Friday, February 12, 2010

Darwin's World of Pain and Wonder

Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on February 12, 1809. Some of my thoughts about this remarkable coincidence and the deeper connections between Darwin and Lincoln can be found in some previous posts here, here, and here.

This past year has produced many celebrations and publications related to the bicentennial of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of Species. The latest issue of The New Atlantis has an article by Algis Valiunas that offers a brief summary of Darwin's life and work, based largely on Janet Browne's two-volume biography. Although Valiunas's article is notable only for its shallowness, it does have a good title: "Darwin's World of Pain and Wonder." Contrary to the assertions of Darwin's existentialist critics like Peter Lawler, Darwin pondered the meaning of love and death. In particular, the death of his ten-year-old daughter Annie left him with deep scars. Trying to explain the cosmic meaning of suffering was part of the motivation for his scientific inquiry. But through his pain, he also felt wonder--the wonder of the human mind's capacity for uncovering the intelligible order of nature, while still facing the unfathomable mystery of the origin of all things.

It is regrettable that so few people actually read Darwin and see the power and poignancy of his mind at work. A few years ago, I suggested that the best way to resolve the dispute over the teaching of Darwinian evolution in high school biology classes would be to allow students to actually read Darwin himself. Most of the criticisms of Darwin can be found in Darwin's own writings--especially, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. Darwin openly confronts what he calls the "difficulties" for his theory, and he shows how the alternative to his "theory of natural selection" is the "theory of special creation." If high school students were allowed to read Darwin's writings and then read some of the writings from the proponents of "intelligent design," the students could weigh the evidence and arguments and make up their own minds. But when I proposed this, I was attacked by people like Chris Mooney--author of The Republican War on Science--who insisted that high students were not smart enough to read Darwin for themselves and then reach their own conclusions. Instead, Mooney insisted, they should read only textbooks that tell them what the "experts" think, and they certainly should never be permitted to read any writings criticizing evolution from the viewpoint of "intelligent design."

My original proposal was laid out in a short article for Inside Higher Ed, which can be found here.

Recently, I was delighted to hear about a high school course on evolution at Seattle Academy taught by Melinda Mueller. She agreed with my proposal for teaching Darwin, and she has organized her class around having her students read Darwin's Origin. She found that these high school students were quite capable of reading Darwin for themselves and assessing his argument. As a final class project, she had her students create a webpage--"Virtual Museum of the Origin"--for which each student "curated" a chapter of the Origin.

I would be happy to hear about any other high school biology teachers who have done something like this.

There is a deep point at issue here. We live in an Age of Science and Technology, which began some four centuries ago. But we still do not have a broad understanding of what that scientific vision of the cosmos means for human life. Teaching science to our students through ordinary textbooks doesn't provide such an understanding. But reading Darwin as part of what I have called "Darwinian liberal education" could promote the sort of human understanding of our scientific age that we need. What we need, as suggested by Karl Jaspers, is a Second Axial Age--a period of deep philosophical, scientific, and religious reflection on the meaning of human life within an evolutionary cosmos.

My earlier post on "Darwinian liberal education" can be found here.

The article by Valiunas can be found here.

My post on "Darwin's Understanding of Love and Death" can be found here.


Paul said...

Perhaps I am mistaken, but I am not sure that the scientific revolution supports only one vision of the cosmos. I was watching the Nov. 21, 2009 Blogging Heads TV diavlog between Steven Pinker and Robert Wright, and Wright asked Pinker if morality was something we just make up, and then rephrased that question as, are you a moral realist? Pinker responded that he didn't know what philosophers mean when they take about moral realism, but then went on to talk about how often social animals face many iterations of the prisoner's dilemma. What I found surprising was that Pinker called the dilemma a mathematical reality, suggesting that morality has a basis outside of the mere contingency of evolution, and moreover, that the basis of morality is in the world of mathematics, which is generally considered a world of Platonic forms. Now, if what you mean by the scientific vision of the cosmos being is a vision in which there aren't supernatural beings watching over us, judging us, meddling with our lives and also providing us with laws, customs, and a body of ethics with which to give meaning to our lives and justify our actions, then yes, there is a scientific vision of the cosmos in the singular. However, I am not quite sure that the scientific viewpoint necessitates the construction of civilizations that are radical departures from previous civilizations. Although perhaps something else is meant when calling for a new Axial Age?

Roger Sweeny said...

This might be a fantastic intellectual experience but I don't see many schools adopting it.

1. Most high school biology courses are given in ninth grade and this would be beyond the capabilities of many ninth graders.

2. Most high school students don't read. Sad, but true.

3. With the explosion in biological knowledge in the last several decades, the ninth grade biology course already is stuffed with more knowledge than can comfortably be covered in a year.

Larry Arnhart said...

I don't understand the relationship between 2. and 3.

If the students don't read, how do they get "stuffed" with lots of knowledge?

From my experience with college freshmen, most of them have never learned anything in their high school biology classes, because the classes required that they memorize a textbook. This reliance on memorization without any stimulation to think about what they're studying means that they leave the class without any understanding of anything.

It seems to me that the students at Seattle Academy really did learn something, because they had to think through a line of reasoning and assess the evidence and arguments for themselves.

If you're saying that most students never take a biology class after the 9th grade, isn't that in itself a serious problem?

Roger Sweeny said...

They are "stuffed" verbally. The teacher will explain things, give definitions, etc. The students will then do worksheets or projects--which, yes, does involve reading. The teacher may well also assign, say, the ten review problems at the end of the section in the text. Students will then skim through the section, looking for a word or phrase from the question. When they find it, they will copy out the appropriate words from the book, without reading the surrounding text or (often) trying to understand what they are writing.

Teachers often try to stimulate students to think about things but usually come away frustrated. Curriculum guidelines say that a lot of information has to be covered so teachers feel they can't take a lot of time to have students "think through a line of reasoning and assess the evidence and arguments for themselves."

A lot of information has to be covered because it is assumed that if students can pass tests or do projects in the area, they have learned what has been taught. This is a comforting lie that all educators live with (though if pressed, almost all will admit that "by August, they have forgotten 90% of what they learned in my class."). Alas, you are absolutely right about that--and it is also true about just about every other course too.

For science, most American high school students take biology-chemistry-physics in 9-10-11 or physical science(or Physics Lite)-biology-chemistry. Often the first is offered to above average students, who then can take AP science as seniors. Average students will take the second, and can take real physics as seniors.

Many students take no science as seniors or take electives that vary from place to place: anatomy, forensics, environmental science, astronomy, etc.