In 1881 Charles Darwin was an eminent figure, still working on his contributions to evolutionary thought that had an enormous effect on many fields of science.

Evolution and Darwin Day

Although the celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was of concern primarily to the United States, the entire world celebrated the birthday of perhaps an even greater emancipator, Charles Darwin, who shares the same birthday, February 12, 1809, and is ranked alongside our greatest scientists—Galileo, Copernicus, Newton and Einstein.

Darwin’s Origin of Species revealed the mechanism and process of evolution and made sense of what was previously a mystery. During the past 152 years, evolutionary biology has been transformed and enhanced, but Darwin’s idea of natural selection and descent with modification as the agent of evolutionary change remains valid. The anniversary has special resonance not only for scientists worldwide but also for the general public, for Darwin wrote specifically for a wide audience.

Darwin’s complete publications, including all six editions of Origin of Species, 20,000 private papers, manuscript catalogue and supplementary works are available online (Darwin-online.org.uk). Googling “Darwin” produces 61,600,000 hits, and Googling “evolution” produces 258,000,000 hits, so a host of information is available to educators, students and citizens.

Darwin’s theory links together a plethora of disparate biological facts into a single unifying framework. In evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s words, “Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution.”

According to the International Darwin Day Foundation, an autonomous program managed by the American Humanist Association, “science is our most reliable knowledge system, and it has provided us with information that has greatly improved our lives, through this intellectual enterprise. It is time for everyone to learn more about science and to celebrate its many accomplishments
www.darwinday.org/about/ddcinc.php#history.

Darwin Day is an international celebration of science and humanity held on or around February 12 to celebrate his doctrines and life. View a two-minute video about its importance (vimeo.com/19178513) and sign a petition to President Barack Obama to declare February 12 as Darwin Day in the United States (click “Take Action” at
www.salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/318/t/10503/petition.jsp?petition_KEY=2221 .

On February 9, U.S. Rep. Pete Stark (D–Calif.), 2008 Humanist of the Year and Congress’ only avowed atheist, introduced House Resolution 81 to the 112th Congress designating February 12, 2011, as Darwin Day

www.americanhumanist.org/Action_Alerts/Stark_Darwin_Resolution

It was referred to the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Although praised by progressives, predictably it was immediately attacked and ridiculed by conservative groups. Given the conservative, Republican-dominated House, it did not pass this year.

Evolution by natural selection is relevant to today’s problems in public policy and how we live our lives. Overfishing of adult fish selects for smaller fish and therefore higher prices. Excessive use of antibiotics leads to drug resistance, for example, the MRSA infections. Many proliferating modern diseases—obesity, diabetes and autoimmune disorders—result from the mismatch between our genes and an environment changing more rapidly than human genomes can evolve.

As HMS Beagle surveyed the coasts of South America, Darwin theorized about geology and extinction of giant mammals.

In view of the well-publicized, frenzied initiation on February 6 of right-wing conservatives’ two-year-long celebration of the centenary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, I would be derelict if I did not mention the negative effects of what has been touted as the “Reagan Revolution.”

During the past three decades, we have suffered from lower taxes for the rich, wage stagnation for a decreasing middle class, bloated military budgets and deregulation of environmental standards, worker safety, the banking industry, the financial system and consumer protections.

Religion, particularly the evangelical Christian community, has become the gatekeeper to political power. During the primary presidential debates of the 2008 election, three serious candidates declared that they did not believe in evolution! The religious right has expanded its attacks on science and evolution and has used scriptural arguments against anthropogenic climate change www.americanhumanist.org/HNN/details/2011-02-its-not-just-evolution-theyre-attacking .

Today, in a time of global crisis, we lag behind much of the world in education and mire ourselves in meaningless political debates over religious ideology instead of discussing actual issues. Another president, John F. Kennedy, stated, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” It’s a shame that the “great communicator” and his disciples did not uphold that tradition (www.americanhumanist.org/HNN/issue/details/2011-02-the-reagan-centennial-and-the-rise-of-the-christian).

In 2008, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences published an updated version of its booklet “Science, Evolution, and Creationism” available for free download (www.nap.edu/sec). It summarizes what science is and isn’t, gives an overview of evidence for evolution by natural selection and highlights how leading religious figures have upheld evolution as consistent with their view of the world.

Palæontologist Kevin Padian’s expert witness testimony at the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial (www.tinyurl.com/2nlgar) destroys creationism’s false assertions of critical gaps in the fossil record. Judge John E. Jones, III decided, “The evidence…demonstrates that ID [intelligent design] is nothing less than the progeny of creationism….The overwhelming evidence…established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.”

Nevertheless, on January 20 the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, a creationist group that published the ID textbook, Of Pandas and People, which was ruled unconstitutional for use in public schools in the above landmark decision (Kitzmiller v. Dover) and that describes its mission as “promoting and publishing textbooks presenting a Christian perspective of academic studies,” appeared on a list of publishers that have indicated an intent to submit science curriculum materials for approval by the Texas State Board of Education later this spring. A public hearing on these materials will be held in April.

