Sunday, February 12, 2012

The best Darwin Day

I had what will probably be the BEST Darwin Day, ever, a few years ago. On Feb 12, 2009, I was grading a stack of article response papers and I came across one wonderful, thoughtful paper by a student. The article she chose to respond to (students read five articles in this section and wrote their paper on one of them) was John Rennie's 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense. I knew that the title and tone of the article could be a bit off-putting, but as I explained to my students, I chose that article because I think it does a great job of dismantling the common misunderstandings about evolution.

The paper that so impressed me was written by a student who had been raised in an Evangelical Christian household, and had been taught to believe in creationism instead of evolution. However, in her paper, she explained that my class, and especially Rennie's article, had made her realize that what she had previously been taught about evolution was incorrect. At first she had been put off by the articles tone, but reading it had made her realize that what she had been taught most of her life was biased, and more importantly, based on misunderstandings.

That Darwin Day was so important to me, because through grading student papers, I learned that I REALLY WAS MAKING A DIFFERENCE! Through my class, a student had come to reconsider the teachings of her family and church on evolution, and realized that she wanted to learn about evolution and really try to understand it for herself. However, her paper also taught me a lesson. As she explained in her paper, some of the misunderstandings that are mocked as nonsense are anything but nonsense to some people. She used the example of Rennie's misconception #6 "If humans descended from monkeys, why are their still monkeys?" As she explained, it may seem like nonsense to someone else, but if you have been taught, your whole life, from trusted parents, teachers, and elders, that believing in evolution means believing that humans beings descended from monkeys, the living monkeys that we see in the zoo... It's not nonsense. Or rather, it's nonsense that others believe in, which makes your own subculture's perspective seem more rational.

I think the lesson that I learned from this student is that if we want students, and the general public, of all political views or religious faiths, to really understand evolution, we need to both respect and understand the strength of the cultural underpinnings underlying anti-evolution beliefs. Enculturation is powerful, and if when you are attacking a particular worldview, people are going to feel threatened. I think the key to broadening public understanding of evolution is by being less confrontational, more respectful, and by really trying to understand the the misunderstandings that prevent people from accepting it.

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