Darwin: Putting a Human Face on Evolution

Rob Capriccioso
December 19, 2005

Dr. Larry Arnhart is not a biology teacher. In fact, his main area of study with the political science department of Northern Illinois University is political philosophy.

But some high school biology teachers are beginning to pay attention to what he’s saying about teaching the subject in today’s politically charged atmosphere. Next spring, he will be directing a conference sponsored by the Liberty Fund for several teachers from around the country on the topic of "Darwinism and political liberty."

"We will be discussing the implications of Darwinian science for morality, politics, and religion," explains Arnhart. "Our discussions will center on reading some selections from Darwin’s writings along with some contemporary writing by Peter Singer, Steven Pinker, and Paul Rubin. This will allow these teachers to reflect on the meaning of Darwinian science…Such reflection might eventually influence their classroom teaching."

The complete text of Darwin’s The Origin of Species is online at Literature.org. Arnhart argues that American high school and college students are too often bored in their classes and desperately need to be challenged. Because Charles Darwin himself was challenged to explain some of the details of evolution, Arnhart says that the scholar’s own writings are excellent starting points for learning about biology. In this interview with Connect for Kids, Arnhart shares his ideas:

What are your ideas for strengthening biology education in the U.S.? What role should Darwin’s writings have in classes?

First, I should stress that since I have no experience teaching high school students, I hesitate to offer recommendations about high school teaching. But I have taught young college students fresh out of high school, and I have noticed that they often come into my classes with little knowledge of biology from their high school classes. I have used some of Charles Darwin’s writings along with some contemporary writings on evolutionary science in some of my classes, and that stirs a lot of discussion in my classes. So, in some workshops with high school teachers, I have suggested that teaching evolutionary biology through Darwin’s own texts might work well with high school students.

Explain your thoughts on "teaching the controversy" when it comes to evolution and intelligent design.

"Intelligent design" is the idea that the living world shows an ordered complexity that could only be the product of an "intelligent designer," and so this should be considered an alternative to the Darwinian explanation of biological complexity as the product of chance variation and natural selection of the fittest variations over long periods of gradual evolution. The proponents of "intelligent design"—particularly, those associated with the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington—argue that this alternative of intelligent design or Darwinian evolution is a scientific controversy, and so we should "teach the controversy" in our public school biology classrooms.

In response to this position, many defenders of Darwinian science say, in effect, "What controversy?" There is no real scientific controversy here, they claim, because most scientists generally accept Darwinian evolution, and very few real scientists regard "intelligent design theory" as a genuine scientific alternative to evolutionary theory. The support for "intelligent design," they insist, is based not on scientific reasoning but on religious belief. And therefore, teaching "intelligent design" in public school science classes would violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because it would be an "establishment of religion" by governmental action.

To resolve this debate, I have suggested that we should "teach the controversy by teaching Darwin." If high school biology students were allowed to read selections from Darwin’s writings—particularly, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man—they would see Darwin’s original formulations of evolution, and they would seem him presenting his "theory of natural selection" as an alternative to the "theory of special creation" by an intelligent designer. They would see that Darwin admits that there are many difficulties with his theory, although he believes he can resolve those difficulties. The students could then weigh the facts and arguments for themselves. If they read some contemporary writing on evolutionary science, they could see advances in the evidence and reasoning for evolution. But they would also see how Darwin’s original framing of the debate continues into the present.

Reading Darwin himself would be much more stimulating for students than reading a typical high school textbook.

Because you come at this issue from a political science lens, some evolution proponents might discount your ideas as "giving in" on intelligent design. Is that a fair critique?

No, on the contrary, I would say that the best way to defend evolution against the intelligent design movement is to confront the debate directly and openly. When proponents of evolution insist that high school students must not be permitted to discuss intelligent design ideas in their science classes, this looks like the suppression of free thought, which plays into the rhetorical strategy of intelligent design proponents, who want to argue that advocates of evolution are dogmatists who refuse open debate.

