Evolution News and Views (ENV) provides original reporting and analysis about the debate over intelligent design and evolution, including breaking news about scientific research.

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A Piece of Unsolicited Advice to Students

I wouldn't want to get anyone in trouble so I'll leave out all even remotely identifying particulars, other than to say I got an email today from a biology student who's a Darwin doubter. The content of the email made me think of the fact -- which I know from other correspondence -- that we have a lot of student readers, in college and high school. They might benefit from a word of advice.

For ID-friendly students in the context of their university or even high school science studies, unless they are in a pretty atypical academic setting, the question comes up all the time: How open should I be with teachers about my doubts on evolutionary theory and my sympathy for competing views, like intelligent design?

The practical question is nearly self-answering. You should be very, very circumspect about even hinting at your views to people who will end up giving you grades. But beyond that fairly obvious and uninteresting advice, I wanted to add that you should, in your own mind, strive to give respect to your Darwinist teachers no matter how firmly convinced you are that they are wrong.

If I were a professor and had a student who walked into my class intending to inform me that my fundamental views on the subject of my professional training were in error, I can well imagine thinking the kid deserved a good smack. Unfair? Yes, but true. Overturning scientific theories is not the job of an undergraduate student. A student's job is to learn what his teacher has to teach him, so that perhaps later when the student is intellectually ripened, he can lead or participate in a revolution. It's not at all that you need a PhD to hold a dissenting view, but age, thought and experience count for a lot.

At an emotional and personal level, I can sympathize with the Darwinist prof who resents his openly Darwin-doubting student. What arrogance, it must seem, to imagine that what I spent decades mastering, you a little pipsqueak think you're ready to discard half-way into the semester. Imagine yourself in your teacher's place. To him, this is about you, in your ignorance and arrogance or at best innocence, sitting in judgment of the system to which he's devoted his professional life.

Don't mistake my meaning. He would be very wrong to vent his wounded pride on you, marking you down or otherwise punishing you for your heterodoxy. But it would reflect maturity on your part to see him as a human being with understandable frailnesses and vulnerabilities, and to tread gently and respectfully.

One great thing about a pedagogic approach that teaches both sides of the evolution question is that it makes it respectful for the student to speak for either a Darwinist or a skeptical view. Weighing both sides is built into the curriculum. But in most biology classes, it doesn't work that way.

Nietzsche had it right, anyway, that there's a natural course of intellectual and spiritual development, which he symbolized by animals. You have to first learn to be a camel, kneeling to accept and bear a load. Only later may you be ready to be a lion, prepared to slay the great dragon.