Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Teaching evolution in American classes. What's it have to do with ecological literacy?

This Thursday, November 19th marks the 150th anniversary release date of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. The day will be marked by a number of events across the globe and at Penn State. The Education Policy Studies Association is hosting a talk by political science professors and researchers Erik Plutzer and Michael Berkman called "Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle for America's Classrooms." It will be hosted at 12 am this Thursday in 403 Rackley Building (note the room change from the flier at right). This post will briefly introduce this topic and hopefully show you why the ecologically minded person ought to consider evolution's importance in science and schools. Without evolution, ecology makes much less sense.

A huge number of people in the United States deny the reality of evolution. Sadly, many of them are creationists and Biblical literalists who push a religious and anti-science agenda in public press and in our public schools. They exert pressure from the top down and the bottom up greatly affecting what can happen in a high school biology classrooms. How?

In 2004, George Bush sounded off on teaching evolution after a school board instituted a policy that advocated teaching so-called "intelligent design" (ID) creationism in Dover, Pennsylvania. Bush advocated teaching "both sides" (evolution and ID) as if ID were a tenable scientific theory.

What happened? Nine Dover residents with the help of the ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Pepper Hamilton law firm took the school board to the federal Middle District of the Pennsylvania. That ended in December 2005 with Judge John E. Jones III ruling that ID unconstitutional.

Why? It is A) a form of creationism which makes it b) unconstitutional. Creationism, as court Edwards v. Aguillard and McLean v. Arkansas both found, is a form of religion. Because of the First Amendment's "establishment clause" prohibition on state-supported religion and the "Lemon test" (which states that policies must have a secular purpose, cannot advance nor hinder religion, and cannot entangle the state with religion) Judge Jones found that Dover School District could not teach ID. Finally, Jones found that ID is not science but is rather a form of religiously-based pseudoscience.

Jones is not alone in this. As my other blog, Forms Most Beautiful, shows extensively here and here, there is no scientific credibility in ID. The overwhelming majority of scientists in biological and geological sciences recognize evolution as the central theory of biology. Based on the domain-specific agreement and consensus we might think that science teachers teach evolution right?

Sort of. That's Berkman and Plutzer's work comes in. They published an article in PLoS Biology two summers ago titled "Evolution and Creationism in America's Schools: A National Portrait." It was perhaps the first really nationally representative look at what biology teachers actually teach in U.S. public schools. They write:
Our survey of biology teachers is the first nationally representative, scientific sample survey to examine evolution and creationism in the classroom. Three different survey questions all suggest that between 12% and 16% of the nation's biology teachers are creationist in orientation. Roughly one sixth of all teachers professed a “young earth” personal belief, and about one in eight reported that they teach creationism or intelligent design in a positive light. The number of hours devoted to these alternative theories is typically low—but this nevertheless must surely convey to students that these theories should be accorded respect as scientific perspectives.
Their talk today is on this topic.

Why should we care? As ecologically-minded people, we recognize our interrelationships with other organisms. This of course includes the air we breathe every day being shared with countless other organisms, the water we drink and expel coming through processes that involve billions of other organisms, and the soil we till and cultivate to grow our food being complex thermodynamic and organic processes that we interact with. All of life is a system. It is a coevolutionary system through deep time. The DNA that makes up my body is the same set of biochemicals in every organism on the planet. As the "tree of life" pic here shows, we not only share our current space but our lineage with all of those organisms.

We share with them. As such, we ought to consider how we treat them. How do we use the resources they use? What do we owe them if anything at all?

As teachers in a world that must come to a more sustainable future, we don't have the luxury of indulging in falsehoods about how we modern humans have come to be where we are. Part of this understanding entails our evolved natural history. To be ecologically literate means seeing the patterns before us today, the patterns that have shaped us, and what patterns we weave for the future. The science of evolution is part of this. It is worth defending.

Perhaps Darwin said it best in the closing sentences from The Origin of Species. "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

Come to today's lecture. 12 pm in 403 Rackley.

No comments:

Post a Comment