Should evolution be taught softly to Christians?

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Discussion by: JonPerry

I
work with a group that teaches science online via YouTube animations.
Our past projects have dealt with the topic of genetics which is
typically not a religiously controversial subject. Our new series however,
is specifically on the theory of evolution. You can check out the first evo
video here:

What is Evolution?

Our
goal is, of course, to make a strong case for evolution but if possible,
we don’t want to turn religious folks off to the subject. In an attempt
to both soften the theological blow of evolution and to reaffirm the
idea that absolute certainty does not usually exist within the field of
science, we’ve chosen to use phrases like “The evidence overwhelmingly suggests
that…” or “It appears that…” before making any big claims about
evolution.

After
you watch the video to hear the language in context, I’d love to learn what you think. Does our use of
this language weaken our case? Do you think it’s helpful? I’d especially
love to hear from public school teachers as these videos are frequently
used in the classroom.

Thanks
Jon

FYI, we are already aware that there is an error in our Cladistic Diagram. We’re working on a correction for that.

28 COMMENTS

  1. It should be taught to them in any way they’ll listen. Once they tune it out you won’t get them back so nurse them along as softly as they’ll allow without compromising the facts. A little tip though, as soon as you say “evidence” it triggers a Pavlovian response in most christians. They have been taught from the cradle that “evidence” is a code word for the devil and everything that gets said after that codeword is just Satan trying to enter your mind and turn you from god.

  2. Your video is super cute and I think you did a great job with it. =D (I love Bird and Moon comics as well.)

    Speaking to education in general, I live in an area that has a number of evangelicals and talked with my evolutionary biology professor about his teaching methods. He said the first time he taught the class, he spent time refuting creationism, but that took a lot of time. It was also immediately antagonistic, which I think is a turn off. He later switched to just starting the class off with some immediately obvious evidence for evolution. I think a lot of Christians think of evolution as dogs turning into cats, or what they like to call “macroevolution.” This is how I was introduced to evolution (in high school Bible class) as well, and of course it looks ridiculous as well as being difficult to imagine.

    In the college class now, my professor just starts off with struggles in treating HIV, the history of the virus, and how genetics allows us to see the spread of different strains, all non-confrontational topics. He talks about why some treatments seemed to completely obliterate the virus, only to have it suddenly surge back. This is something we’re all fairly familiar with and something that we’ve witnessed in our lifetimes, so it was easy to grasp and understand. (It helps that a lot of the students are pre-med as well.) People can also see the importance in understanding evolution from the perspective of developing medical treatments. From there, the class goes on into more of the nitty gritty bits of evolutionary biology, but I thought it was a great way to ease into it.

    Starting off with using an HIV example also really emphasized that mutations were random, but selection itself was not, which I think is an important concept. The mutations that allowed the virus to overcome treatments were still appearing now and then, even if a treatment wasn’t being given to a person. It was only when there was a treatment that those mutations were selected for and became the dominant form of virus within someone’s body. That evolution is a completely random process is a huge misconception within the “intelligent design” crowd.

    I think if evolution is broken down into simple parts, like “You are made of half your mother’s genes, and half your father’s genes, but you are different from either one of them” (like you did with the badgers) and work from there instead of jumping to “birds have an ancestor that looks like a fish,” more people will be able to understand the process. We can all see variation within a group, and even my Bible class teachers said as much. They just didn’t consider this to be “evolution” and were stuck on the whole notion of “we don’t see cats turn into dogs”. I think our brains just keel over trying to picture it on a grand scale without having any sort of understanding of the smaller parts, and we really need those smaller building blocks.

    To that end, I don’t think that’s teaching it softly, but giving people the parts they need in order to eventually understand the big picture. =)

  3. First of all, I really like the video! The conversational tone and the clear illustrations are good. Minor nitpick. I don’t think it is accurate to say that “evolution has officially occurred” when a badger is born with inherited traits from two parents. If you are going to introduce the (very good ) definition of evolution, then set out to explain it, I wonder if you can ignore the “within a population” clause to such an extent. I’m not a biologist, but I think most would hesitate to say “evolution had occured” in a single generation. Populations evolve, not individuals.

