I’m sure there must be various ways to introduce the elements of science in schools, some good and some bad. Let the reader judge.
Aged 9, I was excited by the prospect of Science lessons. We started by proving the existence of air, a project which seemed disappointingly trivial and uninteresting. We thought we knew about air. But we discovered through experiment that it weighs something, exerts pressure, gets partially used up by a candle flame, and so on. We saw these things for ourselves. We became scientists. It was a beginning, a process of discovery where everything was interesting. Experiment could reveal more than meets the casual eye. At some point later we had a brief foray into Biology, learning about the Amoeba, its shapelessness—easy to draw!—its boring method of asexual reproduction, just splitting itself in two. I can’t remember anything more. I think the lessons stopped soon after. Improvising where memory fails, I guess that respect for living creatures held everyone back from dissecting worms or frogs, or whatever children do in biology. So we did no more on that subject, till one day in the Grammar School, which I attended from the age of 12, a visiting lecturer talked to the full assembly of boys about Sex. How it was done was not explained: it was supposed that we knew already. The talk was to warn us of the dangers of disease and casual intercourse resulting in pregnancy. And when in 1966 I formed the romantic idea of studying medicine at Edinburgh (like Conan Doyle & Robert Louis Stevenson) I discovered you needed no prior qualification in biology, so it didn’t appear to be an important subject for schoolchildren.
Science, therefore, when I resumed it at the Grammar school in preparation for GCE (General Certificate of Education), consisted of Physics and Chemistry. Much but not all of chemistry took place in the lab, with bunsen burners, test-tubes, pipettes and other items of equipment, along with various jars of chemicals. It consisted of experiments, observations and inferences, all of which we had to write down coherently. In classroom sessions we were taught some theory, with reference to historical discoveries, some of which refuted long-held prior assumptions. Physics took place more in in the classroom than the lab. We learned about heat (conduction, convection); light (reflection, refraction); electricity (volts, amperes, watts and ohms); gravity, mass, weight, inertia, Newton’s Laws of Motion.
So that was science. As these were an English private schools and not American publicly-funded ones, we were taught Scripture in the prep school and Religious Education at the Grammar school. Same subject, different name. The method was straightforward: to study prescribed parts of the Bible, not to make us into Christians, but to ensure we received a Christian education. It was never indoctrination and indeed we were often told about scholarly research which questioned the literal truth of the text. For example various miracles presented as divine were shown to have been possibly natural occurrences (manna, the plagues in Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the Gadarene swine, and many more). We also learned that the Gospels were compilations of anecdotes edited many years later by authors not alive at the time, then further edited for doctrinal reasons. And when we were (occasionally) told things like this, it was never to undermine the religion, or any sect thereof, but to let us know different angles. Outside lessons, we were expected to participate in Christian worship, because this was the Forties and Fifties and these were private schools where a Christian education was expected and delivered.
We all knew about Evolution, it was a fun idea, but it wasn’t taught, merely discussed informally. Everyone knew it was a controversial theory. I’m not sure how it could have been taught, except as history. Darwin went round the world on the Beagle, wrote up his notes, added further weight to an argument already prevalent in certain quarters. The theory was hotly debated in the later part of the nineteenth century, it was a theory like Freud’s: provocative, obviously challenging to religion, but unproven. We could hardly do experiments on Evolution, as we could with physics and chemistry in the lab. It was a theory, like Einstein’s. Darwin’s theory was an historical event, like Harvey’s discovery that the heart pumps blood around the body. From the popular newspapers we learned that scientists were looking for a Missing Link, which would demonstrate a clear connection through the fossil record between homo sapiens and the primate apes. A colleague in the Sixth Form used to draw cartoons of me resembling a Neanderthal or gorilla, with the caption “Darwin was right!”
So when I heard (recently) about a theory called Intelligent Design, which questions the purely mechanical notions of evolution based on random mutation and natural selection, it struck me as intuitively plausible, and in no sense deserving of derision or contempt. Try entering “intelligent design” into Google Images. You’ll get hundreds of unfunny cartoons mostly against, a few in favour. Few if any reach the level of satire. They are too far off the mark, mere mud-slinging.
