(This is the first of a monthly column dealing with ‘hot button’ topics of the day such as politics, religion, race and gender, and the environment.)
In honor of Charles Darwin’s 205th birthday on Feb. 12, I thought I would focus my inaugural column on one of the more disturbing developments in public education: the repeated attempt by school boards and state representatives across the country to introduce the religious fundamentalist belief of creationism (formerly known as intelligent design) into school system classrooms.
Simply put, creationism is the belief that a supernatural being created the universe and all things within it as explained through a literal interpretation of the Bible. Some forms of creationism hold that natural biological processes cannot account for the history, diversity, and complexity of life on Earth, a belief that flies in the face of nearly two centuries of evidence leading to our current understanding of evolution.
While I recognize each individual’s right to believe as they choose, it’s become increasingly clear that those beliefs cannot be allowed to interfere with education or science research. There is simply too much at stake.
Proponents of creationism have argued that including it in textbooks amounts to “teaching the controversy,” as if there were still an ongoing debate among scientists as to the validity of evolutionary theory. There isn’t. While there are still questions to be answered regarding its details, no serious scientist still argues against the validity of evolution’s main assertion, namely that complex biological organisms evolved from simpler ones through changes in their inherited characteristics over successive generations.
There are currently two states that allow the teaching of creationism in public schools, while 10 other states allow private schools that accept tax-funded vouchers or scholarships to include creationism in their curriculum. Responsive Ed charter schools in two other states currently use creationist curricula as well. Luckily, North Carolina’s school textbooks are currently free of creationist concepts.
For reasons that are probably too complex to decipher, the denial of evolution seems to be unique to the United States. Currently, roughly half the U.S. population believes in some form of creationism.
Earlier this month, the yawning chasm between religion and science in the U.S. was highlighted by a debate between Bill Nye, better known as the Science Guy, and Ken Ham, CEO and president of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky. Nye, a longtime defender of science, has argued that teaching students creationism rather than evolutionary theory does them a great disservice. Ham, meanwhile, runs a facility that, among its other highlights, includes a dinosaur wearing a saddle and displays that argue that dependence on human reasoning leads to racism and genocide.
Nye has stated that evolution is “the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology.” Working without it, he’s commented, would be comparable to “trying to do geology without believing in tectonic plates.”
Others in the field have pointed out that those who deride evolution as merely a “theory,” fundamentally misunderstand the way in which scientists use the word. Evolution is a “theory” in the same way that the Earth revolves around the sun is a theory, which is to say it’s about as close to a fact as we’re ever likely to get. (As a side note, I should point out that there are creationists who believe in Geocentrism, the idea that the Earth is fixed in space and that the universe literally revolves around it).
To be fair, the scientific community has done a thoroughly inadequate job of explaining the importance of their methods and findings to the public at large. Their representatives are often viewed as arrogant atheists set on the destruction of all faith-based worldviews.
Regardless of who’s to blame, teaching students that the Earth is only 7,000 years old instead of five billion or that humans and dinosaurs co-existed is not simply offering them an alternative opinion or theory, it’s teaching them demonstrable nonsense that flies in the face of every scrap of evidence and research-based data known to science. More importantly, it damages their future ability to function as well-informed adults in a world that is increasingly driven by scientific innovation.
At some point a choice has to be made: Allow schools to be bullied into including non-factual, supernaturally informed material in their curriculums or embrace the 21st century and encourage students to grow and learn about the reality of the world they live in.
That’s a choice the rest of the developed world has already made.