation.
Every step of the scientific process must be open to scrutiny, review and reproducibility of results. As the old joke goes, “God never secured tenure among the scientific community because He or She performed an experiment which no one has been able to repeat, peers could not be found to review the work, and He or She only published one book!”
As teachers of diverse middle and high school students, we must recognize that we are treading on fascinating but tender ground when we raise questions about human origins. In the world of public science, integrity of our scientific training demands that we teach that scientists defend evolution because they regard it as a key biological concept. Meanwhile, many American citizens cherish creation as a basic religious doctrine or concept. Direct conflict between these concepts or world views can erupt at any time in discussion or can underlie a student’s responses in writing. Integrity to our overlap pedagogical training demands that we be sensitive to our students’ wrestling with a controversy—at whatever level it grasps them. I urge teachers to “seize the opportunity,” however it presents itself, to move students along in their understanding of the concepts and in their sensitivity to how they and their classmates feel about the nuances and implications of various theories and ideas. Standard techniques for guiding classroom discussion will be helpful: a brief review of seven suggestions focused on evolution has been prepared by the American Scientific Affiliation and may prove a valuable teaching resource for this unit.