Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer
By James J. Krupa
To teach evolution at the University of Kentucky is to teach at an institution steeped in the history of defending evolution education. The first effort to pass an anti-evolution law (led by William Jennings Bryan) happened in Kentucky in 1921. It proposed making the teaching of evolution illegal. The university’s president at that time, Frank McVey, saw this bill as a threat to academic freedom. Three faculty members—William Funkhouser, a zoologist; Arthur Miller, a geologist who taught evolution; and Glanville Terrell, a philosopher—joined McVey in the battle to prevent the bill from becoming law. They put their jobs on the line. Through their efforts, the anti-evolution bill was defeated by a 42–41 vote in the state legislature. Consequently, the movement turned its attention toward Tennessee.
John Thomas Scopes was a student at the University of Kentucky then and watched the efforts of his three favorite teachers and McVey. The reason the “Scopes Monkey Trial” occurred several years later in Dayton, Tennessee—where Scopes was a substitute teacher and volunteered to be prosecuted—was in good part due to the influence of his mentors, particularly Funkhouser. As Scopes writes in his memoir, Center of the Storm: “Teachers rather than subject matter rekindled my interest in science. Dr. Funkhouser … was a man without airs [who] taught zoology so flawlessly that there was no need to cram for the final examination; at the end of the term there was a thorough, fundamental grasp of the subject in bold relief in the student’s mind, where Funkhouser had left it.”
I was originally reluctant to take my job at the university when offered it 20 years ago. It required teaching three sections of nonmajors biology classes, with 300 students per section, and as many as 1,800 students each year. I wasn’t particularly keen on lecturing to an auditorium of students whose interest in biology was questionable given that the class was a freshman requirement.
Then I heard an interview with the renowned evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson in which he addressed why, as a senior professor—and one of the most famous biologists in the world—he continued to teach nonmajors biology at Harvard. Wilson explained that nonmajors biology is the most important science class that one could teach. He felt many of the future leaders of this nation would take the class and that this was the last chance to convey to them an appreciation for biology and science. Moved by Wilson’s words, and with the knowledge that Funkhouser once held the job I was now contemplating, I accepted the position. The need to do well was unnerving, however, considering that if I failed as a teacher, a future Scopes might leave my class uninspired.
I realized early on that many instructors teach introductory biology classes incorrectly. Too often evolution is the last section to be taught, an autonomous unit at the end of the semester. I quickly came to the conclusion that, since evolution is the foundation upon which all biology rests, it should be taught at the beginning of a course, and as a recurring theme throughout the semester. My basic biology for nonmajors became evolution for nonmajors. It didn’t take long before I started to hear from a vocal minority of students who strongly objected: “I am very offended by your lectures on evolution! Those who believe in creation are not ignorant of science! You had no right to try and force evolution on us. Your job was to teach it as a theory and not as a fact that all smart people believe in!!” And: “Evolution is not a proven fact. It should not be taught as if it is. It cannot be observed in any quantitative form and, therefore, isn’t really science.”
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