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The Unnatural Habitat of Science Writer John Rennie

Putting the "CT" back in "Creationist"

John Rennie

Smack your heads in shame, my fellow intellectual snobs of the Northeastern elite. We're used to sneering at the creationist follies playing out in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Texas and elsewhere—benighted hellholes where they wouldn't know a decent bagel, a proper chowder or the correct pronunciation of "Worcester" if it were served up alongside their customary daily ration of cheese grits. But now the same buffoonery is occurring in (bless my nutmeg!) Connecticut. In short, the administration of the Weston Intermediate School has twice rejected a proposal for students in the third, fourth and fifth grade Talented and Gifted program to study the work of Charles Darwin. Such a plan seems to be completely in keeping with Connecticut's standards for science education. Mark Ribbens, the principal who first denied the plan, apparently left the school earlier this year, but a subsequent resubmission for the curriculum fared no better.

Brandon Keim at Wired Science has more details, but I'm struck by the proposition (which may not originate with Brandon) that this antievolution development in Weston is somehow different in kind from what we've seen before:

Evolution education is under attack in Weston, Connecticut, but not from the usual direction.

Nobody is promoting intelligent design in the curriculum, or asking schools to teach evolution’s “strengths and weaknesses.” There’s just an administration afraid that teaching third graders too much about Charles Darwin will cause trouble.

How does this genuinely differ in essence from the reasons usually given by evolution's opponents in education? No matter whether they attack evolution's merits directly or insist that intelligent design should be taught as a valid alternative, the antievolutionists nearly always say that "forcing" evolution on students would intrude on parents' rights to raise their children as they see fit. In other words, they are saying not to create controversy and upset the parents. And just as seems to be the case here in Connecticut, the antievolutionists often make these arguments preemptively, long before any actual outrage from parents appears.

Moreover, look at the reasons that Ribbens gave for his decision (emphasis added):

“While evolution is a robust scientific theory, it is a philosophically unsatisfactory explanation for the diversity of life. I could anticipate that a number of our parents might object to this topic,” wrote Ribbens. “It is not appropriate to have [Darwin's] work or the theory part of the TAG program since the topic is not age appropriate.”

Ribbens explained further, “Evolution touches on a core belief — Do we share common ancestry with other living organisms? What does it mean to be a human being? I don’t believe that this core belief is one in which you want to debate with children or their parents, and I know personally that I would be challenged in leading a 10-year-old through this sort of discussion while maintaining the appropriate sensitivity to a family’s religious beliefs or traditions.”

A "philosophically unsatisfactory explanation for the diversity of life"? What exactly does that mean? If the idea is scientifically robust, how does that leave it philosophically wanting? And what other ideas are more satisfying as explanations for the diversity of life? Ribbens' words sound like the rhetorical tap dancing that creationists use to say, "yes, evolution is good science, but...."

As for the argument that evolution might intrude on some families' core beliefs: either you teach evolution or you don't. Common ancestry and kinship with other organisms are central to the theory. Lots of ideas in higher education step on various core beliefs; that confrontation is part of what real education involves. Would Ribbens have quailed at teaching about the big bang and the eons-old earth because those, too, touched on core beliefs? Or on racial and religious equality? With all due respect for the staggeringly tough demands of teaching, when you aren't willing to have those fights, it's time to get out of the profession.

Moreover, is a "debate" really necessary? If any children or parents question how to reconcile evolution with their beliefs, tell them that they will need to work that out for themselves; that your job as a teacher is simply to make sure students know what the scientific answers are.

Ribbens, of course, is now gone, and I don't know whether whoever is responsible for rejecting the Darwin proposal the second time would cling to the same excuses. But if so, it's deplorable because the argument that we shouldn't do what's right because other people would think it's wrong is cowardly, dishonest or both. Maybe it sounds more familiar when phrased this way:

"Personally, I think it would be great to have a black family in the neighborhood, but a lot of people around here are still pretty racist, so maybe you should sell the house to somebody else."


"Not that I have anything against gays, but many of the parents would be very uncomfortable with having one teaching the kids, so...."


"She's perfectly qualified, but I really don't think the other men in the company would give her enough respect for her to handle the job."

Own your arguments. If you aren't for teaching the most powerful idea in science, then you're against it.