Teaching Old Controversies before New: The Galileo Affair and Darwinian Revolution

Oscar Chamberlain and Anthony Millevolte, May 2010

One hundred fifty years following its debut, Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection remains controversial in the public arena—even though the idea has been widely accepted among practicing biologists since the 1920s. Resistance to evolutionary views of human and animal origins extends far beyond the borders of the United States and cuts across religious beliefs. In the United States the well-entrenched positions and determined polemics of the Creationist/Intelligent design adherents and their opponents have nearly crowded out the opportunity for a reflective, dispassionate consideration of the debate—either in the public sphere or in the classroom. Yet the question of the origin and development of life is a fundamental one that cannot be sidestepped by a university. We have addressed this controversial topic in an effective and meaningful manner in a history of science course by pairing it with a once controversial topic of equal importance: the Copernican Revolution.

Teaching of Evolution at the College Level

When students are introduced to the concept of evolution at the University, it almost always occurs in lower-level biology courses. In this setting, the subject is typically introduced to students from the perspective of modern science and as a matter of fact. Thus, the concept is largely divorced from its historical origins and its cultural and religious implications are set aside. Given the goals of an introductory biology course and the practical limits of time, such an approach is probably not avoidable and may be entirely appropriate. However, it may leave determined non-believers (of evolution) on the outside looking in, or worse—alienated and insulted.

While the opportunities to mitigate such undesirable outcomes may be limited in introductory biology courses, courses in the humanities are not similarly constrained. There is not a strong obligation to explicitly advocate one view over another in a history course—only the need to describe and clarify the different points of view, the arguments that are used to support them, and the importance of those points of view to the people in a given place and time. That is, the historical and cultural significance of an idea is not always dependent on its being either scientifically or religiously “true.”

We knew that, ideally, this approach could create the opportunity for a non-threatening environment where the students are free to consider all of the aspects—the scientific, theological, and cultural—of the Darwinian Revolution/Creationism controversy. Still, it seemed like a tall order to have students engage in an open, authentic, but reasonably dispassionate discussion of the evolution vs. creationism debate in the classroom when the nature of the subject seems to lend itself to strong feelings. Indeed, the antagonistic manner in which the controversy has played out in the media and in the courtrooms serves as an all-too-compelling model for behavior in discussing the issue before the students even get to the classroom. It became clear to us that we needed to provide the students with a very different model for debating ideas—and one that was appealing enough that students would be open to considering and trying on for size ideas and perspectives that were not their own.

Old Controversies before New: The Galileo Affair

To do this, we chose to first consider and debate a parallel controversy that is now far from being controversial: the heliocentric vs. geocentric controversy of the early 17th century. Like Darwin’s theory, the Copernican view was a major transition in thought that had implications far beyond its scientific origins and which raised similar cultural, philosophical, and theological problems in an emotionally charged environment.

Students today do not have strong emotions about the movement of the earth and its displacement from the center of the universe. The sun is at the center of the solar system, and that is that. So the pedagogical challenge here is to immerse them in a much earlier worldview so they can appreciate just how reasonable the Earth-centered view of the cosmos was. Put somewhat anachronistically, it was good science as well as God’s word. Only when they understand that can the students understand how improbable and threatening the new ideas of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo were. To accomplish this they are required to learn in detail multiple aspects of the debate including the elemental features of observational astronomy, the various geocentric astronomical theories, Aristotelian physics, and the relevant theological ideas as they existed in the 16th and early 17th centuries. After developing a firm appreciation of the geocentric view and its great philosophical and theological coherence, we then have the students develop an appreciation of the Copernican view. Such an in-depth examination of both world views, and the conflict between them, requires a full 8 weeks of the 15-week course in order that the students attain mastery of the range of arguments. They exhibit their understanding of the two positions in a lengthy written dialogue and an extended in-class debate.

While both the breadth and depth of the material is challenging in this case study, the students enjoy trying the different viewpoints on for size—with many of the best students finding enjoyment in strongly advocating for the geocentric position during in-class debates—even though they know it to be “wrong.” These students come to understand just how powerful and emotionally appealing the arguments were for the geocentric system and they take joy in exploiting them fully. In-class debates are typically transformed into full-blown role-playing with imaginative and historically plausible arguments and counter-arguments being skillfully wielded by the students. It is ironic and valuable that the students become very passionate about these debates—even though they are fictional reenactments orchestrated by the instructors. In this environment, the students exhibit a surprising capacity and enthusiasm for relativistic and metacognitive thinking.

The Current Controversy: The Darwinian Revolution

Only in the second half of the course do we address the issues surrounding today’s controversy—the Darwinian Revolution. Once again, we expect students to be able to understand the arguments and reasoning posed by the different sides of the debate just as they had done for the Copernican Revolution. Since the habit for trying different positions on for size had already been well developed, we’ve not encountered resistance from students for having to learn either biblical exegesis, the details of evolution by natural selection, or the ways in which the idea of natural selection has been used and misused since Darwin proposed it in 1859. We also make clear to the students that they are not obligated to make a personal commitment to one view or the other—they learn how and why some ideas are accepted or rejected, but we never demand belief.

We have been so committed to this sense of fair play that we don’t always get to learn what the students think about evolution privately. Indeed, some semesters the students don’t know what we think as well and have asked us to divulge our own beliefs. And while such an approach might be open to criticism for carrying the risk of unrestrained relativism we feel that it is an important risk to take for creating a social space where students can safely and in an informed way try potentially divisive and emotionally-charged ideas on for size.

Parallels and Conclusions: Both Ours and Theirs

In any case, and regardless of the pedagogy, students will arrive at their own conclusions privately. In examining the Copernican Revolution and the debates associated with the “Galileo Affair” it is clear to the students that only one of the two positions, the heliocentric, turned out to be correct. Likewise, it is clear to the students that young earth Creationist and state-of-the-art evolutionary viewpoints are mutually exclusive of each other—at least one of them must be incorrect. Discussions with students at the end of the course suggest that many do walk out of the classroom door with a better appreciation of the kinds of reasoning that the different sides in both episodes used in advocating one view over another. In the case of the Copernican Revolution, the students themselves know that some kinds of reasoning turned out to be better than others. Will students use the parallels between the two episodes to inform their personal views on the Evolution/Creation controversy? That is up to them. By teaching them the approaches to reasoning, by exposing them to the parallels, but then leaving the formation of their conclusions to them, we think we have improved the odds that they will.

Oscar Chamberlain is a senior lecturer at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and at University of Wisconsin-Barron County. He is also project director of the Teaching American History grant project, Making Americans, Making America.

Anthony Millevolte is an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin Colleges where he teaches chemistry and the history of science.