Evolution vs. Creationism in Education
Upon registering for a class entitled “The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories,” I knew that I was about to subject myself to hours of debate, confusion, and reflection on what I know, what I think I know, and what I have yet to learn. In turn, I’ve come to question why students are taught certain topics and why some concepts are excluded on the basis of religion, bias, or a lack of understanding. As my class delved into issues concerning the theories of evolution and creationism, I’ve come to question the logic behind school syllabi and ponder the extent to which these topics should be taught. To remain consistent with the terminology used in class, I will refer to these differing theories not as scientific or religious standpoints, but as cultural ‘stories’ that are utilized to make sense of what had previously been a mystery to us.
While I believe that it is important to understand the history of the ‘stories’ we’ve come to believe concerning the creation of the universe and the progression of plants and animals on earth, I don’t feel that creationism should be taught as the predominant theory. Just as it is important to understand the context in which literary stories are centered, I feel that it is important to understand the context from which the evolutionary ‘story’ derived, or rather, the story that evolution replaced. Nevertheless, we cannot place context before content, and therefore should study evolution as the predominant (i.e. more probable) theory.
I feel that within the ideal evolutionary syllabus, a few main concepts should be understood by students and teachers alike. First of all, it is necessary to understand what it means to be evolutionarily ‘fit.’ For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to extrapolate from Darwin’s writings to say that fitness involves the capacity to reproduce, to formulate viable offspring, and the ability to fit in well with one’s surroundings. In stating this, I’m essentially replacing the term “survival of the fittest” with “survival of the best fitted.” As we spoke about in class, the concept of a species being the ‘fittest’ connotes a sense of superiority over other species when in fact the term is only meant to insinuate that the species’ traits compliment its environment, or vice versa. Such an overlap is sometimes dependent on genetic shifts, and sometimes caused by environmental changes that help or hinder certain members of a given species. In this way, it is important for students to understand that all beings vary genetically, even those belonging to the same species. Selection is dependent on this genetic variation, and those whose genes result in traits that compliment their surroundings have a greater chance of survival to give them time to reproduce.
In looking more closely at the alteration of terms I mentioned above, we can note the remarkable evolutionary nature of words. As I mentioned in a blog on February 6th, 2011, “words have varying meanings and connotations for different people” and they shift in meaning both geographically and over time. “Just as we believe that species evolve to better fit their environments, so do words. It seems that as society, politics, and taboos shift, so do the words we use to describe such events” (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/9140). These shifts in meaning take time and occur over multiple generations, just as genetic evolution does.
In stating this, we also have to ponder the issue of evolution as an interdisciplinary/disciplinary subject. The manner in which a subject like this is taught greatly affects a student’s comprehension, familiarity with, and comfort level when approaching the concepts. To be more specific, students coming from a disciplinary standpoint would learn about evolution as a biological concept – one that is irrevocably connected to Mendelian genetics and scientific theory. On the other hand, if evolution was taught in an interdisciplinary setting, teachers could incorporate multiple concepts and levels of understanding into their explanations. As Anne Fausto-Sterling states in her article “Science Matters, Culture Matters” (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/perspectives_in_biology_and_medicine/v046/46.1fausto_sterling.html), “scientific knowledge is a particular form of social knowledge.” She suggests the practice of teaching using “common linkage,” a technique in which syllabi are rewritten, revamped, and reformed to better illustrate the connections between disciplines. Not only would such a strategy place “science people” into literary situations (or “humanities people” into scientific settings) that felt comfortable for them, but it would also help to align subjects that are often seen as oppositional.
As I mentioned previously, I feel that it is important for students to understand the complexities of evolution and to view that as the most reliable evolutionary story, but I also believe that having a background upon which to compare this story (i.e. creationism) is important for critical thinking. One of the most important opportunities one gets over the duration of his or her education is the chance to question one’s beliefs and learn how to support one’s opinions. In relation to evolution vs. creationism, I feel that all children should be knowledgeable about both stories because they need to start from the same basis. While teachers can (and maybe should) give their students a sense of which is ‘truer’ or which story has more validity, I feel that it is important for religious children to have the opportunity to learn about a story that they can identity with, and for non-religious children to get a sense about the way that people explained the creation of the world before the story of evolution came into existence. I feel that as education evolves, that creationism should function to introduce the interdisciplinary nature of biology. By teaching it as a historical explanation rather than a biological story, we can begin to introduce Fausto-Sterling’s suggestions of “common linkage,” and we can also accurately stress the importance of evolution by placing it within a science-centric setting.