Defending Darwin

Mar 31, 2015

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.”


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

27 comments on “Defending Darwin

  • @OP link – Two days later, a student walked down to the lectern after class and informed me that I was wrong about Catholics. He said Baptists were the first Christians and that this is clearly explained in the Bible. His mother told him so. I asked where this was explained in the Bible. He glared at me and said, “John the Baptist, duh!” and then walked away.

    A classic example of creationist “knowledge”!

    (Ma’s so thick and uneducated, that she knows everything and told me it all – What do those dumb high falutin scientists know?)



    Report abuse

  • It’s even harder as a high school or primary school teacher. The government mandates children go to school and thus, you are standing in for the parents. The government also mandates the syllabus thus you teach evolution knowing that a proportion of your students are being forced to sit and listen to something that is going to challenge their beliefs. At University they may be forced to do evolution as part of a science degree but frankly they don’t have to be there, they are taking a spot from someone else, and if they don’t have the maturity to confront positions they don’t hold then they are kind of missing the point of higher education, in fact they are bluntly stating that they intend not to get one. The employers that would give them a job based upon their qualification would be far better off without such people. Having said that as a University lecture I would have a bible on hand for such times and push it towards the student and ask them to show me where.

    As a high school teacher I cannot take that approach. I always started by explaining that they they may in fact be offended, and they may feel put out by what they hear, but that I am happy to listen to their arguments after the class (that relate to their personal beliefs) and will happily address any questions or listen to challenges from creationism after class. And I always did get a few.

    I took a lot of time, sometimes reading books they brought in on the condition that if I read this they would stay back and here my criticisms when I had finished. I read about 4 creationists books from one student over the course of a year (thankfully they are always short – short of facts too) and it was lovely to point out to the student where all 4 directly contradicted each other. I would google the authors and show the kids that this guys is a dentist and has not done any significant research into evolution. I would find examples of lies and misquotes. I can tell you that in-spite of not shifting any positions quickly on this issue he soon realised the people being used to support his views where dishonest and manipulative. He saw that after I goggled in front of him in 30 seconds 8 or so different species of Bombardier beetle all varying in the impact of their explosive behinds from just tasting bad to spraying super hot liquid and jetting across a pond at high speed that there was every possibility of having useful intermediates, and why do you think the author did not carry out such a search himself, and if he did why did he not discuss it in his short book? That kid kept throwing arguments at me every other lunch duty, which I would answer one at a time, after a few year he announced he no longer believed in creationism but had adopted a form of deism. I knocked that up as a win but it’d be far easier if I could have challenged their beliefs more directly. I never gave him my position as an atheist I stuck to the science, because standing in for his parents he had no choice, nor did his parents I stuck to the science. If I was a lecturer I’d hold back a lot less and challenge them to question their beliefs a lot more.

    What are the pressures on lectures at universities that cause them to be so worried about causing offence? I’d have thought that this would be part of your job? Anyone?



    Report abuse

  • I never gave him my position as an atheist I stuck to the science, because standing in for his parents he had no choice, nor did his parents I stuck to the science.

    A lovely read. A quiet integrity. I don’t have your patience.



    Report abuse

  • I have to admire your patience – and since I couldn’t possibly teach anybody who didn’t want to be taught , it’s a good job I sought a career in IT rather than being a teacher! Evolution was introduced to me at the age of 11 – and it helped that the Biology teacher, Mrs Glover was the sexiest woman in the school – I would have drunk her bath water given half a chance!!!



    Report abuse

  • M27Holts Apr 1, 2015 at 7:05 am

    I have to admire your patience – and since I couldn’t possibly teach anybody who didn’t want to be taught , it’s a good job I sought a career in IT rather than being a teacher!

    What???

    Trying to get technoduffers to read, note, and learn from error messages, is even harder than getting creationists to learn biology!! 🙂



    Report abuse

  • 9
    cleothemuse says:

    My first day of bio for non-majors at Eastern Kentucky University–the same semester Dawkins gave a packed-house lecture there–the professor stated plainly that her class would teach the concept of evolutionary biology as a scientific FACT, and she would not permit any argument to that during her lecture time. Students were welcome to come see her during her office hours if they had any questions to that or to request a drop slip.

    “But,” she cautioned, “good luck finding a BIO 101 class at this university which does NOT teach evolution as a scientific fact.”



    Report abuse

  • I taught high school biology for 5 years and taught concepts of evolutionary biology for all that time without problems. Luckily of course, I was in California, not in any Bible belt state such as Kentucky.

