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Devoted to guiding educators towards a centered and intentional Montessori practice.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Evolution & Intelligent Design: Science & Stories in the Montessori Cultural Curriculum

            Montessorians do a wonderful job of being open to and welcoming of many different cultures and global perspectives within the broader Cultural Curriculum. In our classrooms we often share other ideas on the origins of the universe and the emergence and development of life (myths, legends, family beliefs, etc.). Such practices help develop tolerance and morality.
            In our effort to be inclusive and build community, however, we cannot become so permissive that we allow such stories and philosophies to replace science. The cultural stories that are shared are not equivalent substitutions for the scientific explanations for the same events. This is a separate and distinct discussion to one of beliefs. Evolution is a scientific theory, not a philosophy resting on faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 King James Version). Our scientific discussions in no way rule out the possibility of a creator; they merely focus on the data gathered and reviewed.
            In order to speak with authority, it is important that teachers have a firm understanding of what biological evolution is, and of its principle mechanisms: natural selection and genetic drift. The theory of biological evolution is “the process of change in the inherited traits of a population from one generation to the next” (Dorer, 2008). Natural selection causes “heritable traits that are desirable to become more common in a population; traits that are not, are eliminated (Dorer, 2008). “Organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring”(Oxford American Dictionaries, 2005). Genetic drift refers to “random changes over time” (Dorer, 2008) “owing to the chance disappearance of particular genes as individuals die or do not reproduce”(Oxford American Dictionaries, 2005). Educators need to know the science underpinning the theory of biological evolution, and the empirical, data-driven and peer reviewed examples that support it.
            I believe that it is important that we use the word science to denote the kind of study we might be engaged in at a particular time. We need to define what “being scientific” looks like so that children and their parents understand that we are, in fact, taking sides.
            According to the Oxford American Dictionaries (2005), science is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” It is a way of knowing that is grounded in objective study and the testing of ideas. Biological evolution is a theory, “ a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something”, where supposition means “an uncertain belief” (Oxford American Dictionaries, 2005). A theory is only uncertain, however, because it cannot (yet) explain everything that we observe occurring in nature. That doesn’t mean that what it can explain – scientifically – is less valid (Jones in Barlow, 2006, p. 67). 
            Creationism is a religious philosophy that “the universe and living organisms originate from specific acts of divine creation (Oxford American Dictionaries, 2005). It is a story, but not a scientific one. Likewise, Intelligent Design (ID) is also a religious perspective – this one attempting to use science as a mechanism to legitimize its validity. There are two principle tenets of ID: “that life, and the complex processes by which cells do their work, cannot have been produced by that combination of chance and necessity known as Darwinian evolution” (Peterson, 2005, p. 413); and, “ the kind of information embodied in things that are designed can only be produced by an intelligent agent, not by undirected material causes.  Design, they say, is empirically detectable…in living things” (Peterson, 2005, p. 413). Backers of ID believe that reasonings such as the theory of evolution are “wholly insufficient…to explain the specified complexity that characterizes life at the cellular and molecular level”( Peterson, 2005, p. 418).
            Principle ID proponent and spokesperson Michael Behe, professor of biology at Lehigh University and author of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge of Evolution, believes that some biological systems are “irreducibly complex”(Behe, 2002)  – that is, to break them down into their component parts would be to find examples of structures that do not operate alone and are therefore not consistent with the “numerous, successive, slight modifications of prior systems”(Behe, 2002) as required by Darwinian evolution. Behe sights the flagella of bacteria as one such example.
            The evidence for irreducibility, however, has not been found. “Evolution produces complex biochemical machines by copying, modifying, and combining proteins previously used for other functions” (Miller, 2002). In fact, citing Behe’s flagella example, Miller goes on to show how some of the proteins involved do work independently and can be acted upon by natural selection.
            Another supporter of the intelligent design concept, Jonathan Wells, author of Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution is Wrong writes about ten “icons” that he believes indicate flaws in the theory of evolution. Wells “suggests that Darwinism encourages distortion of the truth” and claims that “[s]tudents and the public are being systematically misinformed about the evidence for evolution” (p. xii). One of Wells’ principle examples, however, that comparative drawings of vertebrate embryos faked by the German scientist Ernst Haekel are still being taught as credible examples for evolution has been wholly discredited by the scientific community. “Regardless of Wells’ religious or philosophical background, the Icons of Evolution can scarcely be considered a work of scholarly integrity” (Miller, Janata & Olson, 2006).
            In a 2005 ruling against the Dover [Pennsylvania] Area School District that had required the inclusion of Intelligent Design in the ninth-grade biology curriculum at Dover High, Judge John E. Jones III cited the American Association for the Advancement of Science in their contention that “the Intelligent Design movement [had] not proposed a scientific means of testing its claims and that the lack of scientific warrant for so-called ‘intelligent design theory’ [made] it improper to include [it] as part of science education”(Barlow, 2006). Jones ruled that intelligent design was a “religious theory. Therefore it should not be taught in a science class, not even as a counterpart to evolution. Teaching intelligent design would violate the Establishment Clause because it substitutes a particular religious theory over a scientific theory (ACLU, n.d.).”
            Dr. Steve Case, Research Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas and former chair of the Kansas Science Curriculum Standards Writing Committee, believes that the intelligent design idea is a “God of the gaps” concept; that “God lives in the gaps in our understanding”(Miller, Janata & Olson, 2006). If we introduce intelligent design as a viable scientific theory in schools we set children up, he reasons, to have either a “crisis of faith” or to be “anti-intellectual”( Miller, Janata & Olson, 2006); either students learn more of what the scientific evidence shows and in turn question their faith, or they turn wholly away from learning because if the universe is so complex, we cannot possibly understand it, so why even try.
            As teachers, then, we face an ethical dilemma in treating the stories that are brought to the Montessori cultural curriculum as equivalent to the science explaining the same events. Part of it is how these stories are brought to the fore. Myths, fables and legends used to demonstrate the myriad ways humankind has attempted to explain the strange and mysterious seem to me an entirely valid inclusion. Stories paired, however, with empirical, data-driven and peer reviewed scientific observations and experiments creates controversy in the discriminating minds of elementary-aged children where there is none. The disconnect is one of beliefs, not science.
            For older students, with a solid understanding of the scientific method, biological evolution and natural selection, a discussion of the history of scientific thought could be incredibly enlightening. Then, the tenets of creationism and intelligent design might be teased out and set beside the scientific evidence for evolution. This would be a philosophical discussion about the history of scientific thought – not science itself, because there is no scientific evidence to support either creationism or intelligent design.
            In our younger classrooms, then, let us explore what cultures from around the world have created to explain the mysterious and sublime. Let us truly revel in the similarities of perspectives and belief systems that people from across the globe share. But, let us not treat any of these stories as valid alternative scientific explanations for the theory of biological evolution. To do so would be to misrepresent science as purely conjecture taken on faith.


