Evolution in School: A personal view.

16 June, 2008

I have been spending a fair amount of time over at Thoughts From Kansas, Pharyngula and other paleaontology, biology and evolution blogs.  I have been struck by the frequency of posts either lamenting the shitty job we are doing teaching evolution, or highlighting attempts by Christians to force creationism into the schools (the current crop are ‘freedom of education’ bills (and include Florida, Louisiana and others)).  This has gotten me thinking (dangerous, I know — I should just receive the wisdom of the ages, not think for myself) about my exposure, in the classroom, to evolution.

I grew up in a scientifically literate family.  My father studied geology at Tufts, and every family trip became a geology lesson.  The mudstones of northeastern Arizona came alive as the Triassic swamps and riparian habitats inhabited by early crocodylians and dinosaurs.  The Coconino Sandstone came alive with small Triassic reptiles scampering over sand dunes and, in the right circumstances, left footprints still visible today.  The fossils of the Kaibab Limestone, recognizable to a young child as sea shells, showed visible differences when compared to modern shells.  I was, from a young age, immersed the geologic and evolutionary history of the Southwest.

When we moved to Maryland (I was 12), we dropped into the Cumberland Valley.  This piece of western Maryland is a northern extension of the Bible belt.  I had experienced conservative and/or literalist Christianity while living in Arizona, but it was a small part of the community.  In Washington County, it WAS the community. It was a surprise to me, to say the least.

In seventh grade, one semester of science was devoted to biology (each quarter, for three years, focused on a different discipline in order to expose us to as much as possible).  One of the experiments was (or, more accurately, could have been) a very effective lesson in adaptive evolution.

We divided into groups of four.  Each group got 40 toothpicks — 10 red, 10 yellow, 10 blue and 10 green.  We predicted which colour would be more visible in the grass outside the classroom, and which colours would be hidden (we each made our own prediction:  I predicted that yellow (soil was tan) and green (grass) would be the most likely to survive).  We marked off a one-square-yard area and were told to sprinkle the toothpicks over the whole area.  The girl who placed the toothpicks said, “God will see them all,” and placed them in one pile in the middle.

I tried to explain that that was not the point of the experiment, that we were trying to find out whether an animals colour could help it survive.  I got shouted down.  We got an ‘A’ on the experiment because, as the teacher wrote on our group’s report, we ‘showed that so-called adaptive camouflage was a myth.’  I was stunned.  How could these people not see that a bright white animal in a dark area was more likely to be eaten?  That a safety-orange ground hog would be walking hawk-bait?  I kept my mouth shut and accepted the ‘A.’  Hell, I was 13, wasn’t related to anyone in the valley, wasn’t going to an acceptable church, and was not born local enough.  I, during that time, just tried to keep my head down.

In high school, we took biology our freshman year.  Our teacher was an older gentleman who would retire after the school year.  He was locally bred, locally edumacated, and locally brainwashed.

The first chapter in our biology textbook was a very coherent and well done discussion of evolution.  The examples used (British moths, ceratopsians, and African cichlids) were informative and illustrative.  On the first (or maybe the second) day of class, he held up the book and said (this is from memory, so I can’t be sure it is exactly what he said (nor can I be sure it agrees word-for-word with what I have written in comments on other sites)), “The state says that I have to teach evolution.  It is in the textbook.  I strongly recommend that you not read it.  It will put your soul in danger.  I am a biologist.  I have a masters in education.  I know what I am talking about when I say that evolution is an impossible lie.  You can read the chapter if you want, but it won’t be on a test.  The state is now happy, I’ve taught evolution.  The word will not be mentioned in class again.”  I (and a couple others) immediately read the chapter.

In advanced biology, we studied the different organs and organelles of the cells as they developed, but never mentioned the ‘e’ word.  We dissected pigs, ground hogs, a hawk (our teacher liked using road-kills for dissection), trout, bass, and even a couple of lizards and a snake.  The teacher pointed out the similarities and differences, the adaptations for a specific way of life, but refused to be drawn into any conversation that smacked even tangentially of evolution. 

