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The Christian Fundamentalist Curse: It’s still hard to teach evolution in too many public school classrooms.

April 10, 2019

Early hominid (australopithecus) technology. Not exactly the kind of stuff to face off with a saber-toothed tiger.

Brunch with neighbors

This morning friends came for breakfast,  another couple from the neighborhood.

As usual the discussions were wide-ranging, from the personal – how both couples coupled originally, a recent lute concert, how our friends heated their house with junk mail in their wood stove – it became an item on CBS’s 60 Minutes Charles Kuralt’s “On The Road,” to the political – the fate of the earth – how long will human society continue? fifty  years? 100 years? 500 years? to the unending Israeli punishing occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, to religion and atheism, Marxism thrown in for good measure, and then the insect holocaust… to  evolution.

Often happens that at some point evolution, or more specifically questions of human nature, enter into casual conversations. My friend’s reading of history is common enough. Looking back on the past 5000 years, one could conclude that ours, that of the human species, is on the whole – music, art and literature aside – a dismal species that will destroy most other life forms before imploding.

Of course highly possible if not probable.

It is easy to conclude that “human nature” is darkly shaped, that we are a violent, vicious, soulless species on the whole, greedy and competitive, fighting over land, resources and control of one another with little concern for other life forms, or even each other outside of our little bubbles. Religion and politics only add to the nastiness of it all.

No doubt there is considerable truth to that if one is evaluating the human experience of the past 5000 years. And opportunist writers with a gift for gab – the likes of Robert Ardrey, Conrad Lorenz and the worst of these intellectual whores, Ayn Rand – have made their fortunes rationalizing the supposed violent and aggressive nature of humans.

Such theories certainly help rationalize the likes of Donald Trump, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. The rich aren’t rich because they cheated, stole, bribed and worse. They had simply “won” the struggle for survival, …they were the “fittest” – the old social Darwinism currently being regurgitated by the current administration.

But they are, in a word, wrong. And here, Anthropology and the long view of human evolution are instructive.

It is now estimated that the hominid experience – apes who walk upright, the group to which we belong that apes descended from the trees some 7 million years  ago. Nor was it that we were so intelligent that this transition was made. Frankly, the hominid experience begins in failure – failure to adapt to tree living. We were not successful competitors, just the opposite. We couldn’t compete in the trees with our fellow primates who were more specialized and adept at living in the branches.

We were expelled.

Once expelled from arboreal environments our situation was quite precarious. And don’t for a minute think that we were able to hack out an existence on the ground because we were so smart. The fossil evidence tells a different story. Generally speaking we were slower, weaker than other ground-based animals and for an exceedingly long time small brained – a forth the size of modern humanity.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that, not only were hominid ancestors not hunters, but in fact they were the hunted. My favorite hominid fossil evidence of that – a fossil skull punctured by the canine teeth of an ancient variety of saber toothed tiger.

So, slower than many, not as strong as some, and maybe not downright stupid, but certainly lacking in the cognitive and intellectual skills that would come much much later, the question emerges – how did we manage to survive? The picture painted here – and I believe it is deadly accurate – was a prescription for extinction. And don’t think that our technology made the difference: it may have helped us get to the bone marrow of animals we scavenged but would have been useless against most pre-historic predators.

Alone, our hominid ancestors were easy pickings.

The only quality that saved us from going the way of the dinosaurs far earlier, is simply and profoundly, we had each other: cooperation. It is only in groups that we had any chance of survival, and survive we did. True, things begin to change some 200,000 years ago and then again 50,000 years ago and again 10,000 years ago when farming began. But think about it for 6,800,000 of the 7,000,000 years hominids have existed  they/we have had relatively small brains and primitive technology. That is 98% of hominid history. For only 2% of that history does intelligence, what we refer to as language, advancing technology take over.

The only quality that saved us from going the way of the dinosaurs far earlier, is simply and profoundly, we had each other: cooperation

I cite all this to put the human experience in perspective…Any theory of human nature that bases itself on the past 5000 (or 10,000) years is only looking at a tiny part of a much longer shared experience. It frees us from the self-serving prejudice that humanity is by nature violent and aggressive. Keep in mind that the Nazis were very fond of distorting Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection into an ‘who’s the last one standing” competitive world and then using their own unthinkable violence as simply an example of misinterpreting “survival of the fittest.” They had no idea what Darwin meant by “fitness” – most of the time “fitness” has nothing to do with physical strength.

Now, anyone who has gotten a modern, necessary schooling in Darwin’s theory of natural selection, of evolution – and not just human evolution – would have a working knowledge of what is written above. But as Ann Reid, executive director of the National Center for Science Education – one of the few organizations of which I am a card-carrying member – notes “It’s still hard to teach evolution in too many public school classrooms.” Good piece, hope you read it. It is immediately below.

