Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Evolution? Ah, What the Heck. Teach the Controversy.

But teach it well!

I've been reading a lot of new responses to the attempts to get "intelligent design" included in science curricula. There's obviously a lot of concern out there that students will no longer be taught properly scientific theories about species development--and with good reason. But my greatest concern, reading the highly polarized debate, is that we appear to be doing a pretty lousy job of teaching evolution right now.

Arguments about evolution are hardly ever just scientific arguments. Most of us recognize immediately that this is true about the controversies between the current neo-Darwinian orthodoxy and such contenders as creation science and intelligent design. What is at stake is more a worldview than any set of facts. How we think about human agency and autonomy may be dramatically altered by, for example, the assumption of a divine controlling hand or of blind chance as the engine of natural development. For anarchists, this stuff is very close to our concerns. We remember (sometimes somewhat vaguely, admittedly) the precisely political importance of Peter Kropotkin's assertion that mutual aid was perhaps the "predominant" factor in evolution, as he challenged a "social darwinism" designed to apologize for the depredations of the strong.

Honestly, it isn't clear that we should--or need to--care quite so obsessively about "the natural order" in this regard. I'm pretty sure that only a very select few evolutionary or anti-evolutionary view actually seem to dictate a social order. Human beings tend to find ways to exert agency, even when their deeply held beliefs seem to indicate they don't have much to exercise. Think of the mental wriggle of the Calvinists, who, believing that their fates were predestined, nevertheless developed a stenuous work ethic in order to demonstrate that they were among the elect.

More than that, it isn't clear that, based on our actual, personal knowledge of either the science or the theology involved, most of us could work out in any detail the inescapable implications of our positions. What's stunningly clear from the polls--which say that around 50% of us in the US believe in creation alone, with another 40% favoring some theory of "God-directed evolution"--and from the public debate, is that we don't know much about these things.

And I'm pretty sure that we don't actually care very much about the science involved.

This is all holy war--with us or against us stuff--another litmus test we use to assign people to sides, and preferably only two of those, thank you. But there simply aren't two sides in these debates. Partisans of evolution by natural selection cover a lot of ground, as do partisans of divine creation or intelligent design. And what the poll numbers seem to be telling us is that something like 40% of Americans aren't even interested in taking one of the polar positions.

I don't really think we need intelligent design curricula in science classes, though not for the reasons you might think. I'm a christian, if a bit of a antinomian heretic, and a strong believer in the value and powers of scientific enquiry, so lump me with that supposed 40% who have made their peace with "both sides" to some extent. Now, as someone committed to the cause of "good," meaning careful and rigorous, science, I'm not certain that we can really exclude intelligent design as a scientific hypothesis. We live in a world chock full of intelligently(?) designed artifacts, and if someone wants to attempt to build a case that everything shows signs of artifactuality, well, that's fine. But it's not the sort of case that is easy to support positively, and it seems nearly impossible to falsify effectively. I just don't think intelligent design in the classroom can go very far, particularly as we can't rule out that the designing power has incorporated some purely random mechanisms.

So, no, I'm not suggesting we teach that controversy.

What I am suggesting is that the current state of the debates on evolution and related topics reveals some pretty pervasive weaknesses in our understandings of what is at stake. We mix up questions of science with other questions. We imagine there can be "two sides" in conversations that have always been much more complicated, and remain so, despite creeping fundamentalist tendencies all around. So maybe what we could use in our schools is the kind of curriculum that helps us learn how to think about these things a little more usefully, which provides us with a solid background from which to engage in more fruitful debates. Honestly, I wouldn't mind seeing more debate of religious issues in the schools, as long as it's respectful and somewhat rigorous. Unfortunately, I'm not sure our education programs are turning out teachers well equipped for opening the spaces those sorts of debates require. State sponsored compulsory education kind of sucks anyway, but it's an awful lot of what we've got, and it could be worse. Lots of us muddled through fairly effectively. Anyway, treating schools are essentially dumb can't be anything but a self-fulfilling prophecy, so let's resist that course at least a bit yet.

So what am I advocating here?

What if we met the calls for "teaching the controversy," where they arise, with precisely a course in controversy, an interdisciplinary approach to the question of just how we got to this stage of debate. We could structure much of the curriculum historically, tracing the development of evolutionary theory and its connections to theology. There's a rich, largely forgotten literature attempting to reconcile developments in geology with the Bible. We can survey that. We can cull some sections from Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) and Hugh Miller's writings. Then off to Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin, Samuel Butler, etc, etc. (These links are just places to start.) And there's plenty more, some of it profound, and some of it pretty cranky. But the point is to open the conversation back up, and present some places we can dig in without wrestling so much with what we know or think we know about present options. (This is, regular readers will recognize, one of my favorite strategies.)

UC Berkeley has some useful course materials available online.

If anyone wants to give me a grant to work up something a little more substantial, I'm available.

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