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“Sir, I Don’t Believe in Evolution.” Creation in the classroom II.

Michael Reiss has resigned from the Royal Society.  This <- article does explain what he said he meant. Richard Dawkins, yesterday , in a letter to New Scientist, thinking the ‘resignation’ a bit harsh, also helped to clarify what Reiss meant.  Though all this is not necessary because the notes of Reiss speech is available online.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, didn’t want creationism/ID taught science classes.  Reiss wasn’t asking for it to be taught, merely discussed. But to discuss it properly  requires a set of bigger questions to be asked such as  What is Science?

Evolution vs. Creation is definitely a minority sport.  I’ve always found it fascinating: but there has always been a tug between nailing it again and moving on: the feeling that the time could be better spent on other more important things.

Is it an intriguing debate but does it really matter to society as a whole? Try to imagine a world without Darwin’s theory (well it is in fact in a way because so few people have any idea what it is…) and the subsequent science which underpins it like genetics and the discovery of DNA.  Would it make life any better?  Apart from undermining an existing paradigm, God,  what from knowing that life is a continuum and that one species derives from another  do we get out of it? Or what about no evolutionary theory but a lot known, from Mendel’s peas onwards, about genetics.  At least genetics has had a obvious practical effect. And I would suggest the simplest starting point for arguing the case for evolution. We cannot deny we breed and pass on our genes. Recombination at gametogenesis, all that stuff.  The simple observation that you and I represent a continuous line of successful breeding – not a single break in the transfer of genes – since the first man (even if you don’t want to go back and further) is pretty impressive.

If the science teacher was to venture into this minefield in class its seems a  wise strategy, first, for the doubting student to be asked what it is particularly about evolution he or she doesn’t believe or is unhappy about – the old working from the known to the unknown, which is the cornerstone of teaching. It might be confusion or lack of understanding over origins of life and the origin of species.

It is clear where a big problem lies in the classroom: the student going home to tell parent science teacher was proselytizing for evolutionary theory.

The last post was provoked by Reiss’s suggestion that creationism might be discussed in science lessons and because i have encountered a few students who were prepared to say they didn’t believe in evolution.  They were probably Jehovah’s Witnesses. Possibly Muslims. I can’t remember what I told them. Probably because it was revision time in Year 12, only a few weeks before exams, that if they wanted to pass the exam they’d have to know the facts!

Having read a bit more from the web, it is clear that the biology teacher has to be prepared well for the question, even though it won’t come up very often in British classrooms.  For example: the fundamentalist Christian approach is different in places from the Witnesses, and both might well be different from any Muslim objections:  so lump them all under anti-evolution won’t do if you don’t want to upset someone unnecessarily.

The title of that post hints at my typically British attitude: biology  teacher has quick chat with the unbelievers and moves swiftly on.  In practice, there is no time in a hectic teaching schedule to idly stand around discussing this subject, which if teased out to its fuzzy horizons would encompass everything from what truth is, what science is,  religion,  theology, the philosophy of belief, history, sociology, politics, Uncle Tom Cobley ‘n All.

In the States, the problem of the resurgence of creationism/ID has been seen by the American science teaching profession as a serious threat for some time. How seriously they take the anti-science movement can be seen from the existence of books like Defending Evolution in the Classroom by Brian J and Susan Alters, published in 2001(of which there are a few pages in GoogleBook including the complete forward by the late Stephen Jay Gould.) Then there is: Case Teaching Notes for “Equal Time for Intelligent Design?  An Intimate Debate Case” (with undergraduates in mind) by Clyde Freeman Herreid, Department of Biological Sciences, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Note the  mention of the fallacy of “false dichotomy”. SEE wiki:false dilemmaBlack-or-White Fallacy.  Also useful portion of GoogleBook, Evolution Vs. Creationism by Eugenie Carol Scott, published in 2005 and a website “Creation “Science” Debunked by Lenny Flank, which deals with every aspect.

This short paper does not do the detail but has some interesting points: Why Creation ‘Science’ Must Be Kept Out of the Classroom.

Creation “Science” Debunked a website by Lenny Flack ( “This website has one very clear objective in mind — to present a history of creation “science” and its latest reincarnation as Intelligent Design “theory”, and to lay bare the political and social roots of this movement.”)

Modern Creationists is a post in a website called Bad Archaeology Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews and James Doese.

There is another way to tackle this: What is going on amongst UK intellectuals on evolution vs. creationism?  We know what Dawkins, Dennett and co think. Anything else?  New Humanist covers the argument which ensured from A C Grayling’s review of Sam Fullers’ book, Dissent over Descent.

