Notes from Editors: CMI receives many enquiries from Christian students asking for advice as to how they might answer exam questions or write assignments about evolution. Dr Tas Walker is one creationist who has himself ‘been through the mill’. He never concealed his Bible-based beliefs in a created, young universe from his university lecturers, yet such was Dr Walker’s grasp of the subject matter (majoring in geology/radiometric dating) that he not only successfully passed, but obtained high distinctions and first-class honours. We trust you’ll find his counsel helpful—and you’re very welcome to pass it on!
‘How do I do my assignment about evolution?’
Published: 19 June 2007 (GMT+10)
So you’re studying at a secular institution and have received an assignment asking you to explain some evolutionary concepts. What should you do? Should you refuse to do it? Should you argue the case for creation and try to prove that evolution does not work? What happens if you can’t find any creationist information on the topic?
Don’t panic. All you need is to understand the thinking of secular science, how to research the topic, and how to write the assignment. Once you know these things you can write an assignment without compromising your creationist views. And your assignment will be one which can advance the creationist cause, as well as being a quality piece of writing that will receive a good grade.
Understand the secular scientific mindset
Firstly, it’s strategically wise for Christians to be mindful of Jesus’ advice regarding communication with non-believers (Matthew 7:6). Accordingly, understand that the lecturers in a secular institution will likely not be pleased if you quote creationist literature and argue in your assignments for creationist explanations (unless creationism is part of the assignment topic). That is because the whole point of secular science is to find naturalistic explanations—ones that do not involve any supernatural intervention. One day things may change, but at the moment, if you are going to succeed, you will need to write according to their secular mindset. You aren’t saying you agree with them; you are just ‘playing their game’.
At present, the scientific establishment is not interested in whether God created or if the Bible is true. They decided long ago that God and the Bible are irrelevant to scientific problems. So, when you are studying their courses and doing the assignments that they set, you cannot start with the Bible in your explanation, or try to prove the Bible and creation. To their mind those questions are irrelevant, and if you argue that way they will consider your assignment irrelevant. That is not to say that you cannot use creationist arguments or biblical concepts, but you have to be wise about how you do it.
So, secular scientists are looking for naturalistic explanations. The key is to understand the framework of thinking that they use. They start with the idea that everything (the universe, the solar system, the earth, the animals and plants and humans) evolved gradually from simple to complex over billions of years. Understand the evolutionary story for the particular topic you are studying. But realize that the story is a way of thinking and that it drives every explanation they propose. Realize too that even in their minds they do not question their framework.
So, how do you answer your assignment?
Do your research
The first step is to read widely about the particular problem you have been given. You are not only looking at what scientists are saying, but trying to understand why they are saying it. And since you understand the secular scientific mindset you will be able to discern the motivation behind their explanations.
Your text book is a good place to start, but you will need to read more broadly. That’s because your textbooks will present the information as if evolution has solved the problem, and gloss over the difficulties.
These days the web is an excellent way of finding information. You will likely find your topic discussed on both creationist and evolutionist sites as well as on academic sites. By reading just a few articles you will quickly understand the key issues involved as well as the arguments for and against.
Once you have some understanding of the topic you should then search the two premier scientific journals, Science and Nature, on their websites. Try their advanced search engine with different keywords. Abstracts and summaries are usually available, although the papers themselves can only be accessed if you have a subscription. In a short time you will discover some of the key papers on the topic. By reading the abstracts you will find out some of the details and issues, and by reading between the lines (understanding that they are trying to fit the data into the evolutionary framework, with which you are now familiar) you will appreciate some of the problems they have encountered. The point is that by using the web you will very quickly become familiar with latest thinking on the topic.
Don’t limit your reading to the web. You may be able to access the complete Science and Nature papers at your college library together with other references specific to your area. Cite some of these in your assignment.
In your research it is important to recognize the difference between the observed facts and the stories invented to explain the facts within their evolutionary framework. You will be able to discern this because you should understand the way the secular scientist thinks.
Keep asking yourself questions such as: ‘What have they observed or measured?’ ‘What are they making up?’ ‘Has anyone observed what they are describing?’ Realize that if the events described were not observed (e.g. if they’re making claims about a time before the researchers were born) then they are telling you a story—an attempt to construct an evolutionary ‘history’ that fits the present evidence. Once you are alert to this you will not be tricked into accepting their evolutionary way of thinking. (Cf. the Scriptures’ emphasis on the importance of eyewitnesses—Deuteronomy 19:15; Job 38:4,21; 2 Corinthians 13:1.)
The main thing is to understand the difference between facts and story-telling.
It is also useful to read creationist literature on the topic because it will help you distinguish between evidence and story-telling. You can even ask yourself, ‘How could I explain these facts within the biblical framework?’ The main thing is to understand the difference between facts and story-telling.
