By chance I discovered recently that my old Grammar School zoology teacher, Tony, is living not too far from me. Though he used to be called “Sir”. I’m tossing around whether to contact him after 43 years, remembering those old bumper stickers, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” I have reason to be very thankful to him and his colleague Des (also called “Sir”), who were responsible for getting me to Cambridge and enabling my career in medicine. And additionally, to any understanding I may have of the biological issues raised by evolution.
How coincidental, then, that at the same time various British luminaries should be petitioning the government about the terrible sitution in British schools, where secondary age kids are all being indoctrinated in Young Earth ID Creationism and some five year olds have not yet been taught the rudiments of
the faith Neodarwinist truth. If the petition is to be believed, that is, and it must be true because it’s about science.
For those not in the UK, this is the text of the petition:
Creationism and intelligent design are not scientific theories, but they are portrayed as scientific theories by some religious fundamentalists who attempt to have their views promoted in publicly-funded schools. At the same time, an understanding of evolution is central to understanding all aspects of biology. Currently, the study of evolution does not feature explicitly in the National Curriculum until year 10 (ages 14-15). Free Schools and Academies are not obliged to teach the National Curriculum and so are under no obligation to teach about evolution at all. We petition the Government to make clear that creationism and intelligent design are not scientific theories and to prevent them from being taught as such in publicly-funded schools, including in faith schools, religious Academies and religious Free Schools. At the same time, we want the Government to make the teaching of evolution in mandatory in all publicly-funded schools, at both primary and secondary level.
A more sadly deceitful rant I can’t really imagine; the conflation of creationism with ID, the denigration of ID as unscientific when so many scientific papers consider it scientific enough to debate, the emotive (and false) use of the “F” word, the fabrication of some imaginary plot to undermine the teaching of science in schools here as if it were the US Bible Belt… it just sounds a bit desperate to me, as if science were a beleaguered house of cards in danger of collapsing as soon as Mr Jimpson the nutty Pentecostal biology master dares to mention Noah’s ark when he covers the Mesozoic.
As I pointed out in my last post 29 kids out of 30 in a typical British classroom effectively haven’t heard of God, so it’s hard to imagine them lurching into Biblical literalism in a hurry. And, incidentally, despite the petition’s 2nd sentence, I maintain that I could have pursued my lifetime career in medicine without knowing one jot about evolutionary theory. In fact, I forgot most of what I ever knew because it just wasn’t relevant. The whole petition is, in my view, simply promoting intellectual fascism. Or at least, importing it across the Atlantic.
But another perspective comes from my memories of A level zoology. As it happens, I was on the committee of the school Christian Union during my course. I’m not aware that studying evolution (with which I’d been familiar in principle since the age of five) caused me any religious problems at all, or even prompted a single question from me in lessons. But if I’d been a bright Christian teenager now, I might well have read something by Behe or Meyer, or even stumbled across Wikipedia articles by “dissenting brethren” within the mainstream biological community.
So, maybe I’d have asked Tony whether the evidence for abiogenesis was really watertight, or how he’d respond to the suggestion that functional information was unlikely to arise by random point mutation. And I am sure (though maybe I’ll try and make contact and actually ask him) that he’d take the enquiry seriously and use it, at least, to teach beyond the textbook over-simplifications. He’d borrow my books and critique them. He might even admit that I had a point, but should not raise it in my exam answers, except perhaps at Scholarship Level where original, well-argued, thought would increase my grade (as indeed it did). But, whilst my memories may be over-rosy, he would not tell me that I must stop reading pseudo-science or that he knew I was a Fundamentalist and would never get anywhere in science.
And that’s because Tony was a damned good teacher, and not just a TV naturalist or a polemicist for atheism, like some one could name. He taught me to think, rather than toe a party-line.