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Darwin in the classroom

rmehta's picture
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“The mind cannot possibly grasp the full meaning of the term of a hundred million years,” states Darwin in the last chapter of his On the Origin of the Species. As a result of not being able to perceive such a large time span, it is within human nature to create a series of stories to provide an explanation for this gap in our comprehension.  Resulting are the stories of evolution and creationism, both of which are rooted in the common purpose of explaining this inconceivable amount of time.  The creation of a story offers the ability to create a controversy; to be a substantial story there has to be a substantial opinion in opposition to that story.  Both Darwinian evolution and Intelligent Design are two legitimate stories, existing significantly separately yet in opposition to one another.  As a result of being versions of a common theme, there has been a long standing debate as to whether or not Darwinian evolution should be taught in the classroom.  In the Origins, Darwin contends that, “it is easy to hide our ignorance” (398).  Darwin argues that design may be a substitute for our ignorance, and although not denouncing Creationism, Darwin’s statements begin the heated debate between two pivotal theories. In the classroom it is necessary to present both viewpoints in an effort to alleviate one-sided ignorance.  This paper puts forth the notion that Darwin should be taught in the classroom and looks to analyze the deeper components of Darwin’s theory and Intelligent Design (ID).

            On a website that informs teachers how to present the topic of evolution to varying grade levels, the author of the page recognizes four main points in Darwinian evolution: variation, inheritance, selection and time (1).  Interestingly, nowhere on this website does it combine Darwin with ID thought. There is a section that summarizes what a student at the end of each level should be able to comprehend; however, there is no mention of the comprehension of the pivotal debate between these two theories. This website brings to light a difference in evolution and creationist belief and the distinction between theory and doctrine.  Darwin’s innovative theories were in no means doctrines, but rather a culmination and summary of a series of observations that continuously had proven to be true.  An important distinction in Darwin’s thinking is that he did not consider himself an absolutist; his account within the Origins is a very personal one, rooted in his consistent opinionated and personal consideration of his observations: “I believe”, “I do not doubt”, “I am convinced” (121).  Because he constructs his theory as such, it is as if he is asking for an opposing view, knowing fully well that his theory (although based on observable evidence) is very personal.  He makes note that his evolutionary thought is one theory, not a doctrine of imprinted non-falsifiable laws. Students need to be introduced to the open-endedness of Darwin’s theory and realize that while it is a series of substantiated observations, his theory is not absolute. 

            In light of this view, the fear of teaching Darwin in the classroom seems to partially stem from the idea of taking his word and figure to be supreme truth.  This fear is rooted in the idea that an authoritative power is diminished in Darwinian evolution because the process of evolution itself is an unguided and undirected one. Contrastingly, Intelligent Design, the modern day creationist movement, stems from the notion that life stems from a guided “intelligent cause” (2). Creationism, as in any form of unverifiable belief, requires faith and belief in the intangible and unidentifiable.  From this notion of faith stems the approval of an authoritative power that created life. In chapter six of the Origins Darwin asked: "Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man?" In the debate of placing Darwinian evolution in the classroom, Creationist may argue that there is a fear of renouncing this sense of an authority.  Rooted in this fear is the concern of rejecting an implicit moral code that is apparent in the creationist belief.  Here we see the problem in distinguishing religion and science and the difficulty in finding the proper place for teaching either and both subjects.  However, in the developmental educational process it is natural and imperative for a student to learn how to question both sides of an argument, which then teaches them how to evaluate truth rather than just accept false truth blindly. 

One of the first direct challenges brought in the United State federal court against a public school district requiring ID as an alternative to evolution as an explanation for life was the Tammy Kitzmiller, et. al. v Dover Area School District, et. al. case in 2005 (3).  The plaintiffs argued that ID is a form of creationism and the school board policy violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (3).  Here again we see the debate between the definitions of a theory and a doctrine.  A theory does not require, but rather entails an effect that does not have any moral obligatory commitment to the idea.  In addition, a theory invites critical criticism and is formulated with the notion that there exists a notion of disapproval.  A doctrine, however, rejects criticism as it is often understood as an engraved belief and written rule.  A sense of punishment is exuded upon a critical analysis of a doctrine.  Darwinian evolution tends to be labeled as a theory and Creationism is a belief under a set doctrine.  In presenting ID in schools, it is necessary that it be presented as a theory and if so, along side Darwinian evolution as to allow a diverse range of discussions to occur.    

            Examining Darwinian evolution does not negate the story offered by Creationism.  Rather, it offers an opposing view rooted in an analytical perspective.  Upon studying On the Origins of the Species Darwin’s language lends itself to theology and unexpectedly acknowledges Creationism. In his first reference, he brings up the valid question of the governance of law and how life is dictated by a series of laws.  While he may in fact dictate that the origin of life is a result of a serious of random events, there is a sense of order in his argument as there are a series of set laws that determine the evolving process of living organisms.  In the observatory, often even apologetic language used, Darwin seems to have wanted to assure his audience that his open-minded exploration need not threaten people who have a rational outlook on theology. In an essay entitled “Darwin, the scientific creationist”, William E. Phipps discusses the several religious references within the Origins (4).  Phipps takes notice of a theologically-related quotation at the beginning of the text written by William Whewell, a philosopher of science who contributed to the Bridgewater Treatise series and tried to show "the power, wisdom, and goodness of God as manifested in creation" (4) As Phipps acknowledges, the opening sentence of the Origin contains word from the Bridgewater Treatise: "Events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, but by the establishment of general laws." It is interesting to note that these words portray that God did not directly intervene on the natural order.   Because of his numerous references to traditional belief, Darwin the classroom would indirectly involve an acknowledgment of creationism. 

            Darwin’s theory allots for a phenomenon that is currently visible and teaching Darwinian evolution in schools promotes the act of observation and questioning.  In denying to present Darwinian evolution, we are denying a chance to teach history and the process of critical analysis.  The significance of his theories is not only rooted in the changed ideology of the time, but also in the apparent prolonged existence of his theory as we are still discussing it today.






Anonymous's picture

Christians calling God a Liar ?

I am saddened that the Church in many cases has denied the book of Genesis as literal. So it begs the question . Why believe at all? How can a christian believe some of the bible and not its entirety?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Darwin as a deist?

Worth further reflection. Quotations on the title page of the Origin ...

"... events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws. W. Whewell: Bridgewater Treatise

" ... let no man ... think ... that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works ... rather let men endavour an endless progress or proficience in both." Roger Bacon: Advancement of Learning

What role did Darwin's religious beliefs play in the Origin? In what ways might it have been different if his religious beliefs had been otherwise?