I somehow think the American Constitution is implicated here, in its First Amendment. In the UK, religious education is compulsory in publicly-funded schools. In the US, it is forbidden, despite the US being far more religious in terms of church attendance. Intelligent Design is a convenient football kicked around in the endless match between aggressive Christians and aggressive atheists.
Americans, I note, love this kind of fight: National Rifle Association vs. gun control; pro-life vs. pro-choice. . . . The British instinct is to minimize confrontation, reach a quiet compromise; unless we are talking real politics, i.e. votes and seats in Parliament, where no punch is too low or too vicious.
In one sense I don’t feel it’s for me to interfere in someone else’s brawl, and I nearly let pass a remark by Arash (who lives in Canada) in his recent review of a book called Galileo’s Dialogue :
“It may come as a surprise that certain people would insist [that the earth is flat] despite evidence to the contrary, but we do not need to look too far today, i.e. intelligent design to find similar strains of foolishness floating around.”
It was that word “foolishness” that got to me. Whatever Intelligent Design represents in someone else’s football match, it sounds very like a speculative idea of my own, that everything is alive, everything has intelligence, everything desires. I have respect for Arash and most of the views he expresses in his blog. His throwaway remark about Intelligent Design shocked me, as a gratuitous slur on a viewpoint or speculative theory worthy to be expressed and investigated. He said I had missed the point, his post wasn’t really about that, but repeated his view with the same vehemence:
“To return to our starting point, intelligent design or creationism is claiming that their ideas are rooted in facts and are scientific in nature. They are as scientific as phrenology.”
I have just started reading this book.
See this previous post on a Nagel book.
Again, I don’t blame Arash. He is merely repeating the fashionable view, that Intelligent Design is pseudo-science, not rooted in facts, and a form of creationism in disguise. I can’t refute that fashionable view for I haven’t studied enough science to weigh up the evidence. But my understanding is that Evolution (by random mutation & natural selection alone) is another theory which lacks enough facts to clinch the deal. There are still missing links, unexplained phenomena. The existence of those gaps is a fact. So when the evolutionist says, “Trust me, we are right, you’ll see, we are working on it,” he is asking us to have faith, just like the priest, whose role he has usurped.
And what we have is a war of insults between those who want to make religion extinct—partly because it is such a damned nuisance to the new would-be orthodoxy; versus certain Christians who are pretty mad that religion can’t be taught in schools (because of the First Amendment), while Evolution, a Trojan horse concealing an anti-religious agenda, is compulsory. A simple answer would be, don’t teach evolution in schools at all. It is merely hubris, merely triumphalism of the usurpers, with low (arguably negative) educational value.
Sadly, Britain has followed in America’s footsteps, at least in part:
In each of the countries of the United Kingdom, there is an agreed syllabus for religious education with the right of parents to withdraw their children from these lessons. The religious education syllabus does not involve teaching creationism, but rather teaching the central tenets of major world faiths. At the same time, the teaching of evolution is compulsory in publicly funded schools. For instance, the National Curriculum for England requires that students at Key Stage 4 (14–16) be taught:
—that the fossil record is evidence for evolution
—how variation and selection may lead to evolution or extinction
Similar requirements exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. [
If there is foolishness, it is not in Intelligent Design, whose only fault is to offend against a dominant ideology, to the point of arousing irrational outrage. I think the foolishness is to teach evolution in schools, at the expense of physics and chemistry, which more humbly offer the student a chance to be a scientist, and make one’s own discoveries in the laboratory. And if, because of the First Amendment, religion cannot be taught, then the new orthodoxy, the rival creation-science should also not be taught. This scenario would not be passed off in classrooms as the truth:
First there was nothing. This gave rise to the Big Bang, which gave rise to time and space, which gave rise to matter, as in Chemistry, and a set of physical laws, as in Physics, and then together they gave rise to the stuff of Biology, which gave rise to the flora and fauna and all the creeping things upon the earth, which finally gave rise to Mankind, which gave rise to mind, which gave rise to consciousness, which gave rise to science. And if this all sounds most unlikely, remember it took billions of years of randomness. In that time, literally anything could happen. Furthermore there may be billions of alternative universes. All the missing links will be revealed to you by scientists in due course. Amen.
I hope in a forthcoming post to offer some more personal musings on the topic, as they continue to evolve; and a review of Thomas Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos, as illustrated above. See also a previous post, “Creation Myth”.