On the other hand, some people who have problems with evolution take offense with the idea of making Darwin the focus of biological education. What’s your response?

Actually, the people who are most opposed to evolution often make Darwin the focus of their attack, because they want to argue that he was an atheistic materialist who formulated the idea of evolution to advance his scientific materialism. So why not look at Darwin’s writings to see what he really said?

In general, do you think that high school and college educators are doing a good job of teaching biology?

Many are. But the failure to openly discuss ideas of intelligent design and biblical creationism leaves students confused about what they should think. At worst, it promotes an unhealthy cynicism about science among students—the cynicism that arises when students think they must memorize the ideas given to them in science classes so that they can get a passing grade, but without really believing what they have memorized. Instead of memorizing concepts without understanding the reasoning behind them, students should have the experience of thinking though the pertinent evidence and arguments for themselves, which will prepare them to be educated citizens who can judge scientific debates with moral, political, and religious implications.

The belief that public school students should only memorize what the "experts" teach them about evolution is one reason why so many parents are taking their children out of the public schools and sending them to private schools or home-schooling them. Recently, I attended the statewide convention of the home-schooling association in Illinois, and one of the recurrent themes in many of their sessions was that only through home-schooling could parents be sure that their children were presented with alternatives to evolution.

Do you think that younger students, especially those in high school, are capable of understanding Darwin’s writings?

Yes, I do. I think that most high school textbooks are so flat and boring that most students learn little from them. By contrast, Darwin’s writings are engaging and provocative. Remember that Darwin was writing for a general audience of readers, not just scientific specialists. The Victorian style of writing might be challenging for some students. But with some effort, students can appreciate the elegant flow of Darwin’s writing. And keep in mind that Darwin’s writings don’t contain any difficult mathematics or abstruse language.

In your teaching of young college students, how have they engaged with Darwin’s writings?

They are excited by being able to actually read Darwin. They’ve heard about Darwin, and they’re curious. They’re also excited about being able to actually debate evolution versus creationism or intelligent design. They indicate that they aren’t permitted to do this in their regular biology classes. They are also interested in Darwin because they see that he thought through the moral and religious consequences of his ideas. In their regular biology classes, they are not allowed to discuss how biology might bear on morality and religion.

It also builds up their intellectual self-confidence to discover that they can read Darwin’s writings for themselves and argue with him. By contrast, the typical science textbook waters down the material and never gives them the chance to confront directly a great thinker like Darwin.

Is it important to challenge students—to expect more of them—when it comes to teaching biology?

Yes. A recent national survey of high school students by the U.S. Governors Association reported that a majority of them complained that they were not being challenged by their high school courses. That’s why so many of them lose interest in school, particularly in their junior and senior years. Since the evolution-creation-intelligent design debate is so emotionally engaging, why shouldn’t we use it to stir our high school students to think deeply about science and what it means for our understanding of life and the universe?

Besides teaching Darwin, do you have any other recommendations for engaging students in biology education?

I would suggest that biology teachers should introduce discussions of the many moral, political, and religious implications of biology. For example, advances in biotechnology are going to change human life. Some people even think that biotechnological power over the human body and mind might eventually create a "transhuman" or "posthuman" species. Why shouldn’t this become a topic for high school students? Wouldn’t such topics stir them to think more deeply about science than they otherwise would?

What are your personal thoughts on evolution and intelligent design?

I am persuaded that the pertinent evidence and arguments support the truth of Darwinian evolution. Not only is it scientifically true, it is also morally healthy. And although Darwinian science cannot judge religious claims as true or false, the idea of evolution is compatible with religious belief. After all, there are many theistic evolutionists who believe that evolutionary history is the working out of the formative powers implicit in the laws of nature as originally created by God. In this way, evolution and intelligent design could be harmonious.

Rob Capriccioso is a former staff writer for Connect for Kids.


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