by Quinn O'Neill
The latest battle in the long standing war between evolution and creationism was lost in Louisiana last week. 17-year-old Zack Kopplin spearheaded a valiant effort to repeal Louisiana’s Science Education Act, an Act that opens the door to the teaching of Creationism in science classrooms. Tragically, the bill was shelved and the anti-evolution Act retained.
Some might wonder what could be so terrible about teaching students that we were created in our current form by a kind and loving God. It’s an idea that can help people to cope with mortality and uncertainty and offer a sense of purpose to our existence. It may seem pretty harmless.
The teaching of Creationism as science constitutes a tragic failure of science education for a number of reasons, some of which don’t get mentioned often enough. When debate bubbles up on the internet, it tends to revolve around what is and isn’t true, with talk of facts and evidence. Certainly evolution is true and there are reams and museums of supporting evidence; but the rejection of facts and evidence itself isn’t really tragic in my opinion, it’s just disappointing and frustrating.
The real tragedy has more to do with the power and utility of evolution than with its truth. Evolution is a potent concept that can transform the way we see the world and everything in it. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Daniel Dennett compares the concept to a sort of “universal acid” that’s so powerful it will inevitably eat through anything used to contain it. In Dennett's words, evolution “eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.”
But evolution doesn’t just change the way we look at things, it’s necessary for making sense of much of science. Major science organizations have acknowledged this vital role. The American Association for the Advancement of Science states:
“The modern concept of evolution provides a unifying principle for understanding the history of life on earth, relationships among all living things, and the dependence of life on the physical environment. While it is still far from clear how evolution works in every detail, the concept is so well established that it provides a framework for organizing most of the biological knowledge into a coherent picture.”1
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has echoed this sentiment, noting that evolutionary theory “has become the central unifying concept of biology and is a critical component of many related scientific disciplines.”2 What level of science literacy can we expect students to achieve without a solid understanding of such a fundamental and unifying concept?
Understanding evolution is also vitally important in the field of medicine, which should interest not only physicians and medical researchers, but anyone who might at some point be affected by a medical condition – in other words, all of us. The field of Darwinian medicine has grown rapidly, and by 1997, the literature already contained more than 1200 related articles.3 Evolutionary principles are indispensible in the management of antibiotic resistance and in vaccine design, since pathogens are continually adapting to our strategies for killing them. We are susceptible to a variety of diseases and conditions because we've evolved in environments that are radically different from those in which we now live. According to the hygiene hypothesis, the increased prevalence of allergic and autoimmune conditions in the developed world is explained by our cleaner, modern environments. Our immune systems evolved in coexistence with microbes and parasites that have been largely eliminated by improvements in hygiene. As a result, our immune systems may no longer be kept in proper balance.
Perhaps the most objectionable part of evolution for many is the idea of common descent, that we share an ancestor with non-human primates and other organisms. It's understandably difficult for some people to accept the fact that fruit flies are members of our extended family.
Common ancestry, however, provides valuable tools for improving our approaches to disease. It’s the reason why we share many aspects of our biology with other animals – we are the products of variations of a common genetic recipe – and it’s because we have so much in common that we can use animal models to study human diseases and conditions. Fruit flies, for example, can be used to study mitochondrial dysfunction which underlies a number of neurological disorders. An important gene that may contribute to mitochondrial dysfunction in Down syndrome has a fruit fly homolog – a gene that’s very similar to the human version due to a common evolutionary origin.4
Sarah Palin, poster girl for science illiteracy, famously displayed her ignorance of both evolution and its role in medical reseach with her derisive comment about the wastefulness of fruit fly research. “Some of these pet projects,” she explained, “they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars they go to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good, things like fruit fly research in Paris, France.” As the mother of a child with Down syndrome, Palin ought to have a greater appreciation for these tiny, winged friends of science.
