Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Teaching about Scientific Origins

Teaching about Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism
Edited by Leslie S Jones and Michael Reiss
New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2007. 217 pages.
Reviewed by
Kimberly Bilica

Teaching about Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism is a patchwork of thoughtful essays on evolution and creationism from some prominent voices in science education and philosophy. According to the editors of the volume, the aim of the book is to "address the challenges of teaching about scientific origins in the context of religious concerns" (p ix). This text is an excellent contribution to the Counterpoints: Studies in the Postmodern Theory of Education series because of its polyvocal representation of the evolution/creationism controversy.

Polyvocality is a postmodern textual representation that showcases multiple, often non-convergent, viewpoints (Guba and Lincoln 2005). The aim of a polyvocal text is to highlight the complexity of an issue by problematizing rather than resolving. Traditional texts offer solutions; polyvocal texts ask questions. The editors of Teaching about Scientific Origins prepare the reader for a polyvocal style by stating: "It needs to be stressed that there is not a single account of how the authors in this book see the relationship between science and religion nor of how we envisage that that relationship should be taught, if it is to be taught at all" (p 8).

Even without the projection of a single metanarrative, twelve of the thirteen chapters are written from the scientific consensus position, as supported by National Science Education Standards (National Research Council 1996) and by science organizations (AAAS 1990, 1993), that evolution is the cornerstone of the biological sciences and that teaching biology without evolution is a mismanagement of the science curriculum.

The first third of the book looks at the history, sociology, and politics of teaching evolution as viewed from outside of the classroom. The second third of the book shifts argumentation. Here the authors either present an argument for a particular position, such as teaching creationism or evolution, or they dissect the arguments that others have employed. Within this second portion of the book is a chapter presenting a creationist perspective on teaching evolution, notably the only chapter not reflecting the views of national and international science organizations. Finally, the last third views the professional and personal nature of the evolution/creationism controversy through the lens of teacher and student. These chapters describe the impact of the controversy in classrooms and recommend ways of dealing with it, such as insisting on respectful interpersonal relationships, particularly with students who may have creationist beliefs.

Beginning the first third of the book, Randy Moore and Michael Ruse examine the historic politics that led to the modern controversy. Moore describes the social discord between evolution and creationism as it was expressed in the late 19th century and in early 20thcentury politics. In the second half of the chapter, he answers some questions that teachers have about the legal boundaries to teaching evolution (or creationism) in public schools.

Ruse writes specifically about "Christianity" and "Darwinism," emphasizing the contrasting epistemologies that define the modern evolution/creationism controversy. He challenges contemporary polarized debates about science and religion, referring to such conflicts as remnants of the 19th century. Using Richard Dawkins, a biologist and vocal atheist, as a focus, Ruse describes how arguments from the extreme ends of the belief spectrum — such as arguments between evolutionary dogmatists and fundamentalist creationists — anchor science and religion to a common, confrontational center point.

Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 shift the reader’s attention toward the argumentation tactics used in the broad conflict between science and religion as well as strategies used by proponents within specific domains, such as creationists. David Mercer conducts a highly philosophical examination of the conflict between science and religion, criticizing the tendency to oversimplify the nature of both science and religion. Media sources and public science particularly are chastised for giving such oversimplified representations. Mercer recommends that we talk about science and religion in a more humanistic way that is representative of the manner in which the controversy is lived and that we think about the science curriculum through an inclusive social context that he calls "science studies" (p 53).

Robert Pennock traces the emergence of "intelligent design" (ID) creationism in schools and specifically focuses upon the ID proponents’ argument to "teach the controversy" of biological evolution in science classrooms, dissecting, by way of example, a video developed by ID advocates intended to show teachers how to legally "teach the controversy about Darwin." Pennock describes the ID argument as "smoke and mirrors," contending that the ID argument intentionally and strategically neglects science in order to promote its non-scientific goals. In the concluding remarks, his perspective on the debate is clear: teach real science.

Michael Poole unpacks and redistributes what he calls "areas of difficulty" between science and creationism, where meanings are in conflict when considered from creationist versus scientific perspectives. They include understandings about the age of the earth, chance, atheism, naturalism, explanation, reification, and evolutionism. Poole develops the essay by first making a statement of conflict and then examining it from scientific and religious perspectives. For example, he examines ideas that connect science and atheism by discussing the statement "Science is often presented as an atheistic activity that makes no place for God" (p 83). I particularly appreciate how Poole resolves the conflict about science and atheism with a description of how the omission of religion from science is not a denial of religion: "It need be no more surprising to the religious scientist not to find God mentioned in science texts than to find that Henry Ford is not mentioned in the instruction booklet of that make of car" (p 84).

