October 21, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

How Not to Teach Evolution

Current Biology usually interviews a scientist for each issue.  In the October 14 issue,1 the subject was Dyche Mullins, a molecular biologist at UC San Francisco.  His story of how evolution was taught in high school should make teachers and parents take notice.
    After the usual anecdotal fluff about what kind of cookies he likes and what bicycles he prefers, Mullins was asked what turned him on to biology after so many years (he did not become interested till graduate school).

Good question. In part, it was the way I was taught biology in high school.  My teachers refused to teach anything about evolution.  In fact, the only time I remember hearing the ‘E’ word in high school was when we dissected frogs.  After explaining to a room full of queasy kids how understanding the anatomy of a frog could help us understand the basics of human anatomy, the teacher paused thoughtfully and said, “Now I’m not talking about evolution here, so don’t go home and tell your parents that I’m teaching evolution”.  And that was it.  The rest of high school biology was just a collection of evidence supporting Dobzhansky’s claim that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution”.  We collected insects and looked at pine cones, and we had a hamster that we taught to go to the bathroom through a hole in the side of its cage.  That was pretty much it.  Biology seemed more like an eccentric hobby than a coherent body of knowledge.  Mercifully, we were spared any discussion of ‘Intelligent Design’….
    I started reading more deeply in biology and realized just how flawed my early education had been.  I read Darwin and I discovered T.H. Morgan and Max Delbr�ck and the Phage Group.  The only advantage of coming to biology so late was that I found almost everything that I learned new and exciting.  Reading about solving the genetic code, thirty years after the fact, made me as excited as if it was happening at that moment, in a lab down the hall.  I was astounded by the calcium ATPase: a single molecule that can discriminate, with remarkable specificity, between similar divalent cations and use chemical energy to pump calcium against a 10,000-fold concentration gradient.

In the ellipsis, Mullins had described his educational diversion into physics and mathematics.  Apparently his teachers on those subjects did a better job, because he dove into them headlong with gusto.  What made him turn back to biology was seeing living systems for the first time as computer-controlled machinery:

To my engineer’s mind, a living cell was now just a complex, feedback-controlled system.  I could imagine writing equations to describe biochemical pathways, cellular functions, and, eventually, entire living cells.  Nowadays this kind of thinking would be called ‘systems biology’.  And while it is not exactly the way I approach biological problems in my lab now, it was the kind of thinking that made biology intelligible to me.

When outside the lab, Dyche takes off the white coat.  You can watch him ham it up with comedy country blues boys on YouTube, singing, “Man of Constant Sorrow.”


1.  Q&A, “Dyche Mullins,” Current Biology, Volume 18, Issue 19, 14 October 2008, pages R895-R896, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2008.07.056.

Biology teachers should have constant sorrow, too after reading this story.  This is how to turn a bright young inquiring mind into a self-contradicting smart aleck.  Can’t this blues boy realize that complex, feedback-controlled systems don’t just happen?  This man of constant sorrow can stare at intelligent design right in front of his face, like that biological machine that “can discriminate, with remarkable specificity, between similar divalent cations and use chemical energy to pump calcium against a 10,000-fold concentration gradient,” and turn right around and praise Darwin and Dobzhansky.  Step back a second and realize how insane this is.  This same dude would never step into a computer room and insult the designers, but can stare at even more complex systems and call them cobbled jumbles of time and chance.  It’s enough to make you want to yank his beard and knock on his skull and ask, “Anybody home?” (Caution: Do NOT do that to anybody except yourself, women and obsessive shavers excepted.)  The interviewer, as usual for Current Bilge, just slurps it all up like fine whine.
    Teachers: pay attention.  You cannot solve the creation-evolution controversy by ignoring it.  This does more harm than good.  Students want answers.  They are curious about evolution.  Those from religious homes may be worried about it, while those from secular humanist homes may have moms and dads ready to sue.  You cannot push this subject off.  One cannot understand modern history or science without understanding Darwin.  The next Dyche Mullins in your classroom will remember how you sloughed off the subject as if it were taboo, then a Darwin dogmatist in college will sweep him off his feet with visions of the alluring explanatory power of evolution.
    In private or home schools, the solution is simple: teach all about Darwinism – all its strengths and weaknesses, the stuff the textbooks leave out.  In public schools, the courts and the school boards have often become so paranoid they will try to persecute or dismiss any teacher who teaches scientific facts about Darwin, like they did to Roger DeHart.  Sometimes the thought police go after not what you say, but what they think your motivation is.  You have to know your principal, your state, and your school board.  Thankfully some states are passing academic freedom laws.  Many teachers have found the right way to present Darwinism honestly without dogmatism.  Who could fault that?  Science is supposed to be the opposite of dogmatism!  Don’t expect all parents and school boards to be rational, though, on this hot topic; the Discovery Institute can provide valuable help for negotiating the fine legal lines involved.  Whether public or private or home school teacher, your goal is to help students become familiar with the evolutionary theory in its historical, political and scientific contexts; to understand the arguments Darwin and his critics have made, and while at the same time to develop critical thinking skills to be able to separate dogmatic claims from scientific evidence.
    Let’s use this entry also to cogitate on the nature of science.  We tend to pigeonhole subjects into watertight categories: a scientist is someone who does science, and science is what scientists do.  Is that necessarily the case?  When Mullins is clowning around with the country band, is he doing science then, just because he is a scientist by profession?  Obviously not.  All right, then; is he doing science from the moment he steps into the Science Building on campus till the moment he goes home?  Maybe some of the time.  Not on coffee breaks.  But then, maybe some flash of scientific insight will come to him when he gazes at the swirls of cream in his cup.  Is it when he is writing a proposal or scientific paper?  Is it when he is tediously jotting down readings in his lab book while his mind is on the American League championships?  Is it anything he does because he belongs to a professional scientific society, while the bird watcher outside does not?  These questions help to dissolve prejudices about The Scientist.
    For Dyche’s view on what makes a person a good scientist, let’s look at his answer to the last question about what advice he would give a student seeking a career in biology.  Get ready for a surprise.

