How to Overcome Student Objections to Evolution
Biology teachers face increasing difficulty from students coming into class with bad feelings about evolution (11/30/2005, 08/30/2005). Many pro-evolution teachers will be attracted to methods that have a demonstrable track record of relieving tensions and facilitating the process of getting students to accept Darwin’s theory. David Sloan Wilson (Binghamton U, NY) has just the thing. Writing in PLoS Biology,1 he introduced Evolution for Everyone, or EvoS for short, with the upbeat title, “Evolution for Everyone: How to Increase Acceptance of, Interest in, and Knowledge about Evolution” (compare 11/01/2005 entry about another suggested method) First, the bad news that made this initiative necessary:
Evolution is famously controversial, despite being as well established as any scientific theory. Most people are familiar with the dismal statistics, showing how a large fraction of Americans at all educational levels do not accept the theory of evolution, how efforts to teach evolution often fail to have an impact, and how constant vigilance is required to keep evolution in the public school curriculum. Even worse, most people who do accept the theory of evolution don’t relate it to matters of importance in their own lives. There appear to be two walls of resistance, one denying the theory altogether and the other denying its relevance to human affairs. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)
Wilson impresses the reader right off the bat with statistics from tests of the EvoS method at Binghamton University, showing a pronounced shift toward acceptance of evolution among students, regardless of religious background, familiarity with the theory, or political persuasion. How did he do it? Wilson describes the multi-pronged approach as focusing on teaching “a sequence of ideas” and helping students “catch the evolution bug.” From the long article, a few highlights stand out.
For one thing, EvoS does not shy away from controversy, but embraces it as a teaching opportunity. When students feel threatened by evolution, for instance, the teacher delves right in. “Threatening ideas are like other threats,” Wilson says; “the first impulse is to run away or attack them. Make the same ideas alluring, and our first impulse is to embrace them and make them our own.” OK, so while the teacher is trying to explain how evolution explains the world and helps provide ways to improve the future, a student objects that evolution has produced a lot of bad social policies. Now what? Don’t dodge the question:
This requires a discussion of past threatening associations, even before the theory is presented. Evolution has been associated with immorality, determinism, and social policies ranging from eugenics to genocide. It has been used to justify racism and sexism. All of these negative associations must be first acknowledged and then challenged. It’s not as if the world was a nice place before Darwin and then became mean on the basis of his theory. Before Darwin, religious and other justifications were used to commit the same acts, as when the American colonists used the principle of divine right to dispossess Native Americans, and men claimed that women were designed by “God and Nature” for domestic servitude. These beliefs are patently self-serving and it should surprise no one that an authoritative scientific theory would be pressed into the same kind of service. It is the job of intellectuals to see through such arguments and not be taken in by them. Moreover, the deep philosophical issues associated with topics such as morality, determinism, and social equality are increasingly being approached from a modern evolutionary perspective and are among the topics to be discussed in the course. When these issues are discussed at the beginning of the course, students put their own threatening associations with evolution on hold and become curious to know how a subject that they associate with science (evolution) can shed light on a subject that they associate with the humanities (philosophy). Students who indicate exceptional interest are referred to books that are both authoritative and accessible, such as Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.
Wilson teaches evolution not as a choice between theology or materialism, but a third way: a process of change, in which the material organism “becomes a kind of living clay that can be molded by environmental forces that influence survival and reproduction.” This, he explains, enables evolutionary theory to make predictions about how organisms and populations adapt to their surroundings.
Wilson encourages discussion groups. As another example of facing a controversial topic head-on, he divides students into groups to discuss infanticide:
Choosing the subject of infanticide, I say that superficially it might seem that organisms would never evolve to kill their own offspring, but with a little thought the students might be able to identify situations in which infanticide is biologically adaptive for the parents. I ask them to form small groups by turning to their neighbors to discuss the subject for five minutes and to list their predictions on a piece of paper.