Describe the problem
After you have researched the topic you are ready to start writing. Make sure that you are clear on the question and that you are actually answering it.
First describe the problem that assignment has given to you, one that scientists have likely been trying to solve.
Let’s consider an example. Imagine that you have been asked to explain how single-celled organisms evolved into multi-celled ones. In this case you could quickly describe our current scientific knowledge of a single cell, explaining how it is able to perform all the functions that enable it to survive, such as feeding, obtaining energy, obtaining oxygen, disposing of waste, metabolizing food, moving, reproducing, and relating to its environment.
Then you could describe our understanding of a multi-celled animal, how it is composed of different cells that are each specialized to carry out a limited function. None of the cells can survive alone, but they all rely on the other cells in the organism for the functions which they cannot provide for themselves.
Then you could describe the many problems that a naturalistic explanation must address. In our example, you would explain the changes that would need to occur for a collection of single cells to come together by natural processes to form a reproducing multi-celled organism. For example, different cells would need to specialize for different functions. They would have to specialize in a certain order and in certain places. They would have to specialize at specific times. There would need to be complementary changes to different cells occurring at the same time. You could discuss the need for the changes to occur in small steps as a result of random mutations in the genomes of individual cells, and the problem that creates for devising a naturalistic explanation.
It would be good for you to quote from books and papers on the topic as you set out the problem. Use some of the jargon that they use. Simply discuss the problem in a measured, matter-of-fact way making it clear what criteria would have to be met for a successful explanation. If you think the literature you have consulted has omitted something or underplayed something you can point this out.
Discuss attempted solutions—including their advantages and disadvantages
Next, you need to outline some of the theories that people have put forward trying to explain how this could have happened. Keep in mind the ‘rules of the game’. Secular academics are trying to find a naturalistic explanation that does not require any recourse to any supernatural input or event. (Keep this in mind for your own sake, not necessarily to mention in your paper.)
Then discuss the advantages and problems with each of the theories. Especially try to use the criticisms that other secular scientists have leveled at each of the theories. You can cite their secular publications and explain their criticism.
If any scientists have proposed different theories to overcome the problems, you can talk about the advantages and disadvantages with those as well. You can also mention some of the problems that creationists have pointed out, being careful to avoid religious or creationist jargon. Whether it is wise to cite creationist literature will depend on your particular lecturer. If you are not confident of how they will respond it would be best not to, but it will be okay to explain the arguments. Add any weaknesses and shortcomings that you think of yourself.
Don’t overtly argue the creationist position
Unless you are very clear on the attitude of your lecturer, it would not be wise to invoke God or the Bible in your explanations. They will likely consider that you are using God to fill a gap, and mark you down. Your lecturers will think that you have given in too easily and that you don’t have enough creative thinking or intelligence to devise plausible explanations.
Don’t think that you are being timid or compromising by not arguing the creationist view because you will have presented the difficulties for the philosophical framework of naturalism. In fact, you can criticize the existing theories quite severely (provided that is warranted) and conclude that all the theories proposed to date have significant shortcomings in satisfactorily solving the problem. You could even say that the problem seems no closer to a solution today than it was 50 years ago, if that is the case.
In every case my lecturers would write something like ‘Thanks for this, but I disagree with you.’
When I studied at university I would occasionally attach a separate section to my assignments discussing the problem within a biblical framework. I would entitle it ‘Addendum not for assessment’. In every case my lecturers would write something like ‘Thanks for this, but I disagree with you.’ Whether it would be wise for you to do this will depend on how well you know your lecturers and whether they are likely to receive such an addendum without discriminating against you. In some disciplines it would not be a good idea because often creationists need to keep a low profile.
When you tackle your assignment as described above, you will have made some good points against philosophical naturalism without mentioning God or the Bible. Notice that you have been entirely factual, reporting our current observational knowledge of the problem, and describing the published attempts to solve it within the naturalistic paradigm. While you have been factual, you have not stated your personal position or said that you believe the theories that you are discussing. In some ways you are adopting the style of a journalist, reporting the facts in an objective way.
Your result will be a quality paper. You will have shown that you have read widely, that you understand the problem, cited other authors, discussed outstanding issues, and made it clear that the naturalistic worldview does not have a solution. Like a journalist, you can produce a powerful assignment that is devastating to the naturalistic worldview, without appearing to take sides. Even if your lecturer does not like what you say, they will not be able to fault your work.
By approaching your assignment like this you should receive good grades, receive the respect of your supervisors, and open up opportunities to discuss these issues from a biblical perspective with others in your faculty.
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- ‘Creation evangelism’ in the public school classroom.
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- Evolution exams and fossil fallacies