By George B Kauffman
As our nation prepares to celