“Charles Darwin had a big idea; arguably, the most powerful idea ever.” Richard Dawkins
That’s the quote I used to start my assemblies this week. To me, it’s the most important and extraordinary story children should know and understand. The story of evolution, of how we came into existence as Homo sapiens roaming the Earth on a small ball of rock orbiting a star. The purpose of the assembly is to give prominence to the idea of evolution by (non-random natural selection) and to present the range of areas of science that support our understanding of it. I linked it to something current by referencing the amazing gathering of planets visible in the early morning sky. Every day this week I’ve seen Venus and Jupiter from the top of my road. Mars and Saturn are in between, albeit quite faint. I told my students that, looking at Venus, gives an idea of how Earth looks from Venus- just a small object in space, reflecting light from the Sun.
I think we might do too many preachy moral message orientated assemblies; sometimes it’s good just to tell students something really very interesting and complicated, without patronising them.
A key thing to challenge is the common misconception that humans ‘evolved from chimpanzees’ – or monkeys or dinosaurs…(I like to give those in the know a little chuckle with the subtle South Park reference – it seems to go safely over the heads of most students. The ‘fish-squirrel’ thing is hilarious). The idea to get across is that of common ancestors. In the assemblies I was promoting reading Richard Dawkins’ brilliant book The Ancestor’s Tale. It’s one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read, telling the story of the ancestors of every living thing and how they meet up at various rendezvous points as you go back in time.
It turns out that every living thing has a common ancestor with every other; a mind-blowing concept – but obvious enough once you get the idea that we originated from the same stock of agitated organic material in the cracks in a wet rock some 2 billion years ago. A favourite revelation is the ‘Whippo Hypothesis’ – which suggests that, from molecular evidence, hippos are more closely related to whales than they are to cows and pigs.
Another favourite is the hypothesis that all living humans have common human ancestors that could have lived as recently as 10,000 years ago – and probably no longer than 100,000 years ago. We’re all cousins; we are family! That’s a powerful message to give; it’s literally true – not just a metaphor. The final image of the assembly is of the Earth.
As I know from my KEGS experience, it’s inevitable that any discussion of evolution – or any brush with Richard Dawkins – will present a massive challenge to students who hold creationist views. In the past I’ve met highly intelligent students who were so heavily indoctrinated (what else to call it?), that the clash between their irrational young-Earth creationism and their rational understanding of the evidence from science actually caused mental health issues. How to resolve a deep conviction that the Bible must be telling the absolute literal truth (if life has any meaning or value) with the facts of science that render creationism null and void?
My approach in this assembly was to address the creation issue directly, at the end. I tell my students that I am an atheist but that, if they have religious convictions in any faith, they will need to find a resolution between science and creation myths for themselves. I offer them the easy-fit model that many religious scientists adopt; that God can be found in creating or governing the laws of physics – perhaps in igniting the spark that kicked the primordial molecular soup into action; that God can be found in the emerging beauty and wonder of nature as it evolved.
But, for many, this is still a challenge. At the end of one of the assemblies, I was met by a delegation. First was a group of Year 10 girls – two Muslims and a Christian. ‘Are you saying we didn’t come from Adam and Eve?’. ‘Are you saying the Bible and Koran are lying?’ ‘God made everything; He put the dinosaurs on Earth; he put us on the Earth’. I offered that, because the science is real and verifiable, they might need to read their holy books in the context of the time they were written; to understand our need for explanations of the world around us but that now we have the science, the holy book stories need to be seen for what they are, not literal descriptions of actual events. ‘No Sir, that’s wrong; I don’t believe all this science; I believe the Bible/Koran’. We agreed that a longer conversation was needed!
In another assembly, I saw that a Y11 Muslim student was getting agitated. At lunch, I called him over for a chat. I asked him what he thought. ‘What about the Prophets and the miracles? You can’t explain that with science. There would be no science without religion; Like you being Head of the school -without a leader there is chaos; there must be a God – someone in charge – or else there would be nothing’. This was an easier conversation, more about God vs No God than a defence of creationism per se. I told him directly that I didn’t believe in miracles – they were just stories or illusions. I talked about Galileo and how he was persecuted by the Church 500 years ago – before the science was accepted. I offered this: In 500 years all Christians and Muslims will have adopted their faith to recognise evolution. He laughed! It was a good discussion. I was trying to engage him in the ideas without dismissing his in a way that would build barriers.
