Science Riot
Editorial Press

Teaching Evolution to Tibetan Monks

When cultural beliefs clash with science, a little humor and a little humility never hurts

by David Westmoreland, Science Riot Board Member
Reposted from Scientific American.

“We believe that we came into existence when an ogress mated with a monkey. Is that possible?”

The question comes from one of a hundred saffron-clad Tibetan monks sitting cross-legged on floor cushions; they are my students for a two-week crash course on evolutionary theory. It’s my first day, and I’m already in a quandary. Cultural narratives and science conflict all the time. How could I field such questions without disaffecting the class?

I was there with a team of other scientists who traveled from the U.S. to a rural Indian village at the invitation of the Dalai Lama. Several years ago, His Holiness initiated the integration of modern science into Buddhist teachings, traditions that had been static for thousands of years. The Dalai Lama is alone among spiritual leaders in saying that, when faith is in conflict with science, it is faith that should give ground. Still, nothing in academia had prepared me to navigate cross-cultural conversations about lustful ogres. To declare that the cultural narrative is at odds with modern science could diminish their openness to scientific knowledge.

So how should I have answered? Wildly out of my comfort zone, I had been sleeping under a mosquito net within the magnificent Dharmsala monastery. Each morning I was awoken by the calls of strutting peacocks, resounding gongs, and tractors blaring Bollywood hits as they made their way to the surrounding fields. The classroom, a rectangle supported by stone columns, was a short walk from where I slept. My laptop and projector were plugged into a power grid known for its rolling blackouts, which threw third-world unpredictability into every lesson. As I searched for a way to connect with the monks (my students, really?), I found myself falling back on homeland experience in which science collides with culture.

I teach evolution in Colorado Springs, the tax-free home of creationist organizations and megachurches so numerous that the city is sometimes called “Six Flags over Jesus”. But Colorado Springs is not that different from many parts of our nation. Resistance to scientific thinking is widespread, and it’s not limited to those with faith-based worldviews. A 2017 article in The Atlantic presents just cause for alarm: a third of Americans believe that global warming is a hoax, half refuse to accept evolution, and almost a quarter still believe that vaccines cause autism. A 2018 poll revealed that only 19 percent can name a single living scientist. (Einstein doesn’t count. Different category.)

When the public does read about science in the news, the majority finds it confusing and contradictory. A Pew Research Center study found that 40 percent of Americans admit they are unable to distinguish between reliable and unreliable science reporting.

It’s not the public’s fault. The scientific community has been slow to realize that the mere presentation of facts, even startling facts, will often fail to influence public opinion. One study found that educating people about the flu vaccine actually reduced the likelihood of vaccination for people who expressed a high level of concern about vaccine safety.

Like many other scientists alarmed about this problem, I tried my hand in a science communication workshop. This particular program, Science Riot, is a nonprofit that combines professional comedians and volunteer scientists to use stand-up comedy as a medium for science communication. Through improvisational games, writing exercises, and collaborative feedback, they train scientists to deal with the reality that facts alone fail to span social and cultural divides.

“Yes, I had that dream. I was the monkey. I don’t like to talk about how it turned out.” Once the translator delivers the line and laughter engulfs the classroom, my tension dissolves. I can go on with the science. “We think of species as distinct groups that do not reproduce with each other. In the Western view, the communion of an ogress with a monkey, while worthy of careful contemplation, would probably not be productive.” Humor has established me as a genuine person, and enhances my teaching.

Stage performance has changed the way I teach. I have learned to deliver information in a conversational way, to use facial expressions as deliberately as speech, and to follow my gut instincts in unexpected directions. Most importantly, I learned that it is critical to humanize myself before expecting anyone to invest trust in what I am saying.