2013-03-24

On teaching evolution in a world of creationism



A friend of mine who teaches science recently expressed, once again, his legitimate exasperation at people who want to grant creationism equal time with evolution in science classrooms. His frustration has all to do with the differences between repeatable, empirical claims of science, versus the moral, existential claims of ideology. He believes creationism is an ideology, not a science. And, actually, I have to agree with him. Ideology, philosophy and theology are real academic subjects (along with history, literature, art, etc.). And there is a place in the world to discuss and debate ideology, but that is not in a science classroom.

In the Bible belt, I think our cultural uneasiness with evolutionary thought ultimately has to do with emotions and existential angst and a feeling of seasickness while being set adrift in a universe of flux and change.

At a base emotional level, I think we under-estimate how scary evolutionary thought in general is, without reference to any particular version or theory of evolution (whether biological evolution, evolution of ideas, evolution of social systems, etc.).

I know the objective, empirical view of the matter is that evolution is "just the facts, ma'am". And it is. Whether one studies the change and development of DNA, or the change and development of civic architecture, or the change and development of our ideas of Ultimate Reality, it is clear and objective that evolution happens in all spheres of human existence. But the heart has reasons that reason cannot understand. (Hat tip: Pascal).

The objective and empirical does not correspond to the subjective and existential. Both are dimensions of truth about the human condition that cannot be reduced to one another (I know that is a huge philosophical debate in itself, but I hold that consciousness is not fully reduced to an epiphenomenon of the physical brain, although the brain is one of the necessary preconditions for human consciousness).

Anyway, if we posit that the objective/empirical and subjective/existential are distinct but overlapping dimensions of human reality, then I think that we can see how those who deny evolution are taking their subjective/existential fears and angst, and projecting it on to objective/physical reality, in order to impose order, and control, and a feeling of safety, upon the world around them.

And I don't think current scientific education is very good at dealing with the emotional side of what it means to discover, grow, and evolve. This stuff brings up visceral and predictable emotional reactions. There are two valid emotional reactions to Evolutionary thought:

First evolution can be seen as opening the door to freedom and creativity that is unknown in other systems of thought. If the world is growing and developing, then no ultimate limits can be set to the human condition. We are free to create new worlds, new modes of being, without being un-necessarily constrained by the limits of the past. It is understandably beautiful.

But also, evolution can be seen as the "destroyer of worlds", because to bring about this new, un-predictable world, it means the destruction of the old world. If everything is in flux, then nothing is dependable. Nothing is predictable. We cannot count on the fact that what we currently understand will hold true in the future. The things and people we love will die, and possibly be transformed into new things. It is understandably scary.

I meet many "pro-science" folks who have no idea how evolution could ever be scary to anyone. They look at those who are scared as retrograde simpletons who merely want to live in the past, instead of trying to understand how these facts can shatter emotional security.

I meet even more "pro-Bible" (and "pro-Quran" and "pro-Vedas") folks who use literalist religion as the bulwark to stave off the corrosive effect of this "destroyer of worlds". They have no idea how evolution could ever be beautiful to anyone. And they look upon those who find evolution as beautiful as either tools or slaves of evil.

And here is how the emotional logic seems to work for evolution-deniers:
1. They are deeply and viscerally afraid of the instability of the evolutionary worldview.
2. They read these fears into texts written long ago that never were intended to deal with these issues (or the fears they cause).
3. They produce a worldview (or theology) which ensures stability, thereby mollifying fears, at the cost of denying evidence of evolution.
4. They demonize evolutionary thought and those who support it.
5. They create a societal movement to take back culture from the "world destroying" forces of evolution.

I have advice for those who teach evolution in science classrooms (and those cultural critics like myself who encourage a fruitful and creative religious engagement with evolution). My advice is this:

- We need to be more emotionally winsome to those we teach, especially when what we teach can elicit legitimate fears. We need to do a good job of walking them through the fears that these ideas cause, and then gently leading them into the beauty these ideas hold.

- We need to gently and politely refute the false ideas and ways of evaluating and weighing evidence. We need to remember that satire and snark can also be effective, but only after trust has been established with those we teach. Otherwise, we just come off as arrogant and condescending.

- Above all, we must establish trust with our students. We must show them that we are reliable people who have their best interest at heart, and who are willing to sacrifice our time and effort to help them. Unless there is trust there, they will not be willing to make the emotional investment to be open to the new ideas we bring to them.

In the end, teaching evolution can be a bit like helping someone leave an adulterous spouse. No body wants to think that their beloved spouse is cheating on them. And in order for them to piece together the facts about a cheating spouse, they have to come to an emotional realization of (a) how harmful it is to be with someone who is unfaithful; and (b) a vision that life can actually be better when not attached to someone who is unfaithful. Unless they reach this emotional realization, they may always deny or re-interpret the facts they find about their spouse's betrayal.

In a similar way, the "static" view of the universe (which underlies literal creationism and Biblical fundamentalism) is an adulterous spouse of the mind. We have to help people emotionally envision that (a) it is harmful to hold a view of reality that is not in line with the actual facts of reality; and (b) life can be freer, more creative, and more beautiful within the framework of evolutionary thought. Only then will they be able to move past the legitimate fears that an evolutionary view brings with it.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.