Thus ended my public school experience with the teaching of evolution.  One well-designed experiment botched by the students and graded by a creationist.  One biology teacher who argued from authority that evolution was a lie.  That’s it.  Fourteen years of public school paid for by the taxes all Americans pay (yes, fourteen years, I liked my sophomore year of high school so much, I did it twice) and evolution gets botched twice.

No wonder the Intelligent Design IDiots are able to sell their shit to local school boards.  No wonder a majority of Americans do not understand evolution, or see it as the best explanation available for the modern and prehistoric diversity of life.  No wonder we, as Americans, are falling behind virtually every developed nation on earth in science.  If (and I suspect it is) my educational experience was average, we have a long way to go.



  1. Wow. That was a real eye-opener of a post, and no mistake.

    As a kid, my (Baptist but also evolutionary biologist) father had us round the Natural History Museum in London every chance we got. My biology teachers in school taught evolution as though it were the most natural thing in the world – which of course, it is. I grew up in a culture that knew the theory of evolution best explained the phenomena we saw around us, so it comes as a shock to discover just how badly it’s been abused over there.

  2. I recently had a conversation (along the lines of your post) with a friend of mine concerning the curriculum and teaching of evolution at our High School 20 years ago in the Chicago-land area. Neither of us could recall more than a brief mention of Mendel’s laws of inheritance and Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. My school self-censored (or neutered) themselves to stave off ‘controversy’.

    It wasn’t until I read Berra’s Evolution and the Myth of Creationism in the early 90’s I realized the concerted effort to stultify the teaching of evolution.

  3. Yikes. My best memory is freshmen biology, my bio teacher wanted to teach the “controversy” (I live in Va. Beach, the home of Pat Robertson) but wanted us kids to debate it. He asked if anyone believed in creationism and just about everyone raised their hand, I was the only one who raised my hand that I believed (is it still a belief if its true?) in evolution. So, I had to debate this one girl who was a “true believer”, and I stumped her with dinosaurs. She said that Satan tried to trick man but God gave us the answer in the bible. I stopped the debate and told the teacher I can’t argue with the insane. Then she asked if I believed in the bible, and I said no, its made up. The teacher ended the debate at that point. The girl never spoke to me again 🙂

  4. It sounds like I had it pretty easy, in spite of growing up in the South. Although I had the occasional teacher who questioned evolution, there was never any attempt to cram the so-called controversy down my throat.
    What worries me is that I have a friend who has discarded his intelligent beliefs and become, for lack of a better term, a wacko fundamentalist who believes the Bible (or at least the Book of Genesis) should be taken literally. Sadly I don’t know how to respond to this shift, aside from cutting off contact.

  5. Yunshui: The first museum memory I have is from the age of around three: the T-Rex skull at the Smithsonian.

    Grung_e_gene: Welcome to my site. Oddly, both bio teachers spent a great deal of time covering Mendellian genetics — they just carefully avoided any mention as to why there might be different flower colours or other traits. It’s only been in the past few years that I have discovered, as you put it, ‘the concerted effort to stultify the teaching of evolution.’

    Sabrina: I’ll bet the teacher deeply regretted pitting reason against myth.

    Chris: Considering the incredible number of contradictions in the various versions of the Bible, maybe we rationalists should insist that churches and parochial schools ‘teach the controversy.’

  6. It seems to me that, in the mid-1970s, I got through high school biology in a Pennsylvania school without the word evolution ever being spoken. I honestly don’t remember any discussion, debate, or anything about it. I remember doing genetic tables, so I know we discussed inherited traits. I also got through four years at a Christian college without discussing evolution very much. To be fair to the college, I took a basic physical science course to fulfill my science requirement. I would have preferred biology, but didn’t have time for the more demanding labs, etc., so I took the least demanding science course I could fit into my schedule.

  7. I’m sorry to hear about these experiences you guys have had. I once had a Zoology/Botany Teacher who never mentioned evolution, except to say that we had better be careful not to let our college professors persuade us against god!! It’s insane! I’m trying to promote sanity however, via my blog “Answers in Genesis Busted”:


    It’s not much, but I think promoting reason is good whether 10 people read it or 10,000 people read it.
    Peace Out,

  8. […] You may also find enjoy reading this background on evolution (with video), how Christianity believes it’s right and all other religions are wrong, and this sad account of one person’s childhood experience with creation and ID education. […]

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