Dialogue in Darwin

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Dr. Pinkelman’s BIO 2348 considers the life of Charles Darwin and the impact of his theories on contemporary scientific research and popular thought. Photo by Kaity Chaikowsky.

Three days a week, a cohort of students gather on the second floor of Braniff. They trickle into Room 201 in the minutes before one o’clock, making their way to the Darwin class.

Dr. Pinkelman’s BIO 2348 considers the life of Charles Darwin and the impact of his theories on contemporary scientific research and popular thought. The Banner Web course description describes the Darwin course thusly: “Commentary from critics and supporters of Darwin’s work aid in understanding the current status of the theory of natural selection and its influence.”

In Darwin, Science and Humanities students coalesce. The course, capped at 41 students, is completely full, and comprises a fair amount of non-science majors who may find it an attractive option for fulfilling their Life Science requirement. Unlike many biology courses, Darwin has no lab component, a likely reason for its appeal beyond the bio field.

Also appealing, perhaps, could be the course’s subject matter. Natural Selection and its role as the mechanism of species’ evolution is a source of contention among many Americans. This is not news; I, for one, have experienced first-hand arguments over these topics among family members and friends. What surprises me more than the controversy surrounding Darwin’s theory, however, is the disconnect between scientists and non-scientists regarding the topic.

For example, a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center polled scientists associated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science on their beliefs regarding human evolution; the center then polled American citizens more broadly. The results were telling: although 98 percent of the scientists shared a belief that humans evolved over time, only 66 percent of Americans overall perceived a scientific consensus on the topic.

This statistic reminded me of a program run by the National Center for Science Education. Called Project Steve, the program compiles both a list of scientists who denounce natural selection, and a list of scientists with the name Steve who support natural selection. Despite the fact that Steve’s comprise less than one percent of affiliated scientists in America, they outnumber the scientists on the other list.

The purpose of Project Steve is to reveal the extent of scientific consensus on natural selection, and to shed light on the degree of difference between popular and academic opinion on the topic. Even at the University of Dallas, I sense there may be some disconnect. I have had conversations with colleagues who reject natural selection and imply that there is no agreement among scientists concerning its validity.

As an outsider to Dr. Pinkelman’s class, I wonder how she addresses Darwin’s theories with her students. She may be dealing with a wide audience — students familiar with UD’s science courses might respond very differently to talk of evolution and natural selection than those students who are taking Darwin as a course outside their major. I’ve been told that she splits students into groups to discuss their readings, so that science majors and non-majors mingle. That seems like a good idea, as long as students are willing to participate in discussions. Perhaps in talking about the current status of the theory of natural selection, the class will explore the ranges of opinion on the theory.

The Darwin class seems an excellent opportunity for dialogue over an often testy topic. When I step into my own classroom every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I consider skipping class – just once! – to observe the conversations occurring across the hall.

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