The subtitle of this post my very well turn out to be “How I Alienated My Religious Readers” but I got a little something stuck in my craw while reading up for this week’s Science Tuesday. My last job, at Oxford, was working in a lab that focused on evolutionary developmental biology. This field of study, and in fact all life sciences, take as a given a modification of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Most educated people around the world operate under the assumption that life as we know it today is the result of changes in the inherited traits of a population of organisms from one generation to the next over millions and millions of years. Evolutionary biology, my field, documents the fact that evolution occurs, and also develops and tests theories that explain why it occurs. I’m here to report to you that evolution is as solid a biological tenet as you’ll find.
International readers may wonder where I’m going here.”Yeah, yeah”, they’ll say, “What’s the issue? Let’s see some more pictures of that kid.” The issue is, as one federal judge put it, “the utter waste of monetary and personal resources” that is the debate over teaching evolution in school. One of the lovely side-effects of six years of whack-job rule was that the far right got cocky and started pushing either the outright banning of the teaching of evolution in public schools or at the very least giving equal time to a bollocks “theory” known as Intelligent Design (ID). ID is nothing more than creationism in a lab coat. It espouses the theory that the world was created by an “intelligent designer”some time in the last 10,000 years and that life as we know it appeared at roughly the same time. It differs very little from the creation fable in Genesis.
Fortunately, the federal courts have ruled that ID, as with other religious alternatives to evolution, can not be presented in the public schools as doing so violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. This should protect at least the 90% of American students that attend public schools. According to a recent study in PLoS Biology, this is frighteningly not the case. A group of political scientists at Penn State University led by Michael B. Berkman performed a survey of public high school teachers regarding the amount of time they devote to teaching evolution.
Berkman’s group found that 98% of high school Biology teachers spent at least an hour on general evolutionary processes – OK so far, though I’m curious about that two percent. When it came to teaching human evolution – the shocking idea that we diverged from a common ancestor with apes a couple of million years ago – 17% of teachers chose to eschew the topic entirely. What’s even more disturbing us that 25% of public school teachers dedicated at least an hour to teaching creationism or ID – in direct violation of the law and common sense. For me, the most shocking finding reported in this paper is that 48% of the American public believes that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” Who are you, 48% of Americans? Could you please out yourself so we can have a serious discussion about science and the origin of life? I can understand the importance of religion and I respect that, I really do. But you don’t believe everything in the Bible is literally true, do you? Can’t we just read the creation story as allegory and move on?
I know that this post is probably going to anger some of my readers. I don’t apologize for that. It angers me that if I had a child in the secular, public school system in the U.S. – and I’m more and more grateful that this is not likely to be the case – that he may be exposed to a theory (no, “theory” gives ID too much credence) an insane belief that flies in the face of hundreds of years of scientific data. Even worse, he may be taught that what is basically the unifying principle of biology is no more valid than this myth of divine creation. I have lots of superstitions and crazy beliefs and I suspect that you wouldn’t want me to teach them to your children as an alternative to established truths nor I would presume to do so. I have the utmost respect for your faith – I have a fair bit of my own – but please, keep it out of the public schools.