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.