The Fear of Teaching Darwin

Larry Arnhart wants biology students not just to learn about the father of evolutionary theory, but to read his words.

December 13, 2005

The endless debate over the teaching of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has now moved from the high schools to the universities. In this debate, the advocates of “intelligent design theory” say that this should be taught as a scientific alternative to Darwin’s theory. It’s time to consider radical ideas for resolving this dispute.

I have a proposal. Why not introduce our students to this debate by having them read Darwin’s own writings in their biology classes? We could teach the controversy by teaching Darwin.

I suspect, however, that this proposal will be rejected by almost everyone in this debate, because both sides -- the proponents as well as the critics of evolution -- have a deep fear of teaching Darwin.

“Intelligent design theory” is the idea that some of what we see in the living world shows the kind of specified complexity that must be the product of an intelligent designer rather than Darwinian evolution. Proponents of intelligent design at the Discovery Institute (a conservative think tank in Seattle) have adopted the rhetorical argument of “teaching the controversy.” They recommend teaching the theory of evolution by natural selection along with intelligent design theory, so that students are fully informed about all sides of this debate.

Opponents respond by saying, what controversy? Although there might be some controversy over the exact mechanisms of evolutionary change, they say, there is no real scientific controversy over the general theory of the origin of species by natural evolution. The supporters of intelligent design theory are moved not by scientific motives but by religious motives. And after all, intelligent design theory is not really a scientific theory, because it appeals to supernatural causes beyond natural experience and the scientific method.

I agree that the scientific evidence and arguments favor Darwinian evolution over intelligent design. In debating some of the leaders in the intelligent design movement such as Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Jonathan Wells, I have seen that they rely on the rhetorical technique of negative argumentation. They appear to win the debate when they ask the Darwinian scientists to demonstrate the exact step-by-step evolutionary pathways for the emergence of living mechanisms that show apparent design. And yet they offer no positive theory of their own to explain exactly where, when, and how the Intelligent Designer created these same living mechanisms. Without such a positive theory, their position is not empirically testable.

Despite these fundamental weaknesses in the intelligent design position, I cannot see that there would be anything wrong with having students weigh the evidence and arguments for themselves by reading selections from Darwin’s own writings -- particularly, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. Surely, the proponents of evolution couldn’t object to having students read Charles Darwin. And yet this could also satisfy the proponents of intelligent design, because Darwin presents intelligent design theory, which he calls the “theory of creation,” as the major alternative to his theory.

In The Origin of Species, Darwin frames the fundamental debate as a controversy between two theories -- the “theory of creation” (or the “theory of independent acts of creation”) versus the “theory of natural selection” (or the “theory of descent with modification”). He indicates that until recently “most naturalists” -- including himself -- have accepted the “theory of creation,” which says that each species has been independently created by a Creator. But Darwin thinks that now we have a better theory -- a “theory of natural selection,” which says that although the general laws of nature might have been ultimately created by a Creator, those general laws allow for the natural evolution of species through natural selection of inherited variations. Consequently, there is no need for special interventions by a Creator to design each species and each complex organic mechanism.

Darwin thinks that neither theory can be conclusively demonstrated. But we can at least judge one theory as more probable if it can explain “large classes of facts” more intelligibly than the other theory. For example, if the “theory of natural selection” can explain the geographic distribution of species between the Galapagos Islands and the South American mainland and do this more persuasively than any alternative explanation based on the “theory of special creation,” then we can judge the evolutionary theory to be more probable.

Darwin acknowledges the many “difficulties” with his theory, which turn out to be the very problems that are commonly stressed by proponents of intelligent design theory. But while Darwin admits that these “difficulties” are so severe as to be “staggering,” he tries to resolve them, while arguing that the “theory of creation” has its own difficulties.

Proponents of “intelligent design theory” might object that their theory is not the same as the “theory of creation.” While speaking of the “Creator” implies a literal reading of the Bible’s account of the six days of Creation, they might argue, one can speak of the “Intelligent Designer” without identifying this Designer with the Creator of the Bible. But Darwin reduces the “theory of creation” to the general idea that a powerful intelligence created each species independently, which does not require reading the opening chapters of Genesis as a literal account of six days of creation.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin extends his evolutionary theory to cover human nature, including the moral, intellectual, and religious propensities that make human beings unique in the living world. He argues that the human beings have a natural “moral sense” rooted in a biological nature shaped by evolutionary history. He suggests that religious belief reinforces this moral sense by giving divine sanction to social duties.

Religious conservatives often reject Darwinian science because they think it promotes a morally corrupting materialism. In fact, the underlying motivation for American conservatives adopting intelligent design as an alternative to evolution is their fear of Darwinian immorality. But Darwin’s scientific defense of the natural moral sense suggests that his evolutionary theory actually supports traditional morality as rooted in the evolved nature of the human animal.

