Happy Darwin Day

Most people know today as Abraham Lincoln's birthday. What you might not know is that the man who saved the Union shares his birthday (to the year) with the man who proposed natural selection as the driving force for evolution. February 12th is "Darwin Day," promoted by some as an "international celebration of science and humanity," mainly in reaction against those that favor creationism/intelligent design.

As a former biologist, there is no doubt in my mind that the diversity of life on earth today came about by evolution. The common genetic origins that we share with all living organisms is seen not just in evolutionary theory but also genetics, developmental biology, molecular and cellular biology... In short, all of biology points to this unifying explanation. Even so, I would not normally be holding up Charles Darwin's birthday as something particularly important to note. So why am I doing it now?

Yesterday, February 11th, the Florida Department of Education held its final public hearing on new state-wide science standards that would supercede any policies at the local levels. The proposed standards, which have been favorably received by teachers and scientists, would make the teaching of evolution a required part of Florida's science education for the first time. This little fact drew people from all over the state to testify both in favor and against the proposed state standards. The controversy was so great that it eclipsed discussion on any other aspect of the proposed standards.

While I appreciate their sincerity, the arguments presented against the teaching of evolution show a fundamental lack of understanding of science and highlight the desperate need for improved science education. People argued that the word "theory" means it's unproven, ignoring the fact that science doesn't use the term that way. Few people go around disputing the theory of gravity, for example.

Nor do proponents of teaching intelligent design in science classrooms understand that while "God did it" is a valid theory, it is not a valid scientific theory. The assumption seems to be that "science teaches the truth and since I believe that creationism is true, science should teach it." In reality, science describes the natural world and thus has no room for supernatural explanations. Science is not saying that there is no God; it makes no statement about God whatsoever.

One seemingly open-minded suggestion was that kids should be exposed to "all theories of creation," and then free to decide which one they like best. That is great on a personal level. Every one of us is free to decide what we will and will not believe. However, we are not free to decide what is science and what is not science. Science is determined by an objective set of standards, not by subjective feeling nor popular vote.

Most shocking of all in this debate was the revelation that twelve county school districts in Florida have passed resolutions against the teaching of evolution in schools. Yes, twelve. First, I had no idea, after the Scopes (Monkey) Trial, that it was still possible to ban the teaching of evolution in schools. (What exactly does this mean? - will teachers be arrested or fired for teaching science?) Second, I would have thought that something like this would have received more attention than it has. A school board here and there is a blip; twelve school boards in one state is a movement. Yet so far, I've only been able to find scant mention of it in local Florida newspapers.

The Florida State Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the new science standards on Feb 19th. On this Darwin Day, let us pray that it votes to uphold education for future generations.

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