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My entry into the Sarah Palin debate generated a link to an article about ph D microbiologist Carl Woese. The article mentions that Woese was behind the new tree of life that reduces the number of branches from five to three. Well, that description misses all the wonder and grandeur of Woese’s contribution. Yes, tree goes from five branches to three, but the three branches are gigantic, and only one of them contains plants, animals, fungi, and protists, four of the branches in the old tree, all tightly bound together. Most of life, Woese tells us, we’ve missed.

Anyway, that’s not really what I’m writing about. In the article, Dr. Woese makes the assertion that students shouldn’t learn about evolution until college, essentially because high schools do such a poor job of teaching it. I’m the last to defend traditional school curriculum, and I certainly won’t defend the No Child Left Inspired test-and-punish approach currently in vogue. But Woese misses the point that to get kids to go to college, to go into these fields such as microbiology where they can really start learning complex ideas like evolution, they must first want it.

The ideas of evolution – of the universe, of life, and of ourselves – have just such inspirational power. The story of evolution is epic, grand, and stirs the soul. To eliminate it from school curriculum leaves that curriculum that much less inspiring. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. What is left in biology, then, if evolution is removed? What’s left is rote memorization, and we have an abundance of that already.

But Woese is right, too. He’s right that the evolution taught in schools is bad evolution. I have so many problems with traditional school education that I’ll never get through it all in a thousand posts, let alone one. To me, school is like this. Someone said, “You know, we really need to educate our children so that they can become productive adults.” Someone else said, “Yeah, that’s a great idea, let’s start a school.” OK, now we’ve got a school. We need money. Let’s gather in some money through taxes. Oh, wait a minute. If we’re going to get tax money, we’d better prove that we’re actually teaching something. How do we do that? I know, we’ll test students. That will show how much they’ve learned.

“But wait; it’s really, really hard to test understanding of deep and complex concepts like evolution. That’s ok, we’ll just pick out some facts that arise from the deep and complex topics. If students can recite the facts, then that indicates understanding of the deep and complex topics, which is what we’re after in the first place.

“Ooh, first results are in, and some students couldn’t recite the facts very well. We must have taught them wrong. OK, we’ll change the way we teach until we can get them to recite the facts. There, we’ve made a slight improvement in fact recital, we must be getting better. There, even better that time, hey this fact recital thing is going pretty well. Wow, look now at all the facts our students can recite! Most of them get around 70% of the facts right, and only 30% wrong! I think we’ve really got something here. So now we’ve taught our students to pass the test by getting the right answer 70% of the time, demonstrating that they have a deep understanding of a complex topic like evolution, which was our goal in the first place. Aren’t we cool?”

The problem with the above is of course that while being able to recite facts from a deep and complex topic may well be a necessary condition, it is by no means a sufficient condition. In other words, someone with a deep and complex understanding of evolution would likely have little trouble reciting facts drawn from this understanding. But it is possible (and in a certain way much easier) to learn just the facts themselves, and leave the complex understanding out. The complex understanding then becomes something that “won’t be on the test, so don’t worry about it. Just know these facts, or at least 70% of them.”

The situation reminds me of the person looking for a dropped watch under the street lamp. “Where do you think you dropped it?” “Down the block, but the light’s much better here.” Standardized tests of facts are bound to show us something. The light’s better there. But they don’t show complex understanding, and that I think is what Woese is (rightly) criticizing.

So what’s the answer? I believe the answer is teaching. Teach for understanding. Teach so that your learner can become a teacher to others. Teach to inspire. I have no idea how to test that, but I know when I’ve done it. I can see it, feel it, almost taste it in the air. Inspiration is real, it’s powerful, it’s my drug, and it’s available to everyone, not just ph D microbiologists.


Today John McCain announced that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin would be his running mate in the presidential race. One of the first things I learned about Palin is that she has commented favorably on the idea of teaching intelligent design creationism alongside evolution in high school biology classes.

I don’t really want to write about intelligent design on this blog. But it’s bound to come up from time to time, and the day of McCain’s choice seems as good a time as any for my first mention of it.

So here’s what I think. I think evolution is hard. I think evolution is just about as hard, in its own way, as quantum mechanics, relativity, and other aspects of modern science that we all know and admit are so difficult for people to grasp.

I’m a teacher. Concepts that are hard to grasp are what I’m supposed to be all about. When we’re trying to teach some bizarre, fantastic, and utterly baffling idea in physics, chemistry, and so on, we don’t get angry if people don’t get it. We don’t get condescending, because we know that is a sure turn-off. Instead, we ask questions. We use examples. We let our learners touch, smell, feel, experience. We use humor whenever we can. We’re gentle guides, not battering rams. Yet when we “teach” evolution, we so often devolve (ha!) into demagogues. Why don’t we take the same gentle educational attitude toward evolution?

I’m a huge Richard Dawkins fan. I love his writing, and this essay is one of my favorite pieces of science writing ever. But when I saw Professor Dawkins go toe to toe with the evangelist (I forget his name) in his “Root of All Evil” video, I winced. I didn’t see a gentle guide, I saw an angry old man. I feel like that in that moment Dawkins forgot that he is a teacher (a fantastic teacher), and became, in that moment, something else.

Evolution is hard. Teaching it requires a gentle hand, a guide who can lead learners around the pitfalls, past the snares, and into true understanding. One must be careful with learners. One must let them discover.

I’d like to teach Sarah Palin. Maybe she wouldn’t listen. That’s fine. As I’ve said before, I can’t teach everyone in the world the wonder and magic of science. I have to find my starfish. Maybe Sarah Palin would just roll her eyes, or argue or, more likely, give a politician’s answer. But maybe, just maybe, I could make a difference for her.

I’d like to show Sarah Palin how the wonder of science and the amazing truths of evolution are all around us. I’d like to tell her about the giant star that exploded so long ago, blasting into space the elements that would one day make up her, me, and everyone she knows. I’d like to tell her that she was once inside a star, shining out over the universe. I’d like to tell her about an underdog on one small planet, a tiny creature called Pikaia gracelens that, though surrounded by creatures fiercer, more powerful, and more numerous, somehow survived and passed its genes on to creatures who would become the first fish.

I’d love to tell her about tiny mammals, living in the shadows of the great dinosaurs, all the while biding their time and waiting for a chance. I’d love to tell her of a small, upright ape that learned to use its brain, that learned to work with its fellows, to survive, against the odds, in a new and hostile environment.

And then I’d love to tell her about herself, a creature so improbable as to seem unreal, and yet there she stands, a living being able to explore the nature of reality, contemplate life and death, and dream of journeys to the stars. I’d love to tell her that she, Sarah Palin, is one of the things that the universe can make.

We are stardust contemplating stardust. We are the universe’s expression of itself. What an amazing gift life is, and what an unprecedented chance to learn all we can about this incredible world in which we live. It is our priviledge, our honor, and I believe our responsibility to do so.

Maybe Sarah Palin wouldn’t listen. But maybe she would. And that’s what teaching the wonder of science is all about.

My first book, called The Turtle and the Universe, was published by Prometheus Books in July 2008. You can read about it by clicking on the link above.
My second book, Atoms and Eve, is available as an e-book at Barnes and Noble. Click the link above. You can download the free nook e-reader by clicking the link below.
August 2008
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A blog by Stephen Whitt

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