How we approach evolution
The following FAQs address concerns parents have raised over the years when evolution is discussed in my courses.
In this course, we are limiting ourselves primarily to the scientific basis of biological theory, ignoring for the most part insights from other areas of human experience. We will treat evolution as the dominant scientific theory currently used to account for the majority of observed biological phenomena. While a number of biologists think that there is enough evidence to consider evolution a 'fact', others do not agree with the interpretation of the evidence. Even scientists who find the theory of evolution compelling still take exception to confusing observational evidence with the explanation of that evidence.
Scientific theories are human constructions; we use them to make sense of the world around us, according to certain rules for observation, testing and deduction. Theories are always provisional and subject to being disproved, without ever being conclusively proven. Natural events, which most people assume do have some objective reality, are still subject to misinterpretation. Those who practice science (teach, perform research, or comment on scientific endeavors) need to keep the provisional nature of any theory and the difficulties of accurate observation and interpretation firmly in mind.
Obviously, without time travel, what happened in the past is not testable or directly observable. This puts biologists, geologists, and astronomers in a difficult position: their fields require an accounting of how we got to our current observable state, but the standard method of supporting given hypotheses by controlled, repeatable experiments is not feasible.
Since we are limiting ourselves in this class to currently accepted methods of scientific investigation, we do not consider insights from other areas of human experience. This does not mean that they are insignificant or unimportant; only that they do not fit the current generally accepted methodology of science. In other contexts, such as a philosophy or theology course, we could discuss whether those methods are adequate for scientific endeavors.
I think there are several reasons for studying evolution, some of them practical (questions on evolution show up on many standardized tests used to place you during the college admission process), and some of them part of our responsibility as Christians.
Many parents are concerned that their students are ready to witness to a position held from faith, especially in the face of a secular society. A key strategy in any debate is to be able to state your opponent's position clearly. If you cannot do that, you are not likely to get the attention you need for someone to listen to your own position. I believe that a good understanding of evolution as biologists express it is fundamental to honest discussion about the nature of the universe. A student should be able to describe the current dominant theory used to explain similarities and diversity in life forms in terms a proponent would accept, and understand the phenomena any competing theory would need to explain in order to gain acceptance from the scientific community. At a minimum this means understanding the terms and supporting evidence in order to pass standardized tests.
As Christians, we need to respect all people, even those who disagree with us. We try to create an environment in our classes in which all students are free to discuss their positions as long as they are courteous and respect those who hold different positions. In all controversial subjects (we can get into serious debates on environmental issues and genetic engineering, too) I require students to treat each other, as well as the authors of any arguments they cite, with respect and charity. We work from the assumption that every participant in the discussion (you, your fellow students, myself, the textbook authors, and any Web posters you read) are trying to make the most sense we can out of our own experience.
Certainly not. Under no circumstances will I ask any student to "accept" as fact either a theory or a Biblical interpretation which runs counter to his or her experience, spiritual understanding, or intellectual integrity.
I do require that my students learn the content of the current theory of evolution, because they will be responsible for that content on any standard exam they wish to take. I try to phrase statements on my exams in such a way that the student does not have to put down as the "correct" answer a statement which may run counter to his beliefs. For example, the answer to an exam question might read
The current theory of evolution assumes that the earth at least 4 billion years old.
[which is a true statement about the theory]
The earth is 4 billion years old.
[which may contradict your interpretation of Genesis or other sources you consider pertinent to the question].
As a student, you need to be able to explain the assumptions on which evolution theory is based and to understand how biologists use those assumptions to account for their observations. You may or may not find the result compelling as an explanation for the real world. For the purposes of this course, you will need to evaluate evolution (as well as the cell theory and transmission of information assumptions which together with evolution provide the main conceptual underpinnings modern biology) from a scientific standpoint: do observation, experiment, and analysis support or refute the hypothesis, or is there another scientific explanation which is able to account for the phenomena more consistently?
You may have non-scientific reasons (such as divine revelation or religious authorities) for rejecting some or all aspects of evolution theory as a true explanation of how the different species we observe came into existence. Human experience encompasses much more than the events in a biology lab; but this is a biology course and we have to limit the discussion to scientific objections or we won't get through all the material.
No. I chose this text because it has excellent study helps and because it is thorough enough to serve as a basis for preparation for the SAT II and Scholars Online Biology exams. These examinations are based on the current method of teaching biology, which presents evolution as one of the three fundamental concepts of modern biology (the other two are cell theory and genetics). While this text points out some of the current difficulties in the theory of evolution, it makes no serious attempt to present an alternative theory. (It does at least raise the question as a discussion topic in one of the exercises, which is more than most standard texts do.)
