God and Evolution

Many years ago I had a hard-working student who started by loving the introductory biology course I was teaching. We had started off with the section on unity, which emphasized the similarities in life forms from the point of view of cell structures and basic biochemistry. He had no issues with that. The next part of the course emphasized diversity. It was an introduction to classification and went on to elucidate different respiratory and digestive systems from the Haldane point of view that as things grow bigger, physical laws and surface-to-volume ratios force them to get more complicated. He still loved the course and continued to do well. The third theme was continuity. The intro to genetics was no stumbling block. But as soon as we looked at all the fossil and biochemical evidence of evolution, he looked depressed and withdrawn every second of every class. He later bombed his test on the topic. It wasn’t a case of correlation without cause. His parents were evangelicals, and they had taught him that evolution was the idea of the devil.

I tried explaining to him that many people of faith accept the evidence of evolution and continue to believe in God. But it was to no avail. Of course, since fundamentalists are not impressed with Catholicism,  it does no good to point out that in the 1950s in the encyclical “Human Generis ,” Pope Pius XII said that Catholic teachings on creation could coexist with evolutionary theory. Or that in 1996 Pope John Paul II admitted that evolution was “more than a hypothesis.” And since Darwin and Wallace started it all by proposing a mechanism, it doesn’t appease antievolutionists to point out that the two naturalists remained religious.

This memory resurfaced because I heard a former colleague say that she refuses to believe that we are intelligent monkeys. Technically she is right. We are not monkeys; we are more closely related to apes and you have to go further back in time to find a common ancestor between humans and monkeys than between humans and apes. But she just meant that she believed humans have always been the way they are now, ever since their “creation”. Somehow, she has been convinced that evolutionary theory is a form of political correctness. In her mind refusing evolution is somehow a sign of courage and ability to think freely.

I had previously pointed out that last century’s perverse idea of social Darwinism in no way discredited the idea that natural selection plays a role in evolution. But it did nothing to appease her irrationalism. I ultimately lost my patience arguing with her. Life is too short. That doesn’t help matters and neither do the arguments of atheists.

Let me explain why. Different world religions have different cosmology stories. The fact that they all contradict one another leaves one with at least a pair of possibilities. (1) They are all wrong and made up. (2) Only the one you grew up with is true. The second possibility is unlikely. Then there’s solid evidence from radioactive isotopes and half-lives about the age of the earth which reveal that the creation-numbers in the Bible are indeed fiction. Leaders of organized religion say that it’s the symbolism that’s important. What matters, they argue, is that God did create the universe. But the nature of God itself varies greatly from one religion to the next. In fact, the transition from polytheism to monotheism in many cultures was not based on new evidence. It’s not clear as to why it happened. From all this, atheists conclude that all religions are nonsense, and that there is no God.

Religious people find such a conclusion reprehensible. Given that most atheists accept the evidence from the theory of evolution, it’s inevitable that at least a minority of religious people will be even more compelled to throw evolutionary theory under the bus. ( 1/3 of all people in the United States reject evolution. )

One can construct a model of an evolutionary bush of life from cytochrome c, an almost universal electron exchanger in cellular respiration. Better ones have been constructed more recently based on 15 different ribosomal proteins common to all organisms. It suggests that bacteria is much more important and more evolutionary diverse than we imagined. The fact that a different model arises reminds us that we would have a better idea of life’s origins if we found more direct evidence from another planet—one where life just started. Antievolutionists exploit those uncertainties to jump to the dubious conclusion that it’s all wrong. But are atheists doing the same thing?

I do feel that it’s pretentious to anthropomorphize God or to try to package all our spiritual feelings and capacity for empathy and ethics into a single concept. But it might be equally pretentious to wish God and all religions away and to be convinced that we would be better off without these notions and customs. Taleb and others have pointed out that without religion, too many people find worse substitutes. Maybe it’s led to more worship of technology, more social fragmentation and more obsession with divisive politics.

“The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.”—Neils Bohr, 1927


Sex Ed and Physics

EmbraceFor at least one year, our school did not offer a separate course-section in human sexuality for adolescents. We were told to integrate it into whatever we were teaching. Not surprisingly, this got people’s backs up. Some courses and sex ed simply do not mix, it seemed. How, for example, can you integrate sexuality and basic physics?



From Wikipedia

Maybe there is a way.

Maybe, by using the terminology and concepts of physics there is a way you can shed light on human sexuality by pointing out what it is not.

Sexual attraction is not Coulombic. It is not necessarily between opposites; it is not always proportional to the amount of charge; it does not have to vary inversely with the square of separation-distance between charges.

The Craft of Teaching

teachingmeme1This meme appeared on a teachers’ Facebook group called TeacherGoals. Predictably, within 11 hours, it gained 900 likes among its 159 000 followers .

The saying is something I’ve heard often throughout my teaching career. Variation of approaches is at the disposal of every experienced teacher, who will use them successfully.  But as is the case with political views, it’s best not to feel smug or, worse, superior to someone else merely for adhering to a particular idea.

For instance, contrary to what is being promoted in this case, the same delivery could work the second time around if

(1) the lesson is delivered more slowly

(2) the teacher or student is not as tired

(3) if there are less distractions

(4) if the concept needs a period of incubation, which is often the case, and so on.

As usual memes oversimplify everything. They’re better at boosting Facebook’s revenues than at advancing pedagogy.

Here are a few guidelines and strategies that teaching colleges, certification boards and professional associations might find useful to better train science teachers. Some may seem obvious to the outsider, but you’d be surprised how seldom they are implemented. And, of course, our students get shortchanged.

(1) For high school math and science, a teacher should have at least a bachelor’s degree with a major in the main subject they teach.( My apologies to the minority who do a great job without one) This not only increases the likelihood that the potential teacher’s basics have been reinforced, but it gives him an inkling of where a particular concept or skill can lead. Equally important, knowing that he is only scratching the surface of his subject, the teacher with a better background can be more convincing that the very basics are within anybody’s reach—as long as there’s a bit of an effort on the part of both the student and the teacher.

(2) Work experience related to the subject is more of an asset that some people realize. Working in three different analytical labs gave me a lot of practical skills that came in handy in managing labs and keeping better standards for my students. Ideally, occasional work terms should replace so-called “professional development”, which often amounts to little more than exposing teachers to sales pitches from educational industry representatives or to people promoting the latest flavour of the year in pedagogy.

(3) Student teachers do not have to be sent into the field for the very long periods that have unfortunately become customary. Given that most student teachers are not as effective as most experienced teachers, a large chunk of the high school student’s course is compromised. As an alternative, student teachers can prepare several lessons and lab activities for other student teachers while being filmed. Peers along with the supervisor and student teacher can then view the films and give constructive criticism.

(4) The most common role model for human beings is the electron because most people choose the path of least resistance. If, by setting an example, a teacher can prevent at least some of his students from imitating the negatively charged constituent of matter, he will have taught them one of life’s most valuable lessons.