The Evolution Revolution
Two hundred years after Charles Darwin began a discussion of human evolution, people are still talking. The discussion, and specifically the issue of teaching evolution to children, continued Sunday at a PEN World Voices panel held at powerHouse Books in Brooklyn. Entitled, “Evolution for Children: The Fight Goes On,” the panel brought together authors Vicky Cobb, Tijs Goldschmidt, Deborah Heiligman and Mary Ann Hoberman, all of whom have been in the forefront in one way or another in the quest to keep the teaching of evolution in schools.
Cobb, a former science teacher and author of over 85 nonfiction books for children, began by announcing that she was going to put Darwin and evolution in “historical context.” Jumping out of her chair, she encouraged everyone in the audience to put one finger in front of their face, and to notice the shift in the background that occurred when one’s vision focused on that finger. That brief introduction to stellar parallax led to an overview of Copernicus and Galileo, with Cobb noting that when they proposed the theory that Earth was not the center of the universe, they were ridiculed. However, this is now accepted as fact, even by those who would call themselves religious. In this same way, Darwin’s theory has been mocked, yet Cobb believes that eventually, it too will be regarded as scientific fact by everyone. “It’s not about evolution,” Cobb said. “Anything that moves us away from being the ultimate product of God’s design is going to cause controversy.”
Although she never considered herself especially “religious,” Heiligman grew up in a Reform Jewish household and, in fact, majored in religious studies while in college. When she met her future husband, he was a science writer, and the two got into many discussions on the topic of evolution. While Heiligman says that she never doubted that evolution was scientific fact, she does say that often, during their conversations, she would reach a line between faith and reason that was difficult for her to cross. In passing one day her husband mentioned that Darwin’s wife Emma had been a religious person. The revelation that Darwin and his wife were able to remain committed to each other despite their differing views led Heiligman to write last season’s Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Henry Holt).
Mary Ann Hoberman, current children’s poet laureate, has witnessed firsthand the struggle to teach evolution in the classroom, or in some cases, to even allude to it. One of the poems that she often recites in classrooms contains a line about monkeys being almost like people. Hoberman stated that when she would often recite the poem, she began to notice “frosty looks” on the faces of teachers and parents. “I was getting fed up with what was going on in this country,” she says. And it was this frustration that led her to begin compiling, along with Linda Winston, an anthology of poems dealing with nature and the idea of evolution. The anthology, The Tree That Time Built, will be published in October.
As the debate over evolution and its place in schools continues, Heiligman suggests that instead of focusing on where we disagree, that we take a cue from Charles and Emma Darwin. “Charles and Emma talked about it their entire lives. That’s all we need to do,” she says. “We just need to talk about it.”