    After earning my doctorate in evolutionary biology at U.C. Berkeley, I taught biology for 41 years at a junior college. The first run in with religious bigotry was a male student who asked in a rather aggressive manner “where does God fit into that?” The second was an older female student who very aggressively asked me how life could evolve purely by chance. I knew then that natural selection was of course not a random chance process at all, but I was still not sure how to deal with such bigoted religious students.

    After reading a Watchtower publication and several other religious books on why evolution is so incorrect, I formed a strategy by which I could discredit such idiotic attacks on the theories of evolutionary biology. I never disclosed that I was an atheist as that would immediately cause my religious students to reject anything I said no matter how reasonable I was. So I decided to take the approach as a “type A” theist who accepted the idea that if God was omnipotent, then it was reasonable hat he/she/it could create all life by means of evolution especially in the Darwinian sense. [Link removed by moderator.]

    I decided to make my last lecture for a semester one that would attack in the strongest possible way the lies of young earth creationists (I called them “type B” creationists). That I did and never had any arguments from students during or since.

    I imagine the problems I would face if I tried that strategy in a high school in Kentucky. I’m sure they would picket me at the school and more sooner than later I would be fired. I would have to be well financed to take the local school board there all the way to the Supreme Court to keep my job. I truly sympathize with high school teachers who face this kind of dilemma.



    Report abuse

  • God heavens (sorry for the solecism)! I’m so glad that I spent my teaching career in Australia, where such fanaticism is much less prevalent. I once set a paper sat by 1100 students in the Tech Ed system in Western Australia, with an article on human evolution as the comprehension passage, and there wasn’t a single complaint, which encouraged me greatly.

    This lecture should put students at ease knowing that religion and science need not be at odds.

    I don’t agree with that, I think that they are incompatible, although most Christians in the advanced countries seem to be able to find an accommodation between the two. It’s the student’s individual business to work out the religious implications, though the teacher can give some pointers.

    If I were teaching science, I would be inclined to start from the bible story, which was of course already under challenge by Darwin’s time, then draw Darwinism out of that intellectual confusion and uncertainty. Spending the last week discussing the issues seems to be putting the horse behind the cart; springing the nasty on the students after they have been softened up.

    When I taught English, I always tried to explain the evolution of our language from its historical and social roots, including spelling, grammar and genre. A historical perspective makes the story more interesting and easier to understand, and for the Christians in the class, it starts from where they’re at, which in terms of Teaching Methods 101, is what we’re supposed to do.



    Report abuse

  • Ahah – Not if you make the error message clear enough – anyway – I am a Business Analyst now so as such only have to do a bit of mentoring or work-shops – and those are with people who want to be there – so it’s OK !!



    Report abuse

  • The Nobel Laureate Geneticist and Biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said “Nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”.

    So of course, evolution should be taught before biology, something Richard Dawkins pointed out long ago, and has been campaigning for ever since.



    Report abuse

  • “Your job was to teach it as a theory and not as a fact that all smart people believe in!!”

    “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.”

    It seems that those people really need to learn what a theory is, and what its relations to “science” and “facts” are.

    “Should be taught as theory not as fact” is indeed even more ignorant than creationism, if possible.



    Report abuse

  • Quite right Luis.

    In science, theories unite and explain facts about matter.

    Further to which, evolution can be observed over short periods: Because of the use of garden bird feeders since the nineteen fifties, Blackcaps have evolved to have longer, thinner beaks, which can extend through the netting and holes of the devices; and their wings have become smaller, because they no longer have to fly south to over winter; they are even found as far north as Sweden in winter now.



    Report abuse

  • It can be observed in quantative form, have they never heard of something called Genetics? Genes can be observed, counted and quantified, that is what the science of Genetics is. Evolution is simply another name for quantative changes in the genome. Surely now Evolution should be taught primarily by using Genetics.



    Report abuse

  • Teaching evolutionary theories before teaching a general biology course sounds ideal, however it is not possible except in very general terms perhaps. When I taught Introductory Biology, I always taught the unit on the mechanisms of evolutionary biology as the last unit because in order to understand those principles, it was necessary to teach ecology and especially genetics before students could understand the mechanisms of evolutionary biology. As I see it, the theories of evolutionary biology are the most complex of all biological processes and the most difficult to understand. Imagine attempting to teach the Hardy-Weinberg Principle before covering Mendelian Genetics. I don’t see how a student could understand the mechanisms of Population Genetics or Punctuated Equilibrium without an understanding of pleiotropy, genetic drift, or the hereditary functions of DNA.