    Now, as to your question. I was struck in several places with the impression that this video was “playing defense” – almost apologizing for evolution. For example, the narration acknowledges that evolution does not deal with the question of abiogenesis, but the way it is written/delivered makes it sound like this is a weakness in evolution, like “evolution doesn’t have the power to explain origins, but heyat least it’s not completely useless!” This also gives the impression of encouraging students to move their religious “creation” beliefs into the origin-of-life “gap.” The very first line of the YouTube description calls attention to evolution as “controversial.” It’s like you are flinching before the first punch is thrown. I’m skeptical of this approach, even while sympathizing with your motives.

    You should use the exact same type of “qualifiers” as you would in a video about any other science topic. Your goal is to teach science, not religion. Attempting to accommodate non-scientifc prejudice in a science lesson merely makes for bad-science AND bad religious instruction. If good, honest scientific teaching creates cognative dissonance for some students, it is a learning opportunity.

    If an idea is scientifically controversial, say so by all means. But it does a disservice to students to give the appearance of – or to falsely emphasize – scientific controversy where strong concesus actually exists. Falsely conflating religious controversy with scientific controversy is a real problem, possibly the largest weakness in the modern understanding of science by the non-scientist population.

    In general scientific education, I say it is much more important for a student to clearly understand this distinction than to be able to recite any particular piece of knowledge gained by science. If a student can’t distinguish between scientific ways of “knowing” and other uses (misuses) of the word “knowledge”, that student does not even understand what science is. No amount of memorized facts can make up for basic scientific illiteracy. Blurring this distinction is very bad science indeed, and poor education. If one is tempted to just ‘get past’ the controversy and ‘get to’ the science…one has missed the point, and given away the game at the outset.

    It is true that “absolute certainty does not usually exist within the field of science,” and that this is a key concept for scientific literacy, but emphasizing this fact in videos about evolution while ignoring it in genetics videos gives the false impression that evolutionary science is less firmly grounded, when in fact, the reverse is true. In effect, it is teaching bad science. I understand the desire to overcome religious barriers to learning. It is a complex problem, but weakening the science to accomodate dogma is bad science. The very point of science is to expand knowledge at the expense of dogma.

    In any event, I strongly suspect that the effort is wasted, since students primed to reject evolution will be very unlikely to be appeased by waffle words like “It appears that…” In the end, I fear you will still “turn religious folks off to the subject” at more-or-less the same rate – while weakening the scientific education of those who may be prepared to learn.

  4. Comments 1 & 2 are both helpful- one simple thing that kicked off my (short) evolutionary journey was ‘un-natural selection’, human breeding of plants & animals for desired qualities. I had not thought about the fact that the vast majority of our food derives from this process, as do most animals we eat, keep as pets, etc.
    Obvious- yes, but the random mutations we select for is not; that we apply the ‘selection’ as opposed to nature doing it results in animals that have inbuilt defects- dog breeds being the prime example.

    Would this constitute a non-confrontational introduction to evolution?

  5. Thank you for popularizing. I owe my understanding of the world to such efforts, enabling me to slouch on the shoulders of giants.

    I’ll critique as I watch:

    I like the animations, that grasshopper is a boss. Very nice inclusion of inheriting behavior with inheriting physical traits.

    NO! @1:05 Do not ever present academic ideas to children as “confusing”. Remember when Barbie said “Math is hard”? It is not confusing for everyone, and those who might struggle with the idea don’t benefit from having the threat built up, especially if they are bright but discouraged socially from thinking of themselves that way.

    I like the stamp. It also fits within Creationist standards as they accept “micro-evolution”. To be technical, they must accept your definition and that it occurs. Very clever.

    @6:24 (random evolution)… Uh oh. I don’t like where you are going with this. Evolution is not random, and that popular misconception is very harmful. For many, randomness is counterintuitive, and in terms physics (Stephen Hawking lost a bet) and metaphysics (causality, dependent origination, puppet-master gods, etc) it does not exist. The connotation of randomness emboldens rejection, facile arguments, and instinct against evolution.

    Your written concern over words like “suggests” worried me, but not when I heard it. The tone and delivery was familiar to what I hear from scientists talking about anything. That aspect is perfect.

    If you don’t want too get into it I understand, but since the discovery of AEG in sulfur springs, we do know where life initially came from, the genesis. Maybe that’s not as settled as I think it is, but be ready to re-edit, maybe make an alternate version before the voice-over guy’s voice starts to crack.

  6. Very nice work. I think it’s brilliant, because if I were a creationist, by the end of the video, I would think that ok, changes are transmitted, but for selection “the breeder must be God”. That is to say, I would already have confessed that I accept evolution, but that I don’t believe in natural selection. As Richard Dawkins once wrote (I’m paraphrasing), natural selection, being non-random, is what gives the illusion of design.

