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Teaching Evolution

What do “Animal Rights,” “Bigfoot,” “Cannibalism Controversy,” “Genetic Engineering,” “Infanticide,” “Nazis, Evolutionary Program of,” “Social Darwinism,” and “Spiritualism” have in common? They are all entries in The Encyclopedia of Evolution by Richard Milner (New York: Facts on File, hic, 1990. p. 481). When people associate so many varied and inflammatory issues with evolution, to expect anything but controversy to accompany its teaching would be naive!

Docents teaching about biology, geology, and paleontology must be well prepared during docent training sessions to deal with the controversy surrounding this issue. They should not find themselves unprepared for a confrontation they did not anticipate or that they were not trained to handle.

The Official Museum Position Statement

The first step in preparing the museum and docents for the potential controversy surrounding evolution is to have an official museum position statement on the issue. The science, education, marketing, development, and other key departments, staff, and trustees should have input into its development and there should be institutional “buy-in” on it. This way, docents and staff know what will be supported in their work with the public. Docent training should include a discussion of this statement. Docents should understand, however, that having a policy on teaching evolution will not prevent the controversy, and since docents are on the “front line” with the public, they are likely to be the ones who encounter any difficulties most directly.

At the Denver Museum of Natural History, we allow creationist groups to take their own tours of the gallery, as long as they are not disruptive and do not distribute any written materials to other visitors. Some people are disturbed by this policy, because other visitors may hear the creationist-oriented guide discussing an exhibit in a manner that is at odds with the museum’s scientific perspective and could mistake this person for a museum representative. However, visitors will sometimes comment incorrectly about exhibits to other visitors, and it is neither possible nor desirable that the museum stifle their conversation. Rather, having museum staff and volunteers clearly identified is important in limiting mistaken identity. Some museums even have signs indicating how visitors can recognize museum staff and volunteers.

Guides at the Denver Museum of Natural History often call teachers before conducting school tours to find out what the particular interests are and how the students are being prepared for their visit. They inform teachers that evolution will be covered in their tour. This allows a teacher to elect not to take a guided tour or to give parents who have objections the option of keeping their children home.

The Role of the Docent as Educator

Docents need to understand that it is not their responsibility to “convince” or “persuade” visitors that evolution is “true” or that others should “believe” in it. Our role as educators is to inform visitors about biological concepts, fossil evidence, and the scientific interpretation of the evidence. It is the visitor’s job to take this information and use it in forming his or her own beliefs and ideas.

As educators, we want to encourage people to be careful observers and critical thinkers. We aren’t there to tell them what to think, but to give them information and assistance in gathering information about the natural world that they can use to synthesize their own views. What people believe is beyond parameters of our responsibility.

It can be frustrating for docents when visitors let them know that they just don’t believe what they’re being taught. Docents should realize, however, that this is okay and it does not mean they have failed in their responsibility.

Unfortunately, no matter how benignly we present evidence and its scientific interpretation, some individuals will feel threatened and may believe that we are trying to change their minds or attack their religious ideals. Some visitors may even attempt to force docents to defend their own personal beliefs. For example, docents have been asked by visitors to fossil exhibits, “Do you believe in the Bible?” and “Have you been saved?”

Docents do not need to defend their personal beliefs to visitors. When a docent recognizes that a visitor is not genuinely interested in teaming and discussing the scientific evidence, but only in arguing and disrupting the tour, the docent should be prepared to say that he or she was trained to present a scientific perspective while representing the museum, and that the visitor is welcome to talk to a staff member about the accuracy or appropriateness of this material.

Role playing exercises with docents taking the roles of creationist visitors who press the docent on different issues might help docents identify effective and appropriate responses to questions and gain experience handling these types of confrontations.

There are visitors who may be genuinely confused or distressed that the information a docent presents conflicts with what they have learned from other sources. This is especially true of children who have not been introduced to evolution before. It is important that docents be sensitive to visitors’ feelings and encourage them to pursue answers to their personal questions in forums other than the museum, as the docent is only trained and prepared to discuss the scientific perspective.

