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“Sir, I don’t believe in evolution.” IV. Teaching evolution and science literacy.

In practice, this question will rarely be coming out of the mouth of an A level Biology student.  Logically, someone who is adamant about the falsity or unacceptability of evolutionary theory would be unlikely to chose to delve further into the scientific evidence for evolution by going beyond GCSE.  So the defence of evolution and by extension the nature of science, in the classroom, would in any case be a limited one. How complex an argument can you give to a 16 year old?

It would be nice if someone did a survey of attitudes to evolution / creationism throughout secondary school in the UK (and anywhere else) in order to establish when the resistance develops.

The conscientious biology teacher,  confronted with a 16 year old who doesn’t ‘believe in evolution’ will want to give some sort of answer.  The Welcome Trust Big Picture on Evolution (Issue 5 January 2007 – available on paper by order 2-20 £1 each/ >20 75p each) would be a handy crib-sheet for the hard-pressed teacher, because it deals with different religions’ attitudes to evolution. For example, it explains that Muslims do not generally contest evolution of species but that  ‘Adam having evolved from apes that is a bone of contention’. Clearly, if  it was a Christian or Jehovah’s Witness expressing the doubt then the fact that Muslims, Buddhists and Christians have slightly different objections might help.  The teacher would need to know enough to be able to grasp that the Christian creationist view is different from the Witnesses’ one, in certain respects.

There is a simplified section on the remit of science in the Welcome Foundation article which is a first line of defence. But as I said in a previous Evolution vs. Creation post, it would seem sensible to ask the doubter what in particular about evolutionary theory is objected to before launching into a comprehensive scientific defence.

The reality is that a 15 0r 16 year old (unless of exceptional intelligence) is not  going to be able to deal with (or want to take on board) the whole gamut of any refutation of creationism.  15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense from Scientific American, is excellent,  but too advanced for this age group.   Pity about the undiplomatic title.  Wonder of Richard Dawkins wrote it?

Laurence Moran’s short article, The Modern Synthesis of Genetics and Evolution, from, if not completely understood by such a student, at least shows that evolutionary theory has moved on from Darwin’s original formulation and uses a wider range of evidence.

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution, by Theodosius Dobzhansky, originally published in The American Biology Teacher, March 1973 (35:125-129), is clearly not for a 16 year old either, but it is a sustained argument and has key passages that could be used to good effect.

Introduction to Evolutionary Biology, also from TalkOrigins, is exactly what the  teacher needs to have at finger tip all the arguments.

There are two other things. (1) What students read for themselves online about creationism/ID (2) Going beyond evolution vs. Creationism into science literacy in general.

(1) There are  many  sensible website which discuss the issue but (1), as an example, what happens if a 16 year old biology student choses to read Nonsense Reasons for Rejecting Intelligent Design which comes from the website Evident Creation.  For a student to decide what is sense and nonsense here, a certain amount of  background of  knowledge about evolutionary biology is essential. Even an adult of reasonable education might be momentarily taken in.

There are a range of new courses which are geared to science literacy, such as 21 Century Science at GCSE and  Science for Society at GCE AS and A2.

September 30, 2008 Posted by | general | , , , | Leave a comment

“Sir, I don’t Believe in Evolution.” III. So, how is evolution taught?

Michael Reiss while still Director of Education at the Royal Society wrote to The telegraph on 16 September, 2008:

Sir – Your report of my views on creationism’s place in education (September 12) could be interpreted as suggesting that creationism and evolution should be given equal weight and both taught as science.

Creationism has no scientific basis. However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain why evolution is recognised as the best explanation for the history of life on Earth.

They should also take the time to explain how science works and why, based on all the available evidence, creationism is simply not science.

Rev Professor Michael Reiss, The Royal Society London SW1

It would be useful to know both what teachers themselves think and how exactly evolution is taught.

Two surveys on science teachers attitudes to creationism:

Many high school teachers still teach creationism [U.S.]

Creationism should be taught in science lessons, say teachers [u.k.]

Teaching evolution to the converted is a  report of a survey of sixth form students carried by Simon Underdown of the Anthropology Department of Brooke’s University

… test was whether I can assume that students come equipped with a critical faculty developed during A levels or must we, as lecturers, take on the role of instilling that critical faculty rather than merely developing it? Is it enough to teach evolution or should we be addressing why creationism/ID is wrong? If we did this, it would mean a shift in how evolution is taught and would move us towards actively taking on the creationists and pulling apart their arguments rather than just assuming students can see the flaws inherent in the creationists’ arguments.

An example of what happens in a U.S. High school classroom, widely memed in the web:

A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash

NYT 23 August 2008

David Campbell switched on the overhead projector and wrote “Evolution” in the rectangle of light on the screen.

He scanned the faces of the sophomores in his Biology I class. Many of them, he knew from years of teaching high school in this Jacksonville suburb, had been raised to take the biblical creation story as fact. His gaze rested for a moment on Bryce Haas, a football player who attended the 6 a.m. prayer meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the school gymnasium.

“If I do this wrong,” Mr. Campbell remembers thinking on that humid spring morning, “I’ll lose him.”

It’s the American experience but British teachers could learn from this. As many including John Hawks have pointed out, Mickey Mouse is not an example of evolution.

Note mention in the NYT article of  “Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution”.      { 2 }

A classroom exercise (undergraduate level but could be adapted) :

Case Teaching Notes for “Equal Time for Intelligent Design?  An Intimate Debate Case” by Clyde Freeman Herreid, Department of Biological Sciences, University at Buffalo, State University of New York

A paper on the topic:

The Evolution Solution – Teaching Evolution Without Conflict [pdf]

Why teach Evolution? from The National Center for Science Education.

and a post, Why teach Evolution,  in a blog  which gives a some up-to-date reasons.


