Evolution (but not Religion) in the Biology Classroom

“Now that I’m homeschooling, I’ll be teaching the boys creationism, of course.”

The chuckle I’d expected from my father didn’t come. He paused, unsure what to say. My decision to homeschool my older had somewhat unnerved him, as it wasn’t the typical path, but he was never one to meddle in my life. I’d rarely even seen him pause like that, processing thoughts that were likely previously thought unthinkable. Creationism? How could that be?

“I’m kidding, Dad,” I reassured him, a bit surprised he’d even thought it was possible.  He exhaled but still looked a bit shaken. He was then a Biology professor at a state university and is still today a liberal Presbyterian. He is committed to science while believing in God, and he finds no conflict between science and his religion. I was raised with both, understanding evolution and believing in God, never seeing conflict between them. And while I left my belief behind about a decade ago, it wasn’t because of science.

What does it mean to understand biology through the lens of science? It means to understand that from the simplest species to the most complicated, natural selection drives the changes to that species. Genes copy with errors, and errors can wreak havoc with life or increase the chance of an individual surviving to reproduce. And that’s what life (in the biological sense) is all about — making more of a species. From antibiotic resistance in bacteria to the form and function of the mammalian eye to the modern human today, evolution is the driver. It’s wily driver, without direction or purpose. Every slip of DNA’s copying mechanism is random, with ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ relative to where the alteration occurred, what (if any) effect it has on the organism, and even the environment in which that organism lives.IMG_0986

To teach biology without this understanding is to miss much of what biology is. To limit evolution to that bacteria’s antibiotic resistance or the finch’s beak is to mangle the very mechanism of change in the living world. It’s akin to teaching composition without discussing grammar. Evolution is how change happens, and biology can only be fully understood by appreciating that overarching truth in science.

So a few weeks back, when I tucked into evolutionary biologist’s David Barash’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times, God, Darwin, and My College Biology Class, I found myself nodding along. Barash begins his undergraduate animal behavior class with what he calls “The Talk.” This lecture affirms that his class with look at all of biology through the lens of evolution, a statement I make on my biology syllabus for the classes I’ve taught my sons and their friends and that other families have used as well. I admittedly have an advantage, as my students are known to me and from families where creationism isn’t part of the curriculum. And so evolution simply permeates the class, with religion rarely brought up. It is, after all biology class.

Barash’s classes are more diverse than my tiny home classroom, and I imagine my father’s were similarly diverse. College biology may be the first place conservative Christians rooted in creationism or, its euphemism, Young Earth creationism, may first experience biology through that lens of evolution in a way that affirms the process rather than denies its validity. That could easily put a student on guard, worried about veracity of the rest of the course or thinking about at least part of his or her faith. I’d agree is seems wise to warn — or at least inform — the class of the lens in place. That should be sufficient.

IMG_0538I can’t recall any reference to religion in any of my biology courses in either my Catholic high school or Catholic university. Religion wasn’t mentioned, and no one every asked, as far as I recall, if it should or shouldn’t be discussed in the science classroom.  Barash takes the offensive, as he starts with a talk about religion and science. He doesn’t stop at stating that evolution is the underpinning of biology, and that all will be discussed through that lens. He does not hold, as I do (and as does Stephen Gould) that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” meaning they have separate domains and are, therefore, compatible understandings in a single human being. Instead, Barash tells his students that religion and science do overlap in domain, and that accepting evolution demands deconstruction of any belief in “an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.”

