The first person to seriously teach me about evolution was a creationist. I say this in all seriousness, using a non-ironic sense of the word “teach”. This creationist was my 7th grade science teacher, who for the purposes of this essay, we’ll call Ms. Science. I went to a small school, so Ms. Science taught science courses for grades 6, 7, and 8, and 7th grade was the year we studied “Life Science”. An appropriately large portion of the course was dedicated to teaching us the principles of evolution, and we learned it straight out of the textbook. There was nothing to indicate that our teacher didn’t wholeheartedly believe everything she was teaching, and I ended the year with a decent (for a 7th grader) understanding of evolutionary theory.
But the last day of instruction came with a twist. Ms. Science revealed to us that a large number of people, including many American Christians, didn’t believe in evolution at all. She told us there was actually quite a bit of evidence suggesting that evolution was false. She told us that this was her own view: that God created everything in a 144-hour span in approximately 4,000 BC(E). I was dumbfounded by this: to know that a teacher had taught us something – something big! – that she didn’t believe, was shocking. It felt like a betrayal. But I wanted to learn more, so I listened to what she had to say. She didn’t actually say much, just gave a brief introduction to Creationism before putting on a video. But I watched that video raptly. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. And the star of that video was none other than “Dr.” Dino himself, Mr. Kent Hovind.
The video was the first in a 7-part series, giving an overview of Hovind’s ideas about creation, evolution, the Garden of Eden, and our place in the universe, and it was the most iconoclastic thing my young mind had ever seen. For most of our class period, this man inveighed against everything I’d been taught: evolution is a lie, the Catholic Church is satanic, and the only version of the Bible that isn’t written by Satan himself is the KJV. I was enthralled, especially since this came at a time when I was starting to see the holes in the Catholic story I’d been taught my whole life. Everything he was saying seemed so intuitive and so coherent, despite flying in the face of just about everything I’d learned about science and religion, so I thought this guy was at least worth considering. So naturally, as soon as I got home, I watched the entire 7-part video series (it ended up taking me several days, those things are long) on the family computer.
Now, I knew better than to revise my position on one of the most important scientific theories ever thought up based solely on the word of some fast-talking Floridian preacher, but I could see why Hovind’s rhetoric was convincing. He was plainspoken and confident, and he had a well-rehearsed arsenal of jokes and illustrative anecdotes. He kept the audience engaged with brain teasers and lessons (including “the scientific way to shoot a rubber band“) which he transitioned seamlessly into facile analogies for whatever he wanted us to swallow in that special way that only con artists can. I deeply regret watching the video as intently as I did, since I missed the chance to see whether any of my classmates were actually taken in by it, but I’m confident that a few of them came out of that class with serious doubts about evolution. In this light, I never stopped to wonder how Ms. Science could believe such irredeemable batshit lunacy – it actually didn’t seem like lunacy until I’d reflected on it later – because I knew she was only human, and that’s just one of the things humans do. As a kid starting to have doubts about my faith, I figured I was among the second-most receptive group to this stuff, and I figured further that if Ms. Science had never been part of this group, then she must have belonged to the most receptive group: those who’d been taught this stuff their whole lives.
But here’s the crazy thing: whatever led Ms. Science to believe that evolution was a lie did not preclude her competence as a teacher of Life Science. I don’t know where she is now, but if I met her again, I’d ask her if she ever wondered whether what she was teaching us might be true. I’d like to think that she did, that she wasn’t just teaching us information that she thought was grossly misleading, but in any case, I respect her for doing it. Because she understood what people like Kim Davis don’t: that if you have a job, you must either fulfill the requirements of your job or get the hell out. Ms. Science chose to swallow her pride, hold her tongue, and do her job, saving the honest presentation of her beliefs until after she’d done what was required of her. That kind of dedication is something I can’t help but respect, especially knowing that she didn’t even endorse the material she was teaching. It must take a tremendous amount of faith or cowardice to stand in authority over dozens of impressionable young minds – the leaders of tomorrow, as they never tired of calling us – and feed them lies straight from the Serpent’s mouth. So was she so spineless as to go against her deep religious convictions on the orders of her boss? Did she think we’d take what she said to heart and thereby damn ourselves to an eternity in Hell? I don’t think so. For one, Jesus Himself strongly disapproves of leading children to Hell. Furthermore, she presented the Hovind video as if it were the capstone of the whole Life Science curriculum. She seemed very confident that we would take the Creationist message seriously, and the videos make it clear why. Hovind’s whole premise is that the arguments for evolution are paper-thin and can be demolished with a few simple questions, and from her behavior, it seemed like she’d swallowed this view wholesale. The way I like to imagine it, she’d heard so often that all the evidence was on her side, that she had no problem seriously presenting the opposing case. I believe that she taught us evolution out of a desire to “teach the controversy”, confident that the truth of Creationism would be indisputable once we were exposed to it. I don’t think she could’ve seen it any other way.
Despite all this, however, I thoroughly enjoyed my 7th grade Life Science class. I got to make a cake whose toppings represented the parts of the cell, and to this day I still know what ribosomes are for. This was the context in which I was introduced to the principles that underpin natural selection and from which a philosophical argument can be constructed for the necessity of evolution in biological populations. And honestly, nine months of useful, interesting knowledge followed by one day of irredeemable batshit lunacy was more than I’d learned to expect from most of my classes.