God, Darwin and My College Biology Class

Sep 30, 2014

Image credit: Mike McQuade

By David P. Barash

Every year around this time, with the college year starting, I give my students The Talk. It isn’t, as you might expect, about sex, but about evolution and religion, and how they get along. More to the point, how they don’t.

I’m a biologist, in fact an evolutionary biologist, although no biologist, and no biology course, can help being “evolutionary.” My animal behavior class, with 200 undergraduates, is built on a scaffolding of evolutionary biology.

And that’s where The Talk comes in. It’s irresponsible to teach biology without evolution, and yet many students worry about reconciling their beliefs with evolutionary science. Just as many Americans don’t grasp the fact that evolution is not merely a “theory,” but the underpinning of all biological science, a substantial minority of my students are troubled to discover that their beliefs conflict with the course material.

Until recently, I had pretty much ignored such discomfort, assuming that it was their problem, not mine. Teaching biology without evolution would be like teaching chemistry without molecules, or physics without mass and energy. But instead of students’ growing more comfortable with the tension between evolution and religion over time, the opposite seems to have happened. Thus, The Talk.


Read the full article by clicking the name of the source located below.

27 comments on “God, Darwin and My College Biology Class

  • ” And while I respect their beliefs ”

    I guess I would make a terrible teacher because I don’t respect their beliefs. I would be Kevin Sorbel-like in my class. Sign this statement or fail!

    There is one science and that is biology and there is one biology and that is evolutionary biology.



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  • 5
    onyourside says:

    How do you actually respect someone’s religious beliefs?
    If you have no connection to the person and don’t care what they say, ignore them and walk away. It’s disrespectful, but …..
    What if the person is someone you care about or someone who seems genuinely interested in your response? You explain the truth to them then wait for questions and comments before walking away.
    Why on earth would religious beliefs deserve a unique sort of respect.

    I can think of no better way of inviting believers to study and accept evolution than recommending good books. People are used to studying from books and they can learn at their own pace. I for one do not have the ability to explain the full subject of evolution and probably many people don’t.
    I also think that scientists would reach more people if the language they used was simplified. I can imagine someone clicking off of a youtube lecture or closing a book because they didn’t have a clue what was being said or written about. There are possibly more closet atheists who would be willing to listen if the language was easier for most people to understand. I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh because I know we need the validation of scientists to explain the facts.



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  • https://www.richarddawkins.net/members/onyourside/

    I can think of no better way of inviting believers to study and accept evolution than recommending good books. People are used to studying from books and they can learn at their own pace. I for one do not have the ability to explain the full subject of evolution and probably many people don’t.
    I also think that scientists would reach more people if the language they used was simplified.

    Simple explanations will work for people who are willing to learn, but those who want to resist learning will usually succeed.

    I recall a discussion here, when a “philosopher” with language skills but minimal scientific understanding was disputing my explanation of the evolution of the Solar-System. When I gave him peer reviewed NASA data it went over his head and he dismissed it as “inconclusive”! When I gave him the same information in simple form from a primary school teaching project, he dismissed it as “lacking academic authority”!

    The (no)IDers use this mental gap to deliberately present false information and incredulity, – illustrated with scraps of science quote-mined from scientific papers, so as to con their gullible followers who will come with “Science can’t DISprove these “advanced” creationist claims.
    Science has of course already refuted them, but the YECs simply claim that scientists cannot measure. Their followers are too scientifically illiterate and innumerate, to understand explanations of using scientific instruments to measure and calculate, so they just believe what they have been told to believe by dishonest or deluded people they have foolishly trusted.
    Fundamentalist families even buy their children pseudo-science “encyclopaedias” and “text-books”! The disinformation merchants are trying to go global to de-educate more children! ¬ http://www.nwcreation.net/wiki/



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  • Simple explanations will work for people who are willing to learn, but
    those who want to resist learning will usually succeed.

    Not fair!!!!

    Up until the age of twelve I was easily the brightest kid in the class and one of the brightest of about ten in the school. The teachers, the curriculum and the 70’s failed me. I lost interest and came out of school with nothing. I had no resistance to learning but when I was being taught religion I slept. When I was being taught endless maths in science that seemed to have no connection with my childhood expectations, I slept. We had a fantastic geography teacher who PERFORMED in class and got us all good grades that was undone at senior school. We were taught that gravity was a force similar to water in a bucket being spun around. I can still remember the black and white illustration of a young boy in shorts swinging the bucket. It made no sense to me then and remember thinking “We would have to live on the inside of the world for that to work” but had no idea why. The teachers were unapproachable and there was no internet, no school library and the public library looked menacing. Very victorian. My parents were uneducated. I learned everything I know now myself and cannot help but wonder what I might have become if the system, and especially the teachers, had the capacity to understand the needs of the individual and gone some way, like our geography teacher, to actually teach and not just repeat the curriculum. The (no)IDers did not fill any gap for me regardless.



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  • Olgun Oct 2, 2014 at 6:27 am

    Simple explanations will work for people who are willing to learn, but
    those who want to resist learning will usually succeed.

    Not fair!!!!

