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. 


Review: Real Science 4 Kids (Chemistry 1 and Biology 1)

We’ve been through plenty of science curriculum and learning supports.  From living books to documentaries, Bill Nye to NIH free resources, Singapore Science to mom-designed courses, we’ve tried a range of ways to bring science to life while teaching sound scientific thinking. For the evolution-teaching family, the options designed for homeschoolers (simpler labs, generally) are fairly slim.  Even with a disturbingly well-equipped home lab, it’s a stretch to use regular classroom texts at home.

So initially, I welcomed Real Science 4 Kids, by Dr. Rebecca Keller.  It didn’t teach evolution (see more on her and my musings about her approach in Curriculum Choices of Conscience), but it didn’t teach creationism or intelligent design either, and since our introduction to the series was Chemistry Level 1, I wasn’t initially concerned with that omission.

At this writing, Real Science 4 Kids consists of 3 levels, each with a varying number of topics.  I’ll limit my discussion to Level 1 Chemistry and Biology, since these are the only books I’ve used with enough rigor to evaluate them.  My older son did the first chapter of Chemistry Level II some years back, but that’s an insufficient experience by which to gauge that series and is under complete revision.

All the Level I subjects require a textbook, a lab workbook, and a teacher’s guide.  The teacher’s guide contains some notes on running the experiments, answers to all the questions, and some additional information on the subject matter.  The texts are attractive, multi-color hardbacks with large font, which is easy on young and old eyes.  Each text consists of ten chapters that align with ten labs and a few brief questions about the chapter, both of the latter found in the lab book.  At full retail, a year of science (Chemistry, Biology, and Physics) for Level I runs about $216 new (Astronomy is available without a teacher’s guide).  That’s a pretty pricey elementary science curriculum.  Used copies abound, but a new lab book for each student is necessary unless the child uses a separate notebook to do the written work.

Keller has numerous additional books, called Kogs, that extend science into vocabulary, philosophy, art, technology, critical thinking and history.  Samples online didn’t impress me, although I was taken with the idea of extending science across the curriculum, as some programs do with literature or history. My borrowed copy of the Language Kog to accompany Chemistry I didn’t hold my interest enough to introduce it to my son.  It introduced some roots, used them in words, and asked kids to give the definitions.  I expect more from a $27 book (and that’s just for one 10 chapter softcover consumable book)  For a full set of Kogs for Level I Chemistry, language Kogs for Physics and Biology, the tests (available soon), and study folders (available soon), and you’re in another $350.  Whoa.

The books are attractive for kids and parents and hold resale well (good, given their high price).  The experiments are highly homeschooler-friendly, requiring (mostly) basic household items, although a bit of specialty shopping online is needed for a few labs (a voltmeter for Physics and living protists and Red Congo stain in Biology, for example).  Two of the labs for Biology require planning and introduce animal life into your home: raising tadpoles into frogs and observing butterflies develop from caterpillars.  The first results in pets that are likely to live beyond when your children go to college (We did the tadpole thing on our own four years ago.  The frogs are still with us, and, according to a biologist friend, likely to spend up to 30 years with us.  No more experiments that require estate planning.)  The second requires timing your lab to meet shipping regulations of butterfly egg sellers.  These are exceptions, however, and one could omit growing living creatures that need prolonged care with a decent video or book on metamorphosis.

The labs book also contains a few questions about the text material.  Most of these are definitions or classification questions, and only on the most basic parts of the books material. Few if any require any critical thinking about the subject, making connections between topics, or analysis of information.  This is a serious downfall of the series.

I think Real Science 4 Kids continues to grow in the homeschooling community because it introduces high-level vocabulary to young children.    Sure, throughout Chemistry, you’ll see atoms and molecules introduced, however there’s no discussion of states of matter, a basic of any chemistry education.  Instead, this text includes titration, polymers, starches, cellulose, kinesin, along with dozens of other chemistry topics.  They’re interesting, but without a better grounding in chemistry basics, they’re like building a house on a sand — it’s just not going to stand.

On the whole, I found the chapters to be little more than 4 to 5 page introductions to a large subject with little focus on the hows and the whys.  Science is far more that what.  Science requires an understanding of how the world works and a grounding in scientific thinking.  I’d rather see far less terminology and far more grounding in the basics of the way the world works along with the tools to think like a scientist.  I’d like to see more inquiry based learning, where the learner asks a question and, with a good amount of guidance initially, figures out how to design an experiment to answer the question.  I’d like to see discussion of controls and variables as well.  Singapore Science does these well, teaching  scientific thinking grounded in the basics of matter and energy.  (That’s another review for another day.)

In short, Real Science 4 Kids is an attractive product with labs geared toward the homeschool lab.  It’s expensive and won’t span too many years of science education, and it tends to focus on vocabulary acquisition rather than deep understanding.  It’s free of any references to evolution or the origin of life, which sells books but also, in my opinion, leads to an incomplete education if used as the only biology or astronomy text.

I’d like to say I’ve found something equally easy to use at home with greater depth and an undercurrent of evolution, but I haven’t.  Singapore Science, with modifications to many labs, is a better bet, in my opinion, but that’s a fairly large task.  A recent find from the American Chemical Society, Middle School Science, is a far superior chemistry offer, and is online for free.  It’s inquiry-driven, the supplies for labs are easy to obtain, and it is the most sound chemistry program I’ve ever seen.  More on that when we’re farther along.

Disclosure:  I’ve received no compensation in money or materials for this review.

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.