Finding Empathy in the Evolution Debate

This past December resolutions were introduced in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives to designate February 12 Darwin Day, in recognition of the impact Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has had on humanity in explaining the diversity of life on Earth. Even so, the theory of evolution continues to polarize those who accept it as factual and those who don’t. Evolution has perceived consequences for society, from how we address social issues to the way students are educated, and despite being an integral part of the life sciences, it remains controversial among adults and students in the United States.

Because science and religion both make claims about the natural world, when these claims conflict it can cause anxiety. College students have reported concerns over racism, selfishness, decreased spirituality, and decreased sense of purpose in light of evolution.

Others reject evolution because they believe it has the potential to lead down the path of godlessness, denial of the human soul, and biblical rejection. This competition between morality, theology, and science can lead to automatic opposition of scientific explanations for life.

Clearly, an individual’s position on evolution is heavily influenced by their religious affiliation or worldview. For some, the desire to create meaningful lives and to remove the negative feelings about death make evolution more difficult to accept. Evolution brings with it reminders that humans are relatives of other animals that die, and therefore humans too will someday die. Special creation, on the other hand, separates humans from other animals and elevates our lives, providing a sense of purpose and meaning. When confronted with evolution, an individual may feel their former sense of purpose and meaning is lost. And so addressing evolution requires high levels of empathy and willingness to listen. After all, people are being asked to make a move from a world where they feel protected to a world where they feel vulnerable.

In terms of teaching about how heritable traits of biological populations change over generations, and that all life on Earth shares a common ancestor, let’s remember that a learner can’t be expected to carefully evaluate the facts of a claim when their own negative feelings are being ignored or invalidated. Educators need to be aware of the anxiety that evolutionary theory can cause, even if such anxiety isn’t explicitly expressed. Teachers, namely at the high school level, should encourage students to analyze their own position, to apply critical thinking skills, and provide room for discourse between students. The process of listening and sharing allows younger students to hear other opinions and evaluate their own and helps them develop the skills necessary for scientific literacy. It is beneficial to address obstacles openly and honestly, allowing individuals to express their concern while making sure not to give the impression that creationism has scientific legitimacy.

Another route to decreasing the rejection of evolution inside and outside the classroom is to focus on what science can do. The scientific community needs to emphasize the benefits of accurate science such as advances in medicine. It needs to focus on the methods of scientific inquiry so that students and the public are aware of how science is done and how we come to conclusions. Both the public and students should be encouraged to keep an open mind and analyze their own beliefs. This is where some popular science teachers have excelled and we should encourage others to do so as well. We need scientists to be vocal. We need them to participate in public discourse on science. Likewise, students in the sciences should be trained in effective communication skills. They need to be given opportunities to share their own work and the work of others with the public in a way that is easily understood and relatable. They should be encouraged to advocate for science, starting early and continuing throughout their careers.

teacher-photo-by-Photographee.euThe divisiveness and frustration when it comes to evolution is sure to continue to plague the political, social, and educational arenas. It is a complex issue. I have my own experience with this topic as I attended religious school from kindergarten until I graduated high school. My education did not include evolution aside from claims that it was a lie that had been disproven. We were taught as children that God had made the earth in six literal days and this teaching continued through high school. We learned that dinosaurs walked alongside humans and that life started over again after the flood in Noah’s day. We were taught there were not and would never be any discoveries of transitional fossils. Evolution was a scam to lure people away from faith. If you look at creationist materials today, you can see they are still based on the fear that if individuals accept evolution, they will lose their faith.

My first experience with evolution came in 2003 when I took a university biology course. My professor was a soft-spoken man who explained evolution in a way that was non-confrontational and easy to understand. He didn’t make any demands that we accept evolution as true. He didn’t, to my recollection, mention the fact that this information could be considered controversial. It was simply science and we were learning it.

I think there are a good number of avenues to scientific education, and, again, I advocate giving younger students an opportunity to discuss their concerns with evolution and other scientific topics that cause them anxiety. But I appreciated my biology professor’s mild-mannered approach that let me digest the information at my own pace, and I think this is appropriate for higher education—university professors shouldn’t be expected to mediate their adult students’ feelings about science.

The semester I spent in that biology class undoubtedly had a big impact on my life and has allowed me to see the universe in very different terms than I did in my childhood. I want others who grew up in similar anti-science environments to also have this experience, but I also know it isn’t simply a matter of becoming more scientifically literate. It may, for some, come at a cost. It may alienate a person from the people who’ve been an important part of their life. It’s easy to poke fun at those who reject evolution. It’s more difficult, even for someone like me who lived that life, to try to empathize and remember that we’re all impacted by the environment around us. Just because a person hasn’t yet come to the conclusion that evolution is indeed a fact, it doesn’t mean they’re weaker or less intelligent than the rest of us. It doesn’t mean they’re incapable of changing their mind. Many have, and I have no doubt that many will continue to do so.