    We seem to be talking about two different topics.

    The (no)IDers did not fill any gap for me regardless.

    The “unwillingness to learn”, because of indoctrination or ID deceptions, was until recently an American problem, and a faith-school problem. ID is in any case a recent American creationist invention in recent decades, to try to get around the division of church and state in US school science.

    The problems elsewhere of the lack of qualified science teachers, the lack of interest, the lack of resources, and the lack of up-to-date teacher education causing boredom, is a different issue.



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  • I can’t separate them Alan. I am talking world wide gaps to be filled. I look at the problem as a whole. Whether it was an american problem or not the web is spreading it. Prevention is better than cure. Maybe we are just talking in two different scales???

    Anyway! I spent ten years saying similar things on a forum on Cyprus trying to bring peace and unity about. Tired out and should not have got carried away here. Just getting used to being a house husband and have got lots of things to do. My apologies to anyone I upset and my best to all.



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  • I would say that Barash is on the right track, but this site looks for a suggestion? Allow me to come to this question of the week from the point of view of the librarian, who is both a teacher of information literacy and a sharer of information—but in a public library, not all of it “good,” i.e., authoritative, forcing one to balance knowledge with freedom of thought:

    First, there is a remarkable curriculum outlined in this article: “The Natural Selection: Identifying & Correcting Non-Science Student Preconceptions Through an Inquiry-Based, Critical Approach to Evolution” by Jennifer R Robbins and Pamela Roy published in The American Biology Teacher (Oct 2007, Vol. 69, Iss. 8; pg. 460, 5 pgs). It is a creative and rigorous model that gets the students into the nitty gritty of “teaching the controversy” which has nothing to do with poking holes in evolutionary theory or advancing any creationist agenda. This method would be a creationist’s nightmare. I do recommend that people read this article.

    Second, and more important: The librarian stresses that learning is lifelong and continuous, not static, an ideal and a goal rather than a state of being. If one has a relationship with a deity, then that relationship should also be lifelong, continuously maturing, subject to change over time. After all, though I am an atheist, I had an extensive Christian education and I daresay that I shone the brightest in my confirmation classes (believers sought me out with their questions) despite my not believing any of it. I memorized and recited quotations from Martin Luther despite knowing of his sexism and anti-Semitism, and still admire his liberating reforms to this day.

    Also, I have made a great effort to learn about other religions and have befriended many individuals of as many faiths as I could. I “reconcile” none of this with my atheism; I set my atheism aside and enter each encounter with as few preconceptions as possible, and as a result I have come to know myself better and have a clearer understanding of what I truly think. Had I not exposed myself to the enormous diversity of religious individuals—and it is more important to learn how individuals actually practice their religion than to merely read the “holy books”—my true opinions and my real self would have remained undeveloped. This is the most important point.

    So, I say to the Christians especially: Are you not called in the Bible to do more than to look up to heaven and say, “Oh, God, God,” without doing the rigorous work of negotiating the shadow, the Valley of Death, or the abyss of doubt as did St. John of the Cross? If you wish me to consider having a relationship with God, what do you model for me if your own relationship is shallow? I have walked that shadow and some truly dangerous situations without sensing any deity walking with me—cannot you at least walk with me through the science of evolution when you claim this supernatural protector? Isn’t it possible for you also to set aside preconceptions and I strive to do, and look not only at other religions, but at facts and their consequences, at my atheist experience?

    (Don’t you think I have ever been afraid?)

    If you cannot, then I submit to these believers that they do not, in fact, have faith at all. They have preconceptions that make them cling, they have a dependency, but they do not truly have anything in which they trust when those preconceptions, which are in fact idols, are shattered.

    And can one worship a God with idols? Religious believers, an atheist asks you this. At what point is a belief an idol when it closes the questioning mind to facts? If you, believers, would have me believe in God, then it seems to me that, accepting the evidence for evolutionary theory as I do, were I to find any faith it would be a trusting response that does not cling to trifles, nor needs any other crutch. Can’t you do this much?

    Believers, if you cannot look at facts, how can you ask me to consider a faith that you yourselves do not have? It is not only your scientific literacy that is wanting, but your faith—indeed, your very “faith.” Is that what really, truly, frightens you when you shift uncomfortably in biology class?



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  • 13
    alaskansee says:

    I’m not sure a christian’s deliberate misrepresentation or complete misunderstanding of philosophy, let alone the real target atheism, is really something to want to emulate.

    Hercules was his peak.



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  • 14
    alaskansee says:

    It’s funny but remember most christians are on board with evolution, it’s mostly only the Protestant Evangelicals in the US that would be sad.



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  • I’m sorry but trying to ace the religious at faithiness seems a terrible strategy to me. The whole idea of faith (to be contrasted with, say, an evidenced confidence), an un-anchored, free floating trust, is the problem, particularly if that trust is substantial. The problem is faith is praised for being more substantial when it should be praised for being the less. We have skepticism to avoid being fooled and evidence, reason and corroboration to find hardier concepts. So different are these ideas one from another that to conflate them I suggest is confusion in the making.



