February 07, 2005

Evolution I: The bad, the good, and the ugly

First the bad (and somewhat old) news. In a 2001 survey, the National Science Foundation found that only 53 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.�

It is hard to believe that there could be any good news behind this mind-boggling statistic that implies that up to 47 percent of Americans are unwilling to accept a fundamental tenet of evolution and believe that human beings appeared by a special act of creation about 10,000 years ago.

But there is a nugget of good news to be found, since this is the first time that even a simple majority of Americans had accepted that statement.

But even that small glimmer of hope is buried under more bad news. Even though a majority has come around to the accepted scientific view of the origin of humans, the US still lags far behind other countries. In a New York Times article on February 1, 2005, Dr. Joe Miller, director of the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University is quoted as saying that in other industrialized countries, 80 percent or more typically accept evolution, while most of the others say they are not sure and very few people reject the idea outright.

He goes on to say that in socially conservative, predominantly Catholic countries like Poland, perhaps 75 percent of people surveyed accept evolution, while in Japan it is close to a whopping 96 percent.

So what is different about the US? There are some obvious reasons that can be postulated. One is that the US is in the grip of Biblical literalists who indoctrinate young children with young-Earth ideas and frighten them with the flames of hell if they should deviate from that dogma.

Another is that evolution is either not being taught at all, or is being taught badly so as to be unconvincing, or its teaching is being deliberately undermined (such as using disclaimer stickers in biology textbooks that evolution is "only a theory", teaching of ‘intelligent design’ as an alternative) by fraudulent claims that it is not a scientifically acceptable theory. The response to these kinds of explanations is to argue for more and better teaching of evolution in schools.

While I am all in favor of better teaching of anything, I am not convinced that inadequate teaching of evolution is the main problem. It may lie in the way the nature of science is taught, and correcting this might require us to pay more close attention to the image we convey of how science itself works and evolves. This may require us to focus, not on more teaching of evolution or any other specific topic, but more generally on the history and philosophy of science.

More about this in a later posting…


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Mano, I don't quarrel with your point about the teaching of science in general, but I do think the problem is even deeper than that. Even if you are right, kids don't start being taught until they're six, and science isn't generally taught much before third grade, which means most kids are going on ten. And by then (much earlier, actually) they're already pretty much formed by their parents's views.

And I suggest another problem that makes the teaching of science (facts and predictions) pretty much irrevelant, and that's the worldview that many folks have - a worldview that doesn't allow for facts. What else explains so many Americans' willingness to accept the current situation vis a vis the war, environment, absence of decent jobs, "health-care" system, etc., except that they have a worldview that accepts Bush as a representative of god (therefore good). And of course this worldview also affects what you learn or allow yourself to learn about the nature of the material world (evolution, age of earth, universe, etc.) Facts, which are easily available, are irrelevant. So, how do we fight that?

Also, do you or anyone reading this blog have any good sources for how our country got to be such a fundamentalist sinkhole? After all, most Christians are of European background. Why aren't European countries engaged in the same battles we are?

God, this is depressing.

Posted by catherine on February 7, 2005 12:12 PM

Catherine and Mano,
I think you are right in that we are facing two distinct challenges, that of the educational system and that of the religious culture. With Scopes seemingly not that far in the past, it may very well be that the religious culture played a key role in how the teaching of science evolved.

I was raised haphazardly in mainstream protestantism and went to elementary school in Shaker. As far back as I can remember I thought of the creation story as metaphor rather than reality. And I also don't remember when I first learned about Darwin and evolutionary theory. It was certainly covered in both my 8th grade earth sciences classes and my 11th grade biology classes, but at neither time was it considered new. I think we must have discussed it when we were learning about dinosaurs in third grade. Or perhaps I learned it from my parents. All I know is that it has always been the explanation in my head.

But in this country, my upbringing was probably unique. I too have been trying to understand the growth of christian fundamentalism, and have been looking for some good reading materials on the subject. I think in some ways, we can look to our conservative history--puritans trying to set themselves apart from the old world beliefs. Protestants also haven't been around as long as Catholics and Orthodox Christians, so it may be that the older denominations have already learned through trial and error how to come to terms with science (to a degree).

