Oct 04 2018

Evolution Under Attack

As an American it’s very easy to look at issues from a narrow American-centric view (we have a well-earned reputation for this). I am often reminded of this by my many international SGU listeners, and I have had to discipline myself to keep this in mind.

For example, when it comes to teaching science in public schools, I do, of course, feel the most responsibility for my own backyard, but this is an important issue everywhere. But this is an issue in many countries, not just the US. Recent reports indicate that the teaching of evolution is under attack in Israel and Turkey. The Guardian also reports:

This news follows the astonishing statements made by India’s minister for higher education earlier this year. Satyapal Singh claimed Darwin was “scientifically wrong”, and is demanding that the theory of evolution be removed from school curriculums because no one “ever saw an ape turning into a human being”.

India has 1.35 billion people, which is 17.7% of the world population. (China is 1.4 billion, 18.5% – so India and China combined have 36.2% of the world population). I think it’s reasonable to say that it matters what happens in these countries, especially with our increasingly globalized world. Our efforts to curb climate change depend on cooperation from China and India, and having a scientifically literate population will help these efforts.

Getting back to evolution, it is amazing that 150 years after the scientific theory was proposed and generally accepted by the scientific community, it is still controversial in many segments of the public. In the US we have made some modest gains, but belief in pure creationism remains high at 38%, with a further 38% believing that life evolved but with God’s help, and only 19% accepting pure evolution.

This puts the US near the bottom, only above Turkey. So recent reports of the teaching of evolution being opposed in Turkey is not surprising. It is more so in Israel, as those of Jewish faith tend to be near the top in terms of acceptance of evolution by religion. In Israel it is apparently just being quietly phased out.

That is a far more insidious problem – there is no specific law to challenge, or big public debate to be had. The teaching of evolution is simply not happening, presumably to avoid controversy.

All of this reminds us that the gains humanity has made over the centuries, while solid and impressive, can be fragile. This is another benefit of taking a more worldly view – we can see many more examples of what can happen to a culture when science and reason are not supported, or pseudoscience is allowed to gain a cultural foothold. Often I have heard people push back against skeptical activism by arguing that it’s not necessary – science will always win out, and we should not waste our time dealing with the “kooks.”

Meanwhile we are struggling to teach one of the most successful scientific theories, one supported by over 97% of scientists (essentially the entire scientific community), in our schools. Most of the world’s population lives in cultures that are steeped in pseudoscience. As I wrote yesterday on SBM, China is still heavily invested in belief in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which is the cultural equivalent of bloodletting and banishing spirits. Further, they are exporting TCM to the world, through the World Health Organization and healthcare tourism.

So while we in the US are struggling with pseudoscience, superstition is flat-out winning in some corners of the world, and we would be naive to think that our culture is so dominant that this will not affect us and a majority of the world. The struggle against pseudoscience is a global fight. It matters globally if they teach evolution in India or Israel.

The Guardian article is typical in that it argues for the importance of evolutionary theory in the modern world. I agree with their point – made just recently by the Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to work that utilizes evolutionary principles.

However, it is important not to miss the bigger point. Even if evolutionary theory were of no practical use outside of understanding our origins (this is not the case, but just as a hypothetical), teaching evolution is a struggle worth fighting. This is about the larger struggle between the enlightenment, science, and reason on one side, and tribalism, partisanship, superstition, and often greed on the other. I do believe it is a struggle for the very essence of humanity and our civilization.

It is not just evolution under attack, therefore. It is our dedication to science and reason, and the role they will play in our world. It is a fight worth fighting, everywhere.

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