This is a tricky issue – and one that schools needs to think about. In my (one and only) book Teach Now! Science, I have this advice for new teachers of science:
Facts, Beliefs and Opinions
There are a number of topics in science where you may find you need to make a judgement as to how to accommodate your students’ opinions, biases and religious beliefs. Your response needs to be consistent with your school policy but perhaps most importantly, it needs to reflect a sound application of scientific principles.
Creationism or ‘Intelligent Design’
This is quite straightforward. Evolution is a fact. It is a theory that is supported by many layers of evidence and it can make successful predictions. It is as secure a theory as almost any other we have in science. Creationism, as we all know, has no basis in science but is promoted through religious conviction; it’s a kind of science denial.
Confronted with a creationist student or parent, try to avoid engaging in a debate. Never fall into the trap of allowing creationism and evolution to be presented as equally valid alternative theories; no self-respecting science teacher should do this. It is quite possible to stick to the facts without engaging in a theological discussion. At the same time, remember that most religious people are not creationists; it’s important to challenge that misconception if it arises.
At my school, at every prospective parents’ evening I say: ‘We teach that evolution is a fact; because it is.’ In your school, you may need to make that case yourself.
This refers to my last school – but I think I may also start saying it at my new school. Parents should know what to expect. The key thing is to distinguish between discussion and debate. This is hard for some students – but there are lots of ways for them to find a way forward, not least the fact that so many scientists are also religious. However, for me, it is critical that teachers do not water down the science to accommodate religious perspectives if that means sacrificing the acceptance of evidence. This applies to science and RE teachers. New Earth creationism and more subtle variants of Intelligent Design are a denial of science and I think all teachers need to be conscious of that. At the same time, as pointed out in this academic article by Roussel de Carvalho, given the imperative to engage students (and teachers) with religious views, we can’t simply brush over the issue – we need to find ways to engage students to give them the opportunity to explore the nature of scientific reasoning and how this lines up against ideas of ‘belief’.
I once met a Headteacher who overheard me talking about the evolution of birds with another Headteacher colleague. He said ‘Oh I don’t believe in all that evolution stuff. I’m a creationist’. I was astonished – and immediately lost all respect for him. It’s just not OK to celebrate ignorance in that way. If I found a member of staff at my school was promoting creationism, ID or was offering them as credible alternatives to evolution by natural selection, I’d have words. It’s like teaching the wrong maths on purpose – to satisfy your personal beliefs.
For me, the story of evolution – the amazing, wonderful, fascinating story – is far, far more awe-inspiring than the religious stories in any case. Knowing the journey to our current situation as the race of humans we’ve become is essential to understanding the depth of our shared humanity. One Earth; One Family; Our Common Ancestry. It’s a message worth repeating loud and clear.
According to Alex Weatherall, (@A_Weatherall) the crew on Infinite Monkey Cage have suggested that our Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA) might have existed as recently as 3000 years ago. Amazing really – it puts the idea of ‘race’ into perspective.
Something else I have been thinking this week is that the Prevent strategy might discourage some schools and teachers from addressing these issues. I could tell that I had stirred up some animosity from some Muslim boys during my assemblies. This was confirmed by other students. For some, I am an authority figure directly contradicting the teachings of their families and imams. That’s going to be hard to take. There may be teachers who fear that this has every chance of strengthening a sense of alienation or of rejecting certain Western values – two elements often associated with radicalisation. Of course RE and science lessons will allow them time to explore these things more widely than in an assembly – but assemblies are important arenas for communicating ideas. I don’t think it’s tenable to treat some ideas as too sensitive to be aired in a high status public arena simply because ill-informed irrational views are widely held. If anything we probably need to do it more often and address the faith-science conflict some students experience more openly and explicitly. The worst thing would be to be patronise them or humour them. It shouldn’t be remotely controversial to tell students that you are an atheist or that creationism is untenable given our knowledge of science.