After the lists are collected, I ask the students for some of their predictions to list in front of the whole class. They are eager to talk, and reliably identify the three major adaptive contexts of infanticide: lack of resources, poor offspring quality, and uncertain paternity, along with less likely possibilities, such as population regulation, that can be set aside for future discussion. I conclude by attempting to convey the simple but profound message of the exercise: How can they, mere undergraduate students, who know almost nothing about evolution and (one hopes) know nothing at all about infanticide, so easily deduce the major hypotheses that are in fact employed in the study of infanticide for organisms as diverse as plants, insects, and mammals? That is just one example of the power of thinking on the basis of adaptation and natural selection.
Lest one think this is just talking about birds and bees, Wilson makes it clear that a key feature of EvoS is encouraging students to see human beings as integrally involved in the evolutionary process:
One of the biggest tactical errors in teaching evolution is to avoid discussing humans or to restrict discussion to remote topics such as human origins. The question of how we arose from the apes is fascinating and important, but is only one of any number of questions that can be asked about humans from an evolutionary perspective—including infanticide. If evolutionary theory can make sense of this subject for organisms as diverse as plants, insects, and mammals, what about us? If we operate by different rules than all other creatures for this and other subjects, why should this be so? The most common answer to this question is “learning and culture,” but what exactly are these things? Do they exist apart from evolution, or do they themselves need to be explained from an evolutionary perspective? I raise these issues early in the course, not to answer them, but to emphasize how much is “on the table” as part of the course.
Wilson says that for millennia, people have considered humankind categorically different from other creatures in their mental, moral and aesthetic abilities. “We are obviously unique in some respects,” he acknowledges, “but in exactly what way needs to be completely rethought.” Students are encouraged to view human infanticide along the same lines as they did for animals, and to do the same for human warfare, learning, and culture – all of which the teacher can demonstrate are present in varying degrees in the natural world.
Such directness might seem worrisome to a biology teacher. Wilson reassures the reader that, in practice, the method actually produces compliant students:
It might seem that boldly discussing subjects such as human infanticide (which the students quickly connect to the contemporary issue of abortion), along with other topics such as sex differences and homosexuality later in the course, is the ultimate in political incorrectness. However, I have taught this material for many years in prior courses without a single complaint, and the assessment of “Evolution for Everyone” demonstrates an overwhelmingly positive response across the religious and political spectrum. Clearly, there is a way to proceed that arouses intense interest without animosity or moral outrage. In the case of infanticide, evolutionary theory doesn’t say that it’s right—it is used to make an informed guess about when it occurs. All of the students want to know if the guess proves to be correct for humans in addition to other creatures, regardless of their moral stance on abortion. Moreover, they see that the information can be useful for addressing the problem, whatever particular solution they have in mind. The importance of culture is not denied, but becomes part of the evolutionary framework rather than a vaguely articulated alternative. The picture that emerges makes sense of cases of infanticide that appear periodically in the news (typically young women with few resources and under the influence of a male partner who is not the father) and that previously seemed inexplicable. Nearly everyone values this kind of understanding and thinks that it can be put to positive use, as demonstrated by the quantitative assessment. More generally, including humans along with the rest of life vastly increases students’ interest in evolution and acceptance to the degree that it seems to lead to understanding and improvement of the human condition.
