Monday, November 28, 2011

Building Bridges Between Evolution and Religion

Science writer Lawrence Nzuve looks at a conference which was so successful Darwin would have been proud were he alive today!

The 2nd Human Evolution Workshop for Kenyan Educators, 2011 was recently organised at the Louise Leakey Auditorium bringing together heads of schools and educators and participants included those who were not present when the first workshop was held in 2007.

A report prepared by the Prehistory Club of Kenya President and National Museums of Kenya Senior Research Scientist Dr. Fredrick Manthi painted a grim picture of the knowledge about prehistory which currently permeates in the country and specially in Kenya's learning institutions.

Prehistory Club President Dr. Manthi addresses the participants (Photos courtesy of Prehistory Club of Kenya)

Noting that Kenya is endowed with a rich prehistoric record (particularly fossil remains) that has contributed significantly to our understanding of the evolutionary history of human and non-human species, Dr. Manthi reiterated that in spite of this rich record, a large number of Kenyans lack accurate scientific information about our prehistoric past, and how different biological species have evolved over time. Although History within which prehistory and evolution are taught in Kenyan high schools is an examinable subject, this subject has been made optional in the Kenyan education system. Statistical evidence has shown that very few students have interest in History, and thus there has been a decline in enrollment. Although the situation may be attributed to numerous factors including the perceptions that most Kenyans hold towards the concept of evolution, lack of knowledge about the importance of prehistory and evolution to understanding our past and also predicting the future, can be blamed for the small number of Kenyans pursuing careers in this discipline.

Held between the 31st July - 2nd August 2011, the 2nd Wenner-Gren Foundation sponsored workshop, whose theme was ‘Building bridges between evolution and religion’, aimed at helping teachers deal with perceptions about evolution, which would ultimately enable them to effectively teach the topic. Considering that it is not logistically possible to bring together teachers from all over the country, the workshop targeted high school teachers and educators from institutions that were not represented in the 1st workshop which was also sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and took place in 2007.
NMK Director-General Dr. Idle Farah opening the Workshop (Photos courtesy of Prehistory Club of Kenya)

During the tour, emphasis was made on the need for the teachers to organize educational visits for their students to the Cradle of Humankind Gallery, as this would help the students appreciate the concept of evolution. The second day marked the official opening of the workshop, during which Dr. Idle O. Farah, the Director General of NMK and senior scientists at the NMK spoke about the importance of the Wenner-Gren-sponsored series of workshops on prehistory and evolution. During the opening session, the need for Kenyan scholars and educators to join hands in educating the youth about the country’s rich prehistoric heritage was also underscored by all speakers.

“Why don’t we hear on our TVs students saying they want to become Palaeontologists or Archaeologists, why do we always hear them saying they want to become neuro-surgeons”, posed Dr. Farah.

Speakers who included Dr. Richard Potts of the Smithsonian Institution (SI), whose title was: “What does it mean to be human: the Smithsonian Institution experience in public education on human origins”. During this presentation, Dr. Potts highlighted, among other things, some of the public education programs he is involved in at the SI, and the impact that these programs have had to the general public. It was evident from Dr. Potts’ talk that there is a growing curiosity among a large number of Americans towards prehistory and human evolution, a phenomenon that is also evident in Kenya.

