So, Gentle Reader, here’s a thing about evolution and education. If you get bored half way through (as I’m sure you will), make sure you click through the link at the end: it’s really impressive and concise in a way I could never be.
In a week where contestants for the Miss USA pageant were asked their views on evolution in schools (via Ben Goldacre, ta), we once again find ourselves baffled by the answers given by otherwise sentient human beings. While we should really feel a little gratified that the eventual winner was the self-confessed ‘huge science geek’ from California who was forthright in her support for evolution and the Big Bang theory, we should also be chastened by the answers given by most of the other empowered, alert women cross examined in the piece. Most declared it to be a choice, that both should be taught in schools, while the women from more conservative states predictably noted that God made them with a purpose (Miss Alaska, presumably refrerring to the swimsuit section) and that evolution was therefore something with which they could not agree, even though ‘you can never have too much knowledge’ (Miss. Kentucky). If you get the chance to see Miss Indiana, about 4.35 in the full video, do: a classic kick to touch that convinces no-one. Big shout out to Miss Minnesota, who might as well have lit up a crack pipe when she references the Pope on the subject. You go, Catholic girl.
I have several problems with this issue, not least having to watch the women squirm a little when asked a question they knew had to be answered in a certain way: letting the whiff of success get in the way of one’s beliefs indicts the whole process. Of course the Miss USA pageant is not the place to air one’s leftfield views (or so we thought until the leftie Californian actually won), but it does show how such controversy has a chilling effect on expression. Look at the Republican contenders for next year’s Presidential election and you’ll see a selection of intelligent people all vying to be more extremely right-wing than the others. It’s under this penumbra that mad laws get passed, that ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ become terms of abuse. It helps nobody. But look at the premise behind most of these answers: evolution and creationism are posited as rival beliefs. I find this intriguing.
This issue is one which has the potential to rive education in America, an issue that already has. When evolution as a theory is posited alongside creationism, as either a science or a matter of religious faith, I have to draw a line. It’s been said many times and much more eloquently than I can declare it, but evolution is not a matter of faith and should in no way involve one having to compromise one’s belief. It’s science, and we evaluate science based on how the theory stands up to scrutiny, how well evidence supports it and whether exceptions outweigh the rule. It allows us to change our minds, to step back, to step down.
Religion is your own business. If you’re secure in your beliefs I think there’s little I can do to sway you but I wouldn’t want to, so we’re both good to go. On the other hand, there is little to be said for the attempts of those on the fundamentalist side of things to block the teaching of evolution in schools. Evolution is a theory, and a well developed one as theories go. If you look at the evidence of fossils, of embryology and of plant and animal life all around us and can’t see how the theory of evolution actually increases the awe we should feel at the complexity and love of creation then you’re really putting the cart before the horse. Instead of God having created a world where life adapts and develops to meet different challenges offered by other developments, what fundamentalist belief offers is that fossils were left there to test our faith, that scientific progress is not a gift from God but some kind of human imperfection from which true believers will be raptured one of these days. So the implication is that God puts some stuff out there to take the mickey out of us? Shouldn’t the argument for God’s abiding love be strengthened by the theory of evolution? It’s no more provable than denying God’s abiding love so it remains a question of faith, but nobody is offering (well, nobody in science classes, anyway) evolution as a faith. It’s a theory. I keep saying it. Learn about it in Science class and then go across the hall and ponder the metaphysical implications of what you’ve learned.
For years science and religion have gone hand in hand: sometimes, as in the case of Galileo, progress met with opposition from Church elders; sometimes the most prominent proponents of scientific advance were men of the cloth: look at Gregor Mendel, for one. The Jesuits struck me as particularly important in the development of science in the religious context, and when I discovered that the great man who was president of the university I attended was most famous (so famous that he’d been on Oprah, I’ll have you know) for his work in cryogenics I didn’t see it as a conflict, no more than I see medical science as an abberation of God’s will to kill people at His whim. My father’s generation believed the letter of the Bible: the creation theory of the Garden of Eden and the Flood were literally understood. But when I explained to my father how something scientific worked he was genuinely impressed, despite his lack of pretty much any formal education. We were taught about creation theories and flood allegories in different religions, but the message was the same. It now fit in with the understanding progress gave us of how the universe came to being. God didn’t give us fossils to test our faith, he gave us Newton, Einstein and Darwin to explain creation to us, all the better to stand on the shoulders of these giants and bellow out the first verse of How Great Thou Art. Why does science threaten religion now when people used to be able to discriminate between the two, just like Miss Minnesota?
I recently read with interest an article about faith-based schools in Ireland. One of the worries that the Church has with regard to a push towards non-denominational schools by our current Minister for Education is that religious belief is being seen as anti-intellectual, a barrier to educational progress. Perhaps the disgust felt by a generation determined to learn the lessons of clerical abuse is clouding the appreciation of the role ethos plays in education: these views have the effect of (to borrow someone else’s words) ‘mischaracterising religion as inherently or distinctly irrational, divisive, anti-intellectual and a constraint on the development of an individual’s full potential’. For me, working as I do in a Jesuit institution, nothing could be further from the truth. Students are encouraged to develop critical thought and to make value judgements of their own, sometimes at odds with the strict doctrinal line of the denomination supporting the institution. As long as they’re considered, mature and reflective, opinions are respected. The American model, based on the extreme position of some church groups to curricular issues, suggests that the Church offers nothing but interference, a very sad characterisation indeed. When the age-old story of the Texas Board of Education (which approves content for its state schools and, as the largest market in the US, consequently influences curriculum throughout the state system) resurfaces as it did last year, it again posits education as the enemy of religion. To some, that suggests that education threatens our values; to others it suggests that religion likes to keep its followers in the intellectual dark. Nobody wins and, in the vast majority of cases, it’s not accurate anyway.
Anyway, here’s a truly tremendous post from a man so talented he couldn’t have been put here by accident and is consequently proof of the abiding love of a Supreme Being: British artist Darryl Cunningham explains in a comic strip the broad theories of evolution and natural selection. Why can’t this be seen in wonder as evidence of an even more carefully-considered creation? It’s plausible, no?
 Although apparently the iPad’s use in State schools has reduced the Texan influence: now content can be changed much more easily in states not controlled by seven mad people. Hurrah for technology.