After discussion of the complexity created by natural selection and the illusion of humans as central in the living world, Barash settles into theodicy, an issue far afield of the evolution he sets out to explain. Problems with theodicy (the attempt to reconcile suffering in the world occurring in the presence of an omnipotent, caring deity) contribute to many a person of faith’s loss of that faith. Veering from science, Barash steps broadly into religion, confronting students with the news that if they buy evolution, their faith will likely fall, provided they’re thinking deeply enough:

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator. (Barash)

As an agnostic who sees science through the lens of evolution and the universe as a mystery we ever so slowly unwrap, origin somewhat understood, but only with the most tenacious grasp, I find myself irritated with Barash. Like other militant atheists (and I’m assuming he is an atheist), he forces a narrow lens on what God must be to the believer: God, it seems, must be creator of all, simple and complex, pulling each string and guiding each change. God must create humans as separate, with some of God’s supernaturalness in humans but not other creatures. God must be absent given suffering in the world.DSCN0653

About a decade ago, I left my faith behind. But I didn’t lose it in the science classroom, and I didn’t lose it because I understood that the complexity of life is due to evolution, the roll of the genetic dice paired with environmental pressures. I didn’t lose faith because I understood the long arc of evolution that brought humans into being. I lost it in part to the theodicy question and in part to long thought about what made sense to me. Science wasn’t part of my musing.

My father, a biologist who understands and teaches science through the lens of evolution, a man of faith who is dedicated to helping others of faith, understands that science and faith need not be in conflict. He hasn’t lost his belief, despite decades of science study as a researcher, professor, and interested human being. He, like Barash and I, understand the complexity produced by evolution’s often slow hand, and he is unbothered by the lack of supernatural gene in humans. And the theodicy question? He’s obviously found a way through that one, all while appreciating the science of evolution. And at what cost to his science classes? None.

Barash’s mistakes, in my opinion, are two-fold. First, his view of what God is to a believer is myopic and simplistic. Views of God, gods, goddesses, and divine forces in the universe are as diverse as there are people who believe. Second, his approach is arrogant and presumptive. To tell people who believe just how their faith will be undone is an act of assumed superiority and completely without regard to the personal nature of an individual’s faith. Will some conservative believers, steeped in the absoluteness of a seven-day creation myth struggle as they take biology in a college classroom where evolution is the common currency? Probably. But many believers of all flavors won’t struggle one bit, content with their separation of science and religion.

DragonflyBarash wants to warn his students that, should they retain their faith, they will do so only with “some challenging mental gymnastic routines.” How a nonbeliever can begin to step into the mind of a believer and predict whether the wonders of evolution will deepen or destroy the faith of another is beyond me. Yes, science can challenge faith, especially a conservative faith resting on a supreme being pulling the strings and putting humans above all else. But faith, in many forms, can sit comfortably with the scientist, causing no sacrifice to the scientist’s understanding of the universe and the living things inhabiting it. Barash’s talk forwards his own atheist agenda, and that, in the classroom, is going too far.

I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but when at the front of the classroom, I believe you have a responsibility that includes knowing your boundaries. If you’re a biology teacher, teach science. Unabashedly teach evolution and say that you’ll do so. Talk about complexity. Ignore creationism, as it’s not science. And ignore God, whether you believe or not, as faith isn’t part of science. Encourage students struggling with the concepts to discuss their struggle with classmates, their religious leader, their God, or anyone who will listen and let them sort through. But stay out of the wonderings and wanderings of their faith.

I teach biology through the lens of evolution. I’m an agnostic. My father, on a far larger scale, did the same for decades. He’s a Presbyterian. It works.


Cross-posted on Finding My Ground, my personal and religious blogging home.

October 16: Opposing viewpoints are welcome as long as they are on point and respectfully presented. I’m glad to have a conversation that is respectful. All comments will be held for moderation to assure conversation remains civil. 


Curriculum Choices of Conscience

Yeah, I’m bringing up creationism and Evolution.  Yeah, you’re likely to have strong feelings.  Just honor the worth and dignity of every human being in your comments.  Thanks.