    But it’s hard not to believe in natural selection. Evolution might be too slow to observe on a daily basis, but natural selection is obvious. You’ll catch them on next video.

    There might be a couple of points to make clearer, though (but I no biologist):

    • How frequent are mutations : I heard it said that it’s about 300 mutations between my parents and me. Mostly on junk DNA. Maybe biologists here might confirm that figure or not. If mutations are not uncommon, that might make your case stronger.

    • Mutations are generally “bad”. That would be an argument against someone believing that gods make mutations, non-randomly. You could show a bacterium still-born because of a debilitating mutation.

    • What about new species ? creationists sometimes accept that mutations can happen, but not to the point of creating new species. You could show how two lineages, separated long enough by natural frontiers, cannot interbreed any-more. Give time scale.

    • Maybe you can conclude that this changes our definition of what life itself is : Matter that can undergo a darwinian evolution.

    My two cents, really. Check this with biologists.

  7. Hi Jon,

    I offer the following, minor, suggestions – it was very good video.

    I would change the script on DNA mutations to something like: “Mutations can be good, bad, or have no consequence for the child”. This would also set up the viewer better for the next step (Natural Selection).

    For that reason I also wonder about the use of the phrase: “errors can occur” when talking about copying DNA. Perhaps: “accidental changes can occur” or “unplanned changes can occur” ?

    The simple process of reproduction (starts @ 6:04) talks about variation without showing any actual variation – which I found just a tad confusing (I’ll get over it). It seems to me that a few of the ‘cells’ in the animation could simply be of slightly different shades to cover this.

    I wasn’t sure whether the plan is to put the geological timetable into the next video (Natural Selection)?

    “Evolution has officially happened” – followed by a stamp of Evolution on a picture already headlined Evolution. I wasn’t sure what this was supposed to signify? Perhaps: “That’s evolution” ?

    Peace.

  8. It is curious to realise that there are countries where this teaching is still controversial after 150 years. I am reminded of Queen Victoria’s reaction: “I hope it is not true – or that if it is true, it will not become generally known”.

    I think that by emphasising ‘evolution’ you are missing the main point which is ‘by natural selection’. Your pupils presumably already know about dinosaurs or are they also too controversial in your country? To my mind, Darwin summed up his theory beautifully right at the ned of the final chapter of the origin:

    “ . . It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being:

    • Growth with Reproduction;

    • Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction;

    • Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse;

    • a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life,

    • and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms.

    Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

    Are you covering all these points in your video? [I only watched the start of it]

    On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life: Chapter 14: Recapitulation and Conclusion
    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/origin/chapter14.html

  9. we’ve chosen to use phrases like “The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that…” or “It appears that…” before making any big claims about evolution.

    The first statement is spot on , the second is a bit of a fudge , that is exploitable as it sounds and feels unsure of itself. I’ll watch tomorrow and let you know. I think its great that your casting the net as wide as you can , if it sows some niggling seeds in the minds of people , that they can develop themselves , that’s to be applauded.

  10. This is super helpful, keep the comments coming! There were two concerns expressed here that I’d like to defend and then hear more comments on:

    User “This Is Not A Meme” is concerned with my use of the word random. The truth is that genetic mutations happen completely randomly and are then selected for in an orderly non-random way. It’s very important that people understand the role of randomness in evolution. The next video on Natural Selection is where the order will be discussed in detail. I do understand your concern however that people will hear the word random and then tell their friends that evolution is totally random. Not sure how to teach about the random and non-random aspects of evolution without causing that to happen.

    User “BanJoIvie” has questioned whether or not I’m ignoring the idea that evolution happens to populations not individuals when I show evolution happen over the course of just one generation.

    The word “Population” is variable and has to be defined by the discussion. Biologists can look at a population of 2 or a population of 10 million when looking at evolutionary change. In this video I’ve zoomed in to look at a population of 2.

    When biologists say that individuals do not evolve they are trying to show the difference between evolution (which happens across generations) and basic growth and development of an individual which a creature goes through during its life time.

    In short, I think it’s both accurate and helpful to zoom in the way we’ve done but in the next video it will be important to show how this works in larger population as well.