Sam Fuller was a witness at the Dover trial. Right at the bottom it tells us he is author of book called The Intelligent Person’s Guide to Intelligent Design Theory.

Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne (Guardian 1 September 2005), One Side can be Wrong, in arguing that creationism has no place in science classes, also adds that there is plenty of debate within evolution, which they outline.

There is a link to 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent

(Theobald, Douglas L. “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent.” The Talk.Origins Archive. Vers. 2.83. 2004. 12 Jan, 200)

Reading that Intelligent Design Comes to Blighty ( Or, rather came in 2006. ) I begin to think I might be totally out of touch. You can take any of those links at the bottom of the page and get a  pretty good idea of what had been going on in the last year or so.  Wiki:Truth in Science

Truth in Science looks superficially like a science site.  The About page doesn’t give too much away. Though the Paul Johnson quote in the top left panel does rather give it away:

The truth is that once you embark on Darwinian nihilism there is no resting place. If there is no point in life, everything in the end has to go — duty, laws, arts, letters, society — and you are left with nothing, except ‘proceeding’.

Paul Johnson (The Spectator, 23 April 2005)

Surely all this is at the root of what education is about? For  intelligent !6+ students to get their heads around how  Andrew MacIntosh {2} can be a  serious chemical engineer, while at the same time being a Young Earth Creationist.  I’m think along the lines of  incommensurability of values.

I’m also seeing that the latest upsurge of venom from the UK scientific community against anti-evolutionism has its roots in the  pressure brought to bear by organisations like Truth in Science.  So, in essence, in a mini version of what has been going on in the U.S. for years is beginning in the UK.  Not a lot of people know that.  Not a lot of people really know what evolution is either. A failure of the education system?  The surveys such as the one done by the BBC show a surprising  large number choosing ID.  Perhaps this is because they know little if nothing about evolutionary theory except the slogans of the anti-evolutionists. Is there such a thing as a priming of (for) ignorance?

September 17, 2008 Posted by | science | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Sir, I don’t believe in evolution” I. Intelligent Design Equal Time? No, just a quick chat on creation with the teacher

This is mainly from the UK perspective.

The classic article on this little local difficulty was Ben Bova’s anti-creationism Omni Magazine, Creationist’s Equal Time, where he wrote something along the lines of: “You can’t show pigs can fly by demonstrating that butterflies have (or was it don’t have?) wings.”

Creationism is extinct: a new species, ID, which accepts the old age of the earth, evolved in the ID 90s and 00s. Well, of course, creationism ( in its various forms*) is not extinct but ID appears to be a more powerful way of attacking evolutionary theory because it looks more scientific. Though even the key proponents admit is it politics and religion not science. Wiki:creationism* has a handy little table with the varieties of creationism. The Wiki deals with the issue broadly, including attitudes in different countries, what the Archbishop of Canterbury said, and so on.


I like this little story, reported in North Texas Skeptics (.org), under the title, Creation and Evolution at grand canyon:

A debate about the age and geological history of the Grand Canyon has escalated into a national issue in the USA after a creationist book was put on sale in the attraction’s official bookshop.

The book, Grand Canyon: A Different View, by a local trail guide, Tom Vail, claims that years of erosion had nothing to do with the canyon’s creation. Rather, its shape should be attributed to the Old Testament flood — meaning that it is only a few thousand years old.

The book’s presence in the bookshop has created a rumpus between creation-ists and evolutionists.

Geologists estimate that the 217-mile canyon in Arizona was fashioned by the Colorado river some five to six million years ago and contains some of the oldest exposed rocks on Earth.

According to a report in The Guardian newspaper, Mr Vail writes: ‘For years, as a Colorado river guide, I told people how the Grand Canyon was formed over the evolutionary timescale of millions of years. Then I met the Lord. Now I have a different view of the canyon, which according to a biblical timescale can’t possibly be more than a few thousand years old’.

The claim has prompted the American Geological Institute and seven scientific bodies to flood the National Park Service with complaints calling for the book to be removed from the shop.

The book has sold out but is being reordered, and its display has been moved from the natural sciences section to ‘inspirational reading’.

Deanne Adams, the Park Service’s chief of interpretation for the Pacific region, told The Los Angeles Times: ‘We struggle. Creationism versus science is a big issue at some places. We like to acknowledge that there are different viewpoints, but we have to stick with the science. That’s our training’.

The Grand Canyon superintendent is seeking advice from the National Park Service headquarters in Washington.

He got religion, so changed his mind. Fair enough.  You would be a bit confused if you re-visited the canyon and heard the before and after talks by the same guide.


The problem of whether science teachers teaching evolution should engage in debate in class with those  students who don’t believe in evolution, was discussed today in The Today Programme on BBC Radio 4.

