Below is a thoughtful essay form Prajwal Kulkarni, a reflective physicist who is concerned about the societal controversy over teaching evolutionary science. In it, he asks a question that I think deserves a good answer: why do we oblige citizens to learn evolution?
I am interested in the societal controversy over evolution, too.
As Praj notes, my main concern is with how to teach evolution effectively in a polluted science communication environment. In particular, I am concerned that certain students—mainly secondary school ones but college ones too—will be deterred from understanding the modern synthesis by their apprehension that engaging the theory and evidence supporting it will betray their cultural identities.
Great research exists showing that it is possible to disentangle identity from knowledge in the pedagogy of evolution (by recognizing, e.g., the utter pointlessness of extracting professions of "belief" in what is being taught). Good teachers know how to free curious students from the choice between knowing what’s known by science and being who they are as members of communities with diverse understandings of the meaning of life.
Science educators ought to do that, I’m convinced, because in a liberal pluralistic society all individuals, regardless of their identity, are entitled to the opportunity to acquire the insights of science as a basic or primary good. They ought to do it, too, because the state in a liberal pluralistic society is obliged not to condition access to primary goods on free citizens’ acceptance of a partisan moral or political orthodoxy.
But this account takes as a given that it is right to teach students the rudiments of evolutionary science. Indeed, that it is right to expect them to learn it—just as it is right to expect them to learn to read or do math.
Students who don’t learn to read or do math, or to reason well, will not only be disadvantaged but disadvantaged through the agency of the state, which certifies their low educational attainment.
Praj is asking, I think, why we make learning the rudiments of evolutionary science bear this consequence. Why, in particular, when we know that understanding evolution, unlike being able to read and being able to do math, is bundled with identity-threatening cultural significance and, he believes, is not as essential for success in life as either of those or myriad other forms of knowledge.
I do in fact disagree—unequivocally—with Praj’s suggestion that we don’t “need” evolution, as he puts it.
That means, necessarily, that I think there is an answer to his question.
But the one I am inclined to give him is, by my own lights, simply not as good as it should be. The problem with it, in my view, is not that it is “wrong” or missing some quality of analytical coherence or cogency.
It’s that it doesn’t give him, or at least those whom he speaks for, something they morally deserve: a satisfying account of why in fact it is justified to visit this particular obligation on them; an account that is satisfying, in particular, because it recognizes rather than evades the profound moral difficulty and complexity of the issue at hand.
For it truly is the case, I believe, that when we oblige people to learn—oblige in the sense of making the consequence of failing to do so a stigma that indisputably and by design constrains their prospects in life—we are coercing them. Coercing them, moreover, to do something that, even if we succeed in the form of disentanglement I favor in the teaching of evolution, will reasonably be understood by some of them (many fewer, I’m sure, if edcuators and others observe the disentanglement principle, but still some) as incompatible with being who they are.
So I think Praj deserves not only an answer but one of a particular sort.
An aporetic one: a response that, while unequivocal in its conclusion, openly acknowledges the ineradicable complexity of the question and resists effacing the same by resort to bluster and posturing, a style that betrays a regrettable defect of intellectual character.
I am convinced that it is indeed legitimate for the state to oblige citizens to learn evolutionary science. But being able to give an aporetic answer to Praj’s question is, in my view, a condition of the legitimacy of doing so, for only an aporetic response is capable of evincing on our part respect for the freedom and reason of the individual whom we are forcing to bear this restriction on liberty.
What's the answer, then, to Praj's question? We should all be just as impelled as Praj to know what it is.
--Dan M. Kahan
Why should everyone learn evolution?
Hello 14 billion readers of Cultural Cognition. I'm honored to be guest-blogging. This site is a big leap from my own blog, which has a paltry 7 billion readers.
Today I'd like to expand on Dan's post from a few weeks ago: "What I believe about teaching "belief in" evolution and climate change." This passage in particular struck me:
It makes me sad to think that some curious student might not get the benefit of knowing what is known to science about the natural history of our (and other) species because his or her teacher made the understandable mistake of tying that benefit to a gesture the only meaning of which for that student in that setting would be a renunciation of his or her identity.
It makes me angry to think that some curious person might be denied the benefit of knowing what's known by science precisely because an "educator" or "science communicator" who does recognize that affirmation of "belief in" evolution signifies identity & not knowledge nevertheless feels that he or she is entitled to exactract this gesture of self-denigration as an appropriate fee for assisting someone else to learn.
