My older daughter, now an adolescent, likes to run credibility sorties on me.
“Mom!” she shouts as I enter the kitchen one morning. “Do you know why evolution cannot be a FACT?”
Still bleary-eyed, I was hoping for something more on the order of “Do you know where the whole-wheat bread is?”
“Ummmm…” I stall for time. First I have to make sense of what exactly she’s asking me, and then I have to make some sort of neural connection to wherever that bit of data might be located in my brain, and then I need to figure out a way to word it that will satisfy her. The Adolescent Inquisition is big on key words and tricky phrases.
I finally say: “Because it’s a theory derived by the scientific process, which is a type of induction, meaning that you can never rule out the possibility that there might be a single example out there somewhere than invalidates it. Rather, you can amass increasing evidence that supports your hypothesis.”
“You’re right!” her eyes widen in shock. I’ve passed the test. This time. It’s a small consolation though, because I’m still struggling to regain credibility after the interrogation involving Important Battles of the Civil War.
(And I should know better. My father actually dragged the entire family to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania one year for our summer vacation. I have vivid memories of the conjoined musketballs, where two had actually hit in midair and fused, and my dad exclaiming, “Imagine! There were so many shots being fired that musketballs could actually collide in midair! And there were enough of those that farmers could find them later, just turn them up with their plows!” While that resonates with me now, at the time I was mostly just thankful that the motel had a pool.)
As you might have guessed, she is studying evolution in school. As you might not have guessed, depending on where you live, this has caused some parents consternation. Before the unit began, her teacher sent out a very polite email, informing all of the parents that the theory (Note: “theory” used in a very specific, scientific sense, indicating a hypothesis which has been tested and supported by evidence, and can now be used as the basis for explaining or predicting relevant phenomena) of evolution is a state standard for science education, that the teaching of “alternative theories” (Note: “theory” used in the general sense, meaning “an idea or conjecture”) is not, and that while she respects each individual’s personal beliefs and will not ask anyone to change same, all students must complete the assignments in the unit in order to receive a passing grade.
So I sent her a little email note, saying that I appreciated how she was handling the situation, particularly since the theory of evolution is fundamental to a modern understanding of the life sciences and, therefore, a critical part of students’ scientific literacy. And she emailed me back, thanking me for my support, and making a passing reference to how difficult it can be to navigate personal opinions concerning “controversial theories.” And I responded with a wink, “or even uncontroversial ones, like evolution.”
Flash forward: my daughter was working on a project over the weekend, which involved making a tri-fold brochure for a travel agency specializing in trips back to different eras. (She got the Jurassic; all of her classmates were jealous.) She had a friend visiting, and her friend offered to help her decorate her brochure, and so they commenced to reading about the Jurassic, and suddenly her friend said, “This must be teaching evolution and not Creation, because Creation teaches that the earth is only, like, thousands of years old and not the [she paused for a dramatic eye-roll] billlllllllllllllllllions or trillllllllllllllllllllllllllions of years that evolution says.”*
My daughter made eye contact with me. It was a non-verbal Adolescent Inquisition: What do I say????
But this time, I wasn’t ready for a response. Several flitted through my head, like, “Yep.”
Before I could muster anything more intelligent, my daughter managed a shrug and “Yeah, I guess so,” and they moved on, debating which color of embossed paper would work best with the adventure travel-cum-dinosaur theme.
Later, my daughter and I talked about it. She asked: Why doesn’t she believe in evolution? What does she believe? If evolution is a state science standard, why isn’t she required to learn about it in homeschooling?
Let me tell you, the Adolescent Inquisition can be torturous.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I attended Catholic schools for nearly my entire education. However, I was raised Protestant—really Protestant, I mean I attended church every Sunday and was President of my youth group and became a youth minister and went to Christian rock concerts and…yeah. You get the picture. But not once was it ever suggested to me, in school or at church or at home, that believing in evolution was sacrilegious or even suspect. The creation story as told in the book of Genesis was understood to be literary, rather than a literal, explanation of the human race.
(As older children, we all seemed to undergo a moment of epiphany much like the one involving Santa Claus. It went like this: “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaait a minute! If the story of Adam and Eve were literally true, then humanity began in a hotbed of incest! Ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!” And then we decided it was just a story, and that was OK, because stories are still instructive even when they are not factual.)
And evolution was understood to be the scientific explanation which best explained the story of life on earth, and reflected an additional, say, 2000 years’ worth of human knowledge.
In the end, of course, the Adolescent Inquisition focused its lens on a different detail, and the questions began to sound more like this: “But how do I disagree with my friend without upsetting her? What if she doesn’t want to be my friend anymore? What if her parents don’t want us to be friends anymore? If I don’t say anything, is that the same as agreeing?”
My reflex was to repeat what I had been told: “If you want to keep your friends, never discuss religion, politics, or money.” But while that’s a solid nugget of advice, I sensed it wouldn’t really satisfy her. So instead I said something about how it’s important to be true to yourself, and that your real friends will like you for who you are even if you don’t agree, and it’s OK to remain open to new ideas, and that I will never be threatened by her questioning my beliefs, and that the best way to disagree with friends—or your mother—is respectfully.
I think I passed. This time. Even if she doesn’t know it yet.
Want to know what you would look like if you were a Neanderthal? Who doesn't? Would you believe there's an app for that? (Photo from the Smithsonian Institution)
* And for some fun with young-earth creationism, pop by Conservapedia: The Trustworthy Encyclopediaor the Creation Museum