Teaching evolution to Muslim students
April 25, 2015 4:58 AM   Subscribe

Associate Professor Rana Dajani describes why she teaches evolution to Muslim students in Jordan.
posted by 1head2arms2legs (23 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
I want them to show the argument they used to reach their conclusion, even if that conclusion rejects human evolution. Otherwise, I am doing what the people who decry evolution are doing: forcing an opinion on them.

I wonder if you could also get a pass for writing a paper in which you denied the existance of gravity. as long as you showed a good, if completely erroneous, argument claiming gravity didn't exist?

Brave woman, all the same.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:20 AM on April 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


Good luck to her.
posted by Thing at 5:27 AM on April 25, 2015


Peter McDermott: That was my concern, also, when I read this piece last week (I think?).
posted by bardophile at 6:05 AM on April 25, 2015



I wonder if you could also get a pass for writing a paper in which you denied the existance of gravity. as long as you showed a good, if completely erroneous, argument claiming gravity didn't exist?


I have read these. I did history of science in college and in one of my courses we read scholarly articles that disproved all kinds of controversial things like evolution and gravity. I wish I remembered authors' names so I could find them for you.

They're terrible. Full of holes (as you would expect), handwavey arguments, and citing God as a source.

It's one thing to encourage free thinking and give points for explaining your argument, but when it's bad science...that doesn't benefit anyone.
posted by phunniemee at 6:23 AM on April 25, 2015 [7 favorites]


Huh, the people from Jordan that I've worked with have had world class educations. Different universities or maybe things have declined over the years.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:19 AM on April 25, 2015


We're all glad that this prof is teaching evolution to her Muslim students, of course. Her historical framing of the reasons Muslims often reject evolution these days (colonialism, war with Christianity, etc.) is interesting. Otherwise, she mirrors exactly the thinking of Christian scientists (and popes, etc.) in the West who have no problem with evolution, although she doesn't explore the theological details much, due to the length of this piece.
posted by kozad at 10:22 AM on April 25, 2015


I want them to show the argument they used to reach their conclusion, even if that conclusion rejects human evolution. Otherwise, I am doing what the people who decry evolution are doing: forcing an opinion on them.

Honestly, I find it disconcerting that the professor thinks the empirical component of this material is just an opinion.
posted by clockzero at 10:23 AM on April 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


Honestly, I find it disconcerting that the professor thinks the empirical component of this material is just an opinion.

I agree. Adding reasoning to facts makes it a theory, but there is no excuse to label such a theory an opinion, because it is pending as valid without any human believing in it. I support her efforts all the same and wish her luck in spreading sound ideas.
posted by Brian B. at 10:39 AM on April 25, 2015


She doesn't say that that "the empirical component of this material is just an opinion".

Good argument is a crucial skill for good science. Argument is an evidential process: what data do you cite in support of your claims? What is your warrant for asserting that this data counts as evidence of your claims?
posted by feral_goldfish at 10:47 AM on April 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


She doesn't say that that "the empirical component of this material is just an opinion".

It seems like she's saying that she doesn't want to just tell her students who reject evolution that they're flat-out wrong and leave it at that, which is admirable; but the equivocation between evolution and evolution denialism on formal rather than substantive grounds is what I have a bit of a problem with. People who deny evolution are factually incorrect, however formally valid their argumentation is, and she wouldn't be forcing an opinion on them to point out that they're empirically incorrect.

Good argument is a crucial skill for good science. Argument is an evidential process: what data do you cite in support of your claims? What is your warrant for asserting that this data counts as evidence of your claims?

I think there is truth in this. I just hope her students don't get the impression that following the correct steps of critical thinking can result in valid conclusions when you start with empirical falsehoods.
posted by clockzero at 11:09 AM on April 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Her historical framing of the reasons Muslims often reject evolution these days (colonialism, war with Christianity, etc.) is interesting.

