Darwin Day

Today we celebrate Charles Darwin’s birthday. The great biologist was born 202 years ago, meaning that it has been just over 151 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species. I have written in the past about his ideas, so to avoid repeating myself I would like to focus on the state of biology education in the United States today.

On January 28th a report was published in the journal Science entitled “Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom.” The researchers sought to survey what our students are currently being taught in biology classrooms. The results were not promising.

They found that only 28% of American biology teachers instruct their students in evolution as recommended by the National Research Council, which works in conjunction with the National Academy of Sciences. In other words, only 28% of our teachers are teaching students basic biology.

What I personally found shocking was that a full 13% of our biology teachers outright teach creationism in their classrooms, something that has been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on at least two occasions. What was not surprising was that the remaining 60% attempt to avoid the controversy, either by failing to teach evolution or by avoiding the more “controversial” topics in evolution (such as the divergence of species).

I say this is not surprising because a rather large fraction of our country does not “believe” in evolution. Not only are the parents who belong to this group vocal in their opposition to allowing their children access to a century and a half’s worth of scientific research, but they have also proven themselves to be quite adept at taking over school boards. Every few months we see a story of yet another school board that wants to “teach the controversy.” Fortunately these districts’ lawyers have also proven themselves to be adept at reading Supreme Court decisions.

I think that there are two major problems here. The first is that we are denying the majority of our nation’s children access to an adequate science education. Evolution has been the accepted explanation for the phenomenon of life since at least the 1870s. By what right do we deny children access to these ideas? And in what universe does it make sense to ensure that our children have inadequate science educations? Does anyone really think the Chinese or Japanese have to deal with this issue?

The second major problem is that evolutionary biology has very important public policy applications that Congress has so far ignored, much to the detriment of your chances of dying of old age. Chronic diseases are currently the largest medical problem in the United States (and these have evolutionary explanations), but the two most terrifying phenomena are drug-resistant bacteria and the transfer of pathogens, especially viruses, from animals to humans. Both are examples of evolution in action. Both are extremely fatal. In the past decade we have watched, for the first time since World War II, Americans die of incurable bacterial infections. These bacteria have evolved drug resistance. As for the second category, the classic example is HIV.

Our nation can ill afford to continue to ignore an entire discipline of science, especially the one that forms the basis of medicine. Yet we have been fighting about evolution since Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray debated Darwin’s ideas in Boston 150 years ago. It is utterly incomprehensible.

The theory of evolution is one of the most powerful and most beautiful concepts ever discovered by science. By understanding it, one can actually begin to comprehend the natural world. It tells us the history of life and how we came to be the way we are. We owe Darwin, and the other great biologists who have added to his ideas, a great deal. President Lincoln was born on the same day of the same year as Darwin and that coincidence has not gone unnoticed. These two men have sometimes been referred to as the two great emancipators. And lest that seem too pretentious a comparison let us remember that science, as the great biologist E. O. Wilson has written, “aims to save the spirit…by liberation of the human mind.” We do not celebrate just Darwin the individual today; rather, we celebrate the fact that we can say with some certainty that we understand the world around us.

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