Most of the courses you take in college solely use textbooks for content and assignments. When I was a teaching assistant for a Duke genetics class, the professors also assigned the non-fiction book Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne. During the evolution part of the course, students were assigned chapters in the book to read as homework. In class discussions would then focus on what Coyne discussed in each chapter, giving the students and professors a springboard to starting a conversation on what evolution is and what is the evidence for it.
I found the use of Coyne’s book in class a refreshing departure from textbooks, which by nature tend to be drier than other forms of writing. Undoubtedly the authors want to cover the main ideas, terminology, and experiments of particular fields, but they don’t always connect the dots in a reader-friendly fashion. Since Why Evolution Is True is a non-fiction book for a general audience, the tone is more conversational while still being informative. Coyne connects the dots for evolution in general, but also points out numerous examples of evolutionary processes. Early chapters cover the fossil record, vestigial organs, and developmental processes shared across species. Later chapters apply these ideas to humans and ask, “What are the dominant drivers of evolution?”
After reading the book, the professors of the class arranged for Coyne to participate in a class discussion via Skype. After a couple small technological glitches, the students had the opportunity to interact with the author of a book they had read, something unprecedented in my educational experience. They also asked good questions about the book’s content and about the implications of the theories and processes that Coyne discussed. I think the combined use of this book, in-class discussions, and a Q&A session with Coyne helped the students engage with the material.
One facet of Why Evolution Is True that I found unattractive was the author’s tone when discussing evolution and religion. There is undoubtedly a great deal of tension between science and religion throughout human history (ex. Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” by the Catholic Church for promoting heliocentricism). Over 150 years have passed since the publication of Darwin’s seminal On the Origin of Species, and yet evolution remains a controversial topic. Public school teachers in many states are not allowed to discuss evolution with their students. Some are required to also discuss “intelligent design” as an acceptable alternative theory (just to be clear, it is not).
Given this long history and the many different positions held by the public, one would expect Coyne to tread lightly when it comes to religion. Instead, he consistently dismisses intelligent design and takes various pot-shots at religious beliefs in general. I’m not a religious person, and I was offended and turned off by some of Coyne’s rhetoric.
Reading some of these passages reminds me of seeing Richard Dawkins give a talk a few years ago. For anyone who has read or seen Dawkins in person or on TV, many of you will know that he does not mince words when it comes to evolution and science. He often seems to be the main voice for the scientific community when it comes to evolution, which is a shame. While Dawkins is incredibly eloquent and well-versed in the evidence, he does not believe in compromise. He is correct that we should not compromise on the evidence and arrive at some pseudo-evolutionary theory, but he wants nothing to do with organized religion. At the talk I attended, one woman stood up to say that she believes everything he says on evolution, but she is also a religious person who, like many academics, thinks that evolution and God are not mutually exclusive. She extended her support to Dawkins if he would take it. Dawkins, however, nearly called her a fool and refused her help. I feel that this abrasive, rigid attitude alienates more people to science.
While Coyne’s comments are not as strong as Dawkins’, he may still estrange readers and students from his message. I still highly recommend Why Evolution Is True because of the way Coyne makes the content approachable. Additionally, I think that teachers should ask the students how the tone makes them feel. Turn this controversy into a teachable moment. I would devote an entire class session to discussing how evolution fits into our society. Where are the sources of tension? How can they be resolved? Is there a place for religion (intelligent design) in a biology classroom? What happens when your biology teacher doesn’t believe in evolution?
These are important questions that still need to be resolved. Engaging students from diverse backgrounds in the conversation can help them understand the arguments and form their own opinions. The scientific community needs a lot more allies in the general public, and we can start by demystifying the tensions around evolution.