August 18, 1995

Teaching Evolution

Isn't it wonderful how nature evolved the fingernail in anticipation of the invention of the hammer.

Many years ago I taught a course in Human Genetics at the University of Utah. Just before the final exam, a student asked me whether he had to believe in evolution in order to get an "A" in the course. I replied that I didn't care what he believed or didn't believe, but to get an "A", I expected him to know the evidence for evolution. He got an "A" in the course. I wonder to this day, whether that course had expanded his horizons a bit. Did he question more than he did before? That, after all, is what science is all about. Science is not a body of facts; it is a search for truth and questions must first be asked in order to find answers.

I hardly expect to change someone's beliefs in a one semester course, nor would I want to. The best that I can hope for is that I have taught someone how to look more objectively at some things, imparted some fairly reliable information, and taught him some methods that can be used to solve certain problems. I do share an illusion with almost all teachers, that what I have taught has made a difference. I hope that the example of a teacher who understands the material that he teaches, and is willing to admit freely to the many many things that he doesn't know or understand can induce a similar bit of humility in a student. I understand so little, and there is such a massive amount that I don't understand.

Unfortunately, I have found little of that humility in most of my teachers and in the writers of books. Where I have found it is in the great innovators: Mendel, Darwin, Einstein and Newton. Most students believe that their teachers know almost everything, and most teachers don't try to disabuse their students of that notion. It's nice to feel omnipotent. Physicians like the feeling and so do teachers.

It seems important to me to remind people that we really can't look into either the distant past or the future. All that we can do is look at what we find in the present and deduce what has happened in the past. We make guesses about what might happen in the future. In other words, we will never know, for sure, how evolution occurred. When I hear people say that they know how it happened, I am pretty sure that their "knowledge" rests on very shaky ground. This goes for scientists or clergymen. There is no book that has the answer. True, some theories are more plausible than others; but even plausible theories have been wrong in the past. Anyone can plainly see that the Sun, Moon, stars and planets travel around the Earth -except for Mercury and Venus. Now we have the Big Bang theory of the origin of the entire universe. Will it be accepted 100 years from now? I rather doubt it.

What can be proved? For one thing, it is possible to prove conclusively that the evolution of all living organisms, including man, is occurring now. In other words, people are variable, and mankind is constantly changing. Every generation produces new individuals who are different from those in the previous generation. It is reasonable to postulate that this has gone on in the past and that it will go on in the future for as long as life on Earth continues. We can be quite certain that evolution has occurred, is occurring now and will continue to occur.

We don't know how life began, nor how or when plants and animals diverged -or did they evolve separately? Did life begin only once, or many times? True there are fragments of evidence and theories, but those theories may or may not be correct. The history of science is replete with theories that were accepted at the time and had to be discarded because they were later found to be wrong.

If I were teaching science in a high school, my only objection to teaching the Old Testament account of the creation would be time. There is so much to deal with that I would prefer to deal with ancient accounts of the origins of everything as I deal with the old idea that the Earth is the center of the universe. It is of historical, rather than scientific importance. However, if someone in authority insisted, I would teach The Bible the same way that I would teach about Darwin's Origin of Species or Descent of Man. What is the evidence for and against it? I doubt that any fundamentalist would want me to teach The Bible to his child.

Some fundamentalists believe that the teaching of evolution can undermine a child's faith in the literal truth of scriptures. They are quite right about that. If a child has faith in Darwin or science, that also deserves to be undermined.

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