A recent post on a homeschooling email list caught my attention.  A parent requested suggestions for a secular math curriculum, and folks responded.  A number of years back, I’d have thought all math curricula were secular, but I’m wiser now.  I know a religious viewpoint can be placed in any subject, but it is generally in history and science that those outside of a young earth, Christian-centric mind-set struggle to find quality materials for homeschoolers.  Sure, I knew some spelling, grammar, literature, and handwriting programs included a fair amount of Bible verses and Christian teachings along the way, but math?  Aside from the books from a few “big box” Christian curriculum makers (Bob Jones, SOS, etc), I just assumed math was exempt from religious language.

But there’s more to it than that for some homeschoolers.

In math and science, there are conservative Christian authors of non-religious math and science products for homeschoolers.  That alone doesn’t raise an eyebrow for this Unitarian Universalist.  Math is math.  While all math curricula are not created equally, their point is to teach the objective facts of how math works.  Sure, at the far reaches (beyond where most kids will reach while learning at home), math meets quantum physics.  For some of us, quantum physics touches the divine, but that’s another post on another blog (but intelligently discussed here).

Back to who writes the stuff that reads without religious bias but is from a religious author.  Different kids benefit from different math presentations.  Singapore Math has worked well for both of my boys, although their first math exposure was via Montessori methods and materials.  Saxon Math is likely the most well-known curriculum, known for being easy to teach and well-known to many schools as well.  The choice beyond that expand daily:  Mammoth Math, Math-U-See, Developmental Mathematics, Life of Fred, ALEKS, and many more.  I really don’t know much (if anything) about the religious beliefs authors of Singapore Math.  I really don’t care.  I know the math curriculum is sound and works well for my boys.  And that’s what matters most to me.

Through this email list, I found out Math-U-See creator Steve Demme is a conservative Christian.  The Math-U-See website doesn’t keep that a big secret, and the math curricula items don’t reflect his theology.  So who cares?  With just that information, I still don’t.  Further investigation reveals Demme has another business, The Family that Stays Together, where Demme posts his webcasts and articles about Christian family living.  Still, I don’t see a problem.  While I don’t agree with his theology nor his view of gender roles, I still don’t have an objection to his math curriculum on the grounds of that site or his personal beliefs.  This was the crux of the emailer’s concerns, a concern I’ve heard from others about other non-religious curriculum written by conservative Christians.  He does link to “Answers in Genesis,” a creationist/young earth organization with a far reach in the US and Great Britain.

Dissent from Darwin's homepage


This gives me pause.  I teach the science of creation with the same confidence I teach verbal phrases and the quadratic equation.  I teach Biology through the lens of evolution and natural selection, as I was taught informally by my Protestant father and formally in Catholic high school and college.

Again, back to curriculum buying.  While in theory, I may object to supporting a company that supports (materially) the teaching of creationism in any form, I don’t see any evidence that Steve Demme, head of Math-U-See does this.  According to a 2010 Gallup Poll, 40 percent of Americans believe in a young earth (less than 10,000 years old) created by God, I imagine I’d not be supporting a whole bunch of businesses if I ruled out every one led by someone in that 40 percent.   Heck, I don’t know how I’d even find out what the head of many companies believes.  I’m too busy (lazy?) to do that work, and I’m not sure I really need to know.

It gets stickier, though.  I’ve used a few books from Real Science 4 Kids, by Rebecca Keller.  The books make no mention of God, religion, evolution, or creation.   The Gravitas Press website note that no worldview is espoused by the books, so parents of either persuasion can use the materials.  She does refer to Darwinism, Creationism,  and intelligent design as “lenses” through which to look at science, and that she seeks to avoid those.  I’m not sure whether to applaud or boo.  She’s also a signer of “A Scientific Dissent Darwinism,” a product of the conservative think-tank Discovery Institute, which supports intelligent design.

Is that a problem?  I’m not certain it is.  She makes a decent product that makes homeschooling science easier for thousands of families.  Unlike Apologia, her books don’t mix religion and science.  They leave out evolution, but, honestly, they’re so short that they leave out plenty of other topics.  (I’ll save a complete review of two of the books for later.)  The same goes for Steve Demme’s Math-U-See line.  While I can’t speak to its efficacy, it is without a trace of Christian or other religious content and sticks to math.  Seems right to me.

