Friday, February 22, 2008

Dealing with creationists in the classroom

I am teaching a second year cognitive science course this semester and we're focusing on evolutionary psychology (using Pinker's How the Mind Works as a text). Alas, South Africa's education system - specifically at secondary level - is broken and, moreover, teaching evolution is very controversial. As a result, many students reach college criminally uninformed about evolutionary theory. Obviously, before students can get to grips with evolutionary psychology, they need to have some understanding of evolutionary theory itself. Consequently, I'm forced to give my students a crash course in evolution: I screened the first episode of PBS's Evolution, made them read a bit of Mayr, banged on about common misconceptions (misunderstanding "fact" and "theory" being my favorite), and tried to get all the other basics across.

There is one issue, however, that I'm not quite sure how to deal with: students defending creationism. It's come up a couple of times now: one student said she felt offended by the theory, another that her uncle (a pastor) was aghast she was learning about evolution and a couple of objections to the evidence for evolution has surfaced as well. I don't have a fully worked out method for dealing with creationist students, so I responded off the cuff and I'd quite like to know how others deal with this and whether you think my response was adequate. Here's what I said: I was quite firm and adamant, first of all, that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming and that creationism is not an intellectually respectable position. (I dealt with specific objections with specific reasons for preferring evolutionary theory). Then I pointed out that while some atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, etc.) and some religious people (the Discovery Institute folks, Ken Ham and the Answers in Genesis nuts, etc.) think evolution and religion are incompatible, many religious people accept "theistic evolution". (Even the late John Paul II conceded in a speech that evolution is "more than a hypothesis" I told them). Since it also happens to be my actual opinion, I told the students I honestly see no logical contradiction between evolution and religion: one could respectably be religious and a Darwinist. I then pointed to Ken Miller (author of Finding Darwin's God) as an example of a devoutly religious person who is nonetheless a staunch defender of evolutionary thinking and suggested they read his book if they were troubled.

So... how did I do? Did I go too far by saying creationism isn't intellectually respectable? (I have no doubt that it isn't, just whether it's pedagogically sound to say so). Did I leave anything important out? Feedback would be much appreciated.


  1. Glad that was never sprung on me. Um, pointing out the lack of conflict was a key issue.
    I certainly would also have made clear that denial of evolution is not intellectually tenable, but I'm not sure how I would have phrased that. I might not have attacked "creation/ism" by name so much as "any model that denies evolution". Cowardly perhaps, but I'm willing to take baby steps to avoid turning them off immediately.
    But shit, these are 2nd years, maybe in that case the time for baby steps is past. What denomination BTW? Oh woe, wailing and gnashing of teeth.

  2. Yeah, I also thought about leaving creationism out completely. One of the students, however, mentioned creationism explicitly, so I was pretty much forced to deal with it.

    I don't know which denomination - I didn't want to get into it, or talk about religion as a topic on its own.

    I am now, by the way, going to give them "Science, Evolution and Creationism" (a National Academy of Sciences publication, see to read.

  3. Hey,

    The M&G article you pointed to was worrying in some ways - thanks for the link. It'll be interesting to see how the teaching of evolution plays out given the new syllabus.

    Re the creationism versus evolution business: in my limited experience it's often not evolution per se that people object have a problem with, but rather evolution by natural selection or even more specifically natural selection used to explain the evolution of humans. I think getting clear on exactly what the person objects to can sometimes be helpful.

  4. That M&G article also made me worry - especially the fact that it was the teachers who were objecting to evolution. (In the US, as far as I can see, most biology teachers support the teaching of evolution and not creationist). That said, I had a look at both the new curriculum and some sample matric exam papers, and I'm pretty happy. There is a bit of fuzziness (they avoid the word "evolution", for example), but it's pretty good overall.

    I take your point - but the students in questions just seemed generally confused. They had simply not learned about evolution before and took creationism for granted. So they didn't seem to have specific objections. I'll take care to be clear about what they're unhappy about, though, now that they're better informed. (Hopefully...)