Other lectures were by Prof. Simiyu Wandibba of the University of Nairobi, which was titled: “Evolution and religion: the tertiary education perspective”, which was followed by a presentation from Dr. Naomi Levin (John Hopkins University), whose title was: “Stable isotope studies and human evolution”. While Prof. Wandibba’s talk centered on the different ways of addressing issues raised by university students on prehistory and evolution, Dr. Levin’s lecture highlighted how the food we eat gets absorbed into our bodies and how we can document dietary preferences of different faunal species from the enamel of their teeth, and how these diets would have influenced the evolutionary trajectories of these species. This presentation was followed by a talk from Mrs. Purity Kimaita, a teacher at Ngara Girls Secondary School in Nairobi, which was titled: “Reconciling religion and evolution”. Mrs. Kimaita is a renown speaker among Kenyan high school teachers and is famous for her persuasive presentations on how it is possible to bridge the gap between the evolutionary explanation for the origin of life versus the creation one. Dr. David Kyule of the University of Nairobi, gave a talk: “Teachers’ experiences in teaching evolution”. It is important to point out that all the presentations attempted to persuade the teachers against the popular perceptions that the evolutionary explanation for origin of life and humanity conflicts their religious beliefs. In order to engage the teachers with the curriculum developers (the KIE), the last presentation of the day which was given by Mrs. Virginia Njerenga of KIE, dwelt on how a new curriculum which is currently under development was going to accommodate the teaching of prehistory and evolution, and how this is tailored within Kenya’s Vision 2030.
Participants follow proceedings at the 2nd Human evolution workshop 2011 (photo courtesy of Prehistory Club of Kenya)

The third day of the workshop began with more presentations on prehistory. These included a keynote speech by Prof. Stan Ambrose, which was titled: “The African origin of cooperation”. Prof. Ambrose used archaeological records from a number of Late Stone Age sites in Kenya to demonstrate how social networks were established, and how this helped in maintaining cooperation between different human populations across the landscape. Dr. Fredrick Manthi's presentation was titled: “Intrigues of the past”. Dr. Manthi used this presentation to demonstrate to the teachers Kenya’s diverse fossil record, which includes large mammalian fauna such as the gomphotheres which had four tusks. He underscored the importance of these faunal remains to understanding the evolutionary history of different extinct and extant faunal taxa. Prof. Bonnie Jacobs from the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas presentation was titled: “Plant fossils as evidence of evolution”, and highlighted different characteristics in plant fossils that are a testimony of evolutionary processes. In his presentation titled: “Public programs at the NMK: teachers and evolution”, Mr. Daniel Mitei of NMK underscored the important role the NMK’s Public Programs Department plays in educating teachers and students alike about different research activities and public programs undertaken at the NMK. He acknowledged the important role the Prehistory Club was playing in educating the Kenyan public about prehistory and evolution. In order to further reinforce all the issues discussed in the presentations, the educators were treated to a behind the scenes tours of the Palaeontological and archaeological collections at the NMK. During the tours, it was evident that the educators were mesmerized by particularly the rich fossil record from Kenyan sites, which includes specimens of both extinct and extant genera. This in a big way helped to underscore the importance of prehistory research and how this helps in understanding the evolutionary history of different faunal species.

The closing ceremony which was officiated by the NMK’s Director for Research and Collections. During this ceremony, all schools represented in the workshop were awarded a package containing a cast of the ‘Turkana boy’ (Homo erectus) skull courtesy of the Uraha Foundation in Germany and the NMK, the ‘Human Story Book’ courtesy of the National Geographic Society, and a DVD containing stories on prehistory and human evolution courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Participants pose for a group photo outside the Louise Leakey Auditorium: It was the most successful workshop so far (Photos courtesy of Prehistory Club of Kenya)

The workshop availed to the teachers an opportunity to meet and chat with professional prehistorians and evolutionary biologists who study and teach evolution. The workshop discussed different ways through which educators may bridge the gap between evolution and religion, thus making the teaching of prehistory and human evolution interesting to both the educators and the students. It is also noteworthy that the President of the Prehistory Club of Kenya is in contact with KIE and plans are underway for a consultative meeting between them and the NMK and other stake-holders in the Kenyan education sector. Many of the teachers who attended the workshop have already launched satellite Prehistory Clubs in their schools, and the Prehistory Club office in Nairobi will work closely with the schools in order to advance awareness about prehistory and evolution.

The Prehistory Club would like to thank the Wenner-Gren Foundation for their Financial support and the NMK for logistical support as well as other stakeholders who ensured that the workshop was a success and especially the Prehistory-club coodinator Grace Kyalo whose input went a long way in making the 2nd Human evolution workshop for Kenyan Educators such a success.


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