A NYTimes article of August 24, "A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash," purports to be one teacher's struggle to teach evolution to his mostly fundamentalist Christian students in his high school biology classroom in Orange Park, Florida. The teacher, David Campbell, is fully aware of what he is up against and employs every teaching stratagem he can muster to bring his resisting students around to some minimal understanding of Darwin's theory.
The reader admires the teacher's efforts but by the end of the article is not sure whether the students have even heard let alone understood what was being taught. All we can take away from the article is the knowledge of how this sensitive and intelligent biology teacher tried to teach the subject of evolution to his students. The article gives us no hint as to how successful he was.
We suspect he wasn't very successful. For we know from any number of surveys taken during the past 25 years that nearly half of American adults believe that God created all living things in their present form, sometime in the last 10,000 years. Given then the number of adults who believe this, and the number is probably much higher in Orange Park, Florida where Campbell teaches, is it any wonder that the children are not going to be greatly influenced even by one highly likable biology classroom teacher?
Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, some 20 years or more after he was probably clear in his own mind as to how new species were formed by descent with modification from old species over long periods of time, millions of years and more. While arousing resistance at first his theory was soon accepted by the scientific community as being no less true than the theory of gravitation or the earth's rotation on its own axis and around the sun.
In fact, a common reaction to Darwin's idea was, and still is, "what a simple idea, why didn't I think of that myself?" And in fact right from the beginning it seemed like such an excellent interpretation of the fossil evidence. This was an idea that for the first time would fully and satisfactorily tie together in a single theory the huge amount of fossil evidence of earlier life forms piled high in the rooms of the museums of the world.
Why is it now, some 170 years after Darwin's great discovery, that most Americans, probably most of the students in Campbell's high school biology classroom, still refuse to see man as one among hundreds of millions of evolving life forms on the earth? I take that back. One understands their refusal. But one doesn't understand their refusal to confront the evidence.
Perhaps we've made a big mistake. Perhaps in our classrooms we ought not to have begun with evolution, which for too many immediately implies descent from an ape. For very few probably want to think of themselves as descendants of an earlier ape like creature. Certainly not the children of fundamentalist Christians.
Perhaps instead we ought to have begun with teaching the history of the earth. For that in itself is perhaps less threatening to one's vision of man. Furthermore, that's how Darwin himself began his own studies. And without his own initial grasp of the great age of the earth by his study of geology, of rocks, he might never have written his Origin.
The science of the history of the earth teaches us, not the theory, but the fact of the great age of the earth, nearly 5 billion years. It also teaches us that the first single cell life forms date from 3 billion years ago, and that man's recent appearance and time on the earth is, of course, only a tiny fraction, one thirty thousandth, of that huge span of time. Perhaps as much as a few hundred thousand years, but probably much less than that, man's actual history representing only a few tens of thousands at the most.
Those who would have us teach creationism or intelligent design in our biology classrooms should be made to first of all confront the indisputable fact of the great age of the earth, the fact that for most of these hundreds of millions of years of earth history, not man, but other widely disparate forms of life, have been the sole inhabitants.
The more fundamental conflict is not between creationism and evolution, but between creationism and the history of the forms of life. For if in fact life began by a single act of God at a single point in time it would have to be that God's creation was a single celled creature, not man. For all other life forms are subsequent to the original microbe and are clearly related to one another by all sorts of anatomical, physiological, and microbiological evidence.
Again, perhaps if we were to concentrate on first teaching the history of life on earth, as well as the history of the earth itself, creationists and intelligent design proponents would not even attempt to introduce their own explanations into our public school classrooms. For their "theories" have little or nothing to say about the great age of earth nor about the huge numbers of earlier life forms as evidenced by the fossils.
The greatest argument for Darwinian evolution is that it fits with the history of the earth and the history of life on earth. In this respect creationism and intelligence design seem completely oblivious to the facts of this history. And haven't we made it even easier for the proponents of these "theories" by not highlighting, by not pinpointing the inadequacy of their explanations in this regard?
Take the land masses themselves. We know that some 300 million years ago today's continents were just one land mass, Pangaea, over which the dinosaurs freely roamed, and that hundreds of millions of years earlier there was Gondwana and before that Rodinia. And going back a billion years or more there were probably only chains of volcanic islands on which microbes roamed, or rather remained fixed in place.
Darwin's theory fits nicely into this history of the earth's crust. Intelligent design doesn't. What if those kids in David Campbell's class were given a course in the history of the earth, for which there is plenty of evidence? Then they could be asked which explanation, Darwin's or the creationist's, fit this history best. Wouldn't they then have to adopt that of Darwin? Again, isn't that how Darwin himself reached his conclusions, by beginning not with the descent of man but with the geological history of the earth?