Thursday, February 12, 2015

Happy Darwin Day

Today is the 206th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. It is also the 206th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, but this post is about American opinion with respect to evolution. It is based on a report from the Pew Research Center.

A solid majority (64%) of white evangelicals in a 2013 poll said that humans and other living things have always existed in their present form, while only 27% said that humans evolved. These views are largely mirrored by the positions of large evangelical churches, such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which explicitly reject evolutionary theory as being in conflict with what they see as biblical truth.
 Let me distinguish two situations:

  1. Someone understands the theory of evolution reasonably well, understands that the vast majority of scientists accept evolution as real, but knows also that the leaders of the religion to which he belongs reject the theory of evolution. That person feels that his faith in his religion requires that he believe its view of creation.
  2. Someone does not understand the theory of evolution, has little idea of the evidence that supports the theory, and thinks that scientists are divided on the validity of evolution. The person knows also that the leaders of the religion to which he belongs reject the theory of evolution. That person accepts the view of the leaders of his religion, and believe the religion's dogma on creation.
I much prefer people who correspond to situation one. Such a person has accurate knowledge of the theory and its acceptance by the scientific community and simply chooses not to "believe" in it.

As to the teaching of evolution and its alternatives, I quote again:
In spite of efforts in many American states and localities to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools or to teach alternatives to evolution, courts in recent decades have consistently rejected public school curricula that veer away from evolutionary theory. In Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), for instance, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Louisiana law requiring public school students to learn both evolution and “creation science” violated the Constitution’s prohibition on the establishment of religion.

Clearly appropriate science courses in the USA should teach evolution. That is the law. It is also the consensus of the vast majority of scientists as to what should be taught as science. Indeed, it is a basis for understanding much of biological science.

Private schools run by religious organizations can of course include courses on the dogma of their religion.

I also see a role to have courses on teaching "information literacy" -- the skill of discerning the credibility of information that one encounters from different sources. The evolution-creationism situation seems tailor made for getting students to think seriously about in what sense scientific theories are credible and in what sense religious teachings are credible. Unfortunately, I doubt that many K-12 teachers are capable of teaching such a complex topic well.

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