By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
Nearly a year ago, in “On Evolution, Biology Teachers Stray From Lesson Plan” (NY Times, 2.7.11), Nicholas Bakalar quoted Randy Moore, professor of biology at the University of Minnesota: “With 15 to 20 percent of biology teachers teaching creationism, this is the biggest failure in science education. There’s no other field where teachers reject the foundations of their science like they do in biology.”
A week ago, Sam Favate, in “A ‘Critique’ of Evolution Proposed in Oklahoma” (Wall Street Journal, 1.23.12), reported that Oklahoma has just introduced the sixth anti-evolution bill this year.
It’s not surprising that some people still deny evolution, but the size of the effort does not bode well for our future in science. Evolution is not only established scientific fact, but is the central unifying concept for all of biology. It allows scientists to understand life better and to decide where to look to find new drugs, cures for diseases, and prevent new infections from becoming pandemics.
Not only do 15 to 20 percent of biology teachers teach creationism, but 60% take no stand on evolution versus creationism. Generations of students are being handicapped in their desire to understand and succeed in life.
Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, long after he had formulated his theory. He was attacked immediately and, at the same time, lauded by a minority who understood science. At that time, as today, too many people misunderstood the role of science, what it’s really about.
Science is not memorizing arcane terminology and mathematical equations. It’s a mode of thinking, of approaching problems and issues. It insists, first and foremost, on evidence that is repeatable indefinitely. We can reproduce the experiments of 200 years ago and obtain the same results today. We can do this anywhere in the world. Since 1859, the evidence in favor of evolution as the explanation for the diversity of species has grown enormously. Every new finding related to this area buttressed it more. None have shaken its basic truths.
Evolution does not deny God, but it does deny the interpretation that some put on their holy scriptures. Those people ignore that others read the same words differently and ignore the nature of science. Science does not set out to oppose religion. Scientists, like criminalists, follow the evidence. If the evidence seems to contradict current thinking, then the scientists seek more evidence before publishing their new ideas.
A portion of my own doctoral thesis contradicted current thinking. I went to great lengths with additional experiments to prove myself wrong but failed. During my thesis defense, one member of the panel attacked my conclusion savagely. My thesis adviser had to step in and defend our findings, and, because he had the stature I had not, he was able to prevail.
Even if you do not accept evolution literally, you must embrace it as a powerful tool to help understand and explain biology. However, you should accept it because it makes sense. Only those who either deny the four billion year history of the Earth or cannot comprehend the power of a simple process acting for tens of millions of year would deny evolution.
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