  5. Sorry, that should have been "creationism" not "creationist". Also, "in question" not "in questions".

  6. Hah! Funny you should mentioned this now - we're actually dealing with it in class right now (though I suspect I may actually have given the matter more serious attention than some of the teachers). A few issues:

    1. I think it is entirely correct to play up the basic compatibility of evolution and (some versions of) traditional Christianity. However, if we are honest, we must admit the tension with more literalist/fundamentalist versions. As a more general theological point, it may be worthwhile noting that literalist interpretations are actually somewhat anomalous in broad sweep of Christian history. Augustine himself wrote a very famous piece denouncing early versions of Creationism (, see especially Ch 19). Modern literalist interpretations arose mainly in the 18th century (I think - you can check up on this) and only in Protestant denominations, at least partly in response to the view that the Catholic Church had been distorting the original meanings of the scriptures for its own purposes. This last is true, of course, but doesn't necessarily imply that ALL allegorical interpretations are theologically unsound.

    2. I think it's also worthwhile pointing out how much of the debate centres on the notion of acceptable authorities. I don't think even most educated non-creationists have any genuine understanding of Darwinism. If asked, most of these people would probably repeat some sort of evolutionary view (often with dubious teleological additions), which usually wouldn't stand up to rigorous questioning on mechanism, etc. Basically, I think, they accept evolution because they trust the scientists who tell them it is true. Similarly, most people who accept Creationism are neither theologically or scientifically sophisticated about it - they simply view themselves as members of a "camp" who believes this sort of thing, at the suggestion of its own authority figures (priests, "Creation scientists", etc)

    3. My suspicion is that generally the best approach, especially when dealing with laypeople, is simply to confront them with the mountain of evidence supporting evolution - comparative anatomy, molecular biology, biogeography, geological stratification, geological and cosmological arguments for the age of the earth, examples of speciation seen observed in the present day, very striking cases of vestigialism (,, etc, etc. Here is quite a striking example of a predictive success (i.e. a novel intermediate fossil form was found, in exactly the stratum where scientists were looking for it):

    4. I think the right sort of framework for evaluating the scientific merit of Creationism/Darwinism is the Lakatosian one ( Basically, Creationists can always construct ad hoc assumptions to rescue their core hypothesis that Genesis is literally true. But their entire research project consists in dealing with more and more anomalies that scientists are able to throw at them. This is while conventional scientists are able to get on with the business of making useful discoveries. Thus, Creationism, while logically possible with the facts (as is pretty much any theory that doesn't directly contradict raw observation), it is a classic example of a degenerating research programme.


  7. Quick comment. One should draw a distinction between 'mainstream' religion and its more fundamentalist variants. You're probably finding your students are still stuck in thinking solely in absolute terms. Once they've made that leap they may be easier to convince.

    Moreover you'd probably want to emphasise that scientific(sic) creationism is not a falsifiable hypothesis.

  8. I am American and from the fundamentalist Christian south. I encountered these discussions at my university as well, though on the student side of things. I had two courses that dealt with evolution v. creationism: Physical Anthropology and Intro to Philosophy.

    In the first case, the prof simply said that he wouldn't be entertaining questions asking him to defend generally accepted scientific theory; he said flat out that you didn't have to believe the material to understand it or write tests on it. He was more than happy to discuss the evidence, just not in evolution v. creation terms. It worked for him and that class.

    In the second course we read Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. This class confronted intelligent design head on, in addition to the philosophical arguments for and against the existence of a creator. I don't feel like we really got much of anywhere in most of the discussions (ie, people who came in die-hard Christians/creationists left that way). We were required to understand the arguments presented, regardless of our personal beliefs, but we were also encouraged to share out beliefs.

    So, I think you're doing a fine job. I guess you have to decide and make clear to your students what kind of class it is that you have: the kind where everything is open for discussion or the kind where certain items are taken at face value to better serve the goals of the class. Maybe there's a compromise in there somewhere.

  9. The belief in god is not founded on reason, but an inner conviction. Therefore no amount of evidence that goes against what the bible says will ever be enough to convince a christian (or any other religious person) that their beliefs are misguided.
    For this reason, finding a position that makes evolution compatible with what religious texts say (how they are interpreted) is the only way for scientific theories such as evolution to be accepted.
    Personally I don't really think that the Bible is compatible with evolution. At the same time I feel that if the only way to make people accept such a theory is to find an interpretation that can reconcile the two then such a position should be advocated.
    If interpretations that modified religious texts were never made we would still be stuck in the medieval times.