Lording over science above the creationist tree of rhetoric are Georges Cuvier, founder of the discipline of paleontology, who rose to scientific prominence in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Traumatized by the social chaos and violence of that time, despite accumulating a good deal of evidence that supported some form of “transmutation of species”, as the early strains of evolutionary theory were called, Cuvier vehemently overlooked these findings for fear that the theory might lead to more social upheaval. He supported the theory of a great flood, as did Louis Agassiz, who we find here in the cloud to the right, who has become an oft-quoted hero of modern creationism. Some of his statements about truth in science have been used to mischaracterize the scientific pursuit. He was our first filter in America on Darwin’s theory, as he wrote the first review of The Origin of Species, and was a denier. His geological studies are well respected even today, but at the time the fossil record was far less explored than it is today, so who could blame him?
William Jennings Bryan, a reform politician and Protestant fundamentalist, took these antiquated theories that disagreed with evolutionary theory and ran with their outdated ideas, quoting Agassiz on scientific “fact” and effectively imprinting an inaccurate understanding of the scientific process on the American psyche. He associated the teaching of evolution with a social apathy toward reform, and as reform was his main agenda, he became very vocally involved in anti-evolution events like the Scopes Trial. A common creationist rhetorical demand is for evidence of the “missing link” between humans and monkeys, despite the abundance of evidence in the form of transitional fossils. This is part of a large-scale creationist trend of continually making claims against the validity of evolution despite evidence to the contrary.
More than a century after Darwin’s death scientists are still trying to establish evolution as a central part of science education. Creationists increasingly understand that it’s not necessary (nor effective) to use the law to accomplish their goals in public schools. By merely introducing a policy that implicitly permits that antievolution material be taught, creationist pressure at the local level often ensures that it gets taught. A common creationist tactic is to paint evolution as a theory in crisis, on the verge of scientific collapse, and to invite students with no understanding of the scientific process to assess the validity of the evolutionary theory.
The creationist tree of nonscientific arguments has the power to be dismantled by the “ax” of evidence: science is a process of understanding the world through natural explanation. Moderates who have aligned their faith with their acceptance of the evidence for evolution can do much to aid this effort for effective science education.
Evolution needs a better public relations representative. Scientists are routinely caught off guard by the well-honed PR campaigns of creationists, and, in the classroom, teachers are attempting to introduce concepts to creationist students that have done their homework and are ready to counter each scientific point with creationist misinformation.
Evolution also needs scientists and teachers of faith to speak about their acceptance of the evidence behind evolution. According to a poll reported in 1999 by Scientific American, about 40 percent of scientists believe in God. The scientific community and educators need to support these scientists in speaking out about their faith.
Students coming from an anti-evolution home are struggling with an emotionally charged conflict: do they choose the faith of their family or the science they’re being shown? Scientists need to acknowledge the emotional component of this struggle, and to pay attention to the power of language in this debate. For the past decade, two professors at the University of Tennessee have presented a survey the first day of their biology course designed to assess the comprehension of evolution by incoming students, and to compile data on the demographics of the persistence of anti-evolutionary ideas. The survey allows the professors to find out about their audience before proceeding, and to engage them in dialogue right away. They use carefully phrased questions to elicit discussion about the limitations of empirical science, to highlight differences between scientific uses of certain terminology, like the word “theory”, and the common usage. They get the students to ask them if they believe in evolution, to which they respond that they accept the evidence for evolution. Science does not address belief; it deals in evidence.
Another friend of the evolution unit is Inquiry Based Learning, an education tactic that introduces activities before concepts, and asks students to come up with the explanations themselves. Students participate in the scientific process as a means of learning about it. They come to understand that science is a way of knowing distinguished by evidence. By seeing the difference between natural and supernatural explanations they can start to reconcile what their parents are telling them and what they see for themselves.