Dangers of failing to teach evolution, part I

From comments at the website of the New York Times today, on the story, “A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash”:

I teach biology and I would like to add a story in encouragement to other biology teachers. About 15 years ago I was teaching a botany course to college sophomores and started discussing the evolution of land plants. Expressions began to harden. Students stopped taking notes. So I stopped and asked if my discussion of evolution was bothering them. Many nodded and one said, “Why do teachers act like evolution is a fact?” At the time I had little experience and had assumed they had a working knowledge of evolution from previous classes at college as well as from high school biology. They did not. I didn’t have much time left that day, but I did explain some of the lines of evidence that support evolution.

The next day, one of my students came in and slammed a stack of books onto her table. She said, “I am so mad! I am so angry!” She looked near tears. She said, “My parents never let me even hear the word, evolution! They said it was all lies! I went to the library last night and got out books about it!” (and here she held up Origin of Species) Then she said, “It makes so much SENSE! I am so angry I never got to learn about it before!”
Now I teach a class entirely about evolution and I think of her often. She still gives me inspiration to keep on trying to open up minds.

— Bio prof, Ohio

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14 Responses to Dangers of failing to teach evolution, part I

  1. Ediacaran says:

    Ed, here’s an interesting offer from the Texas Freedom Network to help interested citizens in your area gear up to defend science in public schools from the damage that the Fundamentalists on the Texas State Board of Education are trying to inflict:


    From the website:

    About the film and Texas Freedom Network’s
    house party project

    Texas Freedom Network wants YOU to throw a party! Throw a party and show Kansas vs. Darwin to your friends, that is. There is no cost to you and you get a free DVD for sponsoring the party! There may be more perks if you can get more people to attend…

    The goal is to educate individuals about the debate that occurred in Kansas in 2005 and prepare people for the coming battle over sound science in Texas public schools.

    In May of 2005, a three-member subcommittee of the Kansas State Board of Education held hearings to determine whether Darwin’s long-held Theory of Evolution should be challenged in public school science classes. At stake was, in effect, the definition of science for Kansas schoolchildren.

    Kansas vs. Darwin takes you inside the hearings to meet the characters who captured the world’s attention: school board members who believe their literal interpretation of the Bible trumps modern scientific evidence, and members of the “Intelligent Design” network who believe mainstream science is conspiring to suppress evidence that would overturn evolution. You’ll also get face to face with an organization of Kansas scientists, educators, and citizens that mobilizes a worldwide response to put an end to what they see as a kangaroo court run by religious extremists.


    Throwing a house party is simple. Pick one of the three options below: register your party with us, register through Facebook, or express your interest in working with others in your area to help organize a party.

    If you guarantee to have at least eight friends attend your party, you will receive a free house party kit, including a copy of the DVD Kansas vs. Darwin. If you can guarantee that 35 people or more will attend your party, we will send a Texas Freedom Network staff member to discuss the current State Board of Education in Texas and the evolution debate. If you guarantee 100 or more people will attend, we will fly in one of the filmmakers to attend your party! (This may be date restricted.)

    The only other requirement is that you, as the organizer, set a date and find a venue. Whether this is your living room, backyard or community center is up to you! Invite your friends (and have them invite their friends) and screen the film. We will send you information on Texas Freedom Network, the Texas State Board of Education, the film, a discussion guide if you want to talk about the film afterward and more! Then have the attendees sign a Stand Up for Science postcard. This is important because it allows us to keep track of how many people have seen the film. Send the postcards back to us in an envelope we will provide.

    It’s that simple! A free, fun and educational night… and a party all your friends will appreciate.


  2. Ediacaran says:

    Jorge. the things you said you accepted are all a part of evolution. The part you didn’t, isn’t (you wrote: ‘But an animal deciding or somehow forcing a change to “adapt” to the changing environment does not make sense.’).

    Evolution isn’t driven by an organism’s volition (speaking of Darwinian Evolution by Natural Selection here, not genetic engineering by a biologist).

    Contrary to Jorge’s assertion, one species can change into another. It’s been observed in the lab and in the wild. And while it doesn’t typically happen in one or two generations, it sometimes does (and I trust Lisa will be happy to learn about this), and one such mechanism for this rapid speciation is polyploidy. It accounts for several of the observed instances of speciation. See a basic Wikipedia introduction to polyploidy at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyploidy .

    Potatoes, wheat and bananas are polyploids. And while polyploidy is more prevalent in plants, there are polyploid animals. Read about some examples at the links provided at http://darwiniana.org/rings.htm


  3. Lisa says:

    Jorge said: “Lisa, selective domestic breeding still produces what it’s original parents were, right? Did you tell your cube lady that too?”