In another ominous development, State Rep. Tom Anderson (R–Albuquerque) introduced House Bill 302 to protect New Mexico public school science teachers who want to teach ID alongside evolution and want to challenge the accepted scientific views about global warming. The bill lists several protected “controversial scientific topics,” including “biological origins, biological evolution, causes of climate change, human cloning and other scientific topics that are often viewed by society as controversial.”

Since the 1980s, court decisions have discouraged creationists from seeking a ban on evolution or requiring equal time for creationism in the classroom so such “academic freedom” bills represent a “current trend in anti-evolution activity” nationwide. Anderson’s bill has been referred to the House Education and Judiciary committees, but a hearing has not yet been scheduled (www.santafenewmexican.com/Local%20News/Bill-promotes-teaching-of–intelligent-design-).

In their recent article, “Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom” (Science, January 28, 2011; www.sciencemag.org/content/331/6016.toc), Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer of Pennsylvania State’s Political Science Department report the results of a national survey showing that 60% of U.S. biology teachers feel uncomfortable teaching evolution, and 13% of them actively teach creationism despite court rulings that it is not a science and does not belong in a classroom.

Nevertheless, creationists who want religious ideas taught as scientific fact in public schools continue to hide their true aims under ever-changing guises. Despite President Obama’s promise, “We will restore science to its rightful place,” creationism is still alive in the United States, and, according to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which drafted a resolution, “The Dangers of Creationism in Education” (tinyurl.com/2knrqy), is on the rise in Europe. The resolution concludes, “There is absolutely no doubt that evolution is a central theory for our understanding of the Universe and of life on Earth. Creationism in any of its forms, such as ‘intelligent design,’ is not based on facts, does not use any scientific reasoning, and its contents are pathetically inadequate for science classes.”

Locally, a Biology Colloquium, “Evolution & Science Education: A Panel Discussion for Darwin Day,” was held on February 11 at Fresno State with panelists Scott Hatfield and Bruce Williford, science teachers at Bullard High School and Fresno High School, respectively, and David Andrews, director of the Science and Mathematics Education Center, and Paul Crosbie, associate professor of biology, both of Fresno State. The discussion addressed the parlous state of U.S. science education, its relevance to the state of science literacy and education in the Central Valley and what we can do about it. The panel discussion was considered a success by Williford “judged by the number of students who stuck around for an extra 45 minutes on a Friday afternoon.” The moderator, Fresno State associate professor of biology Madhusudan Katti, kept the discussion focused on the issues in the Science article and avoided debates on the merits of evolution itself.

Hatfield stated the following:

In order to teach evolution well, public school teachers need a lot more than they currently receive in their pre-service training. A significant number of all biology teachers have not had even one course in evolution, and truly effective pedagogy requires the mastery of items that are typically not well covered in such courses, anyway. In particular, new science teachers rarely know the case law. Pre-service teachers should be required to learn what their obligations are with respect to the law.

Andrews declared the following:

Those science teachers who allow their own personal faith or beliefs to distract them from their obligation to teach one of the most significant theories in the history of science, viz., Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, should not be teaching children in our nation’s science classrooms.

Katti believes the following:

The uniquely American history of local/state control over public schools and curricula (with plenty of room for parents to influence teachers) may be one of the biggest reasons for the problems identified in the Science paper. California appears to be doing better because it has strong science standards, which provide both the incentive and the institutional support needed to enable teachers to broach the subject without inhibition in the classroom. An idea that might help reduce the pushback from parents who may not have a science background: Teach an evolution course for non-science majors so they develop an understanding of and appreciation for science.

Evolution is as much a scientific fact as the existence of atoms or the orbiting of the Earth around the sun, which were once theories. (Pope Pius VII approved a decree in 1822 by the Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition to allow the printing of heliocentric books—almost three centuries after Copernicus’ death in 1543. A little late, don’t you think?)

Yet creationists continue to play on the uncertainties shown by some citizens. Rather than wasting time and effort pursuing the impossible task of trying to convince creationists (40% of Americans according to a recent Gallop poll) of the falsity of their changing positions, educators and progressives would do better to concentrate on enlightening those persons who are uncertain but still have open minds. There may be no better way to celebrate Darwin’s anniversary than to inform them of the incontrovertible evidence for evolution and to convince policymakers not to accede to creationist proposals.

Persons who wish to keep up-to-date on evolution should log onto Fresno State’s Darwin’s Bulldogs blog at blog.darwinsbulldogs.com.

To conclude on a humorous note, I’d like to direct you to “The Devonian Blues,” a song by Ray Troll, an Alaskan artist and musician (blog.the-scientist.com/2011/02/11/your-momma-was-a-lobefinned-fish), that many science and biology teachers have used to introduce their students to the concepts of evolution using the appeal of rock ’n’ roll to the young. Enjoy!

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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