Saturday, September 06, 2008

Sarah Palin on Teaching Evolution and Creationism

The controversy over the teaching of evolution in public school science classes has been revived by Sarah Palin's addition to the Republican presidential ticket. In her campaign for Governor of Alaska, she was the only candidate who said that if Darwin's theory of evolution is taught in a science class, the students should also learn about alternative ideas from creation science and intelligent design theory. The story in the Anchorage Daily News about this can be found here.

As I have argued in Darwinian Conservatism, on this blog, and elsewhere, I agree with the idea of "teaching the controversy." If students raise questions about criticisms of Darwinian evolution coming from proponents of intelligent design proponents or creationists, why shouldn't they be permitted to study the debate and decide for themselves? My proposal is that students should actually read Darwin himself and see that Darwin recognized the "theory of creation" as the alternative to his theory. If students were to read Darwin along with contemporary statements of evolutionary science and criticisms coming from creationists and ID proponents, students could see that the weight of the evidence and arguments favors Darwinian science. For some of my thinking on this, you can go here and here.

If students were permitted to study this debate, they might see how it opens up some of the deepest questions in the human attempt to understand the natural order of the universe. For example, they might see the ultimate problem of explanation as based on an unexplained first cause. As indicated in the Alaskan newspaper report, the libertarian candidate for Governor pointed to this problem when he asked, "Who intelligently designed the intelligent designer?"

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting philosophical/theological debate. It would not, however, be a scientific debate. Creationism is not grounded in the scientific process -- it's not science -- and so it doesn't really belong in the biology classroom. You'd have no problem from me teaching the controversy in a philosophy or religion course.

I want my kids learning how to think like scientists in their science classes. They're not there to learn how to think like philosophers or theologians.

Larry Arnhart said...

Doesn't learning how to "think like scientists" mean learning how to weigh evidence and arguments? If there are criticisms of a scientific theory like Darwinian evolution, don't our students need to understand those criticisms and see how they can be answered?

Proponents of intelligent design theory like Michael Behe are biologists who are making biological arguments for their position. So how is this not science?

I happen to think the arguments from people like Behe are not persuasive. But shouldn't students be allowed to see for themselves the weaknesses in such arguments?

RBH said...

A couple of comments. First, Behe is not a biologist. He's a biochemist. Big difference there.

Second, "students" in this context are typically 10th graders. How long do you reckon it would take to teach the unit you suggest? You say

My proposal is that students should actually read Darwin himself and see that Darwin recognized the "theory of creation" as the alternative to his theory. If students were to read Darwin along with contemporary statements of evolutionary science and criticisms coming from creationists and ID proponents, students could see that the weight of the evidence and arguments favors Darwinian science.

I just started teaching an undergraduate seminar in the history of the evolution/creationism controversy at a very good private liberal arts college, and I expect to spend approximately 14 weeks of class doing just what you suggest with bright undergraduates. How do you think a teacher of 10th grade biology who may not have a biology degree and who has almost certainly never himself or herself taken a course in evolution will do at teaching that? Who will teach those teachers? Where will the time come from to do it in this standards-driven world of secondary education? What will the sizable proportion of science teachers who are creationists teach in such a context?

Larry, I sympathize with the thought but have no great optimism that it could actually be done.

RBH said...

For more on the problem of executing Larry's suggestion, see this post from a staff development guy in a high school. Note that he's talking there about AP classes, the most likely to be teachable in the way Larry suggests.

Anonymous said...

Yes, learning to do science means critically evaluating evidence and argumentation. But critically evaluation evidence and argumentation in science is not the same skill-set as evaluating marginal, non-scientific ideas with science. That's a matter for philosophers of science.

For a high-schooler, science should be done within the context of current scientific theory. Future scientists need a solid foundation in current theory in order to build on it.

We don't need to waste high schoolers' time with claims that are so far on the margins of science as to be completely irrelevant. Should we spend time in astronomy and psychology having students evaluate astrology, or time in chemistry evaluating alchemy?

There are so many interesting theories and hypotheses for high school and college biology students to work on, we could fill several years worth of curricula with them. Why waste time on a supposed "theory" that doesn't pass muster enough to make it into the peer-reviewed journals?

Anonymous said...

Ok, yes, maybe she does want equal debate, but why does she want equal debate? Do you think Sara Palin would agree that religion only reinforces biological morality? Simple question? Where according to Sara Palin does morality originate?

Are you asserting that Palin is a Darwinian Conservative?

Andy

Frank J said...

While I think students should learn about “the controversy” “somewhere” I also agree with RBH (& Larry’s 2005 comment) that it would be difficult to find a teacher to do it properly in a science class. IMO, anti-evolution activists, especially IDers, try hard to control the terms of the debate – define terms to suit the argument, quote mine, etc. Even the discussion here gives IDers just what they want by not mentioning anything about when major events occurred in natural history (origin of earth and life, Cambrian, K-T boundary, etc.). IDers especially want to avoid teaching what that they know would easily discredit YEC, and alienate their biggest base. So the first thing I recommend for any critical analysis is to highlight the whens, how they are supported, and how no other timeline fits the independent lines of evidence. There’s no need to even hint about “creation” or “design” to eliminate the more absurd versions of natural history. Once the chronology is established, one can compare evolution to “saltation,” front-loading, or independent origin of life events. Even there I see practical difficulties, but it could work in some classes. A bonus would be to show that IDers do not want a real critical analysis.

As for whether Palin is a “Darwinian Conservative,” I hope Larry can add some insight, but my guess is no, given the people with whom she surrounds herself. And I mean that more in terms of “few if any scientists” than “the religious right.” To my knowledge, she has not denied evolution, and McCain even admitted finding it convincing. But neither seem to know much about evolution or how it’s misrepresented by activists. So there may be hope for both.