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Should We Teach Evolution as a Sensitive Issue?

Sarah Chaffee

evolution

That’s what priest and professor of science education Michael Reiss argues in an article, “When teaching evolution, we need to stop forcing people to choose between their faith and science,” featured in several publications, including Science Alert, The Independent, and The Conversation. 

Reiss presents a careful and considered viewpoint. He makes a powerful point: no student should ever be singled out due to his religious beliefs, not in a science class or anywhere else. But the aims of evolution education extend beyond this goal. 

Reiss demonstrates more respect than most. In other articles, I’ve addressed those who demand uniformity of opinion and advocate for approaches most likely to result in student “acceptance” of evolution. 

The Purpose of Education

He notes: “It is not the role of educators to forcefully convert doubters into accepting evolution, but to build an inclusive classroom that encourages those less comfortable with the concept to willingly engage with it. What is important is that all students can explore and understand the theory in a context that doesn’t force them to choose between science and their religious beliefs.”

I agree. However, it tells you something that the subject of public school evolution education is being addressed here by a priest. Evolution is a scientific issue, not a religious one. He says:

A teacher who approaches evolution in this way is respectful of their students’ beliefs and attentive to their emotional states, rather than dismissing them as “silly”, “ignorant” or “causing problems”. Such teachers would employ teaching approaches that embrace diversity, address classroom bias and hold in conscious awareness the individual experiences of students. These techniques are commonly used when teaching about sensitive issues such as sex, pornography, ethnicity, religion, death studies and terrorism.

Again, the origin of biological complexity is not a moral question like sex or pornography! It’s not “sensitive” in the way that ethnicity or death is. Teaching about it is certainly not comparable to instructing students in the doctrines of a religious tradition! Or, good grief, it shouldn’t be.

Weighing the Evidence

It is, or should be, about weighing the evidence objectively. Ultimately, the best approach to teaching evolution would be to introduce students to what evolutionary biologists say in the peer-reviewed literature and at professional conferences. We should teach evolution — both abiogenesis and development of biological diversity — as scientific issues first, instead of focusing on sensitivity. 

It may be easier to lump evolution together with death studies and pornography, but does that further the aims of science education? I submit that analysis and evaluation of data encourages students to engage in scientific inquiry, and that’s what science education should be all about. 

Photo credit: Rubén Rodriguez via Unsplash.