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Biology Without Evolution

Post of the Month: December 2004


Subject:    On Teaching Biology Without Evolution
Date:       21 December 2004
Message-ID: ZxNxd.534283$Pl.251177@pd7tw1no

Teaching Biology Without Evolution

"What exactly changes the understanding of the science or the science itself when you don't make any gratuitous mentions of the word evolution and begin with the assumption that God created everything instead of everything creating itself?" --JISTASKKIN

I am a high school Biology teacher in the province of Alberta, Canada. This question was asked of me by a creationist in the same province. Although my bibliography below indicates that it is an old argument and has been thoroughly debunked, I'd like to address it from the perspective of a professional educator.

Why do creationists want to do this?

They believe that the theory of evolution is contrary to their interpretation of the Bible, specifically Genesis, and that teaching it to young people will lead them astray. A part of the solution, from their perspective, would be to eliminate all mention of evolution in Biology in the hope that any gaps in a student's understanding might hopefully be filled by their religious beliefs on the matter.

Interestingly, this same creationist at one time provided me with a perfectly sound definition of science in one of our previous exchanges, to whit:

"1 a. The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.

b. Such activities restricted to a class of natural phenomena.

c. Such activities applied to an object of inquiry or study."

Part B of the definition he provided is contrary to the assumption he makes in his question. By his own definition, employing a deity, whether in the Bible or in any religion for explanatory use, does not fit within the definition of science. He refuses to acknowledge this paradox, however, and claims that science should not be restricted by methodological materialism and should incorporate the use of the supernatural, namely God. He has never bothered to explain how this philosophy could actually work within the definition of science that he himself provided. His last phrase "instead of everything creating itself" has nothing to do with evolution but is a philosophy. This is standard creationist fare and I won't dwell on it except to predict that despite the paradox of his own philosophical position, he will accuse me at the end of this of giving a "mere philosophical" answer without any "real scientific proof".

Getting it Together

Creationists wish to isolate evolution as a separate and discrete concept within Biology so as to exclude it. Creationists can also use this in geology to isolate those concepts, such as stratigraphy, plate tectonics, radiometric dating and exclude them too. Such isolation, if it were to occur, would lead to the balkanization of science. Science would then become a collection of disparate and discrete silos of accumulated knowledge. Science is more than the sum of its parts and treating science in the manner desired by Creationists is folly and science would be at a great loss were this the case. Allow me to illustrate using none other than the life of Charles Darwin himself as an example.

Darwin read the works of Thomas Malthus regarding the population in the slums of London from which he got "survival of the fittest". He knew of Jean Lamarck's theories concerning the theory of need, the theory of use and disuse, and the theory of passing on acquired characteristics to offspring. He realized the problems with these theories, but appreciated the effect the environment has in determining if an organism is sufficiently adapted to survive and reproduce in it. Darwin spent five years on the Beagle where he saw, first hand, a wide variety of fauna and flora that few others had ever had the privilege to see. During the voyage he received a copy of Charles Lyell's book on geology and uniformitarianism and read of the extreme age of the earth and the rate of geologic processes. He located fossils of extinct mammals in South America in distinct stratigraphic layers in the manner described by Lyell. He saw the remarkable life forms on the isolated Galapagos islands and how well they were particularly adapted to these unique conditions even though they must have been transplanted there from the mainland at some point in the past. Darwin spent twenty three years raising pigeons and classifying barnacles while his undeveloped theory percolated in his head. He received a letter from Alfred Wallace in which he too articulated the process of natural selection as a mechanism for change within populations to adapt to changes in their environments. At the urging of his brother, he finally published "On the Origin of Species" in 1858, a brilliant synthesis of the works of several scientists in several disciplines.

It's interesting to note that Darwin was a Naturalist - the science discipline known today as Biology simply didn't exist back then. This allowed him a latitude to synthesize ideas from what we would see as several separate disciplines today. This all occurred before the science of genetics which has only served to enhance our understanding of the mechanisms of evolution. Darwin's original theory was further developed into the modern synthetic theory of evolution proposed by Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) who made the famous quote: "Nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution". He was referring to the explanatory power of evolution to explain life's diversity and all of its processes. Indeed, a recent text I purchased in the science section of the University of Calgary's bookstore entitled "Biology: Concepts and Connections 4th Ed." contains no less than eight chapters regarding evolution and the concept appears repeatedly in all other sections of the text to explain the presence of various structures, adaptations, and processes.

Evolution and Good Teaching

As part of their training, professional educators learn of Benjamin Bloom's hierarchical taxonomy of inquiry. Bloom's Taxonomy, as it is called, organizes questions for learning from the simple to the more complex as follows: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation. I share this taxonomy with my students at the beginning of each unit as they work in small groups to classify the research questions for the unit. In this way students appreciate the level of difficulty of the research coming up and rather than covering the curriculum, I assist my students in "uncovering" the curriculum. I try to ensure that there is a balance of the levels of questioning and that students will always have an opportunity to think at the higher levels of synthesis and evaluation.

At the high end of Bloom's Taxonomy is synthesis. Synthesis is the act of building a new structure from diverse or even unrelated elements. Students functioning at the level of synthesis put parts together to form a cohesive whole with the emphasis on creating new meaning. Students use old ideas to create new ones and can generalize from given facts. They can relate knowledge from several areas and make predictions and draw conclusions.

Contrast this to the desire of Creationists to isolate and eliminate undesirable concepts in the sciences and you can see that teaching in this manner would be "dumbing down" our kids. Any high level inquiry into such taboo areas would be blunted by religious explanations rather than having the kids think for themselves. Such restrictions would be considered not only unethical in a professional educator, but should rightly result in action to remove the credentials of such a person. This would explain Creationists' advocacy for home schooling, where such ethical checks and balances can be skirted and student learning can be more easily "contained" to suit their religious needs.

