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Culture underpins our lives and helps create the lens through which we view the world. In many ways, it is a positive to us: it is our grounding, a portion of our identity. Yet it can be a source of contention as well as comfort.
In what I do, researching evolution teaching and learning, I see both sides. On one side, evolution is highly regarded among scientists and is seen almost unanimously as the unifying theory of the life sciences. On the other, evolution carries strong implications for identity and faith when examined by those who accept a literal account of creation from Christians.
Evolutionary theory is a flashpoint of cultural controversy. According to the longest running public opinion poll on evolution and creationism, less than half of the population of the United States accepts human evolution.
As a result, it is open season on teaching and learning of evolution, with scientists fighting for science education on one side and conservative believers taking up the mantel of anti-science on the other.
In the course of my research I have spoken to science teachers who are scared to teach evolution because of the negative reaction they know would come from parents. Other science teachers shy away from the subject because it conflicts with their own religious beliefs.
Given the legal situation this should be totally unacceptable. The US Supreme Court has supported the teaching of evolution while denying the teaching of alternative theories such as creationism and intelligent design in the classroom under separation of church and state.
But in response multiple states have launched legislative campaigns to try and sneak in non-scientific alternatives as a matter of academic freedom (The National Center for Science Education has done a great job of collecting these year by year) or taking hidden actions to voice dissent such as placing disclaimers in textbooks to discredit evolution as just a theory (as in this example from my home state of Alabama).
For the last seven years, I have been exploring the controversy that surrounds the teaching and learning of evolution, not only collecting formal data but gathering the stories that surround the nature of evolution as a cultural taboo.
I do this in the Southeastern United States, a region that provides unique insight into the controversy .
From the Scopes “monkey” Trial in Tennessee in 1925 to the recent opening of the “Creation Museum” in Kentucky—which houses dinosaurs and man living together as well as a true to scale version of Noah’s ark—the South is at the forefront of the anti-evolution movement.
It is a very public battle here, mainly because the Southeastern United States is a place where evangelical protestant beliefs are the underpinning cultural current of the region.
Understanding the depth of this is imperative for improving teaching and learning of evolution—and science in general—because we have to realize that the barriers to understanding and scientific literacy are much more than just an absence of information, they are in direct conflict with long-established cultural traditions that define the region.
A large part of that tradition, in the South, is the idea that people are responsible not only for their own souls through good works, but for the souls of everyone whom they contact. Sharing your “testimony”, becoming “saved”, and living a life connected to the church are the norm.
When students refuse to talk about evolution or when teachers refuse to teach it, it is not that they don’t know about evolution, because many do. Rather, it is that they know enough about it to fear the implications that it has for their beliefs and fear that even discussing it will cost them their place in the kingdom of heaven.
This is what we are up against in the battle for science literacy.
Religion is outside of what we consider to be rational, but the historical context and cultural foundations make it a part of who many of the school population are and to them it is taken quite seriously.
Where we have gone wrong in our approach to teaching science is that we tend to look at everything as black and white—you either know or you don’t know; you are either right or wrong.
When it comes to evolution, we will never get past the cultural barrier if we can’t bring people to the table. This means being willing to listen as much as you are willing to talk; taking the time to learn the stories, culture, and history of those who are most resistant to the scientific arguments; and creating settings and environments where discussion, questioning, and exploration can take place.
This is why I do what I do. I talk about my own personal journey from Southern Baptist literal creationist to evolutionary biologist/science educator. Before we can move the masses, we have to first get through the door. If everyone is going to be scientifically literate, we have to open the pathways for discussion on the hardest of topics for people to navigate.
If we can do that, the other things will come more easily. We can’t afford to have a society that is unable and unwilling to even talk about these things. Even today, as leaders from religious groups world-wide gather to discuss the broader social impacts of science and religion and how the two can coexist, there is no representation from the denominations that hold fast to literal traditions.
Some issues may have a one-size-fits-all approach, but this is one that requires a personal touch, a deeper understanding, and a willingness to get involved and stay involved. I’m in it for the long run, redefining the front line and doing all I can to fight for science literacy, one conversation at a time.
Dr Amanda Glaze is assistant professor of middle grades and secondary science education at Georgia Southern University