Evolution Revolution

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."


  1. Martha Dameron says:

    Dr. Konner,
    It sounds like a great conference. I wish I could have been there.

    While teachers in South Carolina do not face the same legal issues that Georgia teachers have faced, we do deal with the same kinds of attitudes from students. I currently teach high school biology in SC and I am often asked at the beginning of the unit on evolution “Do you believe in evolution?” Well, I also happen to have a couple of degrees in religion so I carefully answer “The theory of evolution is not God or a faith, so I can’t say I [i]believe[/i] in it. That’s like saying I believe in gravity.” We then have a discussion about scientific theories (again) and what students mean when they say something is “[b]just[/b] a theory.”

    I did not know anything about evolution before I took biology in high school, so I was surprised so many students come into my class rejecting its tenets before they even learn them. I usually show the PBS video [i]EVOLUTION: What about God?[/i] to help us through this discussion, although I am sure some students simply “get through” this subject matter and leave my class with exactly the same attitudes of rejection. [I think these are the students that must either reject evolution or reject their parents and their parents’ faith.] However, I have had a few students really engage and attempt to understand the material. It is helpful for them to see some of the scientists in the video say that understanding the ideas about evolution and seeing how they work does not mean you cannot have a faith too.

    So, Dr. Konner, perhaps one day my students will have the lucky opportunity to study with you too. Thanks again for everything you have taught me.

  2. Martha, you have put the matter as simply and clearly as I have seen it stated. There is no necessary conflict between faith and science, except to the extent that people of faith wrongly (and harmfully to their own cause) insist on making it a conflict. I am sure that your efforts to teach evolution gently and respectfully but firmly are making a difference in many young minds and lives.

    Wenjie, your comments are also very thoughtful as always. Science and faith are separate, and those who do not understand this have sown much confusion. The science of evolution will no more disappear than the science of the solar system will, and religious people will end up apologizing to Darwin and his followers just as they apologized to Galileo and his. Yet religious faith will also endure, in the hearts and minds of not millions but billions of people for whom God does not require proof (indeed that is the definition of faith) but who believe that God wants us to use the full power of our minds to understand the world as it really is.

  3. Wenjie Xiao says:

    I attended the Governor’s Scholars Program in Kentucky the summer after my junior year of high school. I had a concentration in biology (although my first choice was astronomy), and my instructor for our “classes” was a biology teacher at a Catholic School in Lousiville, KY. He raised several concerns about the nature of living things that we did not have the explanations (or in some cases he had not yet heard the explanation), such as why do we never see stages of evolution in the fossil record (but we actually do) and why do we only use certain enantiomers of molecules (wouldn’t it be advantageous to use both enantiomers of glucose?). While these are valid questions, his intent was for us to answer our questions with God and not to ignite our curiosities. I don’t think I was the only student who questioned evolution after class, and personally I believe he stifled my scientific creativity for a while.

    While I am a firm believer in evolution, I don’t think scientists give enough credit to creationists or those who favor intelligent design. They are also operating on the principle of parsimony, and in a certain light evolution is just a theory. To a scientist the explanations of creation are at odds with the geologic and fossil record. When reconciling the two ideas becomes difficult, a scientist will probably go for the hard evidence. It’s much easier to believed in the scientifically compiled history of the universe than to sort out why God would plant evidence of a 4.5 year old year earth but tell us it’s only 6000 years old. To someone where the details and implications of the mechanism of evolution (and physics for that matter) have not been fully explained, it seems much easier to believe in the divine harmony of God. It just makes much more sense.

    I attended the Dinner with 12 Strangers that Emory sponsored a few weeks ago. The host told me, “In 100 years from now, evolution will not exist. People will ask ‘why did we believe in evolution?'” He also asked, “Don’t you think its marvelous that the history of creation in the Bible mirrors what actually happened?” I was very well-mannered at the dinner, and I did not say too much, but I did mention that grass was not the first plant to populate the girl. In trying to explain that, I had to bring up the danger of UV rays, the build-up of the ozone layer that only happened after lots of photosynthesis, and the later simultaneous land colonization of both plants and animals. Again, this explanation is much more convoluted and much less eloquent than God putting grass on the earth. It’s funny, I was anxious about not being able to cite my information because in truth I probably pieced it together from different Discovery Channel shows. But then I realized that scientists are probably the most obstinate about presenting citations of evidence.

    Anyway there are many things that I don’t know and that the collective knowledge of humans does not know, but we trust to science to give us explanations in time. This is not so different from faith. I feel a little hopeless sometimes about actively bringing evolution to everyone, and in truth creationism doesn’t hurt all that much except for preventing some people from becoming brilliant scientists. I suppose we should also try to come up with a good explanation for homosexuality to stop the gay converters, too. I am 100% in support of mandating every public school to teach a religion class while also teaching science in biology class. Logically it would be unbiased but I don’t think it would satisfy the fundamentalists. Meanwhile is the progression of science going to slow down because of some fundamentalists in America? I think they are the ones who should be scared.

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