Shaikh Abdul Mabud argues that evolution, as it is taught in schools and represented in selected British textbooks, is treated as "fact" and does not provide science students with a balanced perspective, offering arguments for and against evolution. A creationist from the Islamic faith, he uses many of the arguments found in other creationist literature, such as challenges to homology, complex biochemical events, and natural selection. Mabud is the only strong anti-evolution voice in the text, but the inclusion of this chapter shows how polyvocal texts break from authoritarian truth notions.

The next five chapters examine the evolution/creationism controversy from the perspective of teacher and/or student. Several authors tell personal stories about their experiences with the evolution/ creationism conflict in the classroom. Wolff-Michael Roth presents a discourse analysis of conversations with a high school physics student who deliberated on his personal conceptions of science and religion. Roth’s analysis untangles some of the complex and multifaceted relationships between self, science, and religion, providing insight into how science and religion interact in lived experience. The chapter concludes by encouraging teachers to consider the complexity of human understanding of science and religion and recommending that teachers find ways to discuss what Roth calls the "different life domains" (science and religion) with students in the hope that such conversations will translate into students’ having a personal understanding of how different domains interact in their own lives (p 122).

David L Haury emphasizes the role of curriculum in the evolution/ creationism controversy. Observing that human evolution has been overlooked in science standards documents and biology curricula,Haury blames the human evolution gap in American biology curricula on the prevalence of creationist ideology and goes on to describe several concepts that, combined, serve as a rationale for teaching human evolution. These concept — which include the nature of science, evolutionary theory, human family, ecological identity, worldview, and spirit of discovery — mediate dichotomous arguments such as science versus religion (or evolution versus creationism). Like many of the other authors in this portion of Teaching about Scientific Origins, Haury’s approach is scientifically grounded while remaining considerate of students’ beliefs.

Lee Meadows explains that conflict management, rather than conflict resolution, is an appropriate instructional aim in biology classrooms. Meadows explains that conflict management shows respect for religious students who are likely to experience conflict with evolution. After a discussion of clashing religious and scientific worldviews, Meadows offers five recommendations for teachers who wish to adapt their teaching aims to incorporate conflict management: 1. Respect your students’ religious beliefs, 2. Present evolution as an undeniable scientific understanding; 3. Model the difficult process of facing biases and conflicts of belief; 4. Consider teaching evolution as a case study in the nature of science; and 5. Don’t push religious students who may not have the emotional maturity to deal with the conflicts between their religious beliefs and their science learning.

David F Jackson recounts his personal experiences as a teacher educator who moved from the liberal northeastern US to more conservative Georgia where many, if not most, of his students are practicing Christians. Jackson discusses the overlap and conflict that science teachers feel within "the personal and the professional" aspects of themselves. His approach to mediate controversy within the classroom is to be sympathetic to students’ beliefs but maintain scientific integrity. Additionally, he encourages science teachers who are Christian to give voice to their own life experiences, exposing and exploring the personal and professional selves.

Co-editor Leslie S Jones presents a personal reflection on the impact of the evolution/creationism controversy in her college biology courses. Jones shares how she came to a deeper understanding of the conflict by learning about students whose creationist backgrounds have taught them to distrust science. By having personal conversations with her students, she was able to gain trust and open the door to learning evolution. Jones's essay shows how important it is for teachers to make a distinction between belief and understanding, especially when teaching topics that potentially challenge students' beliefs.

In the concluding chapter, "Teaching about origins in science: Where now?", coeditor Michael Reiss synthesizes the first twelve chapters and identifies three themes that ran through many of the essays — teaching the nature of knowledge, teaching about controversial topics, and consideration for the personal significance of the controversy. Reiss offers insights into the relationship between controversy and uncertainty, explaining that naïve students assume that evolution is uncertain because of its association with controversy. By teaching about the relationship between science and religion, educators can inform students about the controversy without unnecessarily introducing a conflict between science and religion.

The controversy surrounding science and religion (and evolution and creationism) is a resilient social and political conflict. The many perspectives involved in this controversy make the arguments complex, highly emotional, and often deeply personal to individuals, regardless of their position on the controversy. Teachers, as intermediaries between science and the public, have a responsibility to develop their own understanding of the controversy's complexity. Well-informed teachers realize that absolutist notions of "right" and "wrong" are blurred by the chance to engage in dialog. This approach to teaching about evolution is a marked shift from more dogmatist approaches to teaching science in areas where belief and truth claims may come into conflict. Although a dogmatic approach to teaching science is not scientifically inaccurate, the approach could be insensitive to students' beliefs.

While Teaching about Scientific Origins may not be appropriate for use in a K–12 science classroom and does not offer any narrow, prescriptive directives for teaching evolution, the text provides valuable insights into the science–religion controversy, examining its complexity from a variety of educational vantage points. I think that diverse perspectives, such as those presented in this book, lubricate conversations, opening up safer spaces for us to discuss the otherwise hidden conflicts that educators and students experience with regard to creationism and origins.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.