Humanist Perspectives: issue 154: Evolution and Education

the world around us
Evolution & Education
by Theo Meijer

In 1999 the State School Board of Kansas approved a new curriculum, eliminating the teaching of evolution. The decision was seen as a victory for the supporters of creationism, who believe that the world came into being in the manner described in the Bible.

However, the decision was reversed two years later by a less conservative Board.

Then again in 2004 conservatives recaptured the board’s majority and proposed to change the definition of science as the process of explaining natural events through natural causes.

This frustrated many scientists, worried that students could be discussing supernatural explanations for natural phenomena in their science classes.

a CBS poll conducted last fall indicated that 37% of Americans want to totally replace the teaching of evolution with creationism

These goings-on regarding the teaching of evolution in public school science classes are certainly not limited to Kansas but are occurring in many other states as well.

A CBS poll conducted last fall indicated that 37% of Americans want to totally replace the teaching of evolution with creationism.

Recently, intriguing genetic and biochemical evidence for evolution has augmented the extensive fossil record evidence for evolution. Instead of looking at anatomy, the new evolutionists look at molecular structures and the genetic origins of proteins. They note the striking similarity of genes and proteins among various organisms.

Stating that evolution is merely a theory is like stating that the earth revolving around the sun is merely a theory, or that matter consisting of atoms is merely a theory. Of course evolutionary change generally happens much too slowly for humans to perceive. In some cases, though, natural selection does happen quickly enough for us to perceive. For example, new strains of antidote-resistant viruses are always emerging through mutation and natural selection.

New Yorker Thomas Frank was born and raised in Kansas and wondered why the evolution/creation issue, as well as other similar matters, had gained so much prominence in his state of birth, and why these concerns prevailed over the best economic and political interests of the vast majority of its citizens. So he went back for a visit, did research and conducted many interviews. The result was an insightful study of contemporary middle and working class America: What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.

Frank points out that in the 1890s the largely farming population was aggrieved by low crop prices and exorbitant costs imposed by furnishing agents and railroads. They found business interests to be their primary oppressors and called for governmental intervention in the economy. It was a decidedly leftist movement of ‘producers versus parasites.’

Yet, when Heartland America was subjected to de-industrialization, off-shoring and stagnating wages in the 1990s, while elites prospered, there were no withering economic critiques. Market forces were held to be blameless. Instead working people began to feel strongly that cultural issues such as abortion, gay liberation and the teaching of evolution were to blame for disturbances in their lives and in society at large.

However, huge corporations largely dictate culture in the USA. Cultural directions are set by media and entertainment concerns, and are determined by what sells. Universities and government frequently reinforce business interests. Yet those feeling socially besieged are generally not concerned about these structural connections. These new populists are mostly concerned with the imagined lifestyles of the so-called liberal elites.

Business leaders sometimes join in the conservative rants against liberal culture, thereby gaining the voting support to carry out a pro-business political program. The deregulation, privatization and union-busting agenda of corporate America has been very harmful to their own base of supporters. The working class is feeding the hand that bites them.

Fanning the flames of cultural discontent makes good business sense, while the political process actually seldom delivers on conservative promises to roll back moral practices. Families lose on both counts.

Canada is not immune to this same focus on ‘values’ at the expense of genuine political and economic interests. Fortunately Canadians are more resistant to the extreme we see in the USA. Nevertheless the evolution versus creation issue has cropped up from time to time. In the early 1990s the Abbotsford School District in British Columbia encouraged creationists to visit science classes at the senior secondary level and present slide shows promoting their view.

Eventually the BC Civil Liberties Association became involved and dispatched one of their Board members to address the School Board at a public hearing. Still, it took the direct intervention of the Minister of Education to force the Board to stop this practice.

What makes all this somewhat more difficult is that apparently up to 30% of science teachers in BC are actually sympathetic to creationism. Membership in the Professional Specialist Association for science teachers does not require a commitment to evolution.

It is difficult to object to the idea of creation being mentioned in social studies classes, when discussing comparative religious mythologies, but introducing such views in science classes perverts the very essence of the scientific process.

The scientific approach of asking questions and providing tentative answers is fundamentally at odds with the religious approach of claiming to know the answer and fitting in any questions accordingly. While science provides us with evidence without certainty, religion gives us certainty without evidence.

It is very important to ensure the integrity of teaching science in the public schools, and to resist any attempted intrusion by religious extremists, whether under the name of creation ‘science’, intelligent design or other terminology they may adopt. Modern humanists can play an important role in this regard.

Theo Meijer is a retired educator and a life-long modern Humanist. He was president of the BC Humanist Association for over three years from 1996 to 1999 and has since been involved with the Victoria Humanists.

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