I Now Know Why This Is Harmful

I was first introduced to the fact that some see evolution as controversial when I was in high school. There was a Jehovah’s Witness somewhere in the school, and her* parents complained that they did not want their daughter learning about evolution, as it was contrary to their beliefs. The school informed them that, most unfortunately, evolution was a core part of the curriculum, and that she was just going to have to learn about it if she wanted to take biology. However, they would be sensitive to their beliefs, and mention “the controversy” in class.

What followed was a 5 minute introduction being added to our evolution module. Our biology teacher told us that there were three predominant theories on the origin of life on Earth. There were people who believed that the Earth and life upon it was created by some form of a God. There were others that believed that life on Earth had an extra-terrestrial origin. However, all of the scientific evidence so far pointed towards life having begun on Earth, as science can’t make claims on religious matters. He then gave us a brief explanation of the basic experiments which gave evidence for how life might have originated on the planet, followed by our module on evolution. That was all. There was no connecting evolution with the origin of life, nor was there any talk about bogus evidence “against” evolution.

This approach was one that none of us really had a problem with. It was a bit like a sensitivity course, letting us know that there are many cultures with many different belief systems, and to be aware of that, and now let’s talk science. So, when I started to hear phrases thrown around like “teach the controversy”, I was surprised that so many people had a problem with it. In my ignorance, I thought that “teach the controversy” just meant what I was taught, a friendly heads up that some people believe different things. I thought that creationists were at most a handful of people, like the ones that live in compounds off the grid and have babies without birth certificates.

Then I discovered creationism on the internet, and my mind was blown. I had no idea of the depth and magnitude of ignorance surrounding this topic that was floating around. I was floored by how sneakily it crept into the education system in the US, and how it needed to be pointed at and beaten back constantly, in order to keep it away.

So, when I read that Alabama is now going to be including a disclaimer in its biology textbooks about evolution, I’m not so complacent anymore. It’s a foot in the door, it is a terrible idea and it should be squashed immediately.



*Side note: The school never identified who the Jehovah’s Witness was to the students, for fear that she would be bullied or ridiculed. It was a small school, however, and when one student spotted her giving out leaflets on the weekend, we figured it must have been her parents who complained. As far as I know, no one ever brought it up to her though, as we all figured it wasn’t her fault that her parents were fundamentalists.


  1. says

    I remember first encountering Young Earth Creationists on an internet forum and I was like “you’re kidding me, right?” I know I knew about evolution long before it became a topic in school, because which kid doesn’t love dinosaurs, right?
    I think most often in Europe we cannot imagine how fucked up the USA is in those aspects.
    I also didn’t understand the fuss American atheists were throwing about religious ceremonies and stuff in public space until I learned how much bigger it is there.
    Though here they’re currently getting their knickers in a twist over crucifixes in courtrooms, seriously claiming that they “don’t promote a particular religion but the values of the christian society”. Yes, my irony metre exploded…

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … Alabama is now going to be including a disclaimer in its biology textbooks about evolution, … It’s a foot in the door…

    That particular foot has intruded into the doorways of Alabama science classrooms for years, possibly as far back as the ’90s (when evolution arrived in curricula there). Courts elsewhere have ordered removal of such “warnings” as unconstitutional encroachments of religion into public institutions, but finding local plaintiffs willing to challenge the entire community around them over such things presents an obstacle few national organizations have overcome.

    I suspect few non-USAnians understand how politically weak public schools here are. Tenure is conditional and feeble, especially below the college level, and jobs quickly get yanked out from under anyone who gets parents or local activists upset. More than a century of operating under such conditions has produced a system where speaking up for anything not already “in the book” gets shut down before it starts.

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