The Sorrows and Joys of Teaching Evolution at an Evangelical Christian University
As I settle into the lecture, only I really know what is coming a mere few PowerPoint slides hence. The class is an upper-level course in genetics, and the topic is changes in chromosome structure. Starting with fruit flies as an example, I sketch out comparisons between closely related species for which complete genome sequences are available. Students learn about the evidence for chromosome fusions and fissions, the reordering of genes along chromosomes in different lineages over time (an issue of synteny which we have discussed before), and how these lines of evidence support the hypothesis that the various fruit fly species we observe in the modern day derive from common ancestral species in the past. Perhaps my using of the genuine estimates for speciation dates raises a few eyebrows, since “millions of years” is something of a byword for some antievolutionary groups, and fruit flies have been separating into new species for tens of millions of years. Still, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t really rocking anyone’s world: they’re all just fruit flies, after all, and I like to talk about them, since they’re the organism I do my research on.
After the “information dump” using the fruit fly examples, it’s time for a class discussion/application before the students drift off too much. Ok, here’s a slide that shows the chromosome structure of a group of organisms that other lines of evidence suggest are part of a group of related species. What do you observe? Do you think these species are related? If so, what explains the differences you observe?
What the students don’t know is that the slide shows human chromosomes, and those of our closest living relative, the chimpanzee. Oblivious to this knowledge, they easily arrive at the correct answer: yes, the evidence is strong that these are quite recently diverged species, and that a chromosome fusion or fission event explains the differences in chromosome structure between them. When I tell them that every other species in this grouping has the higher chromosome number/structure, they correctly deduce that the species with the lower chromosome number should show evidence of a fusion event in the form of “telomere” sequences at the fusion point and an inactive “centromere” at the location suggested by comparison to the other, related genome.
As I look around the room, I see the students are satisfied. I cover some difficult material in this course, and the students are obviously pleased that this topic is so easy to handle. The lines of evidence are easy to follow, and it’s easy to predict and test one’s hypotheses. Then, only after they’ve seen the evidence at least once without the baggage that will inevitably come, I ask them if they know what two species they’ve just compared.
As a biology professor at a primarily undergraduate, evangelical, liberal arts and sciences university, I have the profound privilege of teaching the principles of evolutionary biology to a variety of students, both biology majors and non-majors. As one might expect, teaching this subject matter at times engenders controversy, crises of faith, anger and fear in students (and others). These types of sorrows are relatively well known and have been discussed here on BioLogos by several authors. Yet there are also great joys associated with teaching evolutionary biology in a Christian setting, and in this post I reflect primarily on these as a counter-balance to the more frequent stories of conflict and struggle.
The sorrows …
Lest anyone think that this post is an attempt to present an overly-optimistic or whitewashed view of teaching evolution in an evangelical setting, let me acknowledge and affirm that the pain that many (yes, most) evangelical students go through as they learn about evolution is substantial and real. I have had too many long conversations with students caught between their faith communities and the science to deny this reality. I have seen students struggle with their faith, close their minds to the scientific evidence, and even resolutely declare that no amount of evidence would ever be enough to convince them that evolution is real. I have seen anger, hurt and fear. I have seen students willing to discard the nearly the entirety of modern science in order to maintain a particular anti-evolutionary view.
For me personally, the most difficult circumstances to watch are students who feel torn between the evidence and their faith. In some cases these are extremely bright students, who easily see the strength of the evidence, but feel the need to remain unengaged and uncommitted because they fear a backlash from their churches, or (especially) their parents. While an evangelical university can be a wonderful, safe environment for students to explore these issues, that environment doesn’t follow them home. These struggles are painful to watch, and I’ve spent more than a few hours in prayer for students facing them.
… and the joys
Yet for all these issues, I thoroughly enjoy teaching evolution at an evangelical university. Of course I do not enjoy the anguish it can produce for some of my students – far from it! Fortunately, conflict and emotional turmoil are not the whole story, and many evangelical students report that learning about evolution was a valuable, enriching experience, regardless of their views after the fact.
One of the things I enjoy most is that teaching evolution is never dull in an evangelical setting. My students might snooze through a class on cellular respiration, or be tempted to surf Facebook when they should be applying their reasoning skills to problems in genetics, but whenever evolution is the topic I have everyone’s full attention. Whatever else, evolution matters. That intensity of student engagement is invigorating, and the students feel it too. Regardless of where students ultimately decide to “land” on the issue, many report that they enjoyed the process – the exchange of ideas, the discussions and debates, and the new understandings gained.
In addition to the electrifying interest the topic holds for evangelical students, learning about evolution is also by nature a multidisciplinary enterprise and opportunity for personal growth. Students are not merely gaining a larger perspective in biology, but fitting that new understanding into their knowledge of Scripture, church history, and their own faith journey. Often in class students will contribute what they have learned in other courses to the discussion: courses dealing with the setting and context of Genesis, courses on church history, and courses on hermeneutics and exegesis frequently are drawn upon. It is for this reason that I feel learning about evolution in a Christian liberal arts university is one of the very best places to do so, providing the institution treats the topics fairly. In this setting, resources are available for all of the questions that evolution engenders for Christians, not merely the scientific ones. Moreover, faculty are generally able to assist students with resources that address these extra-scientific issues, and provide a safe and non-judgmental environment for students to learn. The ability to learn what can be faith-shaking material in a setting surrounded by professors committed to the academic and spiritual growth of their students can make all the difference. To be sure, this environment can be one of personal turmoil for students, but with that turmoil comes a rare opportunity for intellectual and spiritual growth in a way that other areas of biology simply cannot provide.
Many of my students, regardless of whether they ultimately accept or reject the evidence for evolution, report that they have grown spiritually through their learning process. Contrary to popular opinion, in my experience most who do come to accept the evidence for evolution also report this growth. They feel closer to God, not further from Him. They feel that they have a deeper appreciation for, and understanding of, His creation. They feel that their faith is now more their own, rather than merely that of their parents. Most importantly, they feel free: that they need no longer be afraid of evolution, but celebrate it as the mechanism by which God has populated His world with “endless forms, most beautiful.”
Seeing students experience that freedom is something that one cannot test on an exam, nor encapsulate as a teaching outcome – but it is a deep joy of my teaching career.
Dennis Venema is Fellow of Biology for The BioLogos Foundation and associate professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signalling.