  11. In reply to #4 by Nodhimmi:

    Comments 1 & 2 are both helpful- one simple thing that kicked off my (short) evolutionary journey was ‘un-natural selection’, human breeding of plants & animals for desired qualities. I had not thought about the fact that the vast majority of our food derives from this process, as do most animals we eat, keep as pets, etc.
    Obvious- yes, but the random mutations we select for is not; that we apply the ‘selection’ as opposed to nature doing it results in animals that have inbuilt defects- dog breeds being the prime example.

    Would this constitute a non-confrontational introduction to evolution?

    The only problem that can occur with this approach is the counter a number of creationists use. They will say that what you are talking about is NOT evolution, but intelligent design. That, indeed, it shows exactly how an intelligence is necessary, ergo not natural, ergo God did it.

    It is a faulty argument, of course, but it can be a stumbling block. I have seen creationists crow at this point as if, by mentioning it, you have made their case for them.

    It has to be approached most carefully to avoid that.

  12. In reply to #11 by JonPerry:

    The truth is that genetic mutations happen completely randomly and are then selected for in an orderly non-random way.

    Random mutations, yes. Evolution is not random. The algorithm goes:

    Self-Replication+Heredity+Variation+Selection=Design out of chaos without the need for mind (aka evolution)

    I credit Susan Blackmore with the algorithm, not sure if she wrote it. Random variation/mutation is only a component in evolution, as your definition specifies evolution is ‘over generations’. I stress this technical and semantic point because “random” is used derisively against evolution. It’s a keyword in creationists appeals to intuition. If a person has already been exposed to these fallacious arguments, the phrase “random evolution” can trigger that programming. The clever thing that I admire in the video is the cogent simplicity that avoids the creationist traps, allowing the viewer to think for themselves.

    Also, I really like the dog/wolf example. It’s non-controversial and very familiar. I think my first examples I learned were of moths changing color, and that’s not as impressive. I’ve watched a fair amount of these lessons, and the dog example is one of the best I’ve seen.

    You left out selection in the initial explanation of your definition (long-armed amoebas). I think that works very well. Selection is not neglected and you still present the ideas without complication. I really like your definition and how you use it.

  13. In reply to #4 by Nodhimmi:

    Comments 1 & 2 are both helpful- one simple thing that kicked off my (short) evolutionary journey was ‘un-natural selection’, human breeding of plants & animals for desired qualities. I had not thought about the fact that the vast majority of our food derives from this process, as do most animals we eat, keep as pets, etc.

    That’s what I love about Ray Comfort’s (Cavendish) banana argument, how it is so perfect for humans. He happened to pick a species that was indeed designed for humans… but by humans. He even points out how they have no seeds, not wondering how they reproduce.

  14. I think you are right about the touchiness of the word “random” in reference to evolution. In the bit where we bring up the doubters question “Isn’t Evolution Random?” we’re better off saying “Aren’t mutations random?”. One of our script reviewers mentioned this before the launch but didn’t explain the issue clear enough for us to make the change.

    After we do the next few videos we will revisit this first video and reword that part along with a few other edits we have planned. For now I’ll keep this in mind while writing our next script. We’ll make sure to drive home the point that natural selection is non-random.

    Great algorithm by the way.

    In reply to #14 by This Is Not A Meme:

    In reply to #11 by JonPerry:

    I stress this technical and semantic point because “random” is used derisively against evolution. It’s a keyword in creationists appeals to intuition. If a person has already been exposed to these fallacious arguments, the phrase “random evolution” can trigger that programming.

  15. So you are going to tiptoe around the topic because of the sensitivities of the religious folks you are trying to reach. I do not know how to feel about this. I am conflicted. You may reach more with the watered down language but they will be less likely to understand it well enough to change their mode of thinking. Conversely, if the wording is very strong, you will lose them because they will shut it off.

    Good luck with your endeavor…. Are you doing any pre and post studies to see if your methodology is effective? I teach it with strong language , but my target audience is not the same as yours. Anyway, I am interested in your product and it’s efficacy.

  16. User “BanJoIvie” has questioned whether or not I’m ignoring the idea that evolution happens to populations not individuals when I show evolution happen over the course of just one generation.

    The word “Population” is variable and has to be defined by the discussion.

    It is true that “population” can vary by context, but I think a single breeding pair would be an extreme case, and gives a false impression of what the term “evolution” really refers to. I only mention it as you use the word “population” in the video’s definition of evolution, which I think is right. But in the context of that definition, I think taking “population” to mean a single breeding pair, is a fudge. When two badgers reproduce, reproduction has occurred. Evolution has not “officially occurred” until the overal frequency of a particular gene has changed within a gene pool.