Docents who hold creationist beliefs themselves should not be required to teach concepts with which they fundamentally disagree. They should be encouraged to docent in areas that do not require discussion of evolution. They should also understand that if they choose to work in areas requiring discussion of evolution that they will be expected to present the information in a manner acceptable to the scientific perspective and educational goals of the museum.

Training should address the Evidence for Evolution

Science begins with observations of the natural world, in other words . . . evidence. Evolutionary theory and the evidence supporting it should be the primary subject covered in docent training. Your museum’s curators of biology, paleontology, and/or geology should serve as your primary resources. You might also want to obtain Norman D. Newell’s 1984 pamphlet, “Why Scientists Believe in Evolution, ” published by the American Geological Institute, and use it as a basis for planning your discussion.

Target Misconceptions about Evolution

  • “It’s just a theory. ” Literature written by leading biologists, geologists, and paleontologists refers to evolution as fact. The “theory of evolution” was a hypothesis developed by Charles Darwin and others in the 1800’s attempting to explain observations of the natural world. “Evolutionary theory” is the body of statements describing a known natural phenomena — evolution.
  • “Scientists don’t know how old the Earth is because radiocarbon dating has been proven inaccurate. ” Radiocarbon (carbon- 14) dating techniques have been adjusted and updated with use over time. However, radiocarbon dating is only useful for things under 50,000 years, old. There are many other types of radiometric dating that date things over 50,000 years old and can date things billions of years old. It is important to stress that radiometric dating is based on known laws of chemistry and physics that are applied to many problems of modem technology and are not just ideas related to dating the Earth and understanding evolution.
  • There aren’t any transitional forms in the fossil record.” Actually, there are myriad “transitional forms” in the fossil record including the well-documented sequence of evolution from reptiles to mammal-like reptiles to mammals and the one from dinosaurs to birds. Evolution is a mosaic–a group of animals evolving from one group to another will not always display features exactly intermediate between the two.

Tour and Presentation Techniques: Focusing on the Evidence

Effective tours and presentations incorporate participatory techniques such as hands-on specimens and questioning whenever possible. These techniques are especially important when teaching about evolution. Concentrate on the evidence. Use skeletons on exhibit and touch carts and tour baskets with fossils and specimens of modem organisms to illustrate evolutionary events and processes. Let visitors directly and tactilely explore the evidence. Discuss abstract concepts like geologic time using concrete representations or models, like a 20-foot timeline made of string or by relating geologic time to a calendar year. Allow visitors to hypothesize about the functions of features on skulls of fossils and modem animals. Let the visitor be the scientist, drawing conclusions based on evidence. If you can just start the visitor thinking about natural history, your tour is a success.

In conclusion, the docent’ s best tool for dealing with any controversy is to have a clear grasp of the subject and an understanding of the controversy itself. There are many references available on the controversy surrounding evolution, and a good resource library on the topic is important for museums dealing with this subject. Docents must also know that they have the firm support of the museum’s staff and trustees in educating the public about sensitive issues.

Rebecca L. Smith is the Earth Sciences Educator at the Denver Museum of Natural History. She is a member of the Museum ‘s triad management team and interpretative team for “Prehistory Journey, ” the Museum’s innovative permanent exhibit hall on the history of life on Earth, which opens in the Fall of 1995. She is also co-principal investigator for the National Science Foundation grant that is partially funding “Prehistory Journey. ” Prior to her work in Denver. Ms. Smith was an Education Specialist at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, where she coordinated the New Mexico Rural Science Education Project, training teachers throughout the state to use their local natural resources to teach science. Ms. Smith has also been a docent for the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and the Utah Children’s Museum. Ms. Smith earned her M.A. in Biological Anthropology from the University of New Mexico.

Smith, Rebecca L. “Teaching Evolution,” The Docent Educator 2.3 (Spring 1993): 10-12.


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