Saturday, July 26, 2008

Compromise on evolution teaching in classrooms

Today's Washington Post has an interesting opinion piece on the teaching of evolution in class rooms: Evolving Toward a Compromise. The key point is that simply defeating creationists efforts over and over again is not enough - in fact that can create a sense of persecution amongst those defeated (see this persecution complex in full display at Uncommon Descent). Instead, we need to understand some of their points of discomfort and, may be, compromise on some aspects not related to science. This is a good tactical move. I don't think this will be very effective in dealing with the ID folks at the Discovery Institute or the Ken Ham type creationists, but this will resonate well with those who are not too familiar with these controversies and have many misconceptions about the evolutionary theory and end up supporting "teach the controversy" or "strength and weaknesses" brand of creationism in classrooms.
Intelligent design and previous creationist debates appear to center on where humans came from. A less public yet similarly powerful motive of activists is their belief that the materialist underpinnings of evolutionary theory harm children's values. For example, the defender of fundamentalism in the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial," Williams Jennings Bryan, was motivated by his conclusion that Darwinism taught "the law of the jungle" and had led to World War I by subverting the morality of the Germans. More recently, "the Wedge," an infamous leaked strategy document of intelligent design proponents, suggests that advocates are not as concerned about the truth of evolution as they are about the underlying values they think it teaches. The paper concludes that teaching evolution leads to moral relativism. As one contemporary supporter of intelligent design put it, "Darwinian evolution tells us not only where we came from but also what behavior is natural and normative for humans. . . . Teach kids they are animals, and they'll act like animals."

We propose a compromise that would neither violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment nor limit the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Most defenders of evolution do not consider valid the critics' fears that evolution teaches values. Even so, teachers could take these concerns seriously by clarifying what evolutionary theory does not imply about values. To assuage the type of concern articulated by William Jennings Bryan, teachers could tell students that even though evolutionary science talks about the survival of the fittest organism, it is not a model for how humans should treat each other. They could explain that students should not make an "ought" about human behavior from an "is" of nature and that competition in contemporary society will not lead to increased survival rates. Moreover, they could explicitly note that just because mutations in organisms are random, it does not follow that human morality is random.

We are not asking teachers to discuss what morality should look like but, rather, to explain that morality does not logically flow from evolutionary theory. This will not allay all the fears of those who could be attracted to intelligent design. But it's understandable that parents could be concerned that evolution entices their children to think unconsciously of themselves as creatures with animalistic impulses, to lose faith in their religious traditions and to think that if the nature of animals is determined by random mutations, then morality must be random as well. Teaching consciously what evolution does not need to imply for morality recognizes these concerns and does not cross church-state separation boundaries. Furthermore, challenging students to think about the connections between science and society would promote high-quality science instruction.

Read the full article here.