Education Opinion

The Great Non-Problem of Evolution vs. Creationism

By Evans Clinchy — March 19, 1997 8 min read

Evans Clinchy is a senior consultant at the Institute for Responsive Education in Boston and a contributor to and guest editor for Phi Delta Kappan. He is the editor of Transforming the Schools: A New Course for America’s Future (Teachers College Press, 1997).

In “Counter Evolutionary,” Education Week recounted in intriguing detail the story of a 15 year-old straight-A student named Danny Phillips at Wheat Ridge High School in Jefferson County, Colo. (“Counter Evolutionary,” Nov. 20, 1996.)

Danny is a self-proclaimed Christian fundamentalist who sued his local school district over the “teaching” of the theory of evolution. Although he believes that “God created everything individually according to its own kind” and that “there is a whole lot of purpose and intelligence behind what we see,” he is not asking that the theory of evolution by natural selection not be taught in the schools, nor does he want “creationism” or “creation science” taught in its stead.

What he wants, he says, is that “the schools ... teach the theory of evolution as a theory. Treat it as they do science and present the evidence for and against it. Otherwise, the school is in essence censoring half of the information.”

Now, oddly enough, while Danny may be right for the wrong or questionable reasons, he is exactly right in what he wants the schools to do. What he is expressing is the true spirit of what our contemporary modern sciences are all about, and he is lodging the most serious and relevant of all possible complaints about the way science is all too often taught in all too many of our schools.

If we take even the quickest of looks back at what we now think we know about the roughly 2 million-year history of how we human beings became human and have thus attempted to understand ourselves and the world we live in, we can trace the gradual development of two fundamental ways we have constructed to perform this eons-old task.

During the last 200,000 or so of those 2 million years, according to such scholars and historians as the cultural psychologists Jerome Bruner and Merlin Donald, we have constructed most of our explanations of how things have come to be as they are through our great historical and theological mythologies. Mr. Bruner calls this kind of thinking “narrative,” while Mr. Donald uses the term “mythic.” These great mythological narratives--and thus also the origins of our great religions--were accompanied on the purely practical side of things by what Merlin Donald calls “pragmatic and opportunistic science,” the empirically derived tools and technologies we invented to perform the everyday tasks of feeding, clothing, and sheltering ourselves during that vast proportion of our history when we were nomadic hunters and gatherers.

Somewhere between 150,000 and 40,000 or so years ago, we began as part of our evolution into the modern species of Homo sapiens to develop both spoken language and another form of thinking about these matters, the ability to develop abstract rules and “laws” to explain natural events. Jerome Bruner calls this kind of thinking “paradigmatic,” while Mr. Donald uses the term “theoretic.” Very gradually during the past 20,000 years, this new form of thinking began to be wedded to our old empirically based pragmatic and opportunistic science and engineering until in the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance those older pragmatic, purely empirical sciences evolved into what we now call our modern theoretical sciences, using abstract theories based (in most cases) on empirical observation and experiment. (The “in most cases” is there because a great deal of contemporary science--especially physics, for instance--is based upon purely mathematical models that are only later subjected, if and when possible, to empirical confirmation).

‘Scientific knowledge’ is not a static thing decreed once and for all and passed down to us by the gods on Olympus.

This “new” way of attempting to understand ourselves and the world was neatly codified for us when England’s Royal Society was created in 1661 by Charles II when he returned from his European exile. The society adopted as its motto Nullis in Verba, which can be imaginatively translated as “Take nothing for granted, see for yourself,” with the results expressed, whenever possible, in the precise language of mathematics rather than mere words.

But all this hardly means that our great narrative mode of thinking and seeking the “truth” of things has disappeared or lost its power. This nontheoretic, nonparadigmatic but in no way illogical mode of thinking and knowing is the basis not only of our great religions and secular mythologies but of most of the arts--the great “truths” embodied in poetry, theater, literature, and, when combined with dance, music, and painting, in the ballet, opera, and the all of visual arts.

But it is, of course, with the paradigmatic, theoretic world view that we are most directly concerned when we worry about the “teaching” of science to our children and young people. And here a brief study of the history of these matters is once again instructive. For what we discover, of course, is that the deep thinkers of each historical period always come to believe that the thinkers of previous periods have been, if not quite wrong, at least naive and less than well-informed in their constructions of their period’s “scientific” knowledge. We thus discover that “scientific knowledge” is not a static thing decreed once and for all and passed down to us by the gods on Olympus, but an organic, evolving, always changing body of “facts” and theories.

It is, in short, a distinctly and completely human enterprise conducted by fallible human beings living in a particular culture at a particular moment in historical time. “Scientific knowledge” will always, therefore, be subject to change and revision as new evidence comes to light and new theories must be constructed. And all such empirically derived knowledge based on observation of the material world and on physical things that can be experimentally manipulated can tell us nothing about the many kinds of narrative and artistic “knowledge” and the “truths” that are part and parcel of and available to that remarkable apparatus we call “human consciousness.”

It is precisely this fundamental understanding of what “science” is and is not that is all too often not conveyed to our children and young people in our traditional process of “instructional” schooling. When we concern ourselves almost solely with “standards” and “content” as expressed in the horrendous contemporary jargon of “what every student should know and be able to do” at each grade level, we are all too often simply asking our students to memorize and, if possible, understand the laws, theories, and physical data upon which our present version of science is based. In all too many instances, these laws, theories, and the physical data are presented as simple facts: This is the way things are, these are the rules by which the physical universe operates. It is the student’s job to “learn” themthat is, to memorize them and be able to repeat them back to us on an examination at the end of the year.

While most reputable scientists accept the theory of evolution, those scientists are not in unanimous agreement about every aspect of the theory.

But, of course, this is not what scientists themselves do; it is not what science is really all about. As our historical story and a quick glimpse at our current scientific journals tell us, scientists are not by any means all of one mind about many matters of the greatest scientific interest and importance. They are constantly involved in the age-old and often highly disputatious (and sometimes quite vituperative) human process of trying to figure out, that is, to construct, what they hope will be better and more accurate intellectual models to explain how the universe works. These models are constantly changing and constantly, the scientists hope and believe, being improved.

Danny Phillips’ “theory” of evolution is in actual fact a good case in point. While most reputable scientists accept the theory as the best--and in most cases the only--explanation for the origins and development of life on earth, those scientists are not in unanimous agreement about every aspect of the theory. For instance, there is a current dispute over the question of whether evolution is a slow and gradual process, as Darwin thought, or a process of great stability punctuated by occasional bursts of rapid change, the “punctuated equilibrium” theory of Stephen J. Gould and Niles Eldridge.

In all of these senses, then, Danny is quite right to argue that our schools should “teach the theory of evolution as a theory. Treat it as they do science and present the evidence for and against it.”

What Danny is asking for, whether he fully realizes it or not, is that science education in the schools be modeled on the way science is actually conducted, the way good and true scientists actually behave. Of course all of the evidence for and against any and all scientific theories should be presented to students. They should not be asked simply to memorize and regurgitate the scientific status quo. They should be asked to become scientists themselves, to “learn” science by doing science. They need to remember and practice Nullis in Verba, to examine and question all such “received” knowledge and make up their own minds. In that way, they will begin to develop all those “higher-order thinking skills” we are constantly being told they lack and will need to get good jobs and help us all survive in a new, viciously competitive global economy.

If our schools cannot heed Danny Phillips’ request that they teach science properly, and especially if they feel they cannot present all the evidence for and against the theory of evolution, then perhaps we need not only new and better schools but also a new and better theory of how life originated.

A version of this article appeared in the March 19, 1997 edition of Education Week