Such a stance is itself a form of sectarianism that is both illiberal and inimical to dissemination of scientific knowledge.
I strongly agree with Dan on these points. But I'm going to take his last sentence one step further. Not only is it illiberal to insist students profess "belief in" evolution, it may be illiberal to force them to learn it in the first place. It's not obvious--to me at least--why learning evolution is mandatory. To see why, it might help to step back and look at science education more broadly.
Imagine a world where the theory of evolution was not the lightning rod that it is. Even in that world, we could ask some general questions about science education and public science literacy: Who needs science education? What does it mean to be scientifically literate? Are there different definitions for scientists and non-scientists?
While I’m not an expert, I have read a fair amount of the research on public understanding of science. Much of what I've read divides children into two groups: future scientists and engineers, and everyone else. Obviously these are not hard boundaries, and academics disagree if and where to draw lines. But it’s widely agreed that these groups are distinct and it’s tricky to balance both of their needs. Science literacy has a different meaning for physicists than for those in sales or marketing.
So given that the overwhelming majority of students will not pursue careers in science and engineering, why should everyone be forced to learn natural selection if they’ll never use it after high-school? Before answering this question, it might be helpful to first reflect on what we want non-scientists to do with their scientific knowledge. What purposes do public science literacy serve?
You can spend a lifetime reading the scholarship on just this one question. My personal favorite is a 1975 article by astrophysicist Benjamin Shen. Shen outlines three categories of science literacy: practical, civic, and cultural. Science in the first category helps people in their daily lives, and includes topics like nutrition, health, and agriculture. The second would help people make informed civic decisions, while the third is in the same spirit as Shakespeare or Greek mythology.
To Shen’s categories I’ll add my own three-legged stool. Science education should leave non-scientists with some content knowledge (i.e. scientific facts), some understanding of scientific methods, and some sort of appreciation for and engagement with science. But I’m not sure specifically what content, how much process, and how to best cultivate appreciation. As far as I know, the experts aren’t sure either.
We’re now ready to return to evolution. Let’s adopt Shen’s framework, and remember that we’re focusing on non-scientists. I’ll repeat my question: why teach the theory of evolution in the first place? It has very little, if any, practical value. (Quick: when’s the last time you used the theory of evolution to help you decide anything?) It has almost no relevance to public policy. (Quick: when’s the last time the press covered the theory of evolution outside of creationism or intelligent design?) We’re left with the cultural value of evolution, admittedly a powerful justification.
Education is important for more than utilitarian reasons like economic growth. It helps promote civic virtues, patriotism, a sense of national identity, and a common culture (see Chapter 8 here). Science education can align with these goals.
But there are limits to how far we can push this argument, and cultural cohesion does not automatically trump individual rights. The landmark West Virginia v. Barnette, for example, declared that children cannot be forced salute the flag if doing so violates their–or their parents’–conscience. What if learning or believing evolution violates some parents’ conscience? Is there really a compelling state interest that everyone must learn it? If we grant exemptions to the Pledge of Allegiance, then why can't we grant exemptions to certain types of knowledge?
I would think educators and scientists would be open to different ways of teaching biology, especially since cultivating “scientific thinking” is often viewed as much more important than any specific content. It’s almost a truism: facts are less important than understanding the process of science and its ways of thinking. So if it’s scientific thinking we’re really after, why not spend an entire year studying human anatomy? Or maybe substitute evolution for a unit on bioengineering or a more in-depth look at organic chemistry. Unless the theory of evolution and nothing else in science teaches people to “think scientifically”, surely there are many ways to get there. A survey course in biology (what I and most people I know had) is not the only possible approach.
My goal in this post wasn't to convince you that evolution can safely be dropped from the science curriculum. I do hope, however, I've convinced you that there can be legitimate disagreement on whether it should be mandatory for all students. I do hope I've convinced you that there are tradeoffs--between freedom of conscience and public education, between science education for future scientists and non-scientists, and among different educational and pedagogical goals. I do hope I've convinced you that maybe there's much more to biology education than the theory of evolution.
Shen, Benjamin. Science literacy and the public understanding of science. Communication of Scientific Information, 44 – 52 (1975).