Wilson continues; evolutionary changes are not always adaptive, nor are they always benign. “Fitness is a relative and local concept,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter how well an organism survives and reproduces, only that it does so better than other organisms in its vicinity.” Overall, the teacher presents evolution as practical for explaining the observations without making any moral judgments. But then, what about morality? That’s part of our evolution, too, as more group discussion helps the students realize:
If behaviors regarded as immoral in human terms are adaptive and “natural,” then aren’t all the fears about evolution justified? No—because behaviors that are regarded as moral in human terms are also adaptive and “natural” under the right circumstances, which can be illustrated with the following exercise of the sort suggested by Nelson and Alters. First, the class is asked to list the behaviors that they associate with morality. The most common items include altruism, honesty, love, charity, sacrifice, loyalty, bravery, and so on. Then they are asked to list behaviors that they associate with immorality, and respond with opposite items such as selfishness, deceit, hatred, miserliness, and cowardice. With these lists in mind, the students are asked three questions: (1) What would happen if you put a single moral individual and a single immoral individual together on a desert island? (The students quickly conclude that the moral individual would become shark food within days.) (2) What would happen if you put a group of moral individuals on one island and a group of immoral individuals on another island? (The students are equally quick to conclude that the moral group would work together to escape the island or turn it into a little utopia, while the immoral group would self-destruct.) (3) What would happen if you allow one immoral individual to paddle over to Virtue Island? (The answer to this question is complex because it is a messy combination of the straightforward answers to the first two questions.)
The students learn, then, that situational ethics pop right out of evolutionary theory. “This exercise is simple and entertaining,” he says, “but profound in its implications. It shows that most of the traits associated with human morality can be biologically adaptive.” Students are assured that a quasi-traditional morality, including altruism and honesty (except for the occasional freeloader or non-cooperator) is a natural consequence of natural selection within groups. Alas, the teacher must admit that group selection can lead to “a disturbing corollary. Can’t behaviors that count as moral within groups be used for immoral purposes among groups? The answer to this question is ‘yes,’ which means that moral conduct among groups is a different and more difficult evolutionary problem to solve than moral conduct within groups.” By this time, students understand that scientists should one day be able to figure this out by such a useful, predictive theory as natural selection.
The important point is that evolutionary theory can potentially explain the evolution of behaviors associated with morality and immorality. This is vastly different than the usual portrayal of evolution as a theory that explains immorality but leaves morality unaccounted for. The average student is well aware that immoral behaviors usually benefit the actor, that human groups have a disturbing tendency to confine moral conduct to their own members, and so on. When evolutionary theory is presented as a framework for understanding these patterns in all their complexity, including the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly, it is perceived as a tool for understanding that can be used for positive ends, rather than as a threat.
So you see, students, evolutionary theory should not be threatening. It’s just a tool, a neutral way of looking at the natural world (including ourselves), so that we can explain a wide variety of observations that before Darwin seemed inexplicable. It’s time to get into the heavy stuff:
At this point (about mid-semester), the students are told that they have acquired a conceptual framework that can be used to study virtually any subject in biology and human affairs, which will be used to study particular topics for the rest of the semester. There is great flexibility in the topics that can be chosen, which is facilitated by having the students read, rather than a textbook, well-chosen articles from the primary scientific literature.
(It can be safely assumed that Wilson does not have in mind sources like Of Pandas and People). The enlightened student is now ready to think about Darwinian medicine, and topics as diverse as “violence, sexuality, personality, and culture” to see what insights evolutionary thinking can provide. “They realize that they have started to approach the study of humans in the way that evolutionary biologists approach the rest of life, with a common language that can be spoken across many domains of knowledge.” They have arrived.
One more thing: the student gets to choose his or her own topic and write it up in evolutionary terms. Suggestions: “adoption, alcoholism, attractiveness, body piercing, depression, eating disorders, fashion, fear, hand dominance, homosexuality, marriage, play, sexual jealousy, sibling rivalry, social roles, suicide, video games, and yawning.” As Dobzhansky famously remarked, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
To summarize, “Evolution for Everyone” works by establishing a general conceptual framework through a sequence of ideas. The framework is then strengthened and consolidated by applying it to a number of specific topics. Virtually all students respond to the class because they cease to be threatened by evolutionary theory and begin to perceive it as a powerful way to understand and improve the world. Once the theory becomes alluring, the only remaining obstacle to learning is the intrinsic difficulty of the subject. That, it turns out, is not much of an obstacle either. Almost anyone can master the basic principles of evolution and incorporate them into their own thinking, providing both a foundation and an incentive to advance their knowledge in subsequent courses.
