evolution

Evolution to be taught in UK primary schools

Evolution is to be taught in UK primary schools

And we still can’t get it on the Junior Cert Biology syllabus at secondary level.
Now when I say ‘we can’t get it on the syllabus’ that may be a little misleading – it may well be that no biology teacher cares enough to do anything about it. That may be a little harsh, but I have yet to hear any teacher raise the issue, and that’s what hurts.

There may well have been lectures on the topic of evolution over Science Week (because that’s when we show students that Science is interesting) and it is certainly one of the more popular topics when it comes to science documentaries (anybody else watching the incredible BBC series Life with David Attenborough?).

So why can’t we join the dots and teach it in our schools?

So next time you read about those silly yanks who want creationism taught in their high schools spare a thought for us equally silly paddies.

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Scientific Certainty; What’s in a Theory?

Picking out the greatest disservice we do to out students as science-teachers is no easy task; there is quite an impressive list to pick from. Not reflecting or even being aware of this is in itself significant. I think C.S. Pierce put it best when he wrote “Find a scientific man who proposes to get along without any metaphysics [philosophy] . . . and you have found one whose doctrines are thoroughly vitiated by the crude and uncriticised metaphyiscs with which they are packed.”

This year marks the 200th birthday of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th birthday of the publication of his famous book On the Origin of Species, so it seems like a good opportunity to address at least one of these issues here, namely the concept of absolute certainty in Science.

Science does not offer absolute proof; it never has and it never will. Science (and scientists, and science teachers) are their own worst enemy here, because for hundreds of years we have been (tacitly or otherwise) giving the impression that Science does offer – and can find – certainty.

A second related contributory factor is the word ‘Theory’. It has two completely different meanings, depending on whether it is being used in a scientific context or in general parlance. So where, in a student’s school science education, do we as teachers address this?
There’s a nice example of this in Richard Dawkins The Root of all Evil; See this in action at 8 minutes 30 seconds into the clip below.

 

 

The key here is at the very end.
Interviewee: You say “this is truth, because it’s based on evidence. That’s such a fuddy answer.”
Dawkins: We don’t say that, we say “we’re struggling towards the truth, and as new evidence comes in we refine it”.
Can’t recall ever saying that in my lessons, or indeed ever having heard it from a science teacher either.
Maybe the problem lies with us.

How many of us for that matter would be able to distinguish between the following:
Law
Principle
Dogma
Theory
Axiom
Hypothesis
Equation
Doctrine
Effect
Conjecture
(and for two marks can you put a scientist’s name to each one?)

Was the human species pre-ordained?

inourtime_fossils

I think this is one of the most significant questions that mankind has ever addressed, and yet I very rarely come across any reference to it.
Stephen Jay Gould is probably the scientist best associated with this. His well known metaphor runs as follows:

If you re-ran the tape of evolutionary history, an entirely different set of creatures would emerge. Man would not exist because the multitude of random changes that resulted in us would never be repeated exactly the same way.

Gould is by a long way my favourite science-writer (or was, until Bill Bryson dipped his big toe in the genre), and therefore I was always likely to agree with this view. The concept also appeals to be in that it reinforces our insignificance in the grand scheme of things.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I came across a program dealing with exactly this topic while browsing through the archives of In Our Time; a wonderful series where Melvyn Bragg discusses the big questions of civilisation (subscribe to his newsletter – it’s wonderful reading).

Who were the original proponents of the idea of a grand design? Were they deliberately setting out to find a scientific theory that could sit alongside religious faith? On the other hand, can the concept of contingency – or the randomness of evolution – be compatible with a belief in God?

Visit In Our Time to listen to the program (all quotes and image taken from that page). The discussion takes twenty minutes to get around to this topic, and the jury seems to go against Gould, but it’s good stuff nonetheless.
Take a few minutes to browse through the other programs (it’s not just Science; there’s also History, Culture, Religion and Philosophy) then save this page to your favourites and listen to other programs as you browse next time.

Of course this is much too interesting a question to appear on any Science syllabus.

Play the survival game: a cool resource for teaching Evolution

darwin-game

The Science Channel have produced a wonderful learning resource on evolution here. I tried it with my Transition Year class and they found it addictive, as did my Leaving Cert Physics class when they walked in and saw it on the screen.  For what is arguably the greatest idea mankind has ever come up with, there appears to be remarkably few quality resources available online.

The Welcome Trust have produced some text-based resources here (top right of page), which isn’t quite the same thing.
Is it because we as teachers are not pushing to have it taught at all levels in schools that there are so few resources out there?
Or are there resources online that I just don’t know about?