Florida evolution education: a Mickey Mouse subject?

3 minute read

There’s a long article by Amy Harmon about Florida biology educator David Campbell and his struggle to get better evolution standards in Florida. It’s a good article with lots of elements that give the flavor of high school biology education and the struggle teaching evolution – both with students and with other biology teachers who have creationist leanings.

This is outrageous:

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."
Mr. Campbell was well aware of her opinion. "I don't think we have this great massive change over time where we go from fish to amphibians, from monkeys to man," she once told him. "We see lizards with different-shaped tails, we don't see blizzards --- the lizard bird."

The parts about standards are important, but the good parts of the article are the ones that describe Campbell’s time in the classroom with skeptical students. I think that anyone who has ever taught evolution, at any level, will recognize some of the problems he faces. Harmon’s talent is that she illustrates both the successful approaches and the not-so-successful ones.

For example, I see where the teacher is going with the Mickey Mouse example…

Mr. Campbell smiled. "Mickey evolved," he said. "And Mickey gets cuter because Walt Disney makes more money that way. That is 'selection.'"

…but it’s a bad example to start with. It’s not selection at all. It’s intelligent design. Mickey Mouse never lost money for Disney, and there were no dying Mickeys limping along through third-string theatre circuits. Also, the variations in Mickey-art were hardly random; Walt deliberately directed them in response to audiences and other animators. All in all, the example might help to get the students thinking about gradual change in phenotypes, but it’s a poor analogy.

Now, if we were actually going to discuss intelligent design, and set it apart from natural selection, Mickey Mouse might help to make that distinction clearer. It’s also a good example of another mystical (and false) hypothesis, orthogenesis. Remember Garfield, Homer Simpson, Bugs Bunny; they all get cuter over time. But I think the lack of seriousness just allows the die-hard creation believers to not take any of the rest seriously, either.

The end of the “Mickey” episode:

Some students were nodding. As the bell rang, Mr. Campbell stood by the door, satisfied. But Bryce, 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."

Wow. I admire high school biology teachers. I’ve been in the same situation with students, and the obvious response for me (knock the students hard over the head with Australopithecus) simply isn’t an option in most high school curricula. Which sucks.

The article describes the following day’s discussion, touching on the distinctions between science and religious faith, and it’s clear that is a better way to get through to the students. It also reveals that some students are learning about science from watching NBC. (Yes, that’s right, NBC, it’s going to take a lot to make up for your “Mysterious Origins of Man” and other garbage).

In any event, when Campbell actually does tackle human origins, you can tell that the students were waiting for it all along. They know that if evolution were only about dogs and horses, their pastors wouldn’t bother handing out leaflets and preaching against it. The article describes how well Campbell dispels many myths about human evolution.

I wish that all biology teachers were as well prepared. Human evolution should be a mandatory part of their training: if for no other reason than that so many of the important applications of evolutionary science, such as microbial evolution, drug discovery, agricultural science, and disease genetics, are human-directed. Evolution is important as a basis for biology, but it is worth learning in high school because of its impact on other fields as well.