1. ACLU. (n.d.). Know your rights: A guide for public school students in Colorado             [Brochure]. Retrieved from http://www.aclu-co.org/education/youth/sybil_liberty/index.htm
2. Barlow, D. (2006). Dover schools’ unintelligent design. Retrieved  August 31, 2009.         From http://eddigest.com/
3. Dorer, M. (2008). Intelligent design, science and the Montessori curriculum. MediaSite    Recording. St. Paul, MN: St. Catherine University
4. Miller, S. & Janata, J. (Executive producers), & Olson, R. (Writer/Director).             (2006). Flock of dodos: The evolution-intelligent design circus [motion picture].              United States: Prairie Starfish Productions           
5. Natural History Magazine. (2002, April). Behe, M. (2002). The challenge of             irreducible complexity: Every living cell contains many ultrasophisticated             molecular machines. In R. Milner & V. Maestro (Eds.). Retrieved August 31, 2009 from, http://www.actionbioscience.org/evolution/nhmag.html 
6. Natural History Magazine. (2002, April). Miller, K. (2002). The flaw in the             mousetrap: Intelligent design fails the biochemistry test. In R. Milner & V. Maestro (Eds.). Retrieved August 31, 2009 from, http://www.actionbioscience.org/evolution/nhmag.html 
7. Oxford american dictionaries. (2005). Dictionary [computer software]. Apple             Computer, Inc.
8. Peterson, D. (2008). The Little engine that could…undo Darwinism. In J. Noll             (Ed.), Taking sides: Clashing views on educational issues (pp. 412-419). Dubuque: McGraw Hill.            
9. Wells, J. (2000). Icons of evolution: Science or myth? Why much of what we teach          about evolution is wrong. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc.

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