Monday, June 3, 2013

Helping everyone see the light of evolution

"If we don’t help everyone understand what constitutes science and what constitutes faith, we’re bound to run into more problems," says evolutionary biologist Jaap de Roode.

By Carol Clark

Jaap de Roode likes to tell his Evolutionary Biology students: “I don’t believe in evolution.”

It gets their attention. Then he explains: “Evolution isn’t a belief, it’s a theory. You may believe in God and have faith in a religion, but when it comes to science, you look at the evidence for a theory and then decide whether to accept it.”

Any perceived conflict between science and religious beliefs often comes down to semantics, says de Roode, assistant professor of biology at Emory. “I want all of my students to understand the meaning of ‘scientific theory’ and why science is different from faith, but doesn’t have to be in conflict with it,” he says.

Adding to the confusion is the popular use of the word “theory” to describe a hunch or a guess. In science, a hypothesis is more akin to a hunch or a guess, while a theory refers to a body of knowledge supported by considerable evidence, such as gravitational theory or cell theory.

Despite his efforts, at the end of 16 weeks of teaching evolution theory, de Roode sometimes has one or two students complain on their class evaluation forms that he should include opposing views.

“It’s shocking to me that even some seniors, after taking many science courses, still don’t understand that scientifically, there is no alternative to evolution theory,” de Roode says. “They don’t want to fail the class, so they give me the answers they know that I want to see, but they remain skeptical. That bugs me as a scientist, and as a teacher.”

Forty-six percent of Americans responding to a Gallup poll in 2012 said that they believe God created humans in their present form within the past 10,000 years or so, a belief sometimes referred to as “creationism.”

While only a tiny fraction of Emory students report feeling that way to de Roode, even one is too many for him.

“Part of the reason that some of these students don’t want to accept evolution is fear,” he says. “They see and understand the evidence, but they are afraid that it means they will have to give up their faith. I feel strongly that it is my role to help students resolve this conflict.”

The issue came to a head last year, when Emory tapped Ben Carson for its 2012 commencement speaker. In addition to being a renowned neurosurgeon, Carson is a 7th Day Adventist and an advocate of creationism.

A student in de Roode’s class brought Carson’s views on evolution to his attention. De Roode joined with several other faculty to write a letter, published by the Emory Wheel, aimed not at disinviting Carson, but to call attention to Carson’s denial of evolution, and a statement he made implying that accepting evolution was akin to dismissing ethics.

The Emory faculty countered that evolution and the scientific method are not at odds with being moral or religious. “Dr. Carson insists on not seeing a difference between science, which is predictable and falsifiable, and religious belief systems, which by their very nature cannot be falsified,” they wrote. “This is especially troubling since his great achievements in medicine allow him to be viewed as someone who ‘understands science.’”

"Science doesn't invent nature. Science reveals nature," says Joel Martin, author of "The Prism and the Rainbow: A Christian Explains Why Evolution is Not a Threat."

Four hundred others from across the Emory community signed in support of the letter. De Roode points out that he is a great admirer of Carson as a physician. “But it’s important to pay attention to this issue of anti-scientific views,” de Roode says, “because it is standing in the way of scientific progress and the future of this nation. As a university, we are training the country’s future leaders.”

De Roode and other Emory faculty, including biologist Arri Eisen, biophysicist Ilya Nemenman and chemist David Lynn got together with Emory President James Wagner to discuss how to help students struggling to resolve any perceived conflict between scientific evidence and their religious beliefs. They launched a series of small, informal dinners and speaker seminars called “The Nature of Knowledge.”

Five students turned up to discuss evolution and faith at the first dinner, hosted by de Roode and Lynn, and including representatives from Campus Life and the Dean of the Chapel and Religious Life.

“I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family,” said a freshman majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology, explaining why he attended the dinner. “I asked my youth counselor in church about the science of evolution that I was learning in high school and he just said, ‘Don’t pay any attention to that.’ But as you grow older, you have to make your own decisions.”

The student added that he has long been a fan of Bill Nye “the science guy,” and a recent video by Nye called “Creationism is Not Appropriate for Children,” prompted him to think more deeply about the topic.

While he accepts evolutionary theory, he finds it odd that, “when high school teachers talk about it, they feel like they have to say, ‘I don’t want to offend anyone’s religious beliefs.’”

In the above video, Bill Nye "the science guy" gives his views on teaching evolution.

The first “Nature of Knowledge” seminar speaker, Joel Martin, drew a standing-room-only audience to Emory’s Harland Cinema last fall. Martin is both an evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church USA, where he works with high school youth ministry. He published a book in 2010 called “The Prism and the Rainbow: A Christian Explains Why Evolution is Not a Threat.”

“When light hits a drop of water, it refracts. It’s a stunning natural spectacle,” Martin told the Emory audience, adding that knowing how a rainbow works does not have to remove God from the picture. “Science does not invent nature. Science reveals nature,” he said. “If this is God’s world, science can only reveal God’s world.”

Martin described a growing disconnect between youth, science and faith. He noted that most major Christian denominations in the United States officially accept the science of evolution, even though some of the members may not.

“The most respected theologians that we have need to come forward and be much more vocal on this issue,” Martin said.

Kyle Niezgoda, a junior majoring in environmental studies, found Martin’s talk beneficial, although he has never doubted evolution.

“I think it’s important to understand how others think and feel, so you can work towards a common goal instead of just arguing,” said Niezgoda, who plans to go to graduate school to study atmospheric science. “The more I get involved in science, the more I realize the importance of being able to translate what I learn to the public, especially when it comes to things like climate change.”

In the spring, a second “Nature of Knowledge” seminar featured Emory primatologist Frans de Waal, who talked about his new book, “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates.” He described the growing scientific evidence that morality predates religion.

“The Nature of Knowledge” program will continue the series in the fall, with plans to expand some of its events to involve resident life in the dorms.

“We don’t want to stage useless debates between evolution proponents and opponents,” de Roode said. “We’re trying to educate students about the wonderful world around us, rather than have fireworks. If we don’t help everyone understand what constitutes science and what constitutes faith, we’re bound to run into more problems and our children will suffer for it.”

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