The Evolution Of Science In The Classroom

It has been decided to make teaching of the evolutionary theory compulsory in primary schools through the UK.  It is a move that has understandably been applauded by scientists, but which is bound to rile those opposed to evolution as a theory.

Recently I was stopped in the street by man dressed in a suit who I assumed was about to ask for directions.  He asked me if I would mind answering a question for him, and I said that depending on the question I would of course be happy to oblige.  The question was this: Do you believe in God? It occurred to me that this was a little unusual, to stop someone in the street in the morning to ask them a question about their personal beliefs.  However, I told him that I do not believe in God.  He gave me a wry smile and told me that he had expected I would answer in the negative, since in the present day in Britain there are very few people, especially in the younger generation, who believe in God.  I didn’t have any statistical information about my person but I didn’t entirely agree with him.  Figures from the 2001 census show that 76.8% of people reported themselves as belonging to a particular religion, whilst 23.2% reported no religion or did not state their religion.  Of course it’s true that many people will write down a religion whilst not practising or engaging in any sort of religious activity.  Nevertheless I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that if you consider yourself to belong to a religion, the chances are that you accept the existence of a higher power.  Obviously the census was taken almost 9 years ago, but it seems unlikely the figures would have swung dramatically the other way.  In any case this man seemed eager to continue the conversation.

He proceeded to ask me for my opinion on evolution; I said I consider it to be an accurate scientific theory.  He said he thought evolution was an interesting theory, and refused to rule it out, although he argued that if evolution was true it would surely have to have been instigated by God and tweaked a little throughout history so as to explain certain aspects of it.  I wasn’t in the mood for an argument, so I muttered something about having to leave, but he pressed me further.  He said that surely it is vitally important for us to discover whether or not there is, in fact, a God, which was again a little odd since I had by now ascertained that he must be a believer himself.  I pointed out that surely providing a definitive answer to that question is somewhat difficult.  He countered by saying that if I was on a tight rope would I prefer to be up there with or without a safety net, which was an anomalous metaphor that didn’t really add anything to the conversation.  If I was on a tight rope you can be sure that I’d have the best safety net money can buy, but if you’re asking me whether or not I’d prefer to have an eternal life after death or accept that once you die that’s it, I’d have to say that I’d prefer the latter, but that’s just me.  In any case I said I was in a hurry and would have to leave, at which point he delved into his bag and produced a book which he offered to me.

The book is called “Life: How did it get here? By evolution or creation?”  After leafing through a few pages it was evident that this book already had the answer: creation.  It begins in an almost rational (I use this term loosely) way. It sets out some of the theories of evolution and argues that evolution can’t explain things such as the complicated nature of the human brain; maintains that the fossil evidence does not demonstrate species evolving, but supports clearly different species created by God who never interbreed; uses analogies of houses having architects therefore the natural world must do; says that we have no way of explaining the emergence of life in the first place; claims that Genesis is scientifically sound; and so on.

It attempts to explain that the first humans had eternal life, but when they “pulled away from their creator’s direction, what happened to them is similar to what happens when you pull the plug out of an electric fan”. It finishes with the declaration that those who believe in God will be saved when Armageddon and the rapture occur, and the saved will live in paradise free from illness and in harmony with the animals (there is even a drawing of a girl hugging a tiger).  Admittedly the latter parts of the book aren’t really about evolution at all.

It’s clear that a lot of effort went into making and publishing this book however poorly conceived, badly researched, and ludicrous it is.  But it did make me think.  How can people read something like this, and believe it?  How is it that educated and intelligent people can’t and won’t accept something that is considered to be factually accurate?

Perhaps people don’t believe it because they don’t understand it?  Although there’s lots of things we believe to be true but don’t necessarily understand: you may not understand the physics behind why a plane stays in the air, but you surely wouldn’t just assume it was down to pixie dust.  Evolution and religion need to be disentangled from each other.  Teaching evolution does not mean you are teaching atheism.  It is sad that there are so many people clamouring to prevent evolution from being taught in schools, and in some extreme cases it is under threat of being taken out entirely.

The idea that if you teach evolutionary theory in a science class you should have to teach creationism as another viable theory is preposterous.  You wouldn’t say that the pixie dust theory should be taught as an alternative when teaching the physics of flight.  I am not against learning about religion in school, and think that if taught for the interest of learning about history and sociological aspects of a diverse population, then it is educational and perhaps useful in facilitating tolerance and understanding within society.  But if creationism is going to be taught at all it should be taught as part of understanding how our ancestors explained how they came to be in a religious studies class.  It does not belong in the science classroom.

Teaching the theory of evolution does not mean teachers are encouraging children not to believe in God, children are free (in school at least) to decide that one for themselves.  They are trying to teach scientific fact, something which will finally take up its rightful place in the classrooms of primary schools in the UK.