If evolution didn’t have such an impact on our lives, it wouldn't be so important to teach it well. Evolutionary theory is sometimes compared to gravitational theory, which is similarly well-established, but a better comparison might be to germ theory. Just as evolution provides a unifying framework for understanding biology, germ theory is a cornerstone of medicine and clinical microbiology. Rejection would have consequences for all of us and they wouldn’t be pretty.
Evolution’s opponents often point to destructive ideologies, like eugenics, that once co-opted Darwin’s ideas. But understanding evolution and natural selection doesn’t mean we ought to let those who might be deemed weak die. On the contrary, it offers powerful tools for understanding our constitutional and physiological weaknesses and enables us to obviate the major effects of natural selection. The consequences of failing to impart students with a solid understanding of evolution may ultimately stifle our ability to help those with poor health.
Principles of evolution were also misused to justify racist views in Victorian times, but evolution actually provides a powerful antidote to racism. From an evolutionary point of view, we’re all African and our differences really are insignificant. A literal interpretation of the bible, on the other hand, would permit ownership of slaves as long as they come from neighboring nations. Leviticus 25:44 states that 'Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” Rigid adherence to a literal interpretation of the bible is a very bad idea for obvious moral reasons.
Perhaps the saddest thing about Creationism’s creep into the classroom is that it reflects a greater social pathology. We live in a society in which money is power and gross imbalances of wealth are possible. If you have enough money, you can advance any agenda you’d like.
Creationists aren’t the only group taking advantage of this, with their well-financed lobby groups and monstrous, nonsensical theme parks. The John Templeton Foundation, with an endowment of $1.5 billion, aims to “to explore spiritual and moral progress through the use of scientific methods,” or as Jerry Coyne has argued, “to give credibility to religion by blurring its well-demarcated border with science”. Putting aside the inappropriateness of mixing science and religion, there’s a bigger question here: should wealthy people have the power to reshape the very nature of science? Or to direct educational reform?
In a recent article in The Daily Beast, Diane Ravitch argued that Bill Gates is “using his vast resources to impose his will on the nation and to subvert the democratic process.” She asks “Why have we decided to outsource public education to a well-meaning but ill-informed billionaire?”. Good question! The power to reshape science and education – which have important consequences for sustainability, equality, human health and well-being, and ultimately for the survival of our species – has fallen into the hands of people who are not only unqualified for the job, but who may have very different values than we do.
The current distribution of power isn’t compatible with democracy, and in a society that depends heavily on science and technology, neither is public science illiteracy. We are ill-equipped to participate in decision-making that profoundly affects us. Carl Sagan explained this best in his last interview:
“we live in an age based on science and technology with formidable technological powers and if we don’t understand it, […] then who’s making all the decisions about science and technology that are going to determine what kind of a future our children live in? Just some members of congress? But there’s no more than a handful of members of congress with any background in science at all, and this combustible mixture of ignorance and power sooner or later is going to blow up in our faces. I mean, who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?”.
The solution is a solid science education that imparts critical thinking skills and a comprehensive understanding of fundamental concepts in science. This demands a curriculum that is shaped by experts and not by groups with money and their own agendas. The most recent battle over Creationism in the science curriculum is just one in a long history of similar struggles, but the battlefield has changed and the stakes are higher than ever. At a time when we've become completely dependent on science and technology for our survival, the loss of the integrity of science education portends a grim future. On a brighter note, the youthful and prodigiously savvy leadership of Zach Kopplin offers a ray of hope that the next generation of decision-makers will have greater vision. We’d do well to follow his lead.
“Darwin matters because evolution matters. Evolution matters because science matters. Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.” ~Michael Shermer
1 American Association for the Advancement of Science (1990). Science for all Americans: Oxford University Press New York.
2 Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Science, Second Edition (1999). National Academy of Sciences.
3 Stearns SC, Ebert D. (2001). Evolution in health and disease. Quarterly Review of Biology 76:417-432.
4 Chang, KT, Min, KT (2005). Drosophila melanogaster homolog of Down syndrome critical region 1 is critical for mitochondrial function. Nature Neuroscience 8:1577-1585.
photo credits: Wikimedia Commons