Heard the one about evolution? It's no joke

26th September 2014 at 01:00
Be ready to counter creationists' `cheap one-liners', says scientist

It is not enough for science teachers to know their own subject. They must also know and understand the arguments used by creationists, according to a Pulitzer Prize-winning science author.

Jared Diamond , author of The Third Chimpanzee, which discusses evolution and human development, said people often assumed that advocates of creationism were ignorant. "One might be tempted to think that creationism is based on lack of exposure to science," he told TES, during an interview to mark a new edition of the book for school-age children.

"It's not that the creationists are ignorant of the arguments of evolution," he said. "They're aware of the evidence. They simply don't believe it."

For science teachers, therefore, it is not enough to counter the arguments of creationists - whether students or fellow teachers - with scientific fact. "Creationists have very slick one-liners, and you need to know the answers to these," Professor Diamond said. "You have to know not only the science, but also the errors and the cheap one-liners of creationists."

For example, he says, it is common knowledge that the earliest fossils are buried deepest in the Earth, with the most recent closest to the surface. The different fossil layers therefore show that trilobites preceded dinosaurs, which preceded mammals.

Creationists, however, point to a site in Texas, where the layer of dinosaur fossils is above the layer of mammalian fossils, as proof that dinosaurs and mammals coexisted.

"That sounds a convincing one-liner," Professor Diamond said, "[so] you have to know the answer: that sometimes the Earth's layers can become folded. You have to know the facts about that particular site."

Professor Diamond is a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of several popular-science books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel. He decided to put together the shortened edition of The Third Chimpanzee after hearing that many teachers were already referring to the longer version in the classroom.

"The adult edition had several chapters on sex," he said. "Five chapters on sex was considered excessive for this edition. The part about how to choose a partner for sex is still there, but the chapters about penis size, testes size and breast size were considered unsuitable."

Professor Diamond believes that books such as his are particularly important, as school lessons in evolution can be undermined by parallel lessons in creationism.

A study reported earlier this year in TES revealed that one in three pupils at non-faith schools believed the world had developed with at least some divine assistance. The researchers, from the University of York, also found that 10 per cent believed in creationism.

Schools that taught creationism as an alternative to evolution - as happens on both sides of the Atlantic - were "a real tragedy in the modern world", Professor Diamond said.

"You can't understand the human body without understanding about evolution. Schoolchildren who don't understand about biology are cutting themselves off from jobs. They're cutting themselves off from being able to make decisions about their own health. It's a tragedy."

But the York research also recommended that science teachers should be prepared to discuss creationism in order to avoid alienating students.

Professor Diamond agrees. He also believes that books such as his, which explain science in an accessible way, play a vital role in persuading school pupils to pursue careers in science.

"I wrote my PhD on the gall bladder," he said. "It's not something that you could say has widespread sex appeal, or even general appeal - unless you have gall stones, in which case it becomes the most important thing in the world. That is why it's important to write about science in terms that the general public can understand. A good chemistry teacher will stage explosions and bright lights, but also teach [students] the periodic table.

"Once you've got them interested in birds and dinosaurs and big ideas about evolution, they may start to get interested in photosynthesis, and then the structure of chlorophyll, and then increasingly technical stuff."

The Third Chimpanzee, For Young People is published by OneWorld

Scientific method

This Teachers TV video explores whether a rise in creationism is affecting lessons on evolution.

A guide from the Association for Science Education on tackling the difficult topic of evolution.

Give students the humanist perspective on creationism with this detailed worksheet.

Show how science and Islam are compatible with this colourful PowerPoint.


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