A giant tortoise crawls along on the Galapagos islands, where British naturalist Charles Darwin conceived his theory of evolution. (Reuters)

Amanda Glaze has been a classroom teacher, researcher, and university professor for nine years in various settings around the Southeastern United States. Her area of focus is evolutionary biology but her passion is the intersections of science and society where there is conflict, namely the evolution conflict  in the United States. She resides in Alabama with her husband, Greg, and their two youngest children, Jaymon and Maddox, as well as a menagerie of flora and fauna her boys have collected from their adventures. This appeared on the website of the non-profit National Center for Science Educationa non-profit organization that provides information and resources for schools, parents, and concerned citizens working to keep evolution and climate science in public school science education. I am republishing it with permission.

 

By Amanda Glaze

“But it’s just a theory!”

“So, why are there still monkeys!?”

“Evolution is not real!”

As a science teacher and evolutionary biologist in the Southeastern United States, these are things I hear on a regular basis, but it’s never any less surprising to me when I hear it.

Along with being a science teacher and professor, I also research the intersections of science and society, specifically the acceptance and rejection of evolution, in the South. My research has taken me down many interesting avenues to understand how and why people accept or reject evolution. But most importantly, it has given me new perspective into how to reach my own students, and others, in teaching evolution and helping them navigate the struggles they go through when their own beliefs are in conflict with evolutionary science. I have many stories from my years in the classroom but some stick out more than others.

One of my favorites involves a young student (whom I will call “Jay”) whose family, like mine, boasted several Southern Baptist ministers. Jay was a gifted student, very much into engineering and science, which was tough on him at times. He struggled the most when we talked about the origins of life and evolution. One day my class was working together on an activity and I asked the students to do a “popcorn” style response, standing up to share a piece of information about one of the seven traits common to all living things that they had already identified and written on the board.

By this point in the class we had identified the more common traits: cells, metabolism, homeostasis, reproduction, heredity. I asked “What about evolution?” and Jay stood up and yelled “IT ISN’T REAL!”

This is one of those moments that sets teachers on edge. We know the situation, we know the background and we know that we are precariously perched between a teachable moment and a religious debate. The question is, how do we respond in such a way that is 1) scientifically sound, 2) doesn’t crush the student, 3) opens discourse to a difficult topic and 4) does so in a way that doesn’t shut down those who are already on an anti-evolution path.

For me, it is all about taking what I know about the science combined with my life experience and how the underlying culture of my region impacts what and how people think about science. To me, belief is a quality of religion, not science, and I tell my students that they don’t have to believe in evolution, because evolution is a scientific occurrence in the physical world. It happens as a process and pattern whether we believe in it or not. I tell them that their belief in God is not impacted by their understanding of science; the science gives us a physical explanation of events in the physical world whereas religion gives them a supernatural explanation of life and things beyond the physical world. You do not have to give up one to have the other, whether you are talking about science or religion.

I asked Jay why he felt that evolution was not real and he said that his parents told him that God created man and that we didn’t come from monkeys so evolution was not real. “Does man come from monkeys?” I asked. He thought for a moment and told me no; evolution talks about things changing. I asked him if he agreed or disagreed with the idea that things have changed since the beginning of time and he told me that he agreed that things have changed. When I asked him why he agreed he told us that he always liked dinosaurs and he thought it was really neat that some of the most intelligent dinosaurs were related to modern birds, drawing connections between raptors past and present. When I asked him if he thought it was safe to call that evolution—that those birds had descended from the raptors of the past with modifications to their form and function, he was able to draw the connection to evolution that he had missed before, but in a way that was safe to him.

Moments like this happen in classrooms around the country every day. How we choose to respond, positively or negatively, can impact the atmosphere of the classroom for the entire year.

Evolution is the unifying concept in science and the foundational principle of biology. If we want our students to understand how all living things are connected, how we are changing, the impact that living things truly have on one another, we must have these conversations with them in a way that enables them to be open and receptive, not fearful or shut off. It’s about getting students to think about the science, to set aside their emotions and consider the evidence. Science is not about contradicting or undermining beliefs but about understanding the world around us from the perspective of physical evidence, regardless of our beliefs or emotions.

By demonstrating this first-hand as well as teaching it, we are empowering our students to use a critical thinking skill set that will serve them well throughout their lives. By doing this in a way that negates the dichotomy between religion and science, we are breaking down barriers that have long kept us from moving forward in evolution education since the Scopes days. Every step forward counts and every step forward matters, one student, one teacher, one classroom at a time.