News: News Archives
Ursula Goodenough: A Deeper, More Meaningful Story of Creation
ST. LOUIS — In the catalog at Washington University, the course is BEP210A, The Epic of Evolution, and nothing in the title explicitly suggests revolutionary intent. But for biology Professor Ursula Goodenough, a survey that takes students from the Big Bang to plate tectonics to the inner workings of awareness has the potential work a fundamental, permanent change in the relationship between a student and science.
During a plenary lecture at the AAAS Annual Meeting, Goodenough walked the audience through the course — its material, its rationale and its spirit. The course amounts to a history of nature, she said, a set of interwoven stories rich in unexpected climaxes and amazing revelations, with many unsolved mysteries. The problem is that there are few courses like it, and virtually none in kindergarten-12th grade schools.
“I’m not suggesting… that the history of nature replace science,” she said. “I’m probably as conservative as anyone in this room in thinking that regular science instruction should go on…. Rather, I’m suggesting that the exclusion of this material from our curriculum represents at a lost opportunity to develop a lifelong interest in scientific understanding.”
After the speech and a long question-and-answer session were done, and after the applause faded, a couple of dozen people lingered at the stage to continue the discussion. It was evident that Goodenough had touched a nerve among scientists and educators struggling for a way to stop the seeming freefall of science literacy and to impart the wonder of science to a new generation of students.
[See a PDF version of the PowerPoint presentation that accompanied her address here.]
Goodenough is an accomplished cell biologist, and her primary teaching at Washington University in St. Louis has been a cell biology course for undergraduate biology majors. She wrote the textbook Genetics, which is recognized as a classic in the field, and served a term as president of the American Society for Cell Biology.
But she is known as well for writing that knits science, nature and spirituality into a unified world-view. She has been president of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science. She describes herself as a “nontheistic religious naturalist” who believes that humans of all faiths — and those of no religious faith — should join to hold the earth and the processes of nature sacred. She explored these ideas in her best-selling 2000 book The Sacred Depths of Nature.
Read All About It!
For more AAAS news from the 2006 Annual Meeting in St. Louis, Mo., click here.
In her 40-minute AAAS plenary address on Saturday 18 February, Goodenough suggested that declining science literacy among Americans, the belief in religious creationism and rejection of evolution are in part a function of how science is taught in the schools.
While it is important that the science curriculum include “regular” science instruction, complete with axioms, laws, equations and nomenclature, she said, these can be framed in the context of the historical sciences — biological history, geological history and the history of the universe — in a way that greatly enhances their interest.
Not surprisingly, she and her colleagues found in a recent study that the United States is extremely cautious of teaching evolution. Only 30 percent of U.S. states have kindergarten-8th grade science teaching standards that mention fossils. Only six have standards that specifically mention human evolution. (The six: Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island).
And so, there’s a riddle central to her work: The history of nature and the origin and development of life on Earth have emerged in recent decades as an extraordinary, unified narrative. And humans, from their earliest years, tend to think in narrative terms. Therefore, she asks: “Why don’t we teach such a history of nature in our schools?”
The course she teaches at Washington with physics Professor Claude Bernard and earth and planetary sciences Professor Michael Wysession might be a model for how such classes would look, at least at the advanced high school and undergraduate levels.
The course is designed for students who aren’t majoring in science. The three professors alternate from week to week, so that there’s a constant interplay between physics, the formation of the earth and the emergence of life. Science, of course, is central to the narrative. In studying the processes that have produced the Earth and life as we know it, students cover the Big Bang, the formation of elements, the birth and death of stars, electromagnetism, gravity and space time; the formation of planets, plate tectonics, volcanoes, oceans and climate; the first living cells, the progress and evolution of cells, genetics, embryology, the nervous system and the brain.
“It would be wonderful if a lot more of these courses could be developed on college campuses,” Goodenough said, “since that’s after all where the future teachers are learning their science. It would then follow that this material would start going into teacher-training courses as well. And eventually, for example, one might start developing AP [advanced placement] courses as a way of beginning to move this whole idea into the schools.”
But Goodenough sees a complex dynamic of social and cultural forces that have kept this from happening.
The course would need to be multidisciplinary, she said, and that still generates resistance. Plus, many teachers still don’t know the material well. Only since the 1970s has science reached consensus on the Big Bang, plate tectonics and evolution.
Other roadblocks are more submerged, but they have a common character:
- The scientism fear: It’s a central assumption
of science that all knowledge is provisional, Goodenough said; hence,
she said, “grand narratives” are considered inappropriate.
While the assumption is true, she said, it does not follow that
it is inappropriate to convey our current understandings in an integrated
- The religion fear: “The history of nature
does not map onto portions of most traditional religious texts,”
she said. “Teaching the history of nature is likely to raise
objections from some religious groups.”
- The morality fear: Some people worry that an
acceptance of this scientific view of life will undermine conventional
morality. Goodenough sees that sentiment in U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay’s
1999 statement on the causes of the Columbine High School massacre
in Colorado: “Our school systems teach our children that they
are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized [sic] out
of some primordial soup of mud, by teaching evolution as fact.”
When the audience groaned at DeLay’s quote, Goodenough continued: “He’s speaking for a lot of people. There’s a lot of concern about what these kinds of understandings will do to morality, and I think we need to take that seriously. But at the same time I think all of us agree that this is a very unfounded fear. The apes in fact are pretty moral, it turns out, maybe more moral than we are.”
- The existential fear: “This history is strange and unimaginable and it’s challenging to the concepts of human primacy,” she explained. “The existential concerns I think are much more readily addressed by telling this history early and often so that it becomes a part of a child’s and an adult’s context.”
If the impediments and fears can be put aside, Goodenough said, the history of nature yields a new morality: She called it “eco-morality,” and said it embodies “a respect for and a reverence for this planet and everything on it.”
The history of nature “suggests that macro-evolution, at least, is not about survival of the fittest,” she explained. “It’s about fitting into the ecosystem and with other organisms one encounters.”
Further, she said, the story indicates several truths: “That racism and species-ism are errors — we are all related, we are all part of the same impetus. That human-caused mass extinctions are an avoidable tragedy. That a good planet is hard to find…That sustainability is an imperative. That we inhabit a mind-boggling and thrilling universe, and we may be the only beings who know something about it.”
Edward W. Lempinen
23 February 2006