Friday, August 29, 2008

Understanding vs. Believing

A long time ago, my democratic/Yankee/agnostic/liberal good friend David Jackson talked about how he wanted fundamentalist kids to understand evolution but not believe it. I'm wondering if that should be my message to teachers, and I would appreciate feedback on the idea.

I've been searching for a central message. People ask me about my book, and after a couple of minutes of me talking, their eyes usually glaze over. I know that this is a tough topic, and I know it's threatening to a lot of people. That's one reason why I'm looking for a nice, terse message. I like elevator statements, and I've been trying different ones out when people ask about how the book is going. None of my messages have worked well thus far. Maybe this one will.

I've always admired David for how his goal of understanding, but not believing, didn't require religious students to change their core beliefs. He has always been very strong about how belief change is the wrong thing for a science teacher to target. Coming from someone who trained under Stephen J. Gould, his sensitivity on this point is something I really appreciate, and it's something that surprises people when I tell them about David's worldview. Until now, though, I've wanted more for religious students. I know that a disbelief in evolution will hamper future biologists and geologists; they have to be able to work within those fields where evolution is treated as fact. Although I still see that believing may be important for future scientists, I'm now realizing David's wisdom when we're talking about teaching all the students in a classroom.

I think this message could bring a lot of clarity to science teachers and to students studying evolution. What's the goal? Students need to see the evidence for evolution and understand where it came from and why it's reliable. Students need to understand how scientists explain the evidence using the theory of evolution as a natural explanation of how life on Earth came to be. If all students in a biology class understood those two things, the evidence for and the scientific explanation of evolution, I would think their teacher had worked a miracle!

They wouldn't have to believe that life evolved on Earth without supernatural intervention. They wouldn't have to believe in macroevolution. They wouldn't have to even believe all of the evidence they had seen in the unit. If they stayed engaged in learning, realized that evidence for evolution exists, and that scientists explain the evidence without using religious arguments, that would be very successful teaching of evolution in classes with religious kids. 

So, I'm really liking this message. "What's your book about, Lee?" Well, it's about teaching evolution so that religious kids understand it, but don't have to believe it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

HIV macroevolution?

I'm still thinking about the objection I wrote about in my recent T-Rex to Tweety post. It's the concern that many people, religious or not, raise along the lines of, "I don't buy evolution because I don't see it happening around me." As I was doing research for chapter 5 of the book, I began seeing the emergence of HIV as an example of macroevolution at work. I'm wondering, though, if I'm off base on this, and I would appreciate any input you can give.

From the research I've done, I've learned that HIV developed from SIV, a non-fatal disease affecting mainly chimps in Africa. In that part of Africa, humans eat chimps; so, that's the probable pathway of the virus into humans. But, the virus had to mutate so that it could infect humans, and in doing so, it also became lethal. Several descriptions of this process can be found on-line, but one I've been using recently is "The origin of AIDS and HIV and the first cases of AIDS". (It's posted by an advocacy organization, but I think they got the basic facts correct.) The thing I like about the page is how it is referenced with scientific articles; so, they're tying down their explanation with actual science.

But, is this a good example of macroscopic evolution? Am I ok in saying that this is evolution from one kind to another? As I look at it, it's an example right in front of our eyes of a virus becoming significantly different, but would people say that it's actually microevolution because it's still a virus, similar to Darwin's finches still being finches after thousands of years of evolution?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

South Sound Laser Teachers--Look here!

Click the title of this post to get to the article giving the background of the Spain Park Model, or copy and paste the URL below into your browser: