Reader Diane G. called my attention to a new (and badly misguided) article in The Humanist, the publication of the American Humanist Society. Written by Susan Corbett, who has taught science all over the world, it’s called “How to teach evolution to Christians and Muslims.” Sadly, Corbett’s way of teaching evolution is not only an affront to real science, but an example of how trying to coddle religious faith winds up misinforming people about important scientific issues.
Corbett recounts how she faced possible resistance when wanting to teach evolution to Christian and Muslim students in Nigeria. So she consulted a Muslim colleague, who suggested the first strategy below—one often used in Islamic countries. The second strategy is simply confusing, and liable to mis-educate students.
Here are Corbett’s two suggestions about how to teach evolution—not just to her students, or to religious students, but to all students. Quotes from her piece are indented:
1. Tell them that humans weren’t subject to evolution.
How I was ever going to teach this subject to sixteen-year-old students who had such strong beliefs and trust in the truth of their respective religions? How could I help them achieve academic success on their “high stakes examination” and yet be sympathetic and understanding toward their religious beliefs? After talking with several leaders within both faith traditions, I found a way around the problem that suited everyone.
First, an interesting fact that I came across in Islamic teachings which was also generally acceptable to the Christian community was that Muslims are (for lack of better terms) “allowed” to believe in an evolutionary explanation for life on Earth, with the exception of humans. As long as the focus was on non-human species, there would be little-to-no objection from the Christian or Muslim communities within the school. Fortunately, the British-based examination boards that create the IGCSE Biology papers are religiously literate and sensitive enough to various beliefs that questions on the paper regarding evolution tend to focus on animals other than humans.
That’s just wrong, because one of the most inspiring things about learning evolution (and too bad if it upsets the religious mindset) is the indisputable fact that it tells us how we’re related to all other species, living or extinct. Saying that we weren’t subject to the same materialistic processes as other species also makes our complexity and achievements much less wondrous, and walls us off from the diverse, fascinating, and fruitful questions about human origins, human evolution, and evolutionary psychology.
And how nice of the “sensitive” British examination boards to leave humans out of evolution!
2. Tell them that evolution is only a theory, and by that she means “an unsubstantiated suggestion”.
Second, the term “theory” can be defined as “an idea or set of ideas that is suggested or presented as possibly true, but that is not known or proven to be true to explain certain facts or events.” After giving the students this explanation of a theory, I was then able to present Darwin’s theories to them and allow them to postulate whether they believed Darwin’s thoughts followed this definition. This allowed them to have all the relevant subject content information they might need to pass the IGCSE examination at the end of the course, regardless of their religious beliefs. Once we had established for the students that evolution—despite a lot of evidence—was still a theory, and one that did not necessarily have to include humans (their choice), then we had some very interesting lessons and discussions, even with sensitive issues like genetics and DNA evidence.
How helpful of Ms. Corbett to redefine the scientific meaning of “theory” so as not to offend the tender sensibilities of her students! But of course her definition, which equates a theory with a “hypothesis” or “guess,” is simply wrong. In science a theory is a coherent explanation that ties together a body of facts, makes sense of those facts, and is often supported by a large amount of evidence. And evolution really is known to be true in the scientific sense. It’s not a guess, not a speculation, not a hypothesis. It’s a scientific fact. In the several hundred pages of my last book, I laid out the evidence for that.
Frankly, Corbett is giving away the store in her attempt to teach her students. They’ll wind up convinced that evolution doesn’t apply to us, and that the theory of evolution is nothing more than idle speculation. And they’ll get a distorted idea of what a “theory” is along the way. I would humbly suggest to Ms. Corbett that the way to teach evolution is to tell the students the truth. Humans are part of the evolutionary process, and it is the true story of our origins. And there are tons of evidence to support not only human evolution, but evolution in general.
And what about other students who aren’t so religious? Corbett thinks her methods are also good for them, too:
Influential humanist and education thinker, John Dewey wrote in 1897 that long-lasting education and learning occurs when the subject matter being studied has relevance to the experience of the learner. Using 2010 Humanist of the Year Bill Nye’s videos to help teach evolution, we successfully balanced between being sensitive to religious claims and scientific methodologies but were still relevant to the students’ experiences in life.
What’s stopping American biology teachers from teaching evolution in the same way?
The TRUTH, Ms. Corbett—the truth! That’s what’s stopping us. We will not to lie to students as a way of getting them to accept science.
If lying about the nature of evolution is a way to convince people that evolution is sort-of true, while avoiding injuring religious feelings, than we are truly lost. It’s simply too bad if students become resistant to your message when you tell them the truth. Would you tell them, if they asked about mortality, that they were immortal, so as to not instill in them the fear of death? Tell the kids what scientists really think about evolution, and let the chips fall where they may.
In my view, Corbett should not be teaching science anywhere.
Diane G. tells me that some of the comments on Corbett’s piece are upsetting to those who accept evolution and real science, but I deliberately avoided reading those comments. I’d like to keep my equanimity this afternoon!