Monday, January 10, 2005

Evolution in schools

Florida Shark Teeth I was visiting friends in Florida recently, and we went looking for shark teeth at the beach. We didn't have a lot of luck, only one or two, but then a mother and daughter came by and gave us a handful of them.

The mother had done a little better than us, but the daughter has some gift. She finds sharks' teeth wherever she goes. She had a hundred in a bag. She couldn't give them away fast enough. She started telling us that the black teeth are milions of years old, that brownish teeth are only 20,000, not fully fossilized, and that new, white teeth are very rare. Then she told us about the teeth she found in the Colorado Rockies. She was walking down the trail, and – poof – there was a shark's tooth.

She finished by explaining that the Central US used to be under a shallow sea, and that's how old those teeth were. I almost cried, it was so perfect. A random non-scientist in Republican Duval county knew (and didn't find it controversial) that the earth was very old, and that sharks are a lineage of fish that split off before ossified bone evolved. Better yet, she was quietly, unselfconsciously, educating the public.

I thought of that when I read these last paragraphs of a piece in called The new Monkey Trial:

If Wenrich [a school board member in Dover, PA] is angry with Buckingham [another board member who wants to water down evolution in the science classes], though, he's even angrier at the outside forces that are challenging the school district. “It is going full circle now from the religious community ruling what can be thought -- that's what they tried to do in the Middle Ages,” he said. “We've come down to the scientific community trying to tell us what we can think. Basically what the scientific community currently is doing is saying, 'You'll have no god before mine. Mine happens to be Darwin.' Any other thought will not be tolerated.” Evolution's allies might win the battle for Dover's biology classes, but they're losing America.

Much of the analysis of the Dover situation that I've seen focusses on the legal landscape of the case, which Goldberg rightly notes is very favorable to the scientists. The Supreme Court has held that teaching creationism in science class is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the state, and the school board member who is pushing ID has stated that he is doing so to endorse religion.

My question, and the question those paragraphs above raise, is: So what? The courts can push a lot of things through, but we'll win every battle and lose the war like this. It's great that the teachers are standing up against this, but if a school board member who opposes teaching ID still thinks that scientists are trying to impose their god on him, this is going the wrong way.

I won't point out that many scientists are religious, nor will I retreat to Gould separate spheres. That doesn't work, because people who believe the Bible is true don't stop thinking that when they take their kids to school. It doesn't work because the Earth can't have been created as we know it in six days a few thousand years ago. Dinosaurs never lived with humans, the Grand Canyon wasn't made by a flood, and people find shark teeth in the mountains.

Courts are great, because they are a place where the word of Nobel prize winners get more weight, in their area of expertise, than a guy on the street. But if the guy on the street doesn't buy the result of the trial, it doesn't do any good. After all, was OJ guilty? The court said no, but the science, the public, and logic all said yes.

I got to Kansas just after we had this fight the last time. Everyone in Lawrence was really embarrassed, and the state got itself together for all of 4 years to turn things around. The reason everyone got upset, at least outside of Lawrence, is that they were afraid Kansas would suffer economically. A bad school system makes it hard to attract business. Dover citizens are upset at ID because the court fight will bankrupt the schools. This isn't how to win though, it's just how not to lose. Kansans didn't change their minds about evolution in vast numbers, and now the school board is gearing up to attack evolution again.

So scientists and the scientifically literate need to get together, and stop making half-assed arguments against ID. Start educating the public. Get the dazzling Carl Zimmer out there to explain that evolution is useful, and ID isn't. Get Stephen Jay Gould's successor out there explaining what science is, and why ID isn't science. Let's win this fight on the streets and in the legislatures.

George Lakoff has argued that Republicans respond to “Strong Father” authority. They want top-down guidance on what to think. You know you're doing something wrong when genuine authorities come off as authoritarians.

Update: PZ Myers at Pharyngula also thinks of Lakoff in reading this article.