Speaking of subsequent courses, Wilson is thinking way outside the box of high school or college biology. First, he encourages students who have “caught the evolution bug” to spread their newfound interests into a campus-wide program. The anthropology, psychology, economics and philosophy departments, with help from the administration, can all merge their evolutionary ideas into a cohesive picture, transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries. Special seminars can be held. Students can earn special EvoS certificates by completing required courses. Faculty advisors can counsel each student to “develop a curriculum tailored to his or her interests from the menu of offerings.”
One last obstacle: other faculty. Though most of them already ridicule creationism, Wilson contends that most of them don’t yet see the relevance of evolution to their disciplines. His plan, therefore, includes faculty training as well as student training, so that the university becomes “a single intellectual community.”
In many ways, this type of experience approaches the ideal of a liberal arts education. It should be especially appealing to small colleges that have difficulty achieving a critical mass in single subject areas. Evolutionary theory is not the only common language, but it is a very good one that will eventually become part of the normal discourse for all subject areas relevant to human affairs and the natural world.
That’s “Evolution for Everyone” – one big, happy campus.
1David Sloan Wilson, “Evolution for Everyone: How to Increase Acceptance of, Interest in, and Knowledge about Evolution,” Public Library of Science, Biology, Volume 3 | Issue 12 | December 2005.
In James Clavell’s chilling tale The Children’s Story, (a must read before continuing this commentary), the New Teacher comes to class after the conquest (presumably a communist takeover). She takes a frightened group of children and calms them into becoming compliant, trusting citizens. In just 23 minutes, she has gently and effectively dismantled their patriotism, their faith, their family loyalty and their most cherished beliefs before they even know what hit them. A well-trained, master manipulator, she is not a teacher: she is a facilitator, a guarantor of compliance with the new regime, an electrician who has cut off power from the resistance. She is just as much an arm of the State as the soldier on the battlefield, and perhaps even more effective. This is not education. It is indoctrination with finesse.
David Sloan Wilson is talking about college students, not children. They are a more difficult lot to indoctrinate, but the parallels with the New Teacher are striking. Consider a few:
- Teach only one side. Wilson’s method depends on carefully controlling what the students hear. The New Teacher’s success depended on first removing Miss Worden, the Old Teacher, before she could say anything. A debate with Miss Worden might have led to very unacceptable results, so it was essential to dispense with her quickly and quietly. With EvoS, unlike with Verhey’s inoculation technique (11/01/2005), which at least gave the students a carefully measured taste of a contrary viewpoint, Wilson acknowledges that evolution is “famously controversial” but gives voice only to the Darwinist propaganda. This is indoctrination by definition. He prescribes “well-chosen articles from the primary scientific literature” (read: DODO, for Darwin-only, Darwin-only). Notice his favorite recommended reading: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, in which Daniel Dennett advocated putting creationists in zoos, or otherwise eliminating them, since they are a threat to the regime.
- Eliminate the negative. The New Teacher knew that the children were afraid and had heard bad things about the conquerors, so she was quick to allay their fears by distraction – singing, complimenting the children, disarming them with friendliness, and other tactics – while sidestepping the evils her regime was doing in the background. Similarly, Wilson’s first step is to confront the students’ fears about the implications of evolutionary philosophy (including eugenics and genocide) by soft-pedaling the history and implying “we’re all in this together.” Why look, Christians have done many bad things, too. It’s not like the world was a nice place before Darwin came along. EvoS tries to disconnect evolution from its historic disastrous consequences by selling it as only a neutral, objective, unbiased, useful, scientific, explanatory tool. Sure, some people might misuse it, but that doesn’t make it bad now, does it children?
- Euphemize. Johnny’s daddy didn’t believe “bad” things, just “wrong” things. Daddy and Miss Worden were not going to concentration camps (or worse), just to “school” (remember how the communists called this “re-education”? A little brainwashing, a little torture, some mind-altering drugs – all very effective). EvoS helps us understand “morality”. It helps us understand how we are all a part of nature. It helps us improve the human condition. The new regime is nothing to be afraid of; why, it is just “a tool for understanding that can be used for positive ends, rather than as a threat.”
