Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation

Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation

by Adam Laats, Harvey Siegel

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No fight over what gets taught in American classrooms is more heated than the battle over humanity’s origins. For more than a century we have argued about evolutionary theory and creationism (and its successor theory, intelligent design), yet we seem no closer to a resolution than we were in Darwin’s day. In this thoughtful examination of how we teach origins, historian Adam Laats and philosopher Harvey Siegel offer crucial new ways to think not just about the evolution debate but how science and religion can make peace in the classroom.
Laats and Siegel agree with most scientists: creationism is flawed, as science. But, they argue, students who believe it nevertheless need to be accommodated in public school science classes. Scientific or not, creationism maintains an important role in American history and culture as a point of religious dissent, a sustained form of protest that has weathered a century of broad—and often dramatic—social changes. At the same time, evolutionary theory has become a critical building block of modern knowledge. The key to accommodating both viewpoints, they show, is to disentangle belief from knowledge. A student does not need to believe in evolution in order to understand its tenets and evidence, and in this way can be fully literate in modern scientific thought and still maintain contrary religious or cultural views. Altogether, Laats and Siegel offer the kind of level-headed analysis that is crucial to finding a way out of our culture-war deadlock.      

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226331447
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/03/2016
Series: History and Philosophy of Education Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 144
File size: 968 KB

About the Author

Adam Laats is associate professor of education and history at Binghamton University, State University of New York. He is the author of The Other School Reformers and Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era. Harvey Siegel is professor of philosophy at the University of Miami. He is the author of several books, including Relativism RefutedEducating Reason, and Rationality Redeemed?, as well as the editor of Reason and Education and The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Education

Read an Excerpt

Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation

By Adam Laats, Harvey Siegel

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-33144-7


Higher Education and a New Culture of Science

Edward Birge was tired. The winter of 1921 had been a long one, even by the frigid standards of Madison, Wisconsin. After over forty years of life as a professor and administrator at the state university, he could handle the weather. However, in addition to the cold this year, in addition to his usual duties as university president, he had endured long months of relentless public attack. He was tired of it, but not nearly ready to surrender. He did not see the need.

But he did want to share his troubles. In the early spring of 1922, he wrote in commiseration to fellow academic scientist Edwin G. Conklin. Conklin, a prominent Princeton biologist, crusaded for the scientific teaching of evolutionary theory. Good luck, Birge wished him, but beware of shaking that hornet's nest. Once you have engaged the foes of evolution, Birge warned, you will certainly be endlessly assailed, personally and vindictively. He noted from experience that at the very least, Conklin would soon be deluged with "an enormous number of letters and much fool printed stuff."

The two men and their campaigns in favor of the teaching of evolutionary theory represented the new mainstream of academic life at leading institutions of higher education. Both were scientists, and both expected universities to welcome research and teaching that did not truckle to religious or cultural orthodoxies. Such attitudes represented the rising trend in American science and higher education, but in the 1920s these ideas about the proper role of higher education were still novel to the majority of American citizens. A sizable segment of the population still imagined college to be a place that would instill traditional Protestant values, not challenge them. They expected science to be the handmaiden of revealed truth, rather than to engage in a self-consciously iconoclastic search for some other sort of fundamental truth. In philosophical terms, as we'll explore in chapter 8, we might describe this as a cultural divide between those university-based research scientists who had accepted the culture of Western Modern Science and significant numbers of the broader population who had not. Although both Birge and Conklin could take comfort in the fact that they had secure berths in such schools as Wisconsin and Princeton, they could not glibly assume that the folk outside their ivory towers would defer to their scientific expertise.

When Birge sat down to write to Conklin, he knew he'd find a sympathetic ear. After his long winter, he could use some sympathy. To his surprise, he had endured ferocious hostility from critics outside the circle of academics, liberal Protestants, and scientists. By the early spring of 1922, he knew that many of his detractors assumed that he fit their stereotype of the atheistic college president who uses science to turn young minds away from traditional Christianity. But that was not true of Birge at all. Though a prominent zoologist, he was also a devout Christian, a deacon in his church, and a man who had led Bible classes for twenty-five years.

He hadn't looked for a fight with evolution opponents, but a fight had found him nonetheless. After a speech delivered in May of 1921 at the Madison campus by leading evolution foe William Jennings Bryan, Birge penned a long open letter denouncing what he saw as Bryan's dangerously misleading argument. Bryan had argued that the teaching of evolution at Wisconsin could have no result but atheism. He had denounced lecturers that attacked the Bible as nothing but a collection of myths. The choice, he had thundered, was between religion and morality on one hand, and evolution and sinister atheism on the other.

Birge could not restrain himself. He accused Bryan himself of promoting atheism. He believed that Bryan had asserted a false division between evolution and religion. Rather, Birge argued, science and religion were both "equally divine revelations." Though he noted that some conservative theologians in the past had found science "atheistic," he disagreed. Science and the Bible, Birge insisted, "are only the same thing stated from different points of view."