I try to broaden this approach by pointing out the difference between observational fact and theoretical interpretation, and by emphasizing the provisional nature of any scientific theory and limitations of science methodology, which by definition cannot take divine inspiration or personal non-verifiable experiences into account. I encourage students and parents to raise questions on their different viewpoints, as long as can they do so courteously and without attacking each other. I usually have a wide range of students in the class, some of whom accept a divinely-controlled evolutionary sequence, and others who are committed to a more literal interpretation of Genesis, so the discussion can be pretty lively.
In general, the scientific community does not recognize those arguments of creationism based on Biblical citation as science. Such a view does not necessarily claim divine revelations are untrue, only that they are not subject to scientific methodology, and are therefore out of scope of the subject at hand.
Yes. This is an important issue involving science and society; it behooves us to understand where the disagreements lie so that we can each examine our own position and be prepared to discuss and if need be, defend it.
I recognize that the Judeo-Christian tradition includes many different interpretations of the scope and content of both Biblical creation and evolution; there are also varieties of response from other religious and secular viewpoints. We cannot hope to address them all in this course; only to present several examples. To some extent, how much time I spend on alternate interpretations of creation depends on the students in the course and the questions they raise in this area.
If there is enough interest among the students (and this varies from year to year; one year it never came up at all, in others we've had lively but civil discussions), I will point out some of the better, less vitriolic presentations on both sides or set up a discussion of creation theories beyond those presented in the text, along with supporting evidence and the issues they raise. I try to avoid recommending any source that uses ridicule or uncharitable accusations, or sets up what I think of as "straw horse" arguments -- deliberate misinterpretations of a theory -- in order to knock them down.
There are a number of web sites which are devoted to defending one or the other side of this debate. Neither I nor anyone associated with Scholars Online necessarily endorses the opinions expressed on these sites: I am merely trying to give you some references for more information about the topic. Please remember that this is a hot issue, and that people on both sides may be enthusiastic to the point of belligerence. Comments on the web represent the opinions of their individual authors; do not take any one remark as representative of any group unless there is a list of signatures below the statement! There is a wide range of opinion and interpretation among both evolutionists and creationists. Try to read the arguments and evaluate them on their own merits.
I confess the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed, which means I believe a) that there is a God and b) that He made all that is, so I don't accept blind evolution as a valid explanation of the origins of life. That is to say, I don't believe that life arose through a random sequence of events; I believe that the universe, the earth, and life on the earth were designed and created through direct action of God, that most Excellent of all Design Engineers. At the same time, I do not subscribe to a strictly literal interpretation of the Genesis story of creation. I think that a process like evolution may have been the means God used to create life on earth.
Whether God created the earth in six twenty-four hour days or several billion years is not a question crucial to my Christian faith, which rests on the crucifixion and bodily resurrection of Jesus. I believe that God took human form as Jesus, accepted our sins and died on the Cross at a real moment in our history, "under Pontius Pilate", and rose again triumphant over death. No where in the Biblical reports of His teachings do I find that belief in a six-day creation is crucial to my own salvation; but acceptance of His death and resurrection, evidenced by living a life of charity toward my fellow man, is. As far as my reason and personal revelation take me, the Bible is a collection of the real and perhaps divinely inspired experiences of men who saw God intersecting with human history.
I do not require my students to agree with me on this. I realize that many of my students differ with my views on Biblical authority and interpretation, and that the issue is of considerable importance to them; that's why we will discuss the Creationist approach. If the issue arises in normal class sessions, I expect my students to raise questions (courteously) and to discuss their positions with me and with their parents.
Ultimately, I don't think that how God created the world is as important as that He created the world, loves us, and sent his own Son to die for us. I don't think that it is our scientific theories or intellectual understanding or even our theology that saves us, but Christ crucified and risen. In this context, the Genesis account of creation places on each of us a serious responsibility. Learning biology is one way of preparing to fulfill our roles as stewards of God's creation, and to resolve many of the issues we face today. We need to learn as much as we can, so that the decisions we make about our use of the natural world will be good ones.
Write me! As a Christian parent who has home schooled her own three children, I believe that it is my responsibility and privilege to supervise my children's education, both academic and spiritual. As a teacher, I also believe that it is your responsibility to bring your children up in line with your spiritual understanding. I don't want to undermine your authority or cause your children to flippantly question your values or their own (or mine).
I do want my students to question seriously any position they take. We are all called on to be ready to witness to the truth that is in us. We may not agree on the content of that truth—confusion is one of the consequences of our fallen state—but we are not excused from the responsibility. If you have questions about the course content, the textbook, your child's reports of what goes on in class, or want help explaining your own position (even if it is different from mine), let me know, and I'll try and answer or find materials that will help you out.
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