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  • When someone tells me evolution is false, I usually ask them if they understand the science. If they don’t, I request they take the class, and then we can have a discussion. I’m not in a position, nor have the desire, to explain to someone that isn’t interested in learning the facts. If they think they do understand the science, I ask them to explain it to me. 😉



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  • Upon further reflection I think that this is not a good strategy, either. So, I agree with you and thank you for your comment, and sorry for the blabbing.

    I really do highly recommend the Robbins/Roy article, however. I have been trying to interest people in it. It seems that some commenters who are teachers here employ much the same technique.



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  • Upon further reflection I think that this is not a good strategy

    Hey, you have an idea and you’ve got to take it out for a spin to see if it works. Thats why places like this are great. I’ve changed my mind and had my mind changed here many many times. Absolutely none of us are through with that happening…

    For the rest of us here is a link to a PDF of your cited article. I look forward to reading it.



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  • The correction of the transposition at the end of the article is quite amusing because the error is also true: religious thinkers have spent a lot of effort trying to make fact out of belief, while adherents to the scientific principle have spent way too much time coddling people upset by the mistaken notion their philosophy is being disrespected and devalued.



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  • That’s one way. Maybe I’m just lucky being an high school teacher in the (always strange and delightful) Netherlands, but I can honestly not remember having these talks with my students (so far).

    Whatever term you chose for it I’m pretty agnostic/atheist in my beliefs, while teaching at an (relatively open) christian high school. My classes are somewhat smaller than 200. More in between 10 and 30. My student-teacher interactions may be somewhat different from an undergraduate course. In addition, my student are somewhat younger (14 to 18).
    Next to this difference, I believe there is a difference in the high school curriculum as well. The dutch school system requires in an (in depth) knowledge into evolution and the like as part of the curriculum, and even their final high school exams.

    Although I admit, this may add to the ease I have while having the evolution classes, it doesn’t take away the fact that there are some pretty religious kids around in my classroom. From the start of my classes, be it evolution, ecology, behavioural biology, chemistry, first and foremost I’m teaching science, not religion. That means, learning how to apply logics, the way of the least assumptions, learning about evolution (and even starting at the birth of the known universe) and so on. The way I teach makes it clear that I’m not charmed by the fairy tale approach of religious books, without having to put my foot down or making explicit in some way.

    In return students have reacted towards evolution in a very accepting way. The ones who still try to fit evolution and religious doctrine in one cake pan, are met with a friendly 20-questins routine (even from their class mates). Most of the time this makes clear that the two, science and religion, don’t mix, and they go home with more personal questions and stuff to think about than they bargained for.

    Personally, I believe this a far more effective way (especially for young kids/people) to explore and expand their own borders of beliefs. I think it’s much more rewarding in the end to be sure you’ve seeding this basic meme of evolution and let it grow. With these kids I try to avoid the head on argument, simply because I think it’s a bigger step to teach them the idea of the scientific approach, teaching them to think for themselves and figure out the rest later. Just like evolution, I think this change of social memes (from religious to scientific if you will) should be a relatively slow process. Force feeding seldom works.

    But than again, maybe I’m just lucky…



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  • Ah, a link to it—lovely! I had only a hard photocopy when I stumbled upon this while still in grad school.

    Thank you, but I had a moment of, “Gack! That sounds accommodationist, doesn’t it?”which I certainly didn’t intend. After a span of online silence, I didn’t want to give people the wrong idea.

    I wonder if laypeople are still hanging on to the “blending” misconception of heredity? If so, that’s a big problem in itself.



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  • I have had some clashes with students that claimed such nonsense in class. I basically said to them that theology has no place in science. I tell them that if they want to debate the reality of evolution along with the imaginary world of theology , that they would need to provide sufficient evidence to be able to refute that which has already been proven scientifically and with plenty of data to back it up. It is only fair that if a student is in denial because of his/hers beliefs, that they are made to provide the evidence they were given to be able to disbelieve that which has so much proof.

    The guidelines would be that they can’t use scripture as evidence, of course. But a scientific explanation which is better than what we have.
    They can’t do it.



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  • NOMA is a dishonest lawyerly, cowardly trick to avoid controversy.

    When a student asks “Is there a god”, he has little interest in the odds of Zeus existing or of the existence of some vague disembodied quantum organising force. He wants to know what science has to say about the stories his mother taught him.

    The answer is, “the evidence is overwhelming that those stories are mere myths. They are just teaching stories. They could not possibly be literally true.” To answer otherwise is to lie. For the most part, it is not the core sciences saying this, (other than debunking Noah and Genesis), but archaeology.

    It would be ridiculous to say, “You should believe me because I am the eminent scientist, Dr. Richard Dawkins”. Argument from authority is how the religious argue. Instead you say, “I looked at the evidence and to me it was no contest. Have a look for yourself at the hard evidence. Here is a reading list.”



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  • Roedy Oct 4, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    NOMA is a dishonest lawyerly, cowardly trick to avoid controversy.

    It could also be considered an elaborated and obfuscated form of the mental compartmentalisation which is required in order to believe contradictory statements.



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