Santa Clause vs Alan Alda — Religion vs Evolution

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The attention of the Two Little Cousins and Huxley the Baby was easily diverted to the back of the house while Cousin Randy slipped out the front door into the cold dark night wearing the red suit and fake beard, carrying a bag of toys and a strap of sleigh bells. Suddenly, Cousin Chris exclaimed that she heard ringing sounds, and this made everyone stop talking and listen, theatrically. Sure enough, there was the sound of bells from somewhere outside! The two little cousins had a good idea what this meant; Huxley the Baby did not. Then, Grandpa exclaimed that he thought an animal had passed by the side window … a deer, maybe. No, said Grandma, a reindeer! Then there was a thud on the side of the house, and moments later a loud knock on the front door, which promptly flew open, letting in a cold draft, a few flurries of snow, and a large man with red cheeks and a gleam in his eye.

i-c546ba6e183d62fe95d534164705bc81-64064121_7508231e7f_z-thumb-250x595-74015.jpg“Ho Ho Ho,” said the pseudo-corpulent red-clad fur-trimmed bag carrying figure, whom almost every one knew was Randy. But the Two Little Cousins were certain this was the actual Santa Claus. Huxley the Baby remained unclear on the concept. And then The Routine ensued: Grandma sitting, laughing, on Santa’s lap, the teenagers sitting, uncomfortable, on Santa’s lap, and of course, the Two Little Cousins regaled with a few modest presents and a kiss. Huxley the Baby, by this point, was starting to get interested.

A year later on the same day (but in a different house) the Two Little Cousins showed signs of being suspicious, though their analytical powers were thwarted a bit by the adults having imported a Santa from California, Unrelated Cousin Glen. By this time Huxley knew who Santa was; he was the big red guy at the Mall, and now in the living room. The next year, Huxley would know more clearly that Santa lived at the North Pole with Elves, and the Two Little Cousins would be bigger and in on the secret.

And that is how we do it in some families. The little ones at first are astounded, sometimes scared, often amused. Then they believe. For a while. Then they are uncertain, and finally they are in on the joke. By the time they get to First Grade or so, the truth about Santa, as well as the Easter Bunny, is known and understood.

So, the other day, a biology teacher I know called me up and said “Hey, Greg, you study brains and stuff, what is the best reasonably current 30-40 minute video that shows stuff about brains, including that different areas of the cortex do different things, hopefully showing some experiments and good science, no misleading or old out of date stuff, etc. etc. For our AP biology class.” (AP = Advanced Placement.)

“Sure,” I said. “I’ve got some old stuff … haven’t taught brains in a few years … but I’m pretty sure there’s something newer, I’ll check it out and send it.”

i-e7a7efc1f72309650001430fdedb3aab-7066583879_e71ec28e9e_b-thumb-250x988-74017.jpgI had remembered that a year or so earlier, my daughter was very excited to meet Alan Alda as he was passing through doing a documentary, and my friend John Shea noted that Alda was learning to flake stone tools with him, and somebody said something about Alda and the FOX2P gene and Robin Dunbar and so on and so forth. Lots of people I knew or who knew people whom I knew had been exposed to the flurry of a PBS crew, Alda on top of it all, coming through and filming for a major documentary, and I had later heard it was quite good. So I found it, something about “the human spark” which is not, it turns out, some spiritualistic hard to put your finger on human-thingie, but rather, a set of interesting derived traits manifest in our behavior via the functioning of our evolved behavior organ … the brain.

So, I went through the documentary, made notes on where it could be started if leaving off the intro stuff was OK, where the outtro stuff started so that could be left off, all to fit into class time, and then I dogeared the start of each segment by noting the time and the topic. In each case I threw a sentence or two in my notes about items of interest that might otherwise be missed … “This is the guy I once told you about with the goat … This is the guy your whole department went and saw give that talk … Never mind that this experiment does not look kosher, it’s just the way they filmed it for the documentary … etc. etc.” I noted that the documentary was impressively good.

Then, I sent my notes and a link to the video off to the teachers. Just part of an hour’s work for a dedicated Science Communicator and Educator such as myself.

But there was a problem. I knew there would likely be this problem, but I was was not sure how the teachers would address it. Two thirds of the way through the documentary, religion came up, and it was examined in the cold hard light of science, and not for a moment was it, religion, represented as something that referred to reality. Gods, spirits, stuff like that was part of the human imagination and culture, something that may have resulted initially form “the human spark” overshooting its mark a bit. Then, once these symbolic constructs existed, they seem to have been used for social, cultural, and political purposes and sort of took on a life of their own. The documentary did not shift into a study of religion, but religion in all its bigness and strangeness was certainly addressed, just as other aspects of human behavior and culture were addressed, by the various scientists interviewed in that part of the show.

Here’s the problem. You see, it turns out that the Age of Passing of the Santa Claus and Easter Bunny Myths, while quite variable, happens early in elementary school for some large percentage of kids, but the Age of Passing for the “Treat Religion as Sacred because it might be real” myth is apparently in college, not high school, or maybe at the transition between the two life stages. The implication of Alda’s documentary, that religion is not about actual gods and spirits and souls is overt and not “balanced” with any lip service to the contrary, just like an adult version of the Santa story would not leave room for doubt that Santa is a mythical feature of our culture only seen as real by kids. (I do note that the acclaimed PBS documentary did describe very briefly some of the possible positive effects of religion, though not dwelling on such things, thankfully.)