Birge hadn't foreseen how much of a firestorm he had stepped into. Bryan quickly gathered local support, including that of Herbert C. Noonan, a Catholic priest and president of Milwaukee's Marquette University. The Wisconsin Council of Catholic Women censured Birge and pledged itself to "a vigorous campaign to eliminate false teachings at Madison." Angry Wisconsinites demanded his resignation.

Bryan seemed to welcome the attention. He certainly was no stranger to public controversy. His long career in the political limelight had begun with his rousing "Cross of Gold" speech of 1896. He had run unsuccessfully for president three times and resigned dramatically from his post as secretary of state over president Woodrow Wilson's aggressive response to the sinking of the Lusitania. He had entered the campaign against evolution with his typical energy and zeal, and the controversy against Birge allowed him the opportunity to test his arguments in public.

Bryan blasted the University of Wisconsin as a typically out-of-touch university. He warned that such schools presented immediate dangers to the youth of America. "If the University of Wisconsin," he demanded,

is to discard the Bible and substitute the guesses of scientists in its place — as it does in teaching Darwinism — and then objects to the students hearing the other side, it should ... issue an announcement like this: Our class rooms furnish an arena in which a brutish doctrine tears to pieces the religious faith of young men and young women; parents of the children are cordially invited to witness the spectacle. Why should Christian taxpayers permit the Bible to be attacked by their hired servants where defense is not permitted?

Birge lost his cool. He called Bryan "crazy." Bryan called him "an autocrat." Bryan even offered to pay one hundred dollars if Birge would sign a statement acknowledging his descent from an ape. Birge received piles of angry mail. Letters to the editor in local papers accused him of being both weak-willed and autocratic, both unscientific and un-Christian.

In the end, however, the controversy petered away, leaving Birge with stacks of hostile letters and doubtless a few headaches, but without changing his ability to govern the University of Wisconsin as he saw fit. He never had to change the university's hiring or supervision policies for professors. Although he had made an indignant public statement of his deep Protestant faith, he hadn't been forced to foster that faith as part of his presidential duties. Rather, he continued to run the university as a recognizably modern research university.

That style of higher education administration was still something of a novelty in 1922, but since the end of the Civil War it had gradually become the norm at leading colleges and universities. This slow revolution fostered a new academic climate vital to the development of controversies over the teaching of evolution. The transformed climate offered America's small but growing population of research scientists a more congenial home for research that might remove them from the orbit of popular acceptance or approval. It obviated their need to check their research findings against the tenets of accepted orthodoxies, religious or political. It created a new standard of intellectual respectability, one that measured its worth against the standards of elite international research scientists, not the traditional religious or moral beliefs of the nation.

Birge's position as a defender of academic freedom, of the university as a home for unfettered research, would have been fairly radical when he began his career at the University of Wisconsin as a lecturer in natural history in 1875. More typical at that date was the reminiscence of political scientist John W. Burgess, who remembered professors' attitudes from that same year at Amherst College. Burgess recalled that "the older minds of the faculty" still considered their job to be that of disseminating the truth. Such truth, in their opinions, had "already been found. ... in the Bible." These older scholars, during the late decades of the nineteenth century, "regarded research as more or less heretical." As Bryan argued a generation later, the prevailing vision of higher education until the late nineteenth century was that it ought to train young men, and a few women, in the precepts of life as Christian gentlemen and ladies.

As president Noah Porter of Yale University expressed it in his baccalaureate sermon of 1882, "Unbelief in some of its aspects was never more imposing to men of culture than it is at the present time. ... Our business is to defend the truth as we believe it and to defend it because we know its worth and its power." Bryan would have agreed enthusiastically. But Porter was something of a curmudgeon among college presidents at leading institutions. He knew he was fighting a rearguard action in his efforts to assert a role for the university as a defender of accepted truths and norms.

That vision of the mission of higher education was changing fast. By the turn of the twentieth century, in the words of historian of higher education Laurence Veysey, leading American universities would become "all but unrecognizable" in comparison with this older vision of proper higher education. Historian Roger Geiger has identified this dramatic change as coming in fits and spurts between the years 1870 and 1920. By the end of the nineteenth century, Geiger concluded, leading research universities had committed themselves firmly to a new vision: not the training of Christian gentlemen but the deliberate pursuit of "cognitive rationality — knowing through the exercise of reason." The debates over the nature of science — issues we'll discuss in more depth in chapter 5 — must be seen as part of this history. Scientists didn't work in a vacuum. Rather, changing norms about the nature of science and of scientific inquiry went hand in hand with changing norms at leading research universities.

The new breed of university leader often pursued the new goal of unfettered scientific inquiry with the missionary zeal reflected in their evangelical Protestant roots. J. M. Coulter, president in 1894 of Lake Forest University in Illinois, described the "work of a university" as a great "mission field." The mission, according to Coulter, was no longer to win souls to salvation, but rather to further "the emancipation of thought ... [previously] fettered by ignorance or superstition," a "crusade against ignorance."

