Sponsored by the Washington Area Secular Humanists (WASH).
Saturday, September 14, 2019
Common weak arguments for teaching evolution
By Mathew Goldstein
Director of Teaching and Learning Tim Murtha and Craig Rezac, a faculty member with the Brainerd High School science department, a public school in Minnesota, recently gave an update on the biology curriculum taught to students. The President of the school district, Sue Kern, then questioned the validity and practical benefits of teaching the theory of evolution to students “Darwin’s theory was done in the mid-1800s and it’s never been proven,” Kern said. “So I’m wondering why we’re still teaching it.”
Craig Rezac replied: “The interesting thing about theories is that we have to find information to disprove it. There hasn’t been any information found to disprove the theory of evolution. As we learn more about DNA, it only solidified it. It’s based on observation. It’s based on fact.” Kern then asked “With regard to Christian students — how do you do that? They’re taught not to agree with that, so.”
“This is science and science deals with facts. It doesn’t deal with belief,” Rezac said. “It doesn’t have to be a dilemma or a concern for someone to choose between Christianity and evolution — that’s not what this is about. You can actually embrace both. It’s my duty as a teacher to teach science and not teach religion. That’s the separation of church and state.”
I disagree with Ms. Kern. But I also partially disagree with Mr. Rezac. Americans United for Separation of Church and State agrees with Mr . Rezac precisely where I disagree, and there are other secularist and some science focused organizations that make similar arguments. I am concerned that this commonly expressed defense of the validity and benefits of teaching modern knowledge, as exemplified by Mr. Rezac, is substantially flawed and therefore weak.
There is no such thing as a no beliefs science. Conclusions about how the universe works, including the billions of years old evolution of life, are necessarily also beliefs that we humans hold. The assertion that “science doesn’t deal in beliefs” is dubious and therefore is a weak argument. Furthermore, this is not a harmless mistake because it is somewhat anti-intellectual, it disregards the importance of anchoring our beliefs in modern knowledge. For example, the earliest identifiable fossils are microbial mats, called stromatolites, formed in shallow water by cyanobacteria. The earliest stromatolites are found in 3.48 billion-year-old sandstone located in Western Australia. Knowledge is a rationally compelled belief because it is unambiguously empirically evidenced. The theory of evolution is also unambiguously empirically evidenced.
The second weakness is the argument that “you can embrace both” evolution and particular religious beliefs. Maybe, maybe not. This depends on whether or not there is a mutually exclusive conflict (in my view there is a pervasive, fundamental, conflict). It is inappropriate for public school educators to tell anyone else that any particular belief about how the universe functions that they hold is not Christian and/or is not mutually exclusive with a conclusion reached by biology. Sometimes there is a conflict and blaming those who fail to “embrace both” merely because there are others who do is circular, it is an unresponsive response. Furthermore, on closer examination it turns out that many people who sincerely claim to embrace both are actually compromising, embracing the theory of evolution incompletely, but that is a different topic.
A better response would start by acknowledging that there can be genuine conflicts between what is taught in public schools and the sincerely held beliefs of families in the community. Instead, focus on the role of public schools and epistemology. It is the role of public schools to pass on to children our current state of knowledge according to the consensus of professional academic experts unaltered and uncensored, regardless of whether or not any families disagree with any of the conclusions. These are the conclusions of the experts who rely on a measurable, best fit with the available evidence, track record of success, thus enabling a consensus to be reached. Public schools do not adjudicate between the various other beliefs regarding how the universe functions that were not derived from, or are not supported by, a worldwide consensus of experts.
So the question asked by Ms. Kerns, while understandable given that the board members are elected, is misdirected insofar as it requests that public schools accept the conclusions local families have adopted in addition to, or instead of, the (potentially conflicting) consensus conclusions of the experts. The beliefs of the local families should be irrelevant. Popularity contests are not a viable alternative method of obtaining or disseminating knowledge regarding how the universe function. We are unable to determine the percentage of human protein making genes that are also found in bananas (about 44%, see https://www.popsci.com/humans-genetically-linked-to-bananas/) by a popular vote. When a student answers zero percent because the Bible said humans were created apart from plants and animals and biologists are mistaken whenever they contradict the Bible then that wrong answer should lower their grade. That student may need to find a career outside of biology after graduating public school.