Evolution belongs in the classroom and all students belong in Bill Nye's lecture

Ruth Bishop

If you’re like me, you are feeling pretty bummed today about not getting a ticket to see Bill Nye. The fact that only a limited number of students were able to attend is a disservice to the University’s student body, not only because Bill Nye the “Science Guy” is for many of us a childhood hero, but his message on the importance of teaching evolution in public schools was not heard by those who need to hear it most. And although many of us were not able to listen to Bill Nye’s words or admire his bow tie, we can help to carry out his mission of including evolution in the K-12 curriculum.

Just last week the Alabama State Board of Education approved evolution as required material for the state educational curriculum to be implemented by 2016. Even with these updates, however, Alabama textbooks could still include disclaimer stickers stating that the textbook “discusses evolution, a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things,” and reminding students that “no one was present when life first appeared on earth.”

It is unjust that certain politicians and educators have deemed evolution as unfit material for the classroom. Among scientists, evolution is viewed as a fundamental principle—a theory accounting for the patterns of similarities and differences among organisms across all habitats throughout earth’s history—yet for the general public, evolution is perceived as controversial and even immoral. It seems that the debate of whether evolution should be taught in schools points to a greater debate on whether Christianity is compatible with evolution. And if we carefully examine what evolution is and what the majority of Christian churches teach, we will see that no such incompatibility exists.

A common misunderstanding about evolution is that it is a “theory of origins” that accounts for how life on earth began. While there are proposed models for the beginning of life, evolution begins after life was established on earth. A second misunderstanding is that Christianity and evolution have always been in disaccord. In fact, the first response to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species [1859] was from the Anglican priest Rev. Charles Kingsley who wrote to Darwin, “All I have seen of it awes me,” commenting that it is “just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self-development…as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas [gaps] which He Himself had made.” Albeit there was some opposition to evolution at its inception, as there would be for any new scientific theory, most Christians have happily incorporated evolution into their Biblical understanding of creation. It is only in early 20th century America when Christians began reading the Bible, notably Genesis 1-3, in a literalistic manner, that evolution began to be seen as an assailant on good Christian values.

To take a literalistic view of the Bible, however, would require ignoring the thousands of years of Biblical study saying otherwise. Even the earliest Christians, including St. Augustine and Origen Adamantius, recognized that Genesis 1 was a theological text, not a scientific one, written using highly figurative language. Modern Church leaders also support evolution—Pope Francis remarked that “the creation of the universe was not a singular event, but rather went forward for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia until it became what we know today.”

Refusing to teach evolution in American schools only perpetuates ignorance in that it denies students a complete understanding of science and suggests that evolution is contradictory to Christianity. If we as a student body wish to see our children taught evolution, we should take concrete steps in supporting educators, like Bill Nye, whose mission is to dispel the misunderstanding surrounding this theory. For those of us unable to get a Bill Nye ticket, we can instead channel our disappointment into positive change for this University by taking 5 minutes to send Dean Olin an email asking that in the future, a larger space such as the Coleman Coliseum be granted to Allele lecture organizers. And perhaps our united voices will secure the opportunity for future UA students and K-12 students alike to learn about evolution.

Ruth Bishop is a senior majoring in Spanish and biology. Her column runs biweekly on Mondays.