The devolving of evolution

The University of Kansas contemplates a creationist future.

Topics: Academia, College, Books,

The Kansas Board of Education’s decision two weeks ago to delete evolution
from the state’s science testing standards came to the University of Kansas like a
bump in the night: foreboding but not yet materialized.

As the site of legitimate biological research and future home to any number of students ignorant of evolutionary theory, the university was suddenly faced with a question: What will this mean for the future?

The decision recalls the Scopes “Monkey trial,” in which Tennessee schoolteacher John T. Scopes was convicted for teaching human evolution. The trial, which became a media extravaganza, pitted two of the country’s most famous lawyers — fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan and progressive Clarence Darrow — against one another in an ideological battle over biblical and scientific truths. In that case, biblical truths won out and Scopes was ordered to pay a $100 fine.

But that was 1925, and memory of the case now plays as a humbling bit of American drama — emblematized by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s 1955 play “Inherit the Wind,” which took substantial liberties with the facts. Despite the massive success of the play — and the 1960 movie version — it had little effect on the Tennessee law, which continued to forbid teaching the notion that human beings were subject to the same evolutionary process as other life forms — that is, that we might be “related” to apes — for another decade.

Despite this relatively recent legal history and the rising tide of Christian fundamentalism, the Kansas school board decision still came as a surprise to many at the University of Kansas. After 150 years of biology built upon Charles Darwin’s basic theory, how could such a ruling pass today? In a shrewd skirting of the Supreme Court’s 1987 ruling that states couldn’t force schools to teach creationism, the board’s 6-4 vote managed to cast a mark against godless evolutionists without officially forbidding evolutionary theory. By discontinuing the testing of evolution theory in state assessment exams, the board successfully deprioritized it, letting the ghost of creationism in through high school’s back door. (Sadly, the absence of a subject from standardized tests can be enough to dislodge it from a syllabus.)



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Many expect the University of Kansas, along with other Kansas institutions, to suffer the fallout. But unlike corporations, which might choose to refrain from establishing national headquarters in the Sunflower State, KU has no choice. As at most public universities, a majority of KU’s students come directly from the public schools of its home state.

“This isn’t going to help our [future] students,” says Ed Wiley, a KU professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and senior curator at KU’s Natural History Museum.

Julie Wood, editor of the Daily Kansan, describes her campus as, above all,
embarrassed. “This is a foundation of science and we’re saying it’s
optional?” she asks, predicting consequences for the university. “They
have a hard time getting good professors here anyway, so prospective
teachers might be leery of teaching in a state where some high schools
won’t even mention evolution.”

“It’s know-nothingism,” says Timothy Miller, chairman of the school’s
religious studies department. Miller reports that every member of his
department opposes the school board’s ruling. “It’s a direct affront to education
… and there’s a sense of great humiliation here.”

Yet for Greg Burg, assistant director of undergraduate biology, there’s
hope. Burg opposed the ruling and had traveled to Topeka to petition against it, but he’s unwilling to sound the death knell for KU’s scientific future.

“These are hurdles easily overcome — this [ruling] isn’t going to stymie them,” he
says of the high school students who won’t get evolution theory in the
classroom.

Those at KU who approve of the board’s decision voice their support in guarded
terms. “Any time [you say] something mentioning creationism,
they say you’re anti-science,” explains campus minister Lanny Maddux. “[But] I think
the evolution presented in high school textbooks is not true, could not
have existed.”

Similarly, Scott Ketrow, KU director of the student organization Campus
Crusade for Christ, couches his moral approval of the ruling in practical,
political terms. The decision, he says, will allow local school boards to decide what is important to teach rather than forcing them to follow mandates from on high. Though some high schools will choose not to teach Darwinian theory, he contends that in the end the decision will provoke a much-needed debate around creationism and evolutionism.

But hasn’t America already had this dialogue? Over and over?

“I don’t know all the specifics of the Scopes trial — to students on
campus now, that’s irrelevant,” Ketrow admits. “I think most haven’t heard of it.”

Perhaps the most glaring question to emerge from the board’s vote is this: Why
must creationism exclude evolution? If Christians want to posit a divine
power, can’t they locate this power in the “why” behind evolution?
There is precedent for this recognition within other religious communities;
in 1996, even Pope John Paul II acknowledged evolution as a viable theory,
provided it accepts that creation, however organic or intricate, was God’s work.

“Here [as opposed to in public high schools], we don’t have a problem with the
dichotomy,” the biology department’s Burg says of the creationism-evolution split. “Several of my students are adamantly opposed to evolution theory. But they’ve never
dropped a class or complained. I don’t cram evolution down their throats –
we look at the evidence and talk about it.”

Evolutionary biology professor Wiley sees no problem with the teaching of creationism in, say, a social studies class. But to inject it into a science curriculum, he says — creationists are now calling themselves “creation scientists” — invariably contaminates a student’s
understanding of the field.

As Kansas’ higher education institutions wait
to see what will come of the school
board’s vote, professors and students agree that certain consequences are unavoidable. The
ruling will deny some Kansas kids exposure to evolutionary theory and certain cosmological ideas, such as the big bang theory. These students will flub the occasional biology quiz in college and may be subject to the ridicule of those who assume their education was sub-par.

They’ll get through the day. They will have other explanations for
the order of things. Still, there’s other mourning to be done: Evolution
has forced those who take the Bible as literal fact to contemplate the
invaluable and distinctly human concept of metaphor. Like earlier
discoveries — that the Earth is not flat, that the Earth is not at the center of the universe — evolution made word-for-word readings of the Bible problematic. Forced to swallow these
updates, the faithful evolved their understandings of the text
to allow for inconsistencies. People learned to read the Bible metaphorically.

“I don’t think there’s a person in the world who accepts [the Bible's]
value of pi,” religious studies chairman Miller points out. (The Bible names the value to be exactly 3, rather than the irrational number commonly approximated at 3.14.)

By the same token, something’s missed if creationists aren’t given the
opportunity to learn and then reject Darwin’s ideas. Like the Bible, “The
Origin of Species” offers a narrative rich in metaphoric power.

Without evolution around to trouble literal interpretations of Genesis, the
very notion of metaphor may languish in some small way. For children reared
in the creationist compound, Adam and Eve will never symbolize us, in all
our tortured fates; they will be our literal ancestors. And this suggests an ironic backfire for the creation movement: It may narrow the power of Christian mythology rather than expand
it. At the heart of creationism, after all, lies the conviction in a fundamental divide between humans and animals. By scrapping this lesson on metaphor, creationists risk devaluing one of the features that most distinguishes us from all other species.

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

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