The really elaborate online evolution courses are American, which is probably in part a reflection of the greater need for the effective teaching of evolution in the face of stiff resistance from creationism and  ID. In other words, they are having to re-double their efforts to make evolution coherent.  In the end this will benefit understanding of evolution and what science is and does.

We in the UK have the National Curriculum and ‘national’ subject syllabuses. Text books are written tightly to the syllabuses. When the syllabus changes so does the text book.

Checking the syllabuses for how they tackle evolution is not fun.  One way to do it is to follow through the nit-picking approach of Truth in science, a site which tries to sow the seeds of doubt about the theory of evolution, and the evidence for it, by such things as trawling through the national curriculum and GCSE syllabuses in great detail to find inconsistencies and lack of clarity.

This is the TiS page on Edexcel A/ AS Biology. You can move back and forward from this point looking at their comments on other syllabuses.

TiS also has pages on Evidence for Evolution and Science Lesson Plans for GCSE, including one on Irreducible Complexity. By pointing them out I’m not condoning them. They need to be examined carefully. Teacher are using their syllabuses, such as this 2003 AQA GCSE, and the text books designed to go with them, teaching in their own way. They are not using this stuff. But this is the sort of thing they are up against.

Truth in Science Material explains about the packs including DVD that went out to UK schools, which schools were then told not to use. The DVD, Where Does the Evidence lead?,  which was produced in the U.S. and distributed there, is reviewed (and its provence discussed) by Andrea Bottaro on behalf of Texas Citizens for Science in a letter to Texas science teachers and librarians.

The British Centre for Science Education has written comprehensively on the organisation Truth in Science.

Notice it’s called Truth in Science not Objectivity in Science!  This book review, What is Truth in Science?, starts with Pontius Pilates “What is truth?  It immediately points out he didn’t hang around to listen to the answer. This blurb of a Medawar Lecture given by Professor Peter Lipton, asks three important questions.

The Welcome Foundation have produced a 16 page booklet and pdf: Big Picture on Evolution, which tackles the non-science issues as well. it is has been sent to schools, but it would be useful in the home too. The the design and layout is like modern text books, but something can be lost by having to jump all over the page.

U.S. High school/undergraduate stuff includes:

Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science

Understanding Evolution

from U. California, Berkeley.

Online Course for Teachers: Teaching Evolution

This a U.S. course from PBS which could be used by British teachers. Video clips. The lot.

Session 8: How Can you deal with Controversy?  links to Managing the Conflict Between Evolution & Religion. (an extract from an article”Managing the Conflict Between Evolution & Religion” The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 62, No. 2, February 2000, pp. 102-107.)

Session 8 asks the teacher to draw up some concept maps to show how evolution ties biology together:  There are some examples from another site here:Using Concept Maps to Teach Evolution Vern Beeson and Tim Culp

Complaints About How We Teach Evolution


The Logic of teaching evolution

Bear in mind evolution is taught from early teens onwards.  It is only at GCSE that is done under a discrete subject heading.  Since Neo-Darwinism (a clear short explanation of the difference between Neo-Darwinism and The Modern Synthesisis in The Modern Synthesis of Genetics and Evolution), it has been deemed necessary to teach evolution by introducing the  ‘tools’  such as animal and plant adaptation and genetics, and only then introducing Darwin’s theory and the evidence that support it.

This first paragraph from Chapter 2 of The theory of evolution by John Maynard Smith (1958), shows that a historical/chronological approach might be as effective:

The fact that animals and plants are adapted to the environments in which they live was recognized long before the theory of evolution had gain acceptance among biologists. Similarly, the idea that the different kinds of animals and plants could be classified according to a ‘natural’ scheme preceded that idea that such a scheme of classification reflected evolutionary relationships. It was in fact the similarities between different kinds, or species, of plants and animals, similarities which makes a natural classification possible, which led Darwin, Lamarck, and other to seek an evolutionary explanation of the origin of species, just as it was the fact of adaptation which suggested to them theories as to how evolution might take place.

Styles of introducing the subject change. In the UK schools constantly change text books because they are written to the syllabuses.  A old (1997) GSCE text book I have  has four sections on fossils over about 8 pages, which doesn’t tie-in fossils as part of the evidence for evolution in any detailed way: in one section it says only this about evolution: “We say that living things have evolved”. In another section just: “They [i.e. fossils] tell us living things evolved”, in another there is a brief standard explanation of why dinosaurs became extinct. It was certainly an introduction to the idea of the link between the age of rocks and the  fossils in them, but without either a historical introduction or a clearer reason for why it is important, this seems a poor approach.

If history of science was part of the national curriculum from the age of 11, many of the topics that form the background to studying evolution could have been covered elsewhere. For example, the beginnings of taxonomy could introduce the work of Linneus, explaining that he believed species had been separately created, and that his classification system was showing the design of a creator. Lyall’s work on geology could be shown to have had an influence on Darwin’s later thinking.

For taxonomy, which is one of tools for describing evolutionary theory,  it is not until A level or usually undergraduate level that the difficult question of What is a species? comes into the equation. What is a Species? And What is Not? by Ernst Mayr (Originally Published in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 63 (June 1996) pp. 262-277.) shows why this sort of question is not being introduced till degree level.  Even on the what is a species? question alone, it is clear that what evolution is taught, from the age of 11 onwards, is a series of simplifications and omissions – increasing in content and complexity of concepts covered – deemed necessary to be able to deliver anything at all understandable at each age range. But by not dealing with the difficulties over such things as defining a species, the historical development of taxonomy and how it became to be seen as having signicance to evolution, explaining evolution is being made more difficult later on as the questions arise from blanks in understanding.

September 25, 2008 Posted by | general | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“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