What it's like to teach evolution at the University of Kentucky

James Krupa has taught University of Kentucky non-science majors their required biology course for 20 years, and he views the job as a mission, to undo the cowardice or squeamishness or lack of rigor that leads Kentucky's children to arrive at university never having learned the foundations of evolution, on which the whole edifice of biology rests.

The University of Kentucky has been an oasis championing evolution for a century. John Thomas Scopes, the Tennessee teacher whose insistence on teaching evolution led to the "Scopes Monkey Trial," was a Kentucky alum who credited his teachers there with impressing evolution's importance upon him.

About half of America denies evolution in whole or part, and many of those deniers are also Young Earth Creationists who put the age of the planet at less than 10,000 years and hold that humans and dinosaurs co-existed in antiquity. Many students in Krupa's class come from deeply religious backgrounds and have been indoctrinated with myths about evolution, such as the old saw that Darwin recanted evolution on his deathbed.

Krupa's essay on his decades of experience with these students talks about three groups: students who believe in evolution but have never studied it in detail because the conflict-averse teachers they've had until then have avoided the subject; students whose religious beliefs are so firmly seated that they won't listen to his arguments, and students who are in the middle, minds open, but unconvinced either way. He says that it's this last group he tries hardest to reach, but one of his most inspiring triumphs comes from the second group, a fervent evangelical who was infuriated by Krupa's patient teaching, but found the rebuttals offered by his evangelical teachers so unconvincing that he threw over his belief in Biblical creation and became an MD.

Krupa goes to pains to reconcile faith and evolution. Three consecutive Popes have endorsed evolution (a Vatican astronomer called Creationism "paganism"). Many evangelicals, including Jimmy Carter, profess belief in evolution. From the sounds of things, Krupa often encounters a blank cognitive dissonance:

Some students take offense very easily. During one lecture, a student asked a question I've heard many times: "If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" My response was and is always the same: We didn't evolve from monkeys. Humans and monkeys evolved from a common ancestor. One ancestral population evolved in one direction toward modern-day monkeys, while another evolved toward humans. The explanation clicked for most students, but not all, so I tried another. I asked the students to consider this: Catholics are the oldest Christian denomination, so if Protestants evolved from Catholics, why are there still Catholics? Some students laughed, some found it a clarifying example, and others were clearly offended. Two days later, a student walked down to the lectern after class and informed me that I was wrong about Catholics. He said Baptists were the first Christians and that this is clearly explained in the Bible. His mother told him so. I asked where this was explained in the Bible. He glared at me and said, "John the Baptist, duh!" and then walked away…

Of all the lectures I give, this one provokes the most discussion after class. Yet it often results in students expressing concern that I might not be saved. I never say anything about my personal religious beliefs, yet it is assumed I am an atheist. One student told me she hoped I could find God soon. Several simply let me know they will be praying for me and praying hard. One student explained that as a devout Catholic he had no choice but to reject evolution. He accused me of fabricating the pope's statements. When I explained that he could go to the Vatican website for verification or call the Vatican to talk to a scientist, he insisted that there was no such information available from the Vatican. He then pointed his finger at me and said the only way he would believe me is if then–Pope John Paul II came to my class to confirm these quotes face-to-face. The student then stomped out, again slamming the auditorium door behind him.

Defending Darwin {James J. Krupa/Orion]

(via Kottke)