LIANE HANSEN, host:
Today, as we continue our Darwin 200 series, commemorating the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth, we're going to examine the effect his book, "On the Origin of Species," has had on education. Published in 1859, it articulated the idea of natural selection - that organisms evolved to incorporate traits that contribute to the survival of the species.
Darwin's theory collided with the cultural morays of the 19th century and questioned the biblical story of creation. Although he had a draft of the book in 1844, he waited 15 years to publish it. He was afraid his theory would alienate him from decent God-fearing society.
Fast forward now to the present and the state of Kansas, which has been publicly wrestling with how or whether to teach Darwin's theory of evolution in the public schools. Between 1999 and 2007, five different science standards were set for public schools - they are currently evolution-friendly.
(Soundbite of campus)
HANSEN: This is the campus of the University of Kansas in Lawrence. We are here to find out whether students with strong religious beliefs and backgrounds are able to reconcile their studies of the natural sciences with their faith. The longstanding debate between evolution and creationism makes Kansas a good place to ask our questions.
And one of the original copies of "On the Origin of Species" is housed in the university library. Steven Case is the associate director of the Center for Science Education at the university. Although not a native Kansan, Case has lived and worked here most of his life.
Dr. STEVEN CASE (Center for Science Education Associate Director, University of Kansas): We're clearly intellectually superior here in Kansas. And, you know, I know the rest of the country laughs at us, and that's why I threw out that smart-alecky comment. But, you know, we have small towns - about 80 percent of Kansas is occupied by small towns. And when you live in a small town, when you live in a small community, you all have to live together, which means we're going to have these rich dialogues and these ongoing conversations.
HANSEN: Steven Case chaired the Kansas Science Curriculum Standards Committee from 2004 to 2005, when the debate over the teaching of evolution was red-hot. Today, he teaches science teachers how to teach science. Years ago, he taught science in a private Catholic school and…
Dr. CASE: Was a lay minister and lector in the Catholic Church.
HANSEN: Is there a conflict between that which is referred to as creationism and that which is referred to as evolution?
Dr. CASE: Yes. Our findings in science about the natural world are very humbling for human beings because, all of the sudden, we're not the special creation. Just like Copernicus removed the Earth from the center, Darwin removed human beings from the point of everything.
Dr. PATRICIA HAWLEY (Psychology Professor, University of Kansas): Just because it's in nature doesn't mean it's good. Ebola is in nature, right? But raise your hand if you think it's good. Oh, you guys.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. HAWLEY: Go ahead.
HANSEN: Patricia Hawley is a psychology professor at the University of Kansas. She is not from Kansas, but she was intrigued by her adopted state, and whether the stereotypes about conservative, ultra-religious and rigid Kansans had any basis. Hawley wanted to know if strong religious backgrounds were a hindrance to learning about science and evolution. So, she's conducting a survey, and students in her evolutionary psychology class are taking part.
Dr. HAWLEY: Because it's an upper-level course, and it has evolution right in the title, I don't tend to get a lot of kids in that class who have trouble reconciling their spirituality with science.
HANSEN: We wanted to talk to some science students, who also profess strong religious beliefs, so, we arranged a meeting at the library.
Ms. NATASHA DEVORE (Molecular Biosciences Department Graduate Student, University of Kansas): My name is Natasha DeVore, and I'm a graduate student in the Molecular Biosciences Department.
HANSEN: Do you find you have to reconcile your scientific work with your religious beliefs? If so, why? If not, why not?
Ms. DEVORE: I don't know that I've ever had to really reconcile my faith with my science. My science - I see it as an outlet for understanding God's creation more. And I specifically work on proteins, so, when I look at a protein, I see God at work in it.
HANSEN: Where do you see God's work in a protein?
Ms. DEVORE: I think I see it in the perfection.
HANSEN: Natasha Devore belongs to a campus organization called the Intervarsity Graduate Student and Faculty Christian Fellowship. Its members are described as broadly, yet firmly evangelical. They meet every week or so for Bible studies, book groups and fellowship.
