Just a Wee Bit Touchy

I may be godless, but I have beliefs.  The usefulness of scientific inquiry into the universe, for example.  The strengths of representative government, for another.  And certainly, I am firmly "in the tank" as regards the modern theory of evolution.  It's just the rational thing to do, assuming you are into facts.  Anyways, outside of my belief, I am also tasked with teaching the various tendrils of modern evolutionary theory to elite youth science learners in my high school. Science is a really cool thing for a lot of reasons.  One of my favorites is that scientific understanding is never complete.  Theories are constantly being refined as more and more evidence comes in.  Nothing is ever finished.  Nothing in science is immune from this progression, though certainly some things are more established than others.  The minute we start treating any scientific theory as unchangeable truth, we stop doing science and start practicing a religion.

It was with this point in mind that I decided to spend the end of my evolution unit investigating areas of the modern theory that are relatively undeveloped and grounds for the most active revision.  Not as a paean to creationist bullshit (which depends so entirely on factual inaccuracy and logical fallacy), but rather to demonstrate to my students that the strength of science lies in the open nature of its inquiry and that even the most robust theories are still active topics of development.  In this spirit I began making a list of areas of active development in the modern theory of evolution.  It is a testament to the strength of the theory that I quickly ran out of ideas.  Stumped, I put the question to the list serve of elite biology educators to which I belong.  And that's where the zaniness began.  It turns out that biology teachers can exhibit a reactionary stripe that is as pronounced in its aim of protecting the cornerstone of the discipline from attack as the vagaries of the creationist movement are in trying to remove that cornerstone.

The story continues below the fold

The first respondents to my post demonstrated two initial themes.  The first was an inquiry into why I was giving evolution "special treatment" in considering its weaknesses.  Did I do the same for the other major theories in science (cell theory?  gravity?  the germ theory of disease)?  If not, then I was obviously contributing to the perception that evolution was a "theory in crisis."  With all due respect to anyone who holds this perspective, I feel strongly that it is wrong-headed.  Any teacher who does not teach the historical development of any scientific theory is missing a great opportunity to teach the nature of science and the process of scientific inquiry.  Gravity as a Newtonian conception is certainly quite a different beast from gravity as an Einsteinian conception.  The later greatly extends and refines the former.   Likewise the other theories mentioned above.  All of them have developed over time and none of them are immutable even today.

The second theme was more ham-handed and blatant.  Concern was expressed that I was "buying in" to various creationist inanity.  A bold statement, and remarkably unscientific as the individuals expressing the sentiment had no perspective on my practice as an educator or the way in which my evolution unit progressed.  It also presupposed an arrogance in the thought process:  the writer as the wise and experienced professional and me the poor, deluded naif.

So it was that I spent a portion of my weekend defending myself and my competency as an educator to a portion of a professional community that is supposed to help and support each other.  Could it be that the creationist movement in the country has been so successful that even the whisper of questioning brings immediate and severe reproach from the scientific establishment (in as much as a list serve of biology teachers can be considered the scientific establishment)?

Fortunately, no.  Calmer heads prevailed and many of my colleagues were only too happy to point me towards the kind of resources that I wanted.  It is reassuring to know that science is alive and well in the American educational system.  No one should be scared to ask honest questions and all should remain quite leery of anyone who chooses to answer inquiry by refusing to examine even the things that they most hold dear.