June 3, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Who Wins and Loses in the Darwin Wars?

Sandra Lilley, writing in MSNBC News, pictures sad-faced students, whose scientific inquisitiveness has been stifled by the controversy over evolution.  The article starts with a touching photo of a young girl, a look of wonder in her eyes, examining a toy human skeleton.  “Science is becoming a political ‘hot potato’ for some students,” she describes, “transforming what should be a dynamic, fascinating topic into a total turn-off” (emphasis added in all quotes).  “And some students are choosing silence over losing a prom date.”
    Lilley quotes only pro-evolution spokespersons (some nominal Christians) who express the opinion that the next generation of scientists is being threatened by creationists and politicians raising a ruckus over evolution, leaving students bewildered over a conflict they don’t understand, preferring to avoid the subject as a result.
    The only evidence offered for evolution in the article is from Ken Miller: “If a child becomes a pharmacist and someone develops a resistance to a drug, that is evolution,” he said.  Miller argues that society will be at a disadvantage if we don’t teach evolution, which he equates with basic science.
    A different point of view was offered by high school science teacher Doug Cowan (Port Orchard, Washington), writing for the Christian Science Monitor.  In his experience, he claims, students become stimulated over his non-sectarian “teach the controversy” approach. 

I am a public high school biology teacher, and I do an unusual thing.  I teach my students more than they have to know about evolution.  I push them to behave like competent jurors – not just to swallow what some authority figure tells them to believe – not even me – but rather to critically analyze, with an open mind, the evidence set before them….
Teenagers, not surprisingly, find this approach exhilarating. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

He finds that the students “perk up” when he points out that “contrary to their large and monolithic biology textbook, some highly credentialed scientists insist that there are limitations to Darwin’s theory.”  When he displays some of the alleged evidences for evolution that have been found fraudulent (Piltdown Man, Haeckel’s embryos), “the sleepy looks in the classroom usually vanish.”
    Cowan, however, is not on an anti-evolution crusade.  He also lays out all the “reputable evidence for evolution,” the “pillars of evolutionary theory” such as bacterial resistance, finch beaks and genetically altered fruit flies, then challenges the class to reason whether these observed microevolutionary changes can be extrapolated into macroevolution.
    By maintaining a neutral stance, letting them examine all the evidence and make up their own minds, Cowan says his approach is on firm legal footing.  Students and parents alike seem to appreciate his method.  Students feel liberated to weigh the evidence for themselves.  “The job of the scientist, I explain, is to find the best explanation to a problem, not just to defend his or her own position at all costs.”  For support, he quotes Charles Darwin: “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.”

Evolution can be taught skillfully and poorly.  Anti-evolution can be taught skillfully and poorly.  Reporting on either can be done skillfully or poorly.  Here are two examples for you to evaluate.
    No reputable anti-evolutionist wants students to become afraid of the controversy over evolution and become tempted to shut up.  No reputable pro-evolution teacher should want the class to be indoctrinated, nor have a student feel browbeaten for having honest questions about evolution.  Cowan seems to have hit the sweet spot.  Can anyone really doubt that learning to think critically is going to help the next generation of scientists?
    The only losers in the Darwin Wars, when fought fairly, are the indoctrinators who don’t want the students to know about Haeckel and Piltdown and the other dirty laundry in the textbook.  Watch the film Icons of Evolution, including the Q&A in the bonus features, for a fuller defense of the “teach the controversy” approach.  And teachers: feel free to use our eight-part, non-religious curriculum (see 02/11/2005 commentary) for supplementary material the textbook left out.  Watch those young eyes perk up….

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