- Confront. The New Teacher stops them in the middle of the pledge and asks them, what does it mean? What does pledge mean? What does allegiance mean? Those are good questions, but she didn’t define them like Red Skelton did in a famous monologue. She asked the questions not to answer them, but to raise doubts about what they had been taught. Wilson confronts the students with questions about abortion and infanticide, not to make them think critically, but to draw them into his net: it’s all about evolution. Evolution explains infanticide. Evolution explains abortion. Evolution explains yawning. Evolution explains everything.
- Disarm. The New Teacher did not charge through the door as the ogre or beast the children feared; she was dressed neatly, smiled, and greeted them by name. She sang them a song. She sympathized with their fears. She gave them candy, demonstrating that prayers to “Our Leader” are legitimate prayers, but only if a human being actually answers. Under the sweet surface was a hideous assault on their freedoms and values. Similarly, Wilson’s “Virtue Island” game is a subtle form of mind control. It simultaneously oversimplifies the issue of morality and teaches moral relativism, while denying any opportunity for rebuttal. EvoS keeps the tone happy and positive by utilizing discussion groups, giving the students games to play, and rewarding compliant students with certificates for completing the brainwashing.
- Dismantle. Clavell’s schoolchildren fondled their little pieces of the flag, oblivious to what The New Teacher had done in cutting it up and giving them each a piece of it. Then, amidst shrieks of excitement, the children tossed the flagpole out the window with their own hands. Wilson starts by saluting virtue and pledging allegiance to morality, but then he proceeds to cut it up and hand out the pieces by getting the students to slowly agree that it, too, is a product of evolution. Since people evolved – since everything evolved – then, well, morality evolved, too. Isn’t evolution a wonderful and powerful theory?
- Think Big. At 9:23, the New Teacher “was warmed … by the thought that throughout the school and throughout the land all children, all men and all women were being taught with the same faith, with variations of the same procedures. Each according to his age group. Each according to his need.” Utilizing techniques appropriate for college students, EvoS promulgates “the same faith” that children and adults will get. While focusing in this article on the college age group, Wilson understands the big agenda of the regime. He sees beyond EvoS to the entire intellectual program of the university, and of the world. Evolution is to become the campus-wide “common language” the “conceptual framework” for the liberal arts and humanities, the lens through which all knowledge will be sifted. Debate won’t have a chance, because the Ministry of Truth will control the dictionary and the history textbook. There will be no controversy, for everyone will have completed the required brainwashing sessions, from freshmen to faculty. It will be… Utopia.
If you were swayed by David Sloan Wilson’s article, and thought it sounded like a nice program, there might still be hope, but it will require desperate measures. Brainwashing is a serious mental disorder. Undoing its effects requires rescue and deprogramming. The stakes in this intellectual takeover that the Darwinists are advocating could not be higher. Wilson, PLoS Biology, the NCSE, and Big Science in general have their sights set on nothing less than totalitarian rule. It is not a matter of debating peers, or winning in the free marketplace of ideas. This is an agenda for wage and price controls, for one-party rule, and for dictatorial power over the means of idea production. John Stuart Mill, the atheist-empiricist utilitarian philosopher (a friend of Darwin), the father of the “open marketplace of ideas,” would be appalled. Pay him no mind; he was just a product of evolution, too, and his ideas have no external validity apart from evolution. Evolution is all; all is evolution.
Any view trying to encompass morality, philosophy, religion, anthropology, psychology, economics, history, sexual ethics, culture, eating disorders, video games and even yawning has long ceased to be just a biological theory. Evolution for Everyone is a complete and total world view: “a powerful way to understand and improve the world” including “deep philosophical issues associated with topics such as morality, determinism, and social equality.” Like a communist ideal State, it is the machine of history. Students are expendable; they must be molded into obedient pawns of the regime.