But by the 1920s, presidents at major research universities were driven by other factors besides their zeal to promulgate new visions of knowing and learning. They competed with one another and with leading European universities to attract and retain leading scientific researchers. Any whiff of provincialism or ideological constraint might cause a university to lose out to a more agreeable research home. For instance, the University of Michigan struggled for years to develop a world-class theoretical physics department. After only two years in his position, however, its first young faculty scientist left. He returned to Copenhagen to avoid the intellectual isolation of Ann Arbor. Physics department chairperson Harrison Randall had to consider the norms of elite international research science as he tried to build his department, not the norms of American popular beliefs about science and religion.

As Veysey has demonstrated, American collegiate faculty and administration yearned at the turn of the twentieth century for "an equality with ... Europe." Researchers at leading schools had often received some or all of their graduate education at European — especially German — universities. It was only in the last years of the nineteenth century that American universities began offering a significant number of graduate degrees. Although Johns Hopkins University opened in Baltimore in 1876 with a mission to offer German-style graduate training, most other research universities, in the words of historian John Thelin, "fell drastically far short of its example until well into the twentieth century."

Such experiences in internationalized graduate education led the leaders of elite universities to give more weight to the opinions and attitudes of other prominent scientists and researchers than to those of the American populace. University leaders' reliance on elite opinion exposed them to charges of unseemly attraction to foreign ideas. By the 1920s, conservative Protestant leaders had noticed the changing trends in higher education. They worried, as Bryan did, that universities had become dangerous to the faith of Protestant students. As university leaders worked to bring their research departments up to international standards, conservatives accused them of importing pernicious ideas and theories.

William Bell Riley, soon to be a leader of the fundamentalist crusade for control of several Protestant denominations, accused college leaders in 1920 of dooming their students to struggle under an "avalanche of German rationalism." Anti-evolution evangelist T. T. Martin likewise located the problem with the changing nature of higher education in its pandering to German ideas. "We sent our young men to the great German universities," he argued in 1923, "and, when they came back, saturated with Evolution, we made them Presidents and head-professors of our colleges and great universities." More colorfully, another fundamentalist leader warned in 1921 that higher education in once reliably religious schools had gone wrong when students "got the forty-second echo of some beer-guzzling German Professor of Rationalism."

These conservative critics, though often more concerned with theology than science, had noticed an important change in the nature of higher education and the culture of science. By 1920, leading research universities had undergone a dramatic transformation. They had become more attuned to international standards of research and education than to traditional American norms of collegiate education. They had become more interested in the creation of elite research faculties than with the transmission of orthodoxy. University presidents like Edward Birge viewed their role as protecting the rights of their faculty to pursue research, rather than ensuring doctrinaire instruction.

This created a far more comfortable home for faculty to pursue research. Academic scientists moved in professional circles that allowed them to accept controversial ideas such as evolution without pausing to consider the popular reputation of those ideas. However, those scientists who chose to step outside the charmed circle of elite research university life, such as Birge and his correspondent Edwin G. Conklin, quickly discovered that evolution continued to provoke intense controversy.

Conklin's career was not too dissimilar from Birge's. Like Birge, he had been raised in a religious Protestant family. At the age of thirteen, he publicly proclaimed his faith at a Methodist revival. He impressed his family and friends with his ability to recite long passages of the Bible from memory. He even passed an examination to become a lay minister in the Methodist Church.

In his career as a biologist at Princeton University, Conklin applied the evangelical zeal of his youth to promulgating his vision of scientific truth. In 1920, he articulated a vision of the meaning of science that captured the mainstream scientific understanding so coherently that it is worth quoting at some length. "The spirit of science," Conklin argued,

is freedom to seek and to find truth, freedom to hold and to teach any view for which there is rational evidence, recognition that natural knowledge is incomplete and subject to revision, and that there is no legitimate compulsion in science except the compulsion of evidence.

The method of science is to proceed from observations to tentative explanations which are then tested by further observations and experiments, thus reaching general observations or theories. Scientific theories are not mere guesses but are based upon careful, detailed observations. ...


Excerpted from Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation by Adam Laats, Harvey Siegel. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction    The Evolution of an Educational Controversy

1          Higher Education and a New Culture of Science
2          Evolution Education in a Jazz Age
3          The Dog That Didn’t Bark
4          A New Minority
5          Evolution, Creation, Science, Religion, and Public Education
6          Beyond “Creation Science”: The Scientific Status of Intelligent Design
7          Science Education: Aims and Constraints; Belief versus Understanding
8          A Question of Culture?

Conclusion      Evolution as Education


What People are Saying About This

Ronald L. Numbers

Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation provides not only a readable and reliable survey of past encounters but a sensible guide to future practices. Rather than promoting public-school classrooms as pulpits for converting skeptical students to evolution (which has rarely proved an effective technique in any case), they recommend helping students to understand the arguments and evidence for evolution. This book should be required reading for all evolution educators.”

Glenn Branch

“What do you get when you cross a historian and a philosopher? If it’s Laats and Siegel, the answer is Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation. Thoughtful and provocative, historically detailed and philosophically informed, this book is a must for anyone interested in understanding the conflict over evolution education in the United States.”

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