  17. In reply to #9 by Jay G:

    Screw the thick-skulled religious fanatics who refuse to accept reality. Give it to them right between the eyes!!

    Adults yes, They chose to be that ignorant and they should be beat about the head and shoulders with the truth and given shock treatments every time they say “It’s just a theory”. Children, not so much. It isn’t their fault their parents are imbeciles so they shouldn’t be punished into knowledge.

  18. In reply to #13 by Astinscience:

    In reply to #4 by Nodhimmi:

    Comments 1 & 2 are both helpful- one simple thing that kicked off my (short) evolutionary journey was ‘un-natural selection’, human breeding of plants & animals for desired qualities. I had not thought about the fact that the vast majority of our food derives from this process, as do most animals we eat, keep as pets, etc.
    Obvious- yes, but the random mutations we select for is not; that we apply the ‘selection’ as opposed to nature doing it results in animals that have inbuilt defects- dog breeds being the prime example.

    Would this constitute a non-confrontational introduction to evolution?

    The only problem that can occur with this approach is the counter a number of creationists use. They will say that what you are talking about is NOT evolution, but intelligent design. That, indeed, it shows exactly how an intelligence is necessary, ergo not natural, ergo God did it.

    It is a faulty argument, of course, but it can be a stumbling block. I have seen creationists crow at this point as if, by mentioning it, you have made their case for them.

    It has to be approached most carefully to avoid that.

    I’d not heard that one- so creatards claim God gave humans the intelligence to breed animals for our benefit (not that God actually created thoroughbred horses, bulldogs, surely?)

  19. The trouble may come in when you teach everything that is based on biology witch is also fundamentally evolution based in principle. Medicine, Genetics (Yes it’s not possible to separate genetics from evolution), physiology, even things like Chiropractic etc etc. You can’t keep issuing disclaimers when everything is based on a core acceptance.

  20. There is a slight defensive style right out of the gate but for me, I attribute some of that to the ideolect of the speaker. That said, perhaps this is a disarming tone or even friendly for some and may be perfectly age appropriate. I’d really like to know the target age because the understanding of sexual intercourse sure seems to be assumed here.

    The word incredible, however, at the beginning should be replaced because that word’s first definitions (beyond belief or impossible or very difficult to believe) are antithetical here.

    Not sure about the use of “all healthy living things” being the setup for “life being capable of reproduction.” Perhaps this stands out to me because of the recent quote I read here recently: evolution is the survival of the just fit enough (paraphrase). Also, it doesn’t seem to gel with the conclusion later in the video “if all goes well” there will be two copies of amoebas, etc. This implies to me that if reproduction doesn’t go well, then being healthy in the first place seems superfluous data.

    I will look forward to reviewing the rest of the video later.

    Cheers,
    Mike

  21. OK my only comments on this surround the production and particulary the sound. You need music here and there to bring it to life and the narrators sound track sounds of echo-y. The animation is fine. Other than that great job!

  22. Look right ,look left, then look right again if the road is now clear you may cross.
    All children are given these necessary instructions.
    In the same way they should be given the simple explanation of evolution as part of their educational development .

  23. The funny thing I have realized in my short time as an evolutionist is that Christians for the majority already believe in Micro-evolution. Which happens to put them in agreement with us, though they do not realize it. I think we really need to focus on the fact of that micro-evolution accumulates as Dr. Dawkins convey’s in Climbing Mount Improbable. Also I recommend The Greatest Show On Earth, as I am reading it now and thoroughly enjoying it.

  24. I don’t think you need to sugarcoat anything. Science is good nor bad, it’s only true. No matter how you say it, religious people will take offence if they do not like the idea of evolution. Oh by the way, really good job on the videos!

  25. “Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo” (strongly in matter, gently in manner) is always a good rule to follow when presenting an argument. Some Christians, however, will reject biological evolution out of hand, so long as they remain undisabused of the belief that the Bible is a divine revelation that contradicts the scientific findings on evolution. Such people need to be told plainly that, whereas they may believe what they like, their groundless belief in the Bible gives them no right to bother society with their superstitions about a six-day creation and a six-thousand-year-old world. If they do bother society, for example in the state education system, with their unfounded biblical beliefs, then they do need to be informed, as politely as the need to speak plainly allows, that they are talking nonsense.

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