Fossils, Bones and Primates: Enriching High School Teaching
I hope to turn this into a published article, like my article about the presentation on the Brooklyn Public Library's Human Genome Project Community Conversations curriculum at last year's American Library Association conference (to be published soon).
Much of the information was old news to me, and some of it revealed gaps in my knowledge, but the session focused on effective means of communicating scientific nuance to high school students, who can come away from their science classes looking for a neat linear succession of fossils ("This evolved from this, and this evolved from this," etc.) and who could reinforce rather than question their own assumptions about skin color variation and "race," since a person's so-called "race" is so immediately apparent to us.
An important point that can get lost in teaching human evolution is that other primates are not "failed humans," but evolved creatures in their own right. Our cousins have their own place in the ecosystem and evolved alongside us. Your cousin is not "striving" to become you! Evolution is messy, not a straight-line process, and not aiming for us; Homo sapiens got lucky, and we are the one human species left over. We did not "win" anything; if anything, other species of humans lasted longer than we likely will.
The teachers expressed particular concern about their difficulties in getting teenagers in particular to see that race is a social construct, whereas skin color variation is not an accurate indicator of ethnicity. There is greater skin color variation within so-called "races" than between them. Laying down skin color tones in a line visually reinforces the fact that skin color exists on a continuum, even within families. Unlike eye and hair color, skin color is not determined by a simple gene pairing but by an array of genes, and it is not the case that lighter-skinned indigenous people were always found in the higher latitudes, whereas darker-skinned indigenous people were clustered around the equator. Different ethnicities co-evolved with their ability to absorb and retain certain vitamins, with their diet, with their ability or not to tolerate heat or cold, and these factor into skin color.
It was particularly instructive to me that most of the questions in the Q&A focused on practical needs, such as ways for teachers to collaborate, to communicate effectively to their students, to find sources of funding, and to keep up with the latest research. Creationism was brought up only at the very end, and most of the people in the room seemed to have the resources that they needed to deal with classroom disruptions or upset parents. Actually, one educator stated that her time at a science table during a fair in Iowa was boring; farmers especially accept evolution and do not find it to be "controversial."
If anything, I have long suspected that ID has made inroads with youth who are estranged from the land and from animals, who see food as something that comes from the grocery store rather than from the land, who do not get the chance to observe that each animal is a genetic individual, and who cannot imagine how heredity works. I am not inspired by the idea that nature was "manufactured" in the same manner that the Coca-Cola Company manufactures soda pop. The idea of children seeing themselves as commodities of a manufacturer deity strikes me as compatible with the corporate agenda to turn them into consumers, to make them see themselves as people who wear this or that corporate brand, who root for this or that corporate sports team, and who are easily swayed by this or that corporate scare tactic.
Food for thought: creationism/ID remains a concern, but it is not the biggest concern in teaching evolution today; and cultivating media literacy--seeing through the clever tactics of advertisers and anyone else with an agenda--in young people is related to teaching science effectively. Certainly this has become more evident to me as the proponents of ID try to adopt a "hip, now, new generation" style of marketing. (Could little sayings on cans of Faygo be far behind?)