School Boards Call For Creationism? Well, by Darwin, Let 'em Have It

Trinity Reporter (Winter 2006)

School boards and politicians, including the President of the United States, are clamoring for public schools to teach "intelligent design" together with Darwinian evolution so students may hear "both sides." Mainstream scientists strongly oppose teaching religious ideas disguised as science and argue that there is no scientific controversy. As a mainstream scientist and educator, I understand that there really isn't a second side; that alternatives to evolution have repeatedly failed the tests of science. However, that doesn't mean there is no controversy - and those failing to understand this point are missing an educational opportunity.

The recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life found that 64% of Americans favor teaching creationism along with evolution, and 38% even want to replace evolution with creationism. Clearly, in a society where surveys have consistently shown that a majority of Americans believe humans are in some fundamental way different from, and ascendant over, other animals, children are continually exposed to creationist challenges to basic science long before they even get to school. Where then, if not in the public schools, will there be an opportunity to confront and debunk pseudoscientific notions that will otherwise persist into adulthood? Herein lies an educational opportunity that should be embraced, not rejected, by scientists and teachers.

Mainstream scientists routinely argue that creationism (or its recent incarnation as "intelligent design") is religion - which, indeed, it is - and that religion has no place in a science classroom. There is ample precedent, however, for addressing faith-based hypotheses in the public school science curriculum. Consider Ptolemy's epicycles. Virtually every physics or physical science text I know of that discusses the structure of the solar system begins with the erroneous geocentric hypothesis that the Sun and other planets revolve around the Earth in small circular motions conjoined with larger circular orbits. Why circles? Because the Church believed that a perfect deity demands a perfect geometric figure (a circle) for planetary motion. The argument was simply a version of "intelligent design" applied to physics and astronomy, yet mainstream scientists do not object to its inclusion because in a properly taught science class the instructor will soon enough present the correct picture of a heliocentric system with elliptical planetary orbits governed by Newton's laws of motion and gravity.

Similarly, to discuss creationism alongside of evolution does not have to mean distributing propaganda provided by creationist organizations. Rather, teachers can guide students through the process of evaluating scientific and pseudoscientific ways of understanding the development of living organisms and demonstrate by force of evidence that only real science provides an empirically testable self-consistent explanation. In numerous resources outside the expurgated textbooks chosen by school boards, there are endless examples that teachers can use to show that evolution is a fact and that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

That biology is not ordinarily taught this way in the U.S. is due less to resistance by creationists than to the deplorable unpreparedness of many teachers and the mad pace and shallow content that parents increasingly demand of their schools' science curriculum.

To teach any science well, so that students accept the basic principles as part of their core convictions, requires two things: well-prepared teachers and adequate time. A well-prepared biology teacher is more likely to have a bachelors or masters degree in biology than a degree in general education, and substantial exposure to chemistry and physics. Such a teacher will have the confidence to handle the difficult, and sometimes hostile, questions that students may pose regarding evolution. Anyone wishing to teach biology competently must be prepared to undergo this rigorous training. But adequate training will be of little use if teachers are expected to race through an overloaded course curriculum designed primarily for students to take multiple-choice standardized tests for college entrance and advanced-placement credit. A transient memory of biological factoids is little better than not having studied biology at all. Far better is a biology class that, through unhurried pertinent comparisons, shows students how the science underlying evolution accounts in myriad ways for the complexity and diversity of living organisms, whereas the pseudoscience of creationism always leads to the same barren conclusion: the invocation of a supernatural agent.

The matter of how (or even whether) evolution is taught in U.S. schools has ramifications beyond the classroom. The evolution of living organisms on Earth is only a small part of an overall cosmic evolution whose features physicists have been elucidating in ever greater detail. Observations reaching farther and farther back in time reveal a universe that has always operated according to impersonal physical laws without design or guidance from any supernatural agent. This is not a message creationists want to hear. But for the sake of humanity's future it is a message every human being needs to know, for its import is this: Humans are but one of many kinds of organisms that share the living space on a finite planet. Nothing "out there" is looking after their well-being. And if, through carelessness, greed, and stupidity, they irretrievably damage the one place in the cosmos where they evolved and can live, then, like any other unfit species, they will go extinct.

About the author

Mark P. Silverman is Jarvis Professor of Physics at Trinity College. He wrote of his investigations of light, electrons, nuclei, and atoms in his books Waves and Grains: Reflections on Light and Learning (Princeton, 1998), Probing the Atom (Princeton, 2000), and A Universe of Atoms, An Atom in the Universe (Springer, 2002). His latest book Quantum Superposition (Springer, 2008) elucidates principles underlying the strange, counterintuitive behaviour of quantum systems.