The first step in deprogramming is to realize you’ve been had. If you still have some control of your rational faculties, consider that this evolutionary indoctrination program falsifies itself. Wilson talks about morality, but makes morality a by-product of a mindless, relativistic, unguided process that succeeds by squashing the unfit. What is “right” or “wrong” in such a world? Obviously, it could be anything, including cruelty or genocide. There is no such thing as a “Virtue Island.” He cannot define groups of moral and immoral people without borrowing vocabulary from a religion or philosophy that believes in absolutes. In philosophical dualism or pantheism, yin and yang are morally indistinguishable. Moral categories are in the eye of the beholder. The immoral group can call itself the moral group without any guilt or contradiction, because evolution is what evolution does. Whatever it does is “good,” whatever that means.
Richard Weikart in From Darwin to Hitler underscored the chilling point that Hitler sincerely believed he was doing the right thing. He was not amoral; he did what he did from a deeply held conviction based on what he believed evolutionary ethics demanded (and remember, he got willing compliance from the intellectual leaders and scientists of his day—see 04/07/2005). Hitler’s views are disdained by evolutionists today – but on what basis? If they say Hitler was “wrong” to murder 11 million people, challenge them to define “wrong” without reference to absolute standards of morality. It cannot be done. Weikart explains, “Darwinism provided no basis to consider some forms of morality “better” than any other, or for that matter, it gave no reason to think that morality was “better” in any real sense than immorality” (p. 229).
Likewise, Wilson cannot claim moral equivalence between the evils committed by Christians and Darwinists. It is undeniable that so-called “Christians” have committed atrocities. For one thing, however, the differences in scale are mind-boggling (see 11/30/2005 and also the January 2006 issue of National Geographic which, although underreporting communist democides by over 50%, still shows Darwin-inspired communism and Nazism outstripping any religious-inspired murders by orders of magnitude). The body counts simply cannot be compared. Furthermore, it is impossible to derive genocide or other moral evils from the teachings of Jesus Christ, who taught that we should love one another and turn the other cheek and pray for those who persecute us. There is, by contrast, a very logical, plausible line of reasoning from the premise of survival of the fittest to a Hitler or Stalin. This is important to ponder for year 2006. Don’t think for a minute that the atrocities inherent in Darwin-inspired politics were exhausted in the 20th century.
The EvoS talk about morality, therefore, is self-defeating and self-refuting. What else do you need to know about Wilson’s utopian vision? How about the way EvoS shields the students’ eyes from all the controversies between Darwinists? EvoS espouses the game-theoretic, environmental approach to evolutionary theory when other ardent Darwinians would disagree strongly with it on numerous points (except for the mantra, “evolution is a fact”). Would you trust any teacher who takes a tattered hodgepodge of chopped-up guts and blood and toxin and packages it neatly to sell as a delicious sausage that will improve your health? Wilson is all bluffing and no credibility. You have been taken in by a cult. It’s a dangerous cult. It is Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. If you listen to the New Teacher and the regime she represents, realize that life will be sweet only as long as you comply. Try to disagree with them after they have achieved all power, and they will put you in the zoo. That’s if you are one of the lucky ones.
We can’t afford to be little Johnnys with only a nebulous “hate” that somehow gives us “strength” in the face of some perceived threat we don’t understand but have been told to fear. As Clavell showed, it was only a matter of time before Johnny succumbed. If the regime succeeds in rewriting history, defining terms and violating our rationality, as Orwell showed, it’s only a matter of time before Winston acquiesced and confessed, from his heart, that he loved Big Brother. Sir Francis Bacon said, knowledge is power. Know your history. Know your science. Understand philosophy, theology, the history of ideas, and the art of reasoning. Practice the skill of baloney detecting. Thankfully, the Darwin Borg has not yet become powerful enough to assimilate by physical coercion; this means that, so far, only weak minds are susceptible. Till then, knowledge is the best defense against a seemingly overwhelming force that is turning brainwashing into a fine art.