God loves you, but most of the time He thinks you’re acting like a fucking idiot.
~ You Look Great, via Twitter
This year marks the 150 year anniversary of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Known generally as The Origin of Species, this work is described by many as a seminal work of science forming the foundation of evolutionary biology. There is much confusion about the nature of Darwin’s ideas by people who tend to follow headlines rather than read, but basically, he described a phenomenon whereby changes occur in species based on natural selection of superior traits. You know, like gills, or tails, or bad-assed jaws, or say, opposable thumbs. Of course logic dictates that Darwin may have been suggesting that we evolved from *gasp* other animals, like say, oh, monkeys. But he doesn’t really come out and say that. He presents a case that looks at the changes and similarities in species over time. I understand that my philosophical background may predispose me to agreeing with Darwin’s ideas, but they seem pretty logical to me. I certainly have an easier time buying his theories, even without irrefutable concrete evidence, than I do believing that there was one guy, and then from his rib was created another. But that is just me.
All of this is on my mind right now because of a situation brewing in the Hong Kong education system. In Hong Kong, a significant number of the schools are parochial, and this certainly pertains to the higher band schools outside of the international school scheme (though many of the international schools have a religious affiliation as well.) In order to accommodate the vast number of schools (there are around 600 secondary schools in total) and the equally vast range of students from all around the world, the Hong Kong Education Bureau has kept it’s guidelines regarding curriculum, particularly in science, very “flexible.” The Bureau goes so far as to suggest that the biology curriculum explore “other explanations for evolution and the origins of life” outside of Darwin’s theories. Stated in the curriculum guidelines is the following:
The historical development of genetic concepts and ideas, progressing to some of the breakthroughs and milestones of biology, should be introduced so as to give students some insights into the nature and methods of scientific investigation. This section closes with the mechanism of evolution, which should be discussed constructively and impartially against the evidence available, pointing out the inadequacy of science to provide complete answers.
Guide students to review the differences between scientific theories and other non-scientific modes of explanation, e.g. religious, metaphysical or philosophical, which have been a subject of considerable debate over the years.
The proponents of this curricular guide say that evolution is not conclusive evidence for the origins of life. This leads to a big ginormous problem for me as far as logical pedagogy is concerned. If we can only teach what is concretely established as, what, a “known fact”? Then that seems awfully limited to me. What we don’t know far outweighs what we do and I hold to the idea that thoughtful consideration of the unknown leads to cool results – like learning new things. Further, it seems counter intuitive to include creationism in a situation were evolution is not substantiated enough to warrant its teaching. Science may not be able to conclusively explain everything in life, but, geeze… there should be something a little more verifiable than the Bible I think.
Of course, this is not a new issue. Educators in America have been fighting over this for ages. In 1925, in the very ‘forward’ thinking state of Tennessee, a biology teacher by the name of John Scopes was sued by the vanguard state for violating a law (of questionable constitutionality, by the way), which stipulated:
That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.
This in a nation founded upon a separation of church and state. (If unfamiliar with the constitutionality of this issue check here.) It does remind me of how my high school physics teacher used to call us monkeys – “You are like a monkeys! You a monkey see, a monkey do!” He would yell in his Italian accent. Now I wonder how he meant that… good or bad? Subversive and subliminal indoctrination of evolution? What was Jimmy Giovando up to?
The Scopes Monkey Trial, as it came to be known, pitted the amazing Clarence Darrow against the, um… “good effort” William Jennings Bryan. The trial brought to bear myriad issues facing the US at the time: concern over a breakdown of morals as evidenced by the Jazz Age, the racism pervading the nation (and in many cases relying on Darwin’s ideas to support the asinine theory of eugenics), the passage of the 18th Amendment (a total legislative failure, which the ‘War on Drugs’ militia should take a good hard look at), and the preservation of what I guess people still call the “Southern Way of Life.” [Contributions? Slavery, the Confederacy, Colonel Sanders, the Trail of Tears, the SEC, Britney Spears… I kid, I kid. Sort of.]
Some things to keep in mind: Scopes was selected by the ACLU to violate the law, and he did so willingly and with aplomb. And once Darrow got involved he abandoned the ACLU’s original strategy which was to undermine the legislation and he went right at WJ Bryan which wasn’t totally fair because WJB… well, he wasn’t equipped to deal with someone like Darrow. It was like watching a big league pitcher take down your high school all-star. [But the transcripts make for fantastic reading.] In the end, Darrow did not get the ‘W’ in the case; the jury took a whopping nine minutes to return a guilty verdict. But as in so many cases the ‘L’ was actually sort of a ‘W’ because it did shed light on the situation and get people thinking (at least outside of TN) about the issue at hand. Does teaching a biblical idea like creationism in a public school violate the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution? The answer is an obvious YES, though it took until 1968 for the US Supreme Court to set a precedent that articulated the fact with the decision in Epperson v. Arkansas, by which time TN had already repealed the original law.
And the debate continues. I laughed to see that those in Hong Kong vested in keeping creationism out of the biology classroom are pointing to the US as a benchmark. Hong Kong scientist Paul Chu said, “Even the United States is moving away from teaching intelligent design in biology lessons now.” Even the United States. I love it.
Here is the thing. I am sensitive to the fact that many people believe totally in the idea of creationism. And I am okay with that. I am also okay with that being taught in a privately funded school where parents can choose to have their children taught this take on science. But in a government funded school it is unacceptable. And that is mandated by law in the US. Here in Hong Kong, it is not so straightforward. Laws here have little elasticity, the preference in the Asian tradition to be entirely explicit and specific (hence the really, really, REALLY long Hong Kong Bill of Rights.) Coupled with this lack of room for interpretation is the fact that the government subsidizes nearly all of the parochial schools. This is an overlap that will continue to lead to these sorts of issues. [I see it all the time working with students from these schools in literature, and can only imagine the difficulties in the sciences… these kids are taught a biblical interpretation of nearly every poem and literary tome they read.] So, that is where I run into a personal problem.
And then there is the thing about the monkeys. You see, I had a very interesting experience watching monkeys in action in the ‘wild’ up close and personal while I was in Bali. And I was amazed. I watched these four young monkeys who were sort of playing, except the biggest one kept wailing on the littlest one. The little one would scream and then the Big Bully would hide behind the other two while the little one ran towards Big Daddy. Big Daddy would make a move and then Big Bully would act humbled and chill out. This went on for about three more rounds until finally Big D had had enough. He came over and picked up Big B and spanked him. Right on the ass. Playtime was over. And you know what? That was proof enough right there that there is some shared background between me and these monkeys. Maybe I am a little more simian than average, I don’t know.
I know in Hong Kong the laws are different than in the US… but in the end I am still left contemplating how a conversation between JC and Darwin might go down.
CD: What’s up JC? How are things going for the Son of God?
JC: Oh, you know, CD, it is tough trying to balance all this stuff out. I mean, you know kindness to all of Dad’s creatures and ensuring that everyone understands about, you know, loving all people. It is a full time job. Plus, I think that I need to take some public speaking courses because I am not sure I am making myself clear, much seems lost in translation.
CD: I hear you, man. You know I have been fighting this same battle for what seems like a century – not that I should complain, I know you have me beat there by a couple millennium. But really, it is like you try to present some ideas and then people are like – NO WAY! That is not how I always thought it was… that can’t be right.
JC: It is funny you bring that up my friend, you know I faced the same criticism when I started sharing my ideas. They absolutely crucified me.