Friday, August 14, 2009

Thanks, Teacher

I was really upset about evolution. I liked Miss Tyner. After Miss Kinney in 7th grade (evil, horrid troll who decided to tell us during sex ed that she was a 72-year-old virgin), I didn't think it would be possible for me to like another science teacher. It was my least favorite subject, but Miss Tyner still managed to be one of my favorite teachers. She was young and beautiful and funny. She had long, slightly frizzed curly hair, and she used to sit cross-legged on top of her desk, with her Birkenstocks kicked off on the floor.

Miss Tyner would sometimes take my Freshman biology class down three flights of steps to the river that wound by the school property. Her appreciation for nature appealed to the environmentalist in me. Since 4th grade I'd been engaged in environmental thinking, also due to the influence of a rather fantastic teacher. Miss Price led us in letter-writing to "GLOP" (global leader in over packaging) award recipients, such as Starkist for their tuna lunch product (plastic container for everything, a separate wrapper for the crackers, a little tin of tuna, individual condiment packets, and a tiny disposable wooden spoon).

So I was disappointed in Miss Tyner for telling me that Darwin was right, and that all species shared a common ancestor. I didn't really understand evolution or what she was saying about natural selection, but I knew how the world was created and how god made man, and evolution wasn't in the cards. The day we started the Evolution chapter of the text book she started with a ten-minute introduction before getting into the material.

"The theory of evolution by natural selection is the most widely accepted scientific theory for the origin of our species. No other theory even comes close to be accepted as factually supported by evidence. This is a science classroom, not a religion class and not a church. I don't want to insult or offend any of you, but this is the material you'll need to know on the test. If you'd like to express your concerns in private after class, I'd be more than happy to do so."

I did talk to her after class that day and I told her, "You shouldn't teach this is as a fact. It's only a theory. If you just said you weren't sure that it was true, that would be okay." I'm sure that at that moment she tried to explain the difference between a theory in most casual conversational senses and a scientific theory. Sadly, I was pretty dogmatically opposed to the concept of science in general and to evolution in specific.

"Angie," she finally sighed. "You don't have to believe that evolution really happened. You can disagree with the subject material, but this is what I'm teaching and this is what the school district and I both want to test my students on. You don't have to believe it, but you need to know it for the test." Somehow, this answer worked for me. In a sense, it gave me permission to learn the facts, even if I only accepted them as a very tenuous, unsupported "theory". (Oh the arrogance of religiously brainwashed youth!)

I'm so grateful, Miss Tyner, that you taught me the truth. I'm thankful that you were kind and you explained your reasons, but you didn't back down and let nonsense or debate dilute the science. Nothing you said was offensive, nor did it give the false impression that evolution was equivalent with any other crackpot idea someone might have. While I still doubted the existence of fossils, and thought God must have some purpose in his design when he thought up vestigial organs and tails, facts were able to penetrate. I began to accept natural selection, at the least. Those often-scorned peppermoths made complete sense to me. The further knowledge that outside pressures like pollution and predators don't cause the genetic variance in the first place, and merely show its usefulness to a species came later.

I was a creationist for 25 years. I passed high school biology while still believing that all humans shared two common ancestors named Adam and Eve, despite the obvious genetic diversity among people on this planet. I bought a car, signed a lease, got married, and had a baby all while still believing in fairy tale nonsense that huge portions within the religious community recognize are completely ridiculous. I'd glad to be on the other side now.

Now I think science is really beautiful, and intellectually honest and kind of noble. After growing up in a cult where we just weren't *allowed* to test claims or doubt the words of the Bible or our leader, science is just very, very soothing. It's so nice to know that there are people who care more about finding the truth than being seen as right. And I'm glad I had one of those people for a teacher.

Here are some of my favorite resources for explaining evolution and answering questions about it.

What Evolution Is and What it Isn't
Talk Origins

Finally, this video from Impaler 1815 is concise and easy for just about anyone to understand. I also recommend his video on transitional forms.

I'll be doing a related post later in the week specifically on science resources for kids, and resources on how to introduce science to your nieces and nephews growing up in creationist homes.