This is the summary of that section of the programme on the website:

Creationism should be discussed in science lessons, according to the professor in charge of education at the Royal Society. He says that with more children coming into class who do not accept the scientific version of the history of the universe, creationism should not be treated as taboo. Professor Michael Reiss, of the Royal Society, and Dr Simon Underdown, of Oxford Brookes University, discuss whether creationism has a place in the science classroom.

Prof. Michael Reiss, director of education, Royal Society, blogged in the Guardian on the subject on 11 September 2008: Science lessons should tackle creationism and intelligent design.

He links in his post to a 5 October, 2007 Guardian article by Anthea Lipsett, Experts call for Creationism in classroom, which points out :

…. academics from the Institute of Education in London and Valdosta State University in the US say the theory of evolution should be taught as a significant part of science lessons, with room to discuss creationism.

Michael Reiss, professor of science education at the institute, and Leslie Jones, science educator at Valdosta’s biology department, have written a new book aimed at helping science teachers enter the evolution and creationism debate.

Teaching about Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism aims to help science teachers who want their students to understand the scientific position on the origins of the universe, while taking seriously and respectfully the concerns of those who do not accept evolution.

Creationism call divides Royal Society

Observer 14 September 2008

The Big Question: Why is creationism on the rise, and does it have a place in education?

Independent 12 September 2008


I pulled  a 1979 Letts Revise biology text book for O level and CSE off my shelf and found under ‘Other Theories of Evolution’:

1. Lamark [5 line explanation of the theory]

2. Biblical views (added to by theologians)   [That’s not my comment it’s the text….]

(a) The variety of organisms was special created, all at once – Bishop Usher in Victorian times put the date at 4004 B.C. Fossil evidence disproves this.

(b) Man was regarded as the supreme creation, quite separate from and ‘lord’ over all animals. Now, even the Roman Catholic  Encyclical of 1951 recognises the anmal origin of mam

(c) The ‘Creation’ was regarded as the product of a grand ‘Design’ by a ‘Designer’. Science emphasises that chance events largely  shape biological progress. Mutations and meiosis; the first meeting of your parents, and which two of theirgametes fuse to form your first cell – all events with a strong element of chance in them – these have shaped your destiny.

If the Biblical view of design of organisms for special purposes is correct, it is indeed surprising that the ‘Designer’ should have made so many mistakes (extinction) or created ahlf-way houses such as  Archaeopteryx.

A very few Christians (‘fundamentalists’) today belief the account of the origin of species exactly as it appears in the book of Genesis in the bible. However, neo-Darwinian theory is still only a theory and requires further evidence to convince some people.

Perhaps there ought to be a trawl of the text books (UK, that is) to see what is already being offered in on creation, creationism and Intelligent design.  Going by this example from an older biology text book for 14-16 year olds, there was no problem then including creation and creationism though clearly not science.  Perhaps now, with Intelligent design, which looks a bit like science, there is greater reluctance to include it.  I would be interested to learn if ID is mentioned in any up-to-date biology text books and how it is tackled. For example,  any mention of Michael Behe or irreducible complexity? If it’s there it most likely be in A Level and undergraduate books rather than those for 14-16 year olds).  If you’re not familiar with the ID argument, it’s all over the web, but this article in Natural History Mag, Intelligent Design? is a brief, clear explanation giving argument and  scientific counterargument.


How many secondary school pupils in the UK are standing up in evolution classes to express their belief in creation? 1 in 10 may not ‘believe in evolution’ but  what are they saying in the classroom?


Having been in that delicate creation-evolution position with a few 15-16 year olds, I feel strongly there should be a protocol to deal with this. The science department might put a rider into the lessons notes, a leaflet even – right at the beginning of the evolution course – explaining that some students might feel uncomfortable being taught the evidence for evolution because they do not ‘ believe in evolution.’  It could say science cannot deal with questions of belief and explain why.

( Question here of whether there ought to be a right of opt out of this part of the course…..should you have to learn about something that undermines the basis of your faith? I don’t see why they should have to. Might effect their exam results but… )

Such a preemption could mollify non-believers in evolution, to an extent, by saying the course examines the evidence for the theory of evolution – rather than say as Richard Dawkins does that the evidence is so strong it makes it a fact –  recommending the student should discuss doubts or anxieties with the religious studies teacher, who will have boned up on evolution.  There aren’t many philosophy teachers in schools.  Ideally they ought to be brought in too.

This whole process should not be see as a problem, but a way to help to enhance the explanation of what science is, and to clarify what belief is.  A brief philosophical explanation of belief (outside the science class…) would highlight the problem. I am not saying a 14-16 year old GCSE student should be expected to wade through the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on belief, but a well crafted summary would be valuable.