So if students were to read Darwin, they could judge not only the scientific truth of his theory but also its moral and religious implications. This would help them to think through the complex interaction of science, morality, and religion. Wouldn’t it be good for biology students to engage in this kind of study?

Of course, evolutionary science has advanced since Darwin’s day. For example, the fossil record today is better known; and we now understand the genetic basis of inheritance. So teachers might want to supplement the reading of Darwin with some reading from a recent textbook of evolutionary theory. But I would suggest that most of the major ideas of evolutionary science can be found in some form in Darwin’s texts.

A few months ago, at a conference in Washington, I presented my proposal for having high school biology students read Darwin. One of the leading opponents of the intelligent design movement was on the panel. He complained that it would not be right to allow high school students to think through these issues for themselves, because only scientific “experts” could judge the evidence for evolution. As far as he was concerned, the purpose of high school science education was to tell students what the “experts” believed, and any proposal to open up the classroom to real debate was actually part of the war on science coming from the Religious Right and George W. Bush.

He also argued that what I was proposing would be more suited for university students. I have done this in some of my university teaching in political science classes that include many biology students. My students read Darwin along with some of the contemporary writing of the intelligent design proponents. This stimulates a lively debate. One of the professors in the biology department at my university has also been successful in using readings from Darwin in his undergraduate course on evolutionary theory.

But generally I have found that most university biologists are opposed to using Darwin’s writings in their classes and allowing their students to study the debate over intelligent design. A few years ago, I noticed that the biology department at my university was offering a course on “The Evolution/Creationism Debate. ”I went to the class and found that it was for biology majors planning on teaching high school biology. At the first meeting of the class, the students were told that they would not be reading any of the publications by proponents of creationism and intelligent design because all of this writing was “crap.” Instead, they would memorize the standard arguments defending evolution so that they could respond to those “ignorant parents” who might object to their teaching. But doesn’t this actually play into the hands of the intelligent design proponents by confirming their claim that the teaching of evolution to students has become indoctrination without freedom of thought?

Recently, Hunter Rawlings, president of Cornell University, devoted his “State of the University Address” to the continuing controversies surrounding evolution and intelligent design. He said that universities such as Cornell needed to do a better job in helping students and the general public to understand the nature of these controversies -- while teaching evolution and not intelligent design as science. He recommended that Cornell promote interdisciplinary courses on evolution and religion that would illuminate the ideas of creationism and intelligent design as compared with evolutionary ideas. Natural scientists, social scientists, and humanists should all be involved in broad-ranging teaching that would explore the scientific, moral, and religious implications of evolutionary thought. To illustrate what he had in mind, he cited the work of Will Provine, a Cornell professor who teaches biology courses that explore the moral and religious dimensions of evolutionary theory. Although Provine dismisses intelligent design as worthless, he has been known to invite defenders of intelligent design such as Phillip Johnson to speak to his students.

I agree with President Rawlings. And I suggest that adopting Darwin’s writings as central texts for university courses on evolution would promote the sort of interdisciplinary teaching that he recommends.

Most biologists believe that debating intelligent design or creationism as alternatives to Darwinian evolution has no place in a science course, because such a debate really belongs in a philosophy or religious studies course. President Rawlings implies that he agrees with this. But doesn’t this separation of science from philosophy and religion manifest just the kind of narrow thinking that President Rawlings says he wants to overcome?

The consequences of such narrow thinking are evident in the recent controversy at the University of Kansas over a proposed course in the religious studies department with the title “Intelligent Design, Creationism, and Other Religious Mythologies.” Paul Mirecki, the chair of religious studies at Kansas, proposed this course in response to recent political disputes over the teaching of evolution in Kansas public schools. In an e-mail message to a listserv, Mirecki identified religious fundamentalists as “fundies,” and he remarked: “The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category ‘mythology.’” Obviously, the proponents of intelligent design saw this as confirming their fear that teaching the evolution debate in a religious studies class would be biased against their position.

At most universities, the organization of the curriculum separates science from the humanities and the social sciences. This promotes the idea among both teachers and students that the study of science must be separated from the study of morality, religion, and politics. This discourages teachers and students from thinking through the moral, religious, and political implications of a scientific idea like Darwinian evolution.

Darwin himself thought deeply about the broad implications of his evolutionary theory. If university teachers and students were to study evolution by studying Darwin’s writings, they could see how the debate over evolution versus intelligent design opens up profound questions about the ultimate origins and meaning of life in the universe.

There is no better way to explore such questions than to teach the controversy over Darwinian evolution by teaching Darwin.


Larry Arnhart is a professor of political science at Northern IllinoisUniversity. His most recent book is Darwinian Conservatism.


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