    No, selective breeding does NOT produce what the parents were. Take two dogs and breed them. You still get a dog, yes? But does that dog look like the parents? Yes, if they were two golden retrievers. If it was a Pug and a Great Dane — then no way! You create differentiation like that enough and eventually you end up with subspecies that can’t physically breed together (can you imagine a Chihuahua and a St. Bernard trying to get it on?) or when they do, they have sterile offspring. After another thousand years of selectively breeding dogs — making the bigger ones bigger, the smaller ones smaller, and lack of inter-breed reproduction among some of the specialized breeds, we may very well have forced the creation of new sub-species of dog. Evolution doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen in just one or two generations.


  4. RBH says:

    Jorge wrote

    But teach that one species can change into another, that’s not right.

    I commend TO’s Observed Instances of Speciation and Some More Instances of Speciation to Jorge’s attention. Why can’t we teach what we observe?


  5. mpb says:

    Geomarz– which country? I understand some European countries face opposition to teaching evolution; not really sure about some of the Asian or SW Asian countries or any of the African countries.


  6. geomarz says:

    I apologese for my whriten.
    I reed better.
    In my country is no problem whit teching evolutin. It is problem to understend it. Many people do not accept it. Even high graduadt people.


  7. Neil says:

    Its an absolute crime not to teach evolution to kids, religion cannot always be the way forward.


  8. elaichietcetera says:

    I think it’s sad that those who wish to dismiss evolution entirely don’t realize that there continues the possibilty of believing concurrently both in creationism and evolution- creationism in an expanded, looser regard. Science is all about making observations, looking at the information that is collected and prehaps proposing an explanation which might be useful to predict future data. Some of those explanations work for a time, until another scientist finds that the “bigger picture” is a bit more complicated. But I don’t think that this rules out a “higher intelligence” whatsoever. In my mind, both sides just might be describing the same thing.


  9. akrondave says:

    Its astonishing that the “Intelligent Design” advocates and creationists especially are so afraid of the truth that they hide it from their children.


  10. Ed Darrell says:

    Part of the problem of the view you express, Jorge, is that animals — or plants — don’t “decide” to do anything. You don’t have any say over the genes you inherit, and you have very little influence over which of your genes you pass on. You may pass most of your mutations, or few of them — but you don’t get to choose.

    Evolution theory doesn’t suggest in any way that any animal decides to change. Evolution theory notes that each individual is unique, and that such uniqueness adds up to much variation in a population. Those individuals most prone to survive the conditions will probably have better breeding success than individuals not so prone.

    Minor changes, multiplied by millions of individuals, multiplied by millions of years, make major changes.


  11. Jorge says:

    Death of animals that can’t live in their changing environment makes sense.

    Reproduction of their living brothers and sisters who already had something in them that made it so that they could keep living in that changing environment makes sense too.

    An animal having an offspring that is born with the ability to live in that changing environment makes sense too…even if the momma can’t.

    But an animal deciding or somehow forcing a change to “adapt” to the changing environment does not make sense.

    That’s the part that is the theory. Teach natural selection, great. Teach extinction, cool. Teach differentiation within species, wonderful.

    But teach that one species can change into another, that’s not right.

    Lisa, selective domestic breeding still produces what it’s original parents were, right? Did you tell your cube lady that too?

    By the way, this story from the Prof in Ohio is great, but it’s 15 years old. So much more is known today that was known then. So, chicken soup for the evolved soul, yes, but inspiring? I’m not sure.



  12. Lisa says:

    I own Origin of Species… and have never read it. Maybe someday!!


  13. Ed Darrell says:

    You and Darwin, two of a kind! Darwin spent the first couple of chapters of Origin of Species noting what was already understood from the world of animal husbandry. People who took the time to read the book — or who take the time to read the book — almost always get it.

    Lisa, good work! Thank you.


  14. Lisa says:

    I worked a cube over from a woman, sweet as sweet can be, who was the administrative assistant for our boss. We hit it off and chatted almost incessantly when we had a few minutes to kill. (And even when we didn’t have a few minutes to kill!)

    She had a high school education only, and was at least somewhat religious… and told me she didn’t understand how evolution could work, that we all came from monkeys?!? She was completely incredulous. Then I took a little time to explain some specific concepts, like divergent evolution, to illustrate how evolution can actually happen and does happen. I framed things like selective domestic breeding as forced evolution of subspecies. It was so cool to see her ‘get it’ and buy into it after spending a lifetime thinking it was a crock.


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