Yeah, that stuff is fascinating. (Plus I love this sort of cultural intervention, where Muslims -- often feminist scholars -- reclaim a long Islamic history of scientific work and critical inquiry.)

But she isn't referring to a "war with Christianity". On the contrary:

Darwin’s ideas became associated with colonialism, imperialism, the West, atheism, materialism and racism. Muslim religious scholars gradually took a stand against evolution, which the public adopted. The scholars used Christian creationist arguments to support their stance

posted by feral_goldfish at 11:22 AM on April 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


People who deny evolution are factually incorrect, however formally valid their argumentation is

Unpossible. Their argument must necessarily be flawed. We're not just talking about the kind of formally valid argument you see in, for example, symbolic logic. Valid argument also depends on choosing and evaluating data, etc.
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:25 AM on April 25, 2015


the equivocation between evolution and evolution denialism ... is what I have a bit of a problem with.

This equivocation is especially troubling in another context: recent US creationist sloganeering to "teach the controversy". That notion is really inappropriate when determining a grade school curriculum. Especially when the substantively correct curriculum had long been institutionalized and successfully taught.

But that's not the context here.
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:40 AM on April 25, 2015


"Some students complained to the university that I was preaching against Islam, but university officials were satisfied when I showed them that evolution featured in the university’s approved textbooks and that what I teach in my lecture comes straight from these texts. I commended the students who complained for their courage in supporting what they believed, and offered to sit down and discuss their concerns with them."

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

I. Montoya, 1987



(But I totally get that this is the best that can be accomplished for now in such a system, and I congratulate her for trying)
posted by etherist at 12:28 PM on April 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Unpossible. Their argument must necessarily be flawed. We're not just talking about the kind of formally valid argument you see in, for example, symbolic logic. Valid argument also depends on choosing and evaluating data, etc.

"Flawed" is kind of an imprecise term, though, isn't it? Any such arguments would lack empirical validity, but they might be logically consistent; if you start with false assumptions, you'll probably get bad conclusions, but you can get there without making formally irrational inferences on the way.
posted by clockzero at 1:22 PM on April 25, 2015


Sure, but then it's your warrants that are flawed.

The underlying problem you and others are pointing to, maybe, is that her advocacy ignores the scientific division of labor:

My aim is to teach students to develop a rational methodology for assessing the natural world and to come up with their own opinions, hypotheses and theories and not to copy others.

I mean, no one person is really in a position to do all that, especially not in an introductory course. She's rhetorically exaggerating the course's best case scenario, in which students learn how evolutionary theories are scientifically validated. Not that such rhetoric isn't her best strategic choice, of course. And I assume that students have been given a sense of evolutionary science's social and historic division of labor as the course unfolds:

I offer a detailed explanation of the natural evolution of plants and artificial breeding. Later, we discuss antibiotic resistance, influenza vaccines and the development of HIV drugs.
posted by feral_goldfish at 2:28 PM on April 25, 2015


Unless this university's programs are very different than the ones I was in, I think some people in this thread have rather lofty expectations of what such a course could achieve at the best of times. I took a class in human evolution for my science requirement. There was no lab section. We didn't write any papers. We memorized some stuff out of a textbook and then took a mostly-multiple-choice-some-short-answer exam every few weeks. I barely remember any of it, a decade and change on. The amount of critical thinking described here goes well above and beyond what we did, and I find it hard to think of any reason why it could be a bad thing, when compared to my own university course.

My opinion of this might change if this was a course clearly aimed at upper-division biology majors or graduate students, but that doesn't seem that likely. If it gives them enough foundation that they don't fall back on bananas as counterarguments, it seems like a good class. It's not exactly Dead Darwinist's Society kind of teaching, but I don't expect that in the real world; I'd love it if such a thing could revolutionize how the students thought about the source material, but I never had a college course that achieved that and I expect that's true of most.
posted by Sequence at 9:31 PM on April 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Sure, but then it's your warrants that are flawed.

I wasn't familiar before now with the data-claim-warrant concept in informal logic.

