John Horgan, who is “teaching Darwin” at the Stevens Institute of Technology, writes a thoughtful non-confrontational post about how to deal with students who reject modern evolutionary theory on religious grounds. (I put “teaching Darwin” in quotes because that’s what Horgan says, though I’m not quite sure what that means. Could be a course specifically on Darwin, could be an introduction to evolutionary biology, etc.)
How do I respond to students like this? I point out that some religion-bashing Darwinians exaggerate the power of evolutionary theory. For example, Richard Dawkins was wrong–egregiously wrong–when he claimed in his 1986 bestseller The Blind Watchmaker that life “is a mystery no longer because [Darwin] solved it.”
Even when bolstered by modern genetics, evolutionary theory does not explain why life emerged on Earth more than 3 billion years ago, or whether life was highly probable, even inevitable, or a once in a universe fluke. The theory doesn’t explain why life, after remaining single-celled for more than 2 billion years, suddenly spawned multi-cellular organisms, including one exceedingly strange mammal capable of pondering its own origins.
So he’s trying to leave some room for religious wonder, which is certainly kind of him.
I don’t teach science, so I don’t know what I would do in his place, but I think my approach would be something like this: “I am going to teach you the general consensus of contemporary science about how evolution occurs, and how that consensus was reached. I am also going to teach you about the most debated questions that occupy scientists today, the issues on which there is no clear consensus yet. About the basic correctness of the Darwinian model there is clear consensus. I want you to be in no doubt that I believe that Darwin’s theory of natural selection was a great insight into the way things really are, and that later developments in evolutionary biology have generally confirmed Darwin’s view while greatly strengthening the evidence in favor of it. You may not believe that; that’s okay. My job in this class is not to make you believe anything but to help you to understand the science involved, as best I understand it.”
I feel a bit queasy, I admit, challenging their faith, from which some of them derive great comfort. Part of me agrees with one student who wrote: “Each individual is entitled to his or her own religious beliefs… Authority figures teaching America’s youth should not be permitted to say certain things such as any religion being simply ‘wrong’ due to a certain scientific explanation.” On the other hand, if I don’t prod these young people into questioning their most cherished beliefs, I’m not doing my job, am I?
To this I would reply with my own question: Do you seek to “prod” all your students in this way, including the ones who believe pretty much what you believe, or just the religious fundamentalists? (Judging from what I’ve seen of Horgan’s writing, he just might be an equal-opportunity prodder; but the question has to be asked. It’s a question that all teachers should ask themselves.)
And I would also say this: the deeper a person’s genuine learning gets, the more his or her “cherished beliefs” come under challenge. This is true no matter what the person believes. So I prefer to teach what I believe to be true, with all the skill I can manage, and let the challenges to belief fall where they fall. And I try to help and support, in any way I can, the students who find themselves disoriented by what I teach.