Laetoli hominid footprints dated at 3.7 million years.

Los Angeles Times

It’s still hard to teach evolution in too many public school classrooms.

By Ann Reid. November 18, 2018

Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby. Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Obergefell vs. Hodges. Supreme Court cases involving the role of religious beliefs in civic life have repeatedly made headlines in recent years. Such conflicts, of course, are not new. Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Epperson vs. Arkansas, which struck down the state’s ban on teaching evolution in public schools.

Tennessee vs. Scopes (the so-called monkey trial) is perhaps more famous. But teacher John T. Scopes lost that 1925 case, and in 1928 Arkansas — following Tennessee’s lead — enacted its own ban on teaching evolution. It was 40 long years before the U.S. Supreme Court finally validated the demand of a teacher — Arkansas’ Susan Epperson — that students get a complete and accurate science education, including evolution.

The Epperson ruling did not, however, end interference with the teaching of evolution. Over the years, there was a series of efforts to require that the teaching of evolution be “balanced” with alternatives dressed up to seem scientific — first biblical creation, then creation science and finally intelligent design. Each, in turn, failed to pass constitutional muster. The legal situation is clear: The government cannot prohibit the teaching of evolution nor can it require teachers to muddy the teaching of evolution by presenting non-scientific alternatives.


About 60% of the surveyed teachers reported downplaying evolution, covering it incompletely or ignoring it altogether.


Goodness knows the science is settled, too. No credible scientist doubts that evolution is the theoretical and practical core of biology, with more evidence emerging from a rich array of research fields with every passing year. Claiming that evolution remains an open question is as scientifically preposterous as suggesting that the jury is still out on whether matter is made of atoms.

And yet teaching evolution is still challenging in many communities in the United States. Opposition arises because many people mistakenly believe that accepting evolution is incompatible with their religious faith. This point of view is widespread: In a rigorous national survey published in 2008, more than 20% of public high school biology teachers reported experiencing pressure to downplay evolution.

Public battles over the teaching of evolution still erupt almost every year at the state level. In Arizona, the outgoing superintendent of public instruction, Diane Douglas, last year advocated that intelligent design be taught alongside evolution in public school science classrooms. She then asked a creationist to help revise the state’s science education standards. These proved to be unpopular moves, though. Douglas didn’t make it past the primary when up for reelection this year. Around the country, state legislatures routinely consider measures aimed at undermining evolution education. Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee have anti-evolution laws on the books.

With evolution still a matter of political controversy, it’s understandable that a teacher who wants to cover evolution forthrightly might feel some trepidation, or a teacher who is inclined to skip the topic might feel justified. Indeed, about 60% of the surveyed teachers reported downplaying evolution, covering it incompletely or ignoring it altogether.

So it is not enough to include evolution in state science standards, textbooks and local curricula. To ensure students learn about evolution, we first need teachers who have a confident grasp of evolutionary biology. It is a concern that only about half of the high school biology teachers surveyed held a bachelor’s degree in biology and only around 40% had taken a course specifically in evolution. Many states are incentivizing science teachers to achieve more rigorous qualifications, but it will take time to undo decades — generations even — of evolution avoidance.

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute from L.A. Times Opinion »
Science teachers also need to know how to handle subjects that are at best misunderstood and at worst deeply distrusted by a segment of their community. When it comes to managing conflict in the classroom, virtually none of them are explicitly prepared. Such preparation is not impossible; successful strategies are being developed, refined and employed. For example, in teaching evolution, providing explicit instruction on the nature of science is extremely effective; it helps students recognize that science and religious faith are different, but not mutually exclusive, ways of understanding the world.

Encouragingly, American attitudes are changing in a way that offers hope for decreased resistance to the teaching of evolution. In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported that while 37% of those older than 65 thought that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, only 21% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 agreed.

Epperson’s efforts in 1968 were heroic: She risked her job, her reputation and potentially her safety to stand up for the teaching of evolution. Many dedicated science teachers are willing to work to improve evolution education, but they need the support of all of us who value the integrity of science education, to create a world in which teaching evolution no longer requires heroics.

Ann Reid is the executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

One Comment leave one →
  1. William Conklin permalink
    April 10, 2019 5:01 pm

    Rob, an excellent summary of important issues. Hopefully the behavior of Israel is not an example of the true nature of humankind. Maybe we will go back to our cooperative roots and Israel will become friendly to other ethnicities. On the evolution issue. I agree but I have a couple of issues. First of all, if I remember my reading correctly, the guy Crick, I think was his name who was one of the fellows who discovered DNA, couldn’t understand how such a complex molecule could have evolved. It after all was a precursor to the most simple life form, the bacteria. He was an atheist, but he pushed off the issue with the idea of “panspermia”, the idea that DNA may have come here on meteorites. Of course that still doesn’t explain how DNA evolved.

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