Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Charles Darwin: Killer of God or Role Model for Pious Students?

Evolution of Lego Man (Image from Flickr, by mwbocekmann)
Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution are typically portrayed by creationists as fundamental threats to Christianity. Yet Darwin himself was so religious he delayed publication of his book, “On the Origins of Species,” for twenty years (until 1859) in part, many believe, out of fear of upsetting his religious family and friends.

In “Charles Darwin about the Evolution of Religion,” Michael Blume discusses Darwin’s chapter on religion in “Descent of Man” (1871), in which Darwin said:
“There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. On the contrary there is ample evidence, derived not from hasty travelers, but from men who have long resided with savages, that numerous races have existed and still exist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and who have no words in their languages to express such an idea. The question is of course wholly distinct from that higher one, whether there exists a Creator and Ruler of the universe; and this has been answered in the affirmative by the highest intellects that have ever lived.”

So, while Darwin argues that belief in God is not a natural trait with which we are born, suggesting that, like other traits, it evolves over time, he also affirms his belief that there is a God and that this is a proven fact. This is hardly the kind of statement one would expect from an atheist or from someone out to debunk Christianity.

However, belief in God does not rule out belief in natural selection, evolution of species, or evolution of the Earth through natural geological processes. Darwin did believe in these ideas, despite his religiosity, because of the ample evidence. He was able to develop a remarkably accurate and effective model for evolution by natural selection through careful observations of artificial selection by farmers, as well as anatomical comparisons of fossils and living species. Like all good scientists, he held himself to a high standard of reproducibility and objectivity in these observations, amassing a large data set from many different regions of the world.

In light of his high regard for scientific evidence and the scientific process, it is interesting that he also had such confidence in the existence of God, despite a dearth of credible evidence, relying entirely on arguments by philosophers and religious leaders. While this double standard for “proof” is interesting, it should not be surprising. Darwin’s highest educational degree was earned in theology. He grew up in a religious family, in a religious community, during religious times. These influences were so powerful he remained a believer in God throughout his life, despite the mounting evidence that the Earth was not created in 6 days in its current form, or even in 10,000 years, contrary to the teachings of his religion.

This story can be instructive for those of us who teach biology, particularly in religious communities, where students often resist learning the evolution content or have trouble comprehending it due to their cultural biases. For these students, we can provide as much evidence as we want, but even this will not necessarily overcome the influences they are getting at home and in their communities. Considering that studies suggest that teaching students about scientists’ adversities tends to result in better educational outcomes, more effective learning, and greater buy-in, lessons on evolution might be more effective if accompanied with a discussion of Darwin’s religiosity and examples of the struggles he went through in developing his theory. It would be particularly helpful for students to hear how and why he accepted his observations, despite the fact that they contradicted the teachings of his church.

No comments:

Post a Comment