How do you teach evolution?

I hear this question on occasion.

Sometimes from students preparing for a course in high school science education. Sometimes from a parent, wanting to make sure that their young adult, now freshly minted as a college student will receive the kind of education that they want for their child. Sometimes from an interested observer, curious as to how I approach the topic as a professor.

The school I currently teach at was until recently affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which holds to an anti-evolution and non scientific belief in creationism. The college’s leadership, however, through several successive administrations, supported its faculty and resisted attempts to place religious strictures on scholarship. With this heritage, many students from conservative, religious backgrounds are attracted to this school. And with that background, many students have beliefs that cannot be swayed regardless of the level of evidence.

So how do you teach said students?

The college setting is a bit different from the world of public high schools where evolution is often first examined, and so I will first approach what I am familiar with.

First, come prepared. As a biologist, know what evolution means. Evolution is a process by which populations of organisms adapt to changing environments. This takes place on small scales and large scales. A small scale example would be coat color selection in a population of mice based on changes in their environment. A large scale example (evolution of a new species) would be the evolution of a new species of mosquito, speciation of corn from primitive maize and teosinte before it.

Beyond this, Evolution is a natural fact. We know that evolution occurs. The mechanisms by which evolution occurs, the overall contribution of natural selection, those are up for debate, but the evidence that evolution occurs is overwhelming. To mount a challenge to this would require a massive amount of evidence to the contrary. You really would need to find a fossil rabbit in precambrian rock to falsify evolution. It is possible, but incredibly unlikely.

That is all well and good, DrB, but how do you teach evolution?

I’m getting to that.

You see, you need a strong background to be an effective communicator. You need to do more than read what is in your desk copy of your class textbook. You need to educate yourself on how genes evolve, how mutations can increase information, how different forms of a gene can be selected for, what are the barriers between species, etc etc. You can start doing this by reading some of the scienceblogs. PZ Myers has the exceptional blog Pharyngula, which is an excellent starting point. Some characterize PZ as overly acerbic, but I like that, and don’t have a problem with it.

Pick up a book on evolution. I would suggest Sean B. Carrol’s The Making of the Fittest, Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True or The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins, all of which give very approachable explanations of the evidence for and processes of evolution.

But if there is one book that every biology teacher and professor should have is Isaak’s The Counter-Creationism Handbook. It is a selection of the most useful responses to the criticisms of science by creationists. If somebody asks a question that you don’t know the answer to, this book probably has it. Stop the “Gish Gallop” at its first step and don’t let the creationist student derail the class into a debate with this lovely book. And the best thing about this book is that all of it (and more) can be found at the talk origins index. And of course, there is an app for that.

Don’t be afraid of questions. Welcome them. But here is the important part. Be willing to say, “I don’t know.” But don’t leave it at that. Follow it up with, “Write down the question, and I will find an answer.

But there are problems with questions. Big problems. You can very easily give classroom power over to a student that is working from what is functionally a script of questions. I have seen unrestrained questioning take over a classroom, and that was only over statistics. You have a lesson plan. Follow it through. If you move too far off track, bring the class back to where you were. Say that we can deal with these questions another day, but for now, we have material that we need to cover.

If you are a public school teacher, you have to be very careful. Your administrators probably hate controversy. Here are a couple of guidelines you may want to consider (and if you have your own, please offer comments). I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

First, the students need to know that you understand that this may not be a comfortable topic for them. Simply acknowledging the concern that students may have will make them more at ease.

Second, let them know that their future careers depend on them having a good scientific background. If they want to go to college, if they don’t have a good foundation to build on for their next science class, they will have to struggle to keep up. Also, if your state’s education standards include evolution, the students need to be ready to answer questions on it. Otherwise, they will be giving up points that could mean that someone else gets their scholarship.

Third, students need to understand that you are not trying to change their belief. Beliefs are incredibly hard to change, especially religious ones, which are often held in a privileged place above other beliefs. You want them to understand the theory of evolution, the evidence backing it up, but choosing to believe it is up to them. That is all you can really do anyway.

Finally, do not, under any circumstances, suggest that they read a book by a religious person that discusses how science and religion can be reconciled. Ken Miller is an excellent speaker, and one of the best advocates for good science education one can find, but you cannot put him forward as a source of information on religion. Doing so puts favor on one particular religious practice. This is against the law as much as teaching creationism would be. Feel free to mention that there are scientists from many religious traditions that reconcile faith and science and leave it at that.

As a college professor, I am a little freer with my teaching style, and I can use the above guidelines, excepting the final one. I can make suggestions and offers to some extent, and have encouraged students to look up writers like Ken Miller if I thought they might be receptive.

I teach from the point of view of evidence being the deciding factor. Evolution has such a tremendous and outstanding level of evidence in its favor that it is foolish to take a stand against it without strong evidence to contradict it. There is no good evidence for any of the religious creation stories, but they are strongly supported by belief, which requires no evidence and flourishes despite it.

I would love to see evidence of intelligent design or creation because that would mean that a whole new area of study would open up, and we would have the opportunity to explore this undiscovered country. It would add to our understanding of the universe and that is, after all, what science is all about.