August 25, 2008

Teaching Biology in Florida: David Campbell Struggles Against Fundamentalism

An excellent article appeared in yesterday's New York Times about David Campbell, a high school biology teacher in Orange Park, Florida and a founder of Florida Citizens for Science. I've had my own experience with attitudes toward evolutionary biology, and science in general, while a resident of North Florida for five years, but nothing as intimate and constant as what Campbell faces on a daily basis.

A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash
By AMY HARMON a nation where evangelical Protestantism and other religious traditions stress a literal reading of the biblical description of God's individually creating each species, students often arrive at school fearing that evolution, and perhaps science itself, is hostile to their faith.

Some come armed with "Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution," a document circulated on the Internet that highlights supposed weaknesses in evolutionary theory. Others scrawl their opposition on homework assignments. Many just tune out...

"Evolution has been the focus of a lot of debate in our state this year," he said. "If you read the newspapers, everyone is arguing, 'is it a theory, is it not a theory?' The answer is, we can observe it. We can see it happen, just like you can see it in Mickey."

...Bryce [Haas], heavyset with blond curls, left with a stage whisper as he slung his knapsack over his shoulder.

"I can see something else, too," he said. "I can see that there's no way I came from an ape..."

Bryce Haas and Jackson TweedyMr. Campbell, 52, who majored in biology while putting himself through Cornell University on a Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship, taught evolution anyway. But like nearly a third of biology teachers across the country, and more in his politically conservative district, he regularly heard from parents voicing complaints.

With no school policy to back him up, he spent less time on the subject than he would have liked. And he bit back his irritation at Teresa Yancey, a biology teacher down the hall who taught a unit she called "Evolution or NOT."

Animals do adapt to their environments, Ms. Yancey tells her students, but evolution alone can hardly account for the appearance of wholly different life forms. She leaves it up to them to draw their own conclusions. But when pressed, she tells them, "I think God did it..."

"Science explores nature by testing and gathering data," he [Campbell] said. "It can't tell you what's right and wrong. It doesn't address ethics. But it is not anti-religion. Science and religion just ask different questions."

He grabbed the ball and held it still.

"Can anybody think of a question science can't answer?"

"Is there a God?" shot back a boy near the window.

"Good," said Mr. Campbell, an Anglican who attends church most Sundays. "Can't test it. Can't prove it, can't disprove it. It's not a question for science."

Bryce raised his hand.

"But there is scientific proof that there is a God," he said. "Over in Turkey there's a piece of wood from Noah's ark that came out of a glacier..."

Bryce came to Ridgeview as a freshman from a Christian private school where he attended junior high...

"I think a big reason evolutionists believe what they believe is they don't want to have to be ruled by God," said Josh Rou, 17.

"Evolution is telling you that you're like an animal," Bryce agreed. "That's why people stand strong with Christianity, because it teaches people to lead a good life and not do wrong."

Doug Daugherty, 17, allowed that he liked science.

"I'll watch the Discovery Channel and say 'Ooh, that's interesting,' " he said. "But there's a difference between thinking something is interesting and believing it."

The last question on the test Mr. Campbell passed out a week later asked students to explain two forms of evidence supporting evolutionary change and natural selection.

"I refuse to answer," Bryce wrote. "I don't believe in this..."
The article ends on a somewhat positive note; Bryce answers the question on another exam. Still, one gets a bit of an idea from the article just what Campbell is up against in North Florida, where fundamentalist groups like the Florida Baptist Convention have done their utmost to install and preserve multigenerational ignorance in the name of faith. They no doubt agree with Martin Luther's statement that
Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has.
Keep in mind that while Campbell does battle daily with the self-professed enemies of reason, he also receives some of the worst pay for a member of his profession anywhere in the country. Campbell could leave Florida, not face the ignorance and hostility generated by a couple of centuries of religious depredations, and get paid more for his efforts, too. Instead, he's sticking it out. Clearly, money isn't his motivation in this.

Ironically, North Florida is one of the best places in the western hemisphere to find abundant evidence of evolution at work. It is a hot spot for endemic species that exist at small distances from their more widespread phylogenetic relations. In particular, the unique North Florida ravine ecosystem is replete with species that are found nowhere else on earth. It is for that very reason that I'm going there next week to gather specimens of beetles and fungi for my own research in cooperation with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection which, thankfully, has not been overrun by agents of disenlightenment and was tremendously cooperative in granting permits to my colleague and I to undertake our investigation at three sites in the Big Bend region. Note that there are no fungi or Coleoptera species listed among the unique species in the previously linked catalog of unique organisms. That is almost certainly not the real case, but I'm sure that is an artifact of the anti-evolution majority in North Florida's legislative representation and general population.

Campbell has a ton of work ahead of him, and multiple generations of faith-based ignorance of how the world works will require multiple generations of effort if it is to change. For every David Campbell in North Florida there are probably a half dozen Teresa Yanceys, laboring away day in and day out to help insure the worthlessness of science education in that part of the country. Despite the incompetence and malfeasance of such individuals, they earn the same pay as good teachers and keep their jobs for just as long. That's an unfortunate situation, and I hope that the day will come when it is no longer the case.

I'm glad to see an article in the New York Times lauding David Campbell. He deserves far more than a journalistic pat on the back, as does Florida Citizens for Science. I don't think that I would have the patience to face what Campbell deals with, day after day, school year after school year, for the rest of my career. If I were him, I'd probably have sent my resumé to school districts in other states by now... and who would stand up to the Teresa Yanceys and private Christian academies in the state that produce the kind of ignorance, the scientific illiteracy, suffered by students like Bryce Haas?

I couldn't do it. I applaud Mr. Campbell for his sheer mental toughness in sticking his finger in the dyke that holds back the powerful tide of the disenlightenment that threatens not only Florida but our entire nation.

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