David McLeod also belongs to the group. He's a graduate student in herpetology, studying reptiles and amphibians. McLeod also works at the Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Institute. He was very cautious at the beginning of our interview, because he wanted to honor both his God and his school.
Mr. DAVID MCLEOD (Herpetology Graduate Student, University of Kansas): I love to investigate and that comes out of both an understanding of science and an understanding of what scripture has told me about who God is. If God made everything, then what I am studying is the stuff that God made. And it doesn't matter it's a bug, or a frog, or a snake, or a worm or a butterfly. It's fascinating stuff.
Dr. DAVID SLOAN WILSON (Biology and Anthropology Distinguished Professor, State University of New York at Binghamton): I'm David Sloan Wilson. I am an evolutionist. I'm not an evolutionary biologist because an evolutionist studies all things from an evolutionary perspective.
HANSEN: David Sloan Wilson is a distinguished professor in the departments of biology and anthropology at the State University of New York in Binghamton. He's also the author of "Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives." This past week he was in Washington D.C. to speak at a forum titled, "Evolution, Transcendence and the Nature of Faith."
Wilson is also the head of a consortium of evolutionary science departments at universities across the country. It's like an evolutionary think tank. The group is not only trying to make the word, evolution, less scary, but also to find ways for students to learn how evolution exists beyond the biological sciences. The consortium is conducting student surveys inspired by Patricia Hawley at the University of Kansas.
Dr. WILSON: How do we get people to accept evolution? Make it useful, make it unthreatening, explanatory. And then, anyone would embrace such an idea.
HANSEN: There's a quiz you give in your classes.
Dr. WILSON: I ask the audience to describe the morally perfect individual. I get the list that what you would expect, you know, love, honesty, sacrifice. It's always the same. And then I ask, describe the most morally reprehensible individual that you could imagine. So, now I have these two extreme descriptions. And I conduct three thought experiments. So, first, what would happen if you put a good and evil individual together on a desert island? And my students lose no time in saying that the moral individual will become shark food within days.
HANSEN: Here's Wilson's next question.
Dr. WILSON: What would happen if you put a group of good people on one island and a group of evil people on another island? And we make the islands far apart so that there's no travel between islands. Well, my students lose no time in concluding that the group of good people will build a little paradise or a ship to escape the island. And the group of evil people will self-destruct.
And then the third experiment is what happens when we allow one evil individual to paddle over to Virtue Island? And the answer to that question is not obvious because it's a messy combination.
HANSEN: When you present this to kids that have very strong religious beliefs, is it threatening?
Dr. WILSON: When I listen to religious folks talking to each other, as I do a lot, 95 percent of it is about peace on Earth, goodwill to men, and in a more local prosaic sense, good social environment for raising our children, and above all, for transmitting our best values to our children. I mean, transmitting our best values to our children, would that not be cultural evolution?
HANSEN: Heavy food for thought. But what if altruism, which is at the heart of most religious beliefs, actually serves an evolutionary purpose? What if those values meant that the inhabitants of Virtue Island survived, thrived and multiplied? David Sloan Wilson says that is an effective way to teach evolution to religiously devout students in a non-threatening meaningful way. Let's hear what our University of Kansas graduate student David McLeod has to say.
Mr. MCLEOD: How do you integrate faith into your group science is really no different for me than it would be for a baker, or a trash collector or an engineer, you know. To be a Christian in any of those fields, I hope would be the hallmark of integrity and honesty. But integrating your faith, man, I hope that people who have faith are in all kinds of fields. And, man, we need them in science, too.
HANSEN: The way that Patricia Hawley and David Sloan Wilson are integrating the theory of evolution into areas beyond biology seems to be working. Preliminary results show that this approach effectively teaches evolution to religious believers and non-believers alike, but does not erode religious faith.
Next week on our Darwin 200 series, we go to the Smithsonian Institution to see and smell the theory of natural selection. We'll visit the new exhibition at the Natural History Museum, "Orchids Through Darwin's Eyes."