What is already being done in schools to help with the evolution-creation issue ?  BBC Bitesize Religious Studies.

National Curriculum for religion Keystage 3.

National Curriculum for religion Keystage 4 is pretty comprehensive in this area.

Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE) is part of the National Curriculum. Note this part of the curriculum:

As they explore similarities and differences between people and discuss social and moral dilemmas, they learn to deal with challenges and accommodate diversity in all its forms. The world is full of complex and sometimes conflicting values. Personal wellbeing helps pupils explore this complexity and reflect on and clarify their own values and attitudes. They identify and articulate feelings and emotions, learn to manage new or difficult situations positively and form and maintain effective relationships with a wide range of people.

2.1 Critical reflection

Pupils should be able to:

  • reflect critically on their own and others’ values
  • Lets face it this it the nitty gritty of education.


    Teaching evolution in schools in an an atmosphere of increasing interest in creationism is made more difficult because of a lack of framework of history or science and history of ideas at secondary level.  If these were taught as separate subjects as part of the national curriculum, to 16 and beyond outside science classes, the evolution part of the biology syllabus would not be such a shock to the system for the 1 in 10 in schools who apparently now don’t ‘belief in evolution’.

    Although there is a trend towards introducing critical thinking,  I think philosophy should be right there from the beginning. Why not begin with the history of philosophy and the history of science apart from science lessons? It is difficult to fit every subject nto the timetable, but it is quite natural for children to think along philosophical lines.  Every reasonably intelligent child begins to ask questions about concepts that are part of philosophy.  A lecture given by Patricia Churchland, Philosphy in an Age of Neuroscience, shows it ought to be explained how much science has encroached on philosophy.


    Obviously  science teachers don’t want equal time for ID because this undermines the teaching of science as whole.  Slowly, over 5-7 years, students at secondary school learn about the design of experiments, the collection of data, the distinctions between hypothesis and theory – all the rigors of the scientific method – through carrying out practical experiments. They are not going to be taught about Popper’s verisimilude, but they get a understanding of what science is and does. Even if they leave school t 16 they should come away seeing that science is a specific tool for a specific job.

    How science (here biology) is taught ought to be part of the debate about dealing with creationism and ID.  This is not mentioned.  The Nuffield Project on the 60s petered out in the 70s.  It proved too difficult to implement because it relied so much on practical work. Though the original idea was to use it for lower ability groups, its use demonstrated it could only be really useful with the higher ability children.   If you drop into science classes nowadays, you will see how tightly it is geared to exams. Textbooks are written to curricula. Hence science  becomes drier and drier, with less time for practical experiments.

    But there is talk, as here by Peter Campbell, Teaching Creation about starting from molecular biology rather than natural selection. (In fact biology text books have been doing this for decades, leaving evolution to much later.)

    In other words, I am questioning whether there is a deep enough scientific literacy at secondary level which allows even science professors of education to be asking that time be taken in science courses to debate evolution over creation.  How is going to happen?  The curriculum is taught at breakneck speed, with all teachers expected to get through each section at the same time.

    September 12, 2008 Posted by | general | , , , , , | Leave a comment

    Epistemology matters {1}

    Reason and Common Ground: A Response to The Creationists’ “Neutrality” Argument

    By Timothy Sandefur

    He summaries the article in an abstract at Social Science Research Network:

    Although it is a well-established scientific fact, evolution remains a controversial subject in the United States, and especially the issue of teaching evolution or creationism in public schools. An argument that appears to be increasingly popular among creationists is based on a postmodernist notion that science is simply one among many different but equal “ways of knowing,” and that its ascendancy over other methods is due to conflicts between social power structures rather than any objective superiority. Several creationist writers have argued that science’s exclusive reliance on natural causes (so called “methodological naturalism”) is an a priori assumption, or an arbitrary preference, and therefore that both it and religion are equally valid epistemologies. In addition, they argue that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment prohibit government from endorsing or granting “preferences” to science over supernaturalism.

    This article is a response to these theories. In Part I, I argue that science is an objectively superior means of knowing, and that methodological naturalism is not an a priori assumption, but both an a posteriori preference and one that is necessary for any valid epistemology. I also reject the argument that naturalism or “humanism” are “religions” or that science requires a “leap of faith.” In Part II, I address whether the First Amendment requires the government to remain “neutral” between supernatural and naturalistic worldviews. I conclude with some general observations on the conflict between science and supernaturalism.

    February 7, 2008 Posted by | Bronowski, Darwin, Enlightenment, epistemology, evolution, science | , , , | Leave a comment