Teaching human evolution: where’s the controversy?

Last night, at the monthly meeting of the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists, a panel addressed “Teaching Evolution in Science Classrooms.” Despite the bland title, the discussion focused on dealing with the controversies over teaching this topic.

Perhaps the biggest revelation that I experienced during the proceeding was that controversies over teaching evolution rarely erupt in the classroom. Students might dislike the topic, disagree with the teacher, dislike the teacher, and so forth. But, if the collective experience of those attending the meeting last night is representative at all, students rarely initiate organized protests and legal challenges or even disrupt class in a noteworthy fashion over the teaching of human evolution. Instead, dissidents seem to suffer quietly, participate with a relatively open mind, avoid the course, or challenge received wisdom openly in a respectful fashion. This has been my experience, and no one offered a contrary example.

One of the high school teachers on the panel had faced a controversy over the presentation of non-scientific accounts of human origins, such as intelligent design, in a textbook. But the protest had come from an adult with little or no connection to the school system.

Much of the discussion last night revolved around why so many Americans distrust scientific accounts of both human evolution and global warming. Suffice it to say that no one enunciated a simple and clear explanation.

I think that one aspect of this problem is that most non-researchers have little idea of the conditions under which professional researchers produce their results. They have no idea of the competitive organization of researchers’ careers; they have little empathy with most researchers’ willingness to be wrong – in other words, with their desire to continue learning about the same topic throughout life; and thus they don’t understand the depth of expertise and the amount of care that successful researchers usually have to demonstrate to earn the lasting respect of their peers.

When students take in-depth courses on topics such as global warming and human evolution, they begin to see the amount and quality of evidence that has convinced so many specialists. Without this exposure, it is easy for ordinary folks to believe that pundits, politicians, and professors in unrelated disciplines deserve attention equal to that of lifelong researchers within a field. (It would be nice if science shows depicted the slow toil and sometimes painful peer review inherent in professional research.)

This doesn’t mean that scientific consensuses are infallible – far from it. But it does mean that far-flung conspiracies are extraordinarily unlikely and that, lacking similar expertise or a veto from their spiritual beliefs, most people would be better off trusting a widespread scientific consensus than not.

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4 responses to “Teaching human evolution: where’s the controversy?

  1. Right on. We need a better understanding of science. Unfortunately, the war on science that reigned during the Bush years persists.

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    • Thanks! To be more specific, I think that we need to recognize that science is a human endeavor conducted by fallible people. It’s not some disembodied revelation or even discovery of absolute truth. And individual studies are often scientific but goofy – as seen in so much research on, say, dieting. But the current organization of scientific debate (versus that during Galileo’s time), with its emphasis on open information and competitive debate, makes it likely that any international scientific consensus, such as that regarding global warming or human evolution, is a much better model for understanding our world than its competitors.

      At least this applies for people who want a scientific explanation for such phenomena. If someone’s spiritual faith overrides science by definition, there’s no productive argument to be had.

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  2. A few stray thoughts:
    1. My illiterate farming and hunting ancestors, through their everyday trial-and-error struggle with nature, had better developed “scientific” sensibilities than the typical college graduate of today.
    2. Sooner or later, all of us come into close contact with the medical sciences,where all of the latest studies appear to conflict. (Conclusion of a cynical public: All research is bogus”, whereas medical researchers would appreciate that controversy is prerequisite to consensus. It doesn”t help that we usually encounter the medical-industrial complex as patients, feeling weak and helpless.
    3. Something big is happening here, broader than a war a war on science. With all the world’s information at its fingertips, a nominally educated public i rapidly abandoning its hold on reality, preferring the comfort of “I believe”
    to.
    Feelings trump facts, Belonging to the group matters more than intellectual integrity. Certitude is strong. Honest doubt is weak.
    Power, as the previous White House told us,
    is the arbiter of truth.

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    • I agree with both of you that there’s a sociopolitical attack on science in the United States. And, while I can’t put my finger on it exactly, this movement seems to be related to similar ones among some Muslims and among some Hindus, at least.

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