We have several human fetuses preserved in jars in my department. The fetuses have been there for some 20 years, but lately no instructor has been willing to bring them to class to show the students for fear someone might object and sick the fanatical Right-to-Lifers on us. So while the fetuses gathered dust in our storeroom, we debated what to do.
Of course, I suggested we each sneak one out of the department under our coats until they were all gone. Less sinister minds prevailed, however, and a colleague was assigned to call various schools to find someone who would take the fetuses. After several calls my colleague finally found a medical school that would accept them. We breathed a departmental sigh of relief.
Now the Tennessee legislature is considering a law to allow the dismissal of teachers who present evolution as a "fact" rather than as a "theory." Do you suppose the legislature has suddenly taken an interest in general semantics, or do you suppose fundamentalist Christian religion is again rearing its antiquated head?
Across America many biology teachers simply ignore the teaching of evolution out of fear there will be students whose parents will take offense and, more important, take control of the school board. Fortunately, college biology departments are a bit more insulated from political pressure, but even I have felt the stings of the arrows of the fundamentalist Christians when I have taught units on evolution.
I frequently find students who refuse to attend class during the unit on evolution because they disagree with it. Several years ago in my genetics class an interpreter signing for a deaf student refused to sign the evolution unit.
One large college in my area has responded to the tension by simply deleting the unit on evolution from their general biology classes. Fortunately, my campus has not yet bent to the popular will. But I do approach the evolution unit in general bio with some trepidation. I make it clear to the students at the outset that I am not here to tell them what to believe; I am hear to help them understand. I will test them on their understanding, not on their beliefs.
With that introduction I approach the teaching of evolution in a style that raises the eyebrows of many of my colleagues. Instead of merely explaining evolutionary theory, I contrast it with the equivalent theories from Genesis. After all, most of those who object to evolution in the classroom do so because of their fundamentalist beliefs. The only reasonable way to understand the advancement embodied in the theory of evolution is to contrast it with the theories that it displaced. In this way we can see which viewpoint has more structural similarity with the facts.
I point out to my students that there are at least two different accounts of the origin and development of life in Genesis:
Chapter 1 creation story:
Chapter 2 creation story:
Many of my students are surprised to learn than males and females have the same numbers of ribs! Then I point out to my students that not only do these two Genesis accounts contradict each other in terms of their sequence of events, but that they also contradict the order of succession for major groups as revealed in the fossil record.
The natural order of development of life on Earth according to the fossil record:
I discuss how evolutionary theory is capable of being falsified. For example, the discovery of human remains in a layer of ancient rock that contains only unicellular organisms would thoroughly demolish the theory. This could happen, but it hasn't happened yet. Then I ask my students what evidence could falsify the Genesis accounts.
I contrast the attitude of biologists toward Darwin with the attitude of fundamentalists toward their Bible. Although Darwin is prolly the most revered of biologists, still his views have been repeatedly put to the test and on many occasions have been discarded by biologists when they failed the test. For example, Darwin believed (after Lamarck) in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Weismann cut off the tails of newborn rats for more than 20 generations but found no effects on the inheritance of tail length. As a result, Darwin's notion was soon rejected.
I also discuss the differences between facts and theories ... differences in the orders of abstraction. I point out that theories ... inferences ... can be quite reliable if based on a diverse factual basis. You come home and find your door broken open, your home ransacked and your TV gone. Without evidence to the contrary you could conclude with a high degree of confidence that the Boogey man had stolen your TV. To be a theory does not mean a verbal scheme has little factual basis; it means that the verbal scheme organizes a diverse array of facts and inferences from those facts.
I continue this risky approach to teaching evolution because I have received a lot of positive feedback from students who say it has helped liberate them from the shackles of ancient beliefs. Of course, I do keep my insurance paid up in case a fanatical student decides to liberate me from mine!