Those who refuse to buy these products based on the religious convictions of the creators of the works sum up their angst thus:  We don’t want to financially support creationism.

Me neither.  But what these folks do with their hard-earned money is, frankly, up to them. I wonder if these same folks ask their doctor, dentist, barber, mechanic, or plumber what causes they support with their hard-earned money.  I doubt they do.  And I’ll bet some of it goes to support creationism.  I doubt the creationist who I serve as a Physician Assistant want to support Planned Parenthood and my Unitarian Universalist church, but, indirectly (generally via their insurance) they do.

I started this post not knowing for sure which side I’d end up supporting.  I’ve suffered a bit of guilt purchasing Keller’s materials, concerned I was supporting a creationist agenda, but I’m not sure that guilt was merited.  Keller’s free to support the causes she wishes to support.  The writer of that email is free to not support Demme’s materials because of the causes he supports.   Certainly the tide moves the opposite way as well, with many homeschooling families buying curriculum that is written by other Christians (and only the ones who believe the way they believe), and they’re free to do so as well.  We’re all doing what we feel is best for our families, for our world.  We’re free to disagree and free to follow our conscience.

Now it’s your turn.  How do you turn this question over in your mind?  Regardless of your political or religious stance, how do you align your purchases with your conscience?   What do you do when the two collide?

Grammar and Evolution

"Blue Marble" view of Earth (NASA image)

I don’t believe in evolution.  I teach evolution to my children both explicitly and implicitly.  I choose science and history materials with evolution and  13 billion-year-old universe base.  Like the theory of relativity, quantum theory, and atomic theory, I teach and speak the theory of evolution.  But I don’t speak of believing in evolution.

The following entry for believe comes from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

Main Entry: be·lieve
 Etymology: Middle English beleven, from Old English belēfan, from be- + lȳfan, lēfan to allow, believe; akin to Old High German gilouben to believe, Old English lēof dear — more at love
Date: before 12th century
intransitive verb 1 a : to have a firm religious faith b : to accept as true, genuine, or real <ideals we believe in> <believes in ghosts>
2 : to have a firm conviction as to the goodness, efficacy, or ability of something <believe in exercise>
3 : to hold an opinion : think <I believe so>transitive verb 1 a : to consider to be true or honest <believe the reports> <you wouldn’t believe how long it took> b : to accept the word or evidence of <I believe you> <couldn’t believe my ears>
2 : to hold as an opinion : suppose <I believe it will rain soon>

As a transitive verb (a verb requiring a direct object to be complete), the correct statement would read, “I believe evolution (creationism),”  which isn’t the language I’ve read in the ongoing, often nasty, dispute regarding evolution and creationism.  Perhaps some say, “I believe the theory of evolution (creationism) to be true,” but most often, I see the verb used in the intransitive form, where it cannot take a direct object.  As in, “I believe in evolution (or creationism).”  Note the definitions for believe as an intransitive verb from the Merriam-Webster citation above: to have a firm religious faith, to accept as true genuine or real (such as believing in ghosts or ideals), and to hold an opinion.

Since when did science use words more appropriate to faith and philosophy?  As used in the evolution/creationism debate, belief is used as an intransitive verb.  That’s the type without the direct object, the one defined largely as opinions and religious faith.  That’s not science. 

I don’t know which side of the debate started referring to the holding of scientific theories of the start of life as beliefs, but since I’ve never heard the word used that way for quantum theory, atomic theory, or other scientific theories, I’d boldly guess it wasn’t the evolution folks.  No matter which, it’s the wrong word for the conversation.  Just semantics?  I don’t think so.   The words we choose frame the conversation.  I, for one, commit to keeping this firmly in the realm of science, where it belongs.

Postscript:  For the spiritual side of my musings, visit Finding My Ground.