    Report abuse

  • Luis, I agree with what you are trying to say. The term “fact” seems too absolute. As you know, a scientific theory is a hypothesis that has considerable support by many scientists and many observations in the natural world. Every theory must be subject to question and additional inquiry. No theory can be considered as final. There are theories in evolutionary biology that ave been challenged and shown to be incorrect such as mutualism, orthogenesis, and inheritance of acquired characteristics. However Darwin’s theory of natural selection and variation within species is well supported by the evidence and appears to be impossible to be challenged. However look what happened to Newtonian physics when Einstein proposed relativity.



    Report abuse

  • cbrown Apr 2, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    Teaching evolutionary theories before teaching a general biology course sounds ideal, however it is not possible except in very general terms perhaps.

    For young children, general terms are the key.

    Rather than teaching the detailed anatomy of a single specimen, look at the variation in features in closely related species. There is often amazing diversity, illustrating different evolutionary stages of development.

    If you look at a topic like reproduction in different species of frogs, the diversity is huge. There are egg layers, live births, some eggs in water, others embedded in the parent’s back, some in Bromeliads, others on branches overhanging water to drop in on hatching.

    When I taught Introductory Biology, I always taught the unit on the mechanisms of evolutionary biology as the last unit because in order to understand those principles, it was necessary to teach ecology and especially genetics before students could understand the mechanisms of evolutionary biology.

    Looking at an ecological aspect such as predation or competition for space can be done at a simple level – such as crowding in a group of seedlings, – retarding some and others dominating because they are stronger growing, or simply have more space.

    There is also a lot of good video material such as David Attenborough’s “Life Series”.



    Report abuse

  • cbrown Apr 2, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    Luis, I agree with what you are trying to say. The term “fact” seems too absolute.

    This has been debated many times on this site.

    That evolution is an on-going process which is happening, and that the Earth orbits the Sun, are “facts”.

    The details of how precisely these phenomena take place, is scientific theory, which is subject to up-dating in the light of new evidence.

    It is important to make these distinctions, especially when confronted by creationists who try to pretend that all scientific knowledge is just an arbitrary matter of opinion which is equivalent in standing to “theistic revelation”!



    Report abuse

  • I need to revise my previous post.

    It is of course not true that Blackcaps evolved thinner beaks because of garden bird feeders; it is the case however that those invidual birds who gained the advantage of the mutation for thinner beaks were enabled to over winter further north than those in the flocks which didn’t, by exploiting the garden feeders.



    Report abuse

  • Oh I remember reading about that from a BBC article. Delicate dance betwixt man and feathered friends.

    Just put out a small wren house; they usually arrive on tax day (15/4), curious to see if they set up shop considering all the manmade intrusions (climate change, loud noises, pollution).



    Report abuse

  • In the lower grades, it would be a step in the right direction to emphasize that plants or animals of a given species are all different. Also it would be simple to teach that some are more successful at living than others.



    Report abuse

  • cbrown Apr 3, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    In the lower grades, it would be a step in the right direction to emphasize that plants or animals of a given species are all different. Also it would be simple to teach that some are more successful at living than others.

    Indeed so!
    If you want matching plants which look the same, you need F1 hybrids!

    https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=710

    F1 hybrids, which are largely annual and vegetable cultivars, are produced by crossing two stable seed lines (called inbred lines) that give rise to especially uniform progeny that possess good vigour, yield and other properties. Tomato ‘Cristal’ F1 and sunflower ‘Harlequin’ F1 are examples of F1 hybrids. It will say on the seed packet if the variety is F1

    These can be contrasted with the diversity across true breeding species – or for that matter with their own offspring.



    Report abuse

  • Hence, genetically modified food! Why all the fuss? The only difference is that nowadays the changes are engineered under laboratory conditions.

    A little knowledge doesn’t have to be a dangerous thing.

    Incidentally; is this site spellcheck turned off, or has my spelling suddenly undergone a miraculous improvement?

    Oh, I was forgetting; this is a miracle free zone.



    Report abuse

  • Stafford Gordon Apr 3, 2015 at 1:12 pm

    Incidentally; is this site spellcheck turned off, or has my spelling suddenly undergone a miraculous improvement?

    Spell-checkers are usually a browser add-on.



    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.