I think the key issue though involves the missionary aspect of this religion. If only believers who have been "born again" will go to heaven, then these believers feel compelled to "save" the rest of us from the fiery abyss. They also have a compelling belief system. All you have to do to be saved is to accept Christ. You don't have to follow special diets, you don't have to pursue special tasks or rituals. Just accept and he will take care of you. I think many find solace in the notion that they don't have to be responsible for themselves but that someone else, like a kind parent, is looking after them.

I'm rambling on way too long here, but if this missionary aspect is so important, then these believers will be compelled to spread that word far and wide in as many ways as possible. Bringing it into the schools, even under the kinder gentler guise of Intelligent Design, is a great way to open the children up to these possibilities, while at the same time teaching them to be skeptical of the scientific method. Scary stuff.

Posted by Heidi Cool on February 9, 2005 10:26 AM


You may want to check out the book "The Creationists" by Ronald Numbers. He gives an interesting account of the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the US.

Actually the kind of extreme fundamentalism (young-Earth Bilblical literalism) we now have is a fairly new phenomenon. Numbers points out that at the Scopes trial, Williams Jennings Bryan's position was, by current standards, very "moderate"!

Posted by Mano Singham on February 9, 2005 02:06 PM

Thanks for the tip, I'll add it to my Amazon shopping cart. Today I found an oddly organized but interesting site at It's written by a former priest and in one of his essays he speaks to the facts of science and the consequences for the bible. His take, something he came to late in life, as he caught up with modern scientific theory, is that science pretty much refutes most of the basic concepts of Christianity. I found it interesting given his background in Catholic Theology.


Posted by Heidi Cool on February 11, 2005 05:10 PM

I took a look at the essay you mentioned. It is true that it is next to impossible to reconcile a literal view of the Bible with science.

It may be possible to treat the Bible as metaphorical and interpret the metaphors to be consistent with science. This may require that the meanings of some words and passages of the Bible be stretched well beyond their commonly understood meanings.

But the problem for believers is how far do they want to go with the metaphor idea?

If you carry it all the way through, does it imply that God is an invention? If you don't believe that and want to draw a line somewhere between metaphor and literal truth, where and how do you draw that line?

I think that this kind of struggle is a very personal one and has to be resolved by each person individually.

Posted by Mano Singham on February 11, 2005 05:32 PM

I remember when Ronald Numbers came to CWRU to speak during my sophomore year (1999-2000). Numbers has been unable to reconcile Genesis with science, but this does not mean that such reconciliation is not possible. The Jewish physician and philosopher, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, wrote in A Guide for the Perplexed, that if one is unable to reconcile the story of the Creation with science, then the Torah needs to be re-examined.

It is certainly true that Christian fundamentalists in this country have tried to push Creationism, and now the more-insidious Intelligent Design, into the public schools as a means of introducing quasi-religious instruction into the public schools. This is a very serious problem, and it must be stopped. However, there is another problem that is equally serious: it seems that science is often taught in such a way that it is learned dogmatically. For example, one is often asked if one "believes in" Creationism or Evolution. To believe in a scientific theory is to dogmatize and deify science, and that should never be the intention of science.

Finally, as to the complaints about Evolution being described as "only a theory", at least for the time being, it is. A scientist cannot be certain about a theory until that theory has truly been tested, and thus far, I am unaware of our having observed the evolution of one species from another species. Perhaps, in time, we will observe this, at which point the theory will have been verified. But until then, Evolution is merely a theory and a model.

While we may have the opportunity to test Evolution as time passes, it is very highly doubtful that we will ever be able to test any of the various theories for the origins of the Universe. The farther back in time we try to go, the ever greater is our uncertainty - and in this case, with the theories that result, we can never be certain unless we observe the creation of another universe somehow, and see that it has evolved into one much like our own. This process would take between ten and twenty billion years (to show that it is correct), and the odds that we would ever have a chance to do this are quite slim.

In short, while science can create models for the past, scientists must bewhere of extolling their certainty that said models are correct before those models can be used to predict the future accurately. So while we must keep religion out of the public schools - and within our families and our homes - we must also ensure that science is not taught as religion in its place.

Posted by William Sherwin on February 13, 2005 12:54 AM

Interesting point. I will post a response to this later in the week, probably Thursday.

Posted by Mano Singham on February 15, 2005 08:37 AM