The problem, then, was that this excellent documentary could not be shown whole by biology teachers in a US public school without taking certain risks. In a social studies class, it could have been presented as “just one opinion” which in my view would have been a bad idea, but this was a science class we were talking about. Because the transition from wide-eyed belief to “being in on it” to just doing and thinking other things entirely, with respect to religion, happens for enough kids only after high school, there would be offense taken. Offense, by itself, is no big deal. But this kind of offense about this particular topic leads to parents being offended in a rather special way. As I understand it, some of the parents had already approached the aforementioned teachers and warned them not to teach “fake biology” (what you and I know of as “Evolution”) in the advanced biology class. The truth is, there are some parents out there waiting for the opportunity to be offended.

I know, I know. You are thinking “how dare they say that” and “how dare this be a problem” and maybe even “how dare the teachers back off and not show the documentary just because it will question the beliefs of some students, who have it wrong anyway.” And I understand those feelings. But, such feelings are born, dear reader, of lack of experience, or in rare cases, atypical experience. The truth of the matter is that for public high school teachers in the United States to do what others might think of as perfectly normal things sometimes means getting shunned, harassed, even fired. Well, in a Unionized state, tenured teachers would not get fired for teaching actual science in a science class, but they can have their lives made miserable for the rest of their careers. It truly happens.

And, actually, they can get fired even if tenured and even if unionized. I know of a case, at another school, where a school board member decided to get back at a teacher (for teaching science in a science classroom) by simply unfunding the AP program. This teacher’s classes were all AP classes. A public high school does not have to have an AP program. Unfunding the AP program would have meant, potentially, letting go of any teachers tethered fully to that program. It turned out that this school board member’s plan was foiled, but the outcome would have been a dismissal of the teacher. Tenure in a Unionized system keeps you from getting fired, but does nothing to help you if you are obviated. Teachers do, in fact, take certain risks if they push certain buttons.

Alan Alda’s PBS documentary was shown in the classroom, and it went well. The teachers simply stopped the show at the point where Alan Alda and friends begin to expose the ugly truth that Skydaddy is actually somewhat easier to explain as a general phenomenon than the quirky historically complex Santa Clause or, even worse, Easter Bunny. And the part of the video they did show had the brains and the brain regions and the experiments and methods and mentioned evolution about 20 times, so it was good.

Students learned, no one was fired, and the secret has been maintained to the extent it needed to be. Some of the students are in on it, some of them suspect, and some still believe.

Just to be clear, this is the fundamental problem: It is OK to make casual and offhand statements, or even central and causative arguments, that involve god, Jesus, spirits, divine intervention or process, and so on, in a documentary or bit of literature in a public school classroom. For instance, imagine a documentary about Martin Luther King, and a prominent individual, maybe even a scholar, who knew him, makes mention of the “Promised Land” and how King really saw it, and how he was guided by a divine hand, bla bla bla. Such talk would be taken in uncritically by many. Atheists or agnostics in the classroom might be quietly annoyed but the teacher showing such a documentary would be in absolutely no danger whatsoever of administrative action, verbal assault by angry parents, or threats from overly self-important school board members. But if the same sort of thing happens in reverse … the casual mention of how religion, as a belief in stuff that is not there, might have emerged … then we have a delicate and dangerous situation indeed. In high school.

Most of the students in this class are seniors, and in less than a year many will be sitting in college classrooms in various locations near and far, and a few will probably be shown this very video in their intro Human Evolution class. And they’ll be, like, “WTF, I don’t remember that part … kewl!”

And so it will come to pass that the few who did not grow up in that last year of High School or the following summer will do so then, with respect to the last of their culture’s childhood myths.

Well, a few will still believe, but like I said of the first graders vis-a-vis Santa and the Easter Bunny … it is a percentage game. Those who don’t grow up will go on to become the angry and threatening parents, and a few will even run for school board. Hell, one or two might even become creationist biology teachers.

Photo of Mr. Alda by GabboT.
Photo of scary Santa by RaGardner4

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4 thoughts on “Santa Clause vs Alan Alda — Religion vs Evolution

  1. It’s been a while since I saw it, but I remember being annoyed at “The Human Spark”, for the opposite reason — I thought the repeated insistence on the presence of an alleged “spark” smacked of mysticism.

  2. It’s really unfortunate that this is the situation in US public schools, but I very much enjoyed your writing about it. Thank you for not responding with a vindictive diatribe but rather with an open, accessible and friendly piece which shows considerable elan.

  3. I live in a very different cultural background where a teacher would probably be fired rather for preaching whatever religious view they have than for teaching about evolution, I guess I have a problem with one concept – that a religious person is an anti-science crank.
    I’m a (very very bad) Buddhist and I actually don’t have any issue dealing with my sciencey stuff (I dabble in both botany and art history) totally separately from my belief that, say, I should behave myself towards fellow living organisms. I’m actually endlessly fascinated how faith led people to create many a beautiful and intellectually enriching thing. Okay okay, there were religious wars and there’s religious stupidity and religious kitsch but human proclivity to violence, stupidity and bad taste is universal, I guess.
    Anyhow, I understand the anti-religious stance in the context you describe; if I had children, I’d be that parent who would be very vocal about teaching sciences (and humanities – lots of damage can be done there as well) the damn proper way as they should be taught. Praying to whatever entity and socializing with fellow believers etc. can be done after school.

    Creationist biology teacher?!!!! Teh America is a land of endless possibilities, as it’s said here across the pond. Indeed. I’ll ask my friend who actually teaches future biology teachers whether someone denying evolution would be able to go through the college. Can’t imagine that the person wouldn’t be kicked out.

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