Georgia: a fundamentalist backwater or a hotbed of evolutionary rebellion? Both.
In the past three days I somehow managed to give a lecture to medical students on medicine and anthropology, moderate a panel on evolutionary medicine, and conduct a seminar at a retreat for Emory Scholars–some of our most outstanding undergraduates–called "Religion, Science, Literature and Life."
The panel was part of a two-day event hosted by Emory called "Evolution Revolution," meant to attract the public, but especially high school biology teachers, to learn some of the best cutting-edge facts and ideas about evolution. Doesn't seem revolutionary to some of us, but trust me, when you're teaching in public schools in some parts of Georgia and you talk about evolution, watch your back.
Two bright and dedicated young women who are in the trenches–one had turned down a seat in vet school, which is harder to get into than medical school–made it clear to me that they are not expected to say anything about evolution except for a proforma mention at the start of the course.
Being in one of our best suburban high schools, they were allowed to take professional release time to attend the conference, but one Emory staff member, a former student of mine, said that some teachers had to back out at the last minute when their principals refused to give them permission. Clearly this was because of the subject of the meeting.
One of our local counties became famous in 2005 by slapping stickers on standard biology textbooks–of course, they all deal with evolution; how could they not, and expect top colleges to take their students–that said, "Evolution is a theory, not a fact." Well, this is true—in the same sense that gravity and electricity are only theories. They are theories proven thousands or millions of times and that are not speculations but principles that give order to countless established facts.
It can be scary here in Georgia. I was brought here to help enlighten a backward part of the country—by native Georgians who stood head and shoulders in intellectual stature above some of their neighbors. But it's a long, hard haul.
In 2004, the school superintendent of Georgia ruled that evolution should not be mentioned in the public schools: "Superintendent Kathy Cox said the concept of evolution would still be taught under the proposal, but the word would not be used." Public outcry forced Cox to withdraw this boneheaded notion. In 2005, Cobb County rolled out the stickers. A wise judge ruled that students would think "theory" meant "hunch" and reject a major domain of modern science.
End of stickers, but not the end of pressure on decent teachers. Fundamentalist parents rehearse their kids for classroom battles to disrupt education. "Some students burst into tears when a high school biology told them they'd be studying evolution. Another teacher said some students repeatedly screamed ‘no' when he began talking about it."
This must be what happened when some brave unknown teacher told a class that Galileo was right—that the earth moved and sped around the sun! It may not be a matter of life and death any more, but it's still a matter of life and livelihood.
‘I've seen churches train students to come to school with specific questions to ask to sabotage my lessons,' said Bonnie Pratt, a biology teacher at Northview High in north Fulton County."
It's not the end of the world if high school students in Georgia can't think about evolution. They can still go to Oral Roberts University and some other institutions stuck in the eighteenth century. They can still become fundamentalist ministers.
But meanwhile, I'm happy to be teaching and talking with students in the Emory Scholars Program, whose retreat I joined for a few happy hours on Saturday. They were just plain brilliant, and they were there because of the dreams of native Georgians of the last generation.
Jas, a visiting student from Scotland, told me she was studying theoretical solid state physics, and described a magnificent world of waves of light in which electrons could nestle and carry electricity at unbelievable efficiency and speed.
Wenjie told me she wants to cure cocaine addiction and run a primate zoo. Jill said she wants to be a veterinarian, so I told Wenjie they'd better get together. Anya from Azerbaijan will hike the Appalachian Trail next year, then go to school to learn about reproductive health and save the lives of women in Africa and beyond.
These young peoples' aspirations bring tears to my old eyes. Forget about how realistic their dreams are, and appreciate the fact that they can dream.
What did I tell them? That faith and unbelief are both normal. That there is no necessary conflict between religion and science. That the comfort billions get from religious faith is worthy of respect, but that it is not the only way for us to live.
And of course, I told them that fundamentalists do not hold the key to all religion. One of the marvelous high school biology teachers that came to Evolution Revolution said it best. Quoting an old theologian, she said, "You can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously. You can't do both."