An example of synthesis drawn from one of my science courses might be to ask the student: what effect does ionizing radiation (studied in Physics) have upon the DNA of living organisms (studied in Biology)? Synthesis can also occur between seemingly separate disciplines. Our science curriculum has a thematic approach to this by having the students consider the interrelationships between science, technology and society. For example, in Biology we might investigate the development of immunity in TB bacillus, new advances in antibiotic technology, and the societal concerns of globalization. In physics it might be Einstein's E=mc^2, the Manhattan Project, and whether or not they should have dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima. Research into the brain tells us that the brain recognizes patterns so as to sort and store information for later retrieval. It is a survival adaptation and just another example of evolution. Helping students to recognize and therefore capitalize on such patterns as evolution, is good, thoughtful, and considerate teaching.

What would the Creationist say to all of this?

At this point I can still hear the Creationist asking: "But does the science change? Does teaching science change? Does science not work if you leave evolution out?"

The science changes in that the moment the supernatural is used to explain natural phenomena you are exercising your religious freedoms. Science is not a smorgasbord in which you can pick over the parts you like and discard the ones you don't. Treating science in this manner means you're co-opting it to serve another purpose. This is disingenuous, unethical and not science. Does the science change? Science in the greater sense will be quite able to survive the transparent manipulations of Creationists. Will their (creationist) "science" be any different from mainstream science? Yes, obviously it will be limited in the conclusions that it will allow students to reach. Students will be cautioned as to how they synthesize ideas. Student might not be provided with the opportunity to think at the higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. Thus, they will lack independence, will tow the line expected of them, and see Biology as a boring pile of "stuff" to memorize. If the course attempts to make sense of it all by exhaulting Biology to the greater glory of God, then it isn't a Biology course but a sermon.

Does the teaching of science change? Quite obviously and emphatically, yes. The creationist science course, due to the necessity of avoiding evolution, would leave concepts isolated. Biology would be no more than a course in natural history. Basic knowledge. Facts to learn. Boring as hell. And meaningless. When the Creationist then tries to unify the concepts by using the supernatural to explain everything - they've left science behind and the religious indoctrination has begun. By leaving out the concept of evolution in their teaching of Biology, the Creationist is guilty of an unconscionable disservice to the learner or, in their own terms, the sin of omission.

Does the science not work if you leave evolution out? That's rather like saying does a car not work it you leave the engine out? Sure the stereo is fine and it certainly looks good just sitting in the garage, but it's not going anywhere is it? That's Creationism: sounds good, maybe even looks good to some, but it's not going anywhere. It doesn't do any research. It doesn't publish in any scientific journals. It's not undertaken by any science faculty in any university. There isn't even a Theory of Scientific Creationism or even a Theory of Intelligent Design. Creationism is simply not science. It's only function seems to be to dupe local school boards into leaving gaps in the science curriculum so that they can get a word in edgewise.


I believe I have demonstrated in both general terms and in specific instances how our understanding of science changes drastically if one is a Creationist. The very nature of science, by its own definition, changes when one employs the supernatural to explain natural phenomena. By chopping science up and isolating its components so as to leave evolution out as a unifying concept only to be replaced with "Godidit" is certainly not science. Only the Creationist cannot see that. They are constrained by a religious perspective that cannot allow any contradictory observations or explanations to their "truth". To them, science must be made to conform to those religious constraints and any attempt by the inquisitive to get out of that box would have to be met with sanctions. Such a person would inevitably have to leave such a "church" and all the social supports and comforts it provides. This is a difficult process and few would choose to undertake it and that's quite understandable. So, will any of the foregoing change a Creationist? I doubt it. I think it's asking too much of science and reason to get a person out of a perspective that religious dogma and fear got them into in the first place. The best we can hope to do is make an on-going field study of the Creationist so as to determine their methods and predict their behaviors. For example, we can reliably predict that if any Creationist had the patience to read this, they would attempt to dismiss it in predictable ways. My prediction? I think the Creationist who posed the opening question will snip most of this essay and maintain his steady claim that all of it was mere philosophy and has nothing to do with real science. My experience with him tells me that that was his original intention all along and he won't waver from it. Merry Christmas JIST!

Your thoughts?

Bibliography and Associated Links:

Bloom's Taxonomy. Learning Skills Program. University of Victoria. 2003

Biology 1116 Lecture Notes: Chapter 1: Introduction: The Scientific Study of Life.

"Can Science Conquer Kansas?". The Why Files. Feb 2001.

Claim CA042: "Evolution does not need to be taught in science classes. The important parts of biology, such as how organisms function, how they are classified, and how they interact with one another, do not depend on evolution.".

Crowell, Ben. "God, Evolution and the Big Bang".. Fullerton College.

"Nothing in Biology makes sense except in the Light of Evolution". American Biology Teacher, March 1973. (35:125-129)

Evolution Happens.

Evolution, Science and Society.

Grant, Dr. Bruce W.&, Vadnick, Dr. Itzick. Biology 313: Evolution. Widener University

Hersh, Brad. "Where Creationism Fails Teaching of Evolution is Central to Biology, Ethics, and Science Policy". October 1999. V119, N46.

Introduction to Evolutionary Biology. The Talk Origins Archive.

Scott, Dr. Eugenie. "Evolution and Biology". Access Excellence@The National Health Museum.

"Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science. Chapter 1: 'Why Teach Evolution'". National Academic Press. 1998.

Waggoner, Dr. Ben Biology 4415/5415: Evolution. University of Central Arkansas. Fall 2001.

Whitcombe, Christopher L. C. E. "The Roots of Modernism" 2000.

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