Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Keeping Evolution Education in Perspective: A Response to Daryl Domning

While Domning raises many interesting points, the one he referred to as the "Global War on Theism" resonated with a concern I have had for some time. Specifically, how can we teach students and the general public that science (and the field of evolution in particular) is not religiously motivated, when many of today's most prominent evolutionary biologists actively intertwine the two in order to promote their theological worldview, and, as discussed later, when many educators share that mindset?

At a fundamental philosophical level, the fact that the opinions expressed by those exemplified by Dawkins are in opposition to the majority is immaterial. Let us remind ourselves that science is a systematic study of the natural world and the methodology used to do so. So, science is a study of nature, and theology deals primarily with the supernatural. Therefore, science cannot address theological concerns such as the existence or nonexistence of any supernatural being. As Domning writes, "one of our central arguments [is] the theological neutrality of good science." This precludes the use of science to promote any theological worldview, from wherever along the spectrum one finds oneself.

However, it would be naïve to stop here, as if the issue may be put to rest simply by invoking Gould's concept of non-overlapping magisteria. The public is not generally concerned with making the distinction between scientific evidence and religious belief. In practice, then, the nature of the theological opinions that are commonly associated with evolutionary biology is important, as they can end up driving a false wedge between religion and science in general. Thus, evolution education (and religion?) suffers as atheism and evolutionism become synonymous in the public mind.

We can all think of examples of theologically inflammatory behavior by scientists in the spotlight. Consider the cover of David Sloan Wilson's Evolution for Everyone, which puts a halo over the old Darwin monkey–man caricature. While this makes for light humor, it can also come across as subtle mockery of those who do not understand evolution, particularly those who doubt evolution based on a perceived conflict with religious belief.

At the Evolution 2008 conference in Minneapolis, I attended many productive discussions and presentations about teaching evolution in the classroom. However, the content of one discussion was particularly worrisome. The topic it attempted to address was "When religion and science clash in the mind of a student, how should the instructor respond?" In other words, if a student refuses to learn in any subject based on personal beliefs, regardless of whether or not they accept the validity of the material, what then are the instructor's responsibilities and/or restrictions toward addressing the student outside the classroom?

The problem in this discussion arose in the wording of the dialog and by extension the attitudes of the discussants. The initial question very quickly deteriorated from being one of ethics and pedagogy into asking if a student refuses to accept evolution, "... can I say no, you're wrong?" and "How can I get them to believe?" I found this shift in thought to be highly disturbing. Education is not about forcing a belief, and antagonism is not an effective educational tool. It serves only to alienate students, and by putting them on the defensive perpetuates their distrust of science, which, in turn, is counterproductive in improving scientific literacy. As another discussant pointed out, the goal is not for all students to accept evolution by the end of their first semester in college — developing understanding often takes time.

This can be extended to say that the goal in the forum of public opinion is not for people to abandon their religious beliefs in favor of evolution (or any other scientific theory), but to promote a better understanding of science. Perpetuating the false dichotomy of science or religion — but not both — can exacerbate the problem and lead to the opposite of the effect we desire.

By Erik B Pietrowicz
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