Advice is a tricky thing.  When I started my lab I picked out a set of mentors: three successful scientists to whom I ran with all my vexing questions.  I soon found that, no matter what the question, I always got three different (and often contradictory) pieces of advice.  One of those pieces of advice, however, usually resonated more than the others and that’s the one I would follow.  So my advice would be to get as much advice as you can from as many different sources as possible.  And remember that much of it will be bad advice, or at least bad advice for you, even if the source is an eminent and successful scientist.  You need to trust your instincts.
    As Andrew Murray once told me, “Think about all the scientists you know.  No two of them approach a problem in the same way.  No two of them run their labs the same way.  And no two successful scientists are successful for the same reason.

Notice something interesting: this is all about intuition.  You thought that science is following the scientific method.  Here, Mullins is saying that science is all about instinct!  Then you and me are scientists whenever we listen to a lot of advice, discard the advice that doesn’t “resonate,” and trust our instincts.  You can imagine a lawyer or hunter or coach giving the same advice to his students.  What scientific method is Mullins following when he gathers as much advice as he can, then trusts his instincts?  Certainly a politician can do that.  Notice he said that no two of them [scientists] approach a problem in the same way, run their labs the same way, or are successful for the same reason.  There is no one way to do science!  A corollary is that anybody who gets good advice and trusts his instincts has just as much right to call himself a scientist as Mullins does, because there is no method, or process, or secret formula that makes what Mullins does more scientific than what any other careful investigator does.
    Oh, but you may be thinking, Mullins has a degree in science.  He passed all the educational requirements.  He joined a scientific society.  He is smart, well trained and experienced: this grants him membership in The Science Guild.  That may be all well and good, but we repeat the question: when is he doing science, and when is he not doing science?  We remind our readers that some of the greatest scientists in history never went through those qualifications.  They learned at home or from personal experience.  They were mavericks and outsiders.  Some were scorned by the Science Guild in their day – and not vindicated till after they died.  Should they be classed as non-scientists because they were outside the Guild?  Of course not.  Science only became highly professionalized and institutionalized in relatively recent times.  The word “scientist” did not even exist till William Whewell coined the term in 1832.
    Science is one of those vague words that means too little by attempting to stand for too much.  Are we to grant the same prestige to political science and economic science as we do to physics?  How about the far-out theoretical physics that still has no observational evidence?  Is psychology science?  Science of mind?  Scientology?  Clearly some distinctions are in order!
    In the original sense of the word, science means knowledge.  The word requires no set method, schooling or membership.  Knowledge welcomes all seekers and rejects some SINOs (scientists in name only).  While we should respect the degree of rigorous education that professional scientists have mastered, and the experience they have gained, and any useful or enduring findings they have made, we should keep these distinctions in mind.  When Dyche Mullins dismissively disparages intelligent design while staring it in the face in a cell, he is not doing science: he is doing ridicule.  When he falls in love with Darwin but never studies the problems and contrary arguments, he is taking things on authority.  He deserves no more respect for uninformed opinions than a cultist or gambler.  Don’t respect a scientist when he acts unscientifically, and don’t ignore a person lacking a PhD in Science when he seeks knowledge in an honest, systematic, informed way.
    A lay person with common sense on the right track may achieve more science (knowledge) than a professional pursuing a wrong track.  Being a professional scientist does not grant legitimacy to whatever that person does or says that is not observable, testable, and repeatable.  And knowledge is certainly a goal that any honest observer in search of the truth can hope to attain.

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