I haven’t written for a while (can’t think why), but a glace through the Nature RSS feed on my homepage (yeah… I have that) today made me shiver sufficiently that I felt the urge to pound my keyboard mercilessly into submission. Evolution is kind of important to me, being the basis of my subject and all, but once again it has come under attack. As such, consider this a rush to the battlements, in order to ready the boiling water and makes sure the really pointy stones are ready to be thrown.
Park, in this week’s Nature, heralds the worrying news that the South Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has given de facto permission to publishers to remove evolutionary examples, such as Archaeopteryx as an ancestor of modern birds, from some of the country’s high-school textbooks. This paves the way for further examples to be removed, including the evolution of the human. This comes just months after the state of Tennessee introduced the latest in a string of ‘science educational’ laws, the so-called ‘monkey bill’, allowing teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories” (Thompson, 2012). Fine, in itself, and indeed many of the commenters on the Nature article fail to see the problem with such a law; after all, science is all about a critical approach to the evidence. However, I can’t help but side with Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), who suggests that the subjects highlighted as controversial in the body of the bill, including biological evolution, the origins of life and global warming, show the true colours of the bill. One again, the creationist lobby and their coat-tail riders, the climate change deniers, attempt to sneak their non-science into the classroom. Not everything in this bill is necessarily bad; the origin of life is an incredibly difficult subject to study, and our best hypotheses are largely based on educated guesswork from what little we understand of our world 3-4 billion years ago. There is, therefore, no scientific consensus on the subject and different ideas are free for debate. This is entirely untrue for evolution and climate change, however, both of which are universally accepted by most reputable scientific bodies (the American Association of Petroleum Geologists acknowledges man’s role in increasing CO2 production; DPA. They’re not going to do that without some pretty solid evidence!)
So what is to be done? In the States, it seems likely that the monkey bill may eventually fall by the wayside. Its manipulative potential may not be used in full, in which case it is the reasonable law it naively appears to be. Alternatively, it may be uses to portray young-earth creationism as science, in which case it will fall foul of the Establishment Clause (which prohibits the making of laws favouring a particular religion), and be cast down by the US Supreme Court, as most such attempts have been so far. The South Korean situation is more worrying; surveys performed in the country yield worryingly high percentages of evolutionary scepticism, and with only a few major evolutionary scientists in South Korea, there remains a real chance that this growing scientific centre will officially abandon the key theory of biology.
The underlying cause of the evolution conflict is religion, which seems to underlie almost every incidence of this conflict. Both the American Bible Belt and South Korea are strongly Christian (with a healthy Buddhist presence in South Korea as well), and they see evolution as a threat, given that it contradicts Genesis directly. This is only really a problem to those who cling to the literal meaning of the Bible, however; people who are, to be blunt, poorly-educated. There is no reason to expect the creation story of the Bible to be literally true, given that the events described have no evidential basis and were written at least thousands of years after their supposed occurrence.
However, there is a crucial point to be extracted here; evolution has become tied to atheism, in part because some of its most vocal defenders are atheists themselves (Richard Dawkins looms into view again). I believe that this is a terrible thing for biology, and something that should be correctly explicitly in discussions. The major figures of Christianity, including the Catholic Church, accept both the existence of God and the reality of evolution, so to suggest they are irreconcilable is wrong. I can’t see how believing that evolution was set in motion by a creator god should be belittled in comparison to a belief in some celestial micro-manager. If God were an artist, would we consider a still-life painting of banana to be somehow less worthwhile than a painting made by casting a piece of paper onto paints swirling in water?
DPA Climate Change. Available at: http://dpa.aapg.org/gac/statements/climatechange.cfm [Accessed June 10, 2012].
Park, S.B., 2012. South Korea surrenders to creationist demands. Nature, 486(7401), pp.14–14.
Thompson, H., Tennessee ‘monkey bill’ becomes law : Nature News & Comment. Available at: http://www.nature.com/news/tennessee-monkey-bill-becomes-law-1.10423 [Accessed June 10, 2012].