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Tuesday, December 18 , 2018, 8:32 pm | Fair 50º


Victor Dominocielo: Religion in the Science Classroom an Evolutionary Challenge

Around this time of year, biology curriculums nationwide usually turn their focus toward the central tenant of all life on earth, Charles Darwin’s scientific theory of Evolution by natural selection.

Also at this time, some states and school districts embarrass themselves tremendously by attempting to inject religious belief into the science curriculum in the form of Creationism and Intelligent design. School districts in 15 states over the last 40 years have tried to inject religion into science classes. In 2005, a Kansas school district went so far as to attempt to change the definition of science to accommodate their Creationist beliefs. The U.S. Supreme Court routinely knocks down these challenges as violating the “establishment clause” of separation between church and state.

Approximately 46 percent (Gallup poll) of the American people do not believe in Evolution (a more recent poll puts the number around 40 percent). In 2011, Penn State University researchers Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer polled 926 high school biology teachers and found that only 27 percent taught Evolution as the central, unifying theme of all biology. Another 13 percent actually advocated Creationism/Intelligent design in their public school classrooms.

The remaining 60 percent are described as “cautious” because they are not educated enough in the subject (a course in Evolution is, shamefully, not required to obtain a biology degree at many universities) or because they want to avoid controversy with parents and administrators. Unfortunately, this “cautious” 60 percent of biology teachers fails to explain the differences between religious thought and the nature of scientific inquiry.

In doing so, these teachers actually undermine established experts and more than 150 years of scientific research in the field of Evolution. The cautious 60 percent even encourage students to get other explanations for life on earth and so legitimize religious arguments in a scientific field of study. It is a confusing juxtaposition to suggest to students that well-established, evidence-based scientific theories can be debated as if they were personal opinions and beliefs.

Every science teacher has to deal with teaching scientific methodology to students who have a variety of different secular and religious beliefs. One of the foremost evolutionary biologists, Richard Dawkins, has taken a decidedly abrasive tone when categorizing those who don’t share his appreciation of science. He calls these religious people “ignorant, stupid, wicked and insane” and has even written a book, The God Delusion, in which he soundly trounces his religious critics.

Although brilliant, Dawkins is making an elementary mistake by “talking out of school” or outside his area of expertise about religious belief and philosophy. He was even chided by astronomer Neils degrass Tyson, for using his position to pick a fight and expound on his personal beliefs and feelings instead of sticking to his outstanding evolutionary research.

I could not imagine having such an attitude in my biology classes. I have a very simple and direct method to clearly establish the lines between science and religion for my impressionable 14 year olds. On the first day of class, on the first page of their notebooks, I have them write the following concepts:

» No one can tell you what to believe, least of all me.

» My job is to give you the tools to think critically and scientifically about biology.

» Learn the science and then believe what you want.

These simple “rules of the road” put the students at ease and establish an atmosphere of mutual respect. I’ve had very religious, Creationist and ID students in my classes and I feel it’s important to be very respectful of their beliefs. At the same time it’s important to distinguish between personal beliefs and scientific research and evidence during classroom discussions.

In the process of teaching biology to these young people over the years, I have made an important discovery: almost everyone “believes” in evolution. While the word “belief” is questionable to use in the context of science, I use the term since it is routinely used by opponents of Evolutionary theory.

The general understanding for the development of evolutionary theory proceeds in the following manner: since the beginning of agriculture and herding some 10,000 years ago, farmers and ranchers have used selective breeding to pick the parents of the next generation to produce healthier plants and animals. These small changes from generation to generation, which produced longer growing seasons for corn, larger pigs and faster horses, are the observable evidence for evolution. This process of small changes over observable time periods is called microevolution.

While great philosophers and religious leaders debated the origins of Man, farmers and ranchers were using practical genetics and basic evolutionary theory long before Darwin and Gregor Mendel codified their observations. Darwin’s great addition to this common knowledge was to reason that if the farmers and ranchers didn’t select the parents of the next generation, then, by what natural process, were the parents selected? He then described the five-part process (overpopulation, nonrandom survival of the fittest, environmental adaptations, random genetic mutations and species isolation) in which nature selects the parents of the next generation. Given enough time and many generations, the billions of years of the development of life on earth, one species could accumulate enough small changes to become a different species. Evolutionary biologists call this process macroevolution or speciation.

Now it is very obvious to my 14-year-old students that they are not exact copies of their parents and that they may have inherited Mom’s hair color and Dad’s eyes with changes and combinations of these characteristics. So, the process of microevolution is quite evident to them every time they look in the mirror. However, the great realization for these 14-year-old biology students is that the microevolution they see every day, over a very long period of time and many generations, is also macroevolution, one species slowly evolving into another.

Evolution is evolution, whether that time period is a single generation or many generations. If you acknowledge and “believe” in changes from one generation to the next, changes that you have inherited from your parents and have given to your children, then you are observing Evolution in action.

So, we are not that different in our beliefs after all.

— Victor Dominocielo, a California-credentialed teacher for 36 years, is the human biology and health teacher at a local middle school. The opinions expressed are his own.

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