When the author says that her aim in teaching is to enable her students to develop methodologies, but also to come up with their own "opinions, hypotheses and theories," I feel unsure about how the concept of empiricism figures into the biology she's teaching, but perhaps that's an unkind implication.
posted by clockzero at 10:39 PM on April 25, 2015


Professor Dajani says by the end of the course, most students accept the theory of evolution. Given that they've either not been taught it before (at best) or have been actively set against it (at worst) her methods must be working pretty well. She says it's not an *automatic* fail if you don't accept the concept, not that she'll give a pass to any old nonsense. I bet she's given a few fails to people who only referenced the Koran, or used circular logic, or whatever. Or to students who accepted the concept but turned in half-arsed papers.

You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. Just telling the students "this is how it is" is rarely a good strategy for any subject. Being made to explain your opinion on a topic is one of the best ways to learn it thoroughly.

And explaining to them the process by which one hypothesis among several became one of the most evidenced theories in science is a good way to teach them not just about evolution but also about the standard of evidence they should be looking for in other topics too.
posted by harriet vane at 2:42 AM on April 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


And explaining to them the process by which one hypothesis among several became one of the most evidenced theories in science is a good way to teach them not just about evolution but also about the standard of evidence they should be looking for in other topics too.

Sure. But I'd want to see that they actually understood the theory and the reasons why most of the world accepts it as fact rather than theory. If they choose not to believe it, that's there prerogative, but if they want a pass from me, they'd damn well better display some knowledge and understanding of the actual material.

If they have mastered that stuff, I do struggle to see how they'd manage to hold onto some opposition. Presumably that's why most students do accept the theory by the end of the course?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:53 AM on April 26, 2015


In teaching, I offer a detailed explanation of the natural evolution of plants and artificial breeding. Later, we discuss antibiotic resistance, influenza vaccines and the development of HIV drugs.

I'm glad she's teaching that; I think more teachers should. A lot of what frustrates me about evolution deniers and the "teach the controversy" crap is that it focuses too much on human evolution. If people want to believe that humans were conceived as a twinkle in God's eye, fine. If we want to talk about science that really impacts people's lives and prepare students to understand it, equal (or more) focus should be given to animal, plant and microbial evolution. For example, the explosion in bioinformatics and microbial ecology over the last 10 years is really driving a lot of research in infectious disease, human health and the environment. This research is predicated on the fact that the mechanisms of evolutionary change are happening all the time (especially short timescales in microbiology), and we need to pay attention to these mechanisms and why they are occurring if we want to be able to understand disease and changes in our environment. But, invariably, when teaching evolution in schools comes up, these important topics get thrown out along with the bathwater.
posted by bluefly at 8:53 AM on April 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


She's doing God's work.
posted by Pronoiac at 12:39 PM on April 26, 2015


Indeed. Al-hamdu lillahi rabbil 'alamin.

She notes that this sort of work intervenes not only for biological evolution's status, but also for how to interpret the Koran:

If an apparent contradiction arises between a scientific finding and an interpretation of the Koran, then we can turn to both science itself (which is evolving) and the interpretation of the Koran (which is not impartial, because it is a human exercise) to account for the discrepancy. This is an ongoing and fluid process, and is part and parcel of the purpose of life for Muslims.

In an earlier article in Nature, she talks about "distinguish[ing] between what is tradition and what is religion" in the context of women's rights. Quranic scholar Asma Barlas elaborates this sort of argument:

"the Quran is both particular and universal and I always make that claim side by side. It is particular in the sense that its first audience were seventh century Arabs and nobody should pretend that that was not the case. In addition, since the Quran was directly addressing seventh century Arabs it is spoken in a language and in a way that was relevant to those people's lives. But the Quran is also universal. The concept of sexual modesty, for example, is a universal concept in the Quran, while the particular mode of just is [sic] a particular instance of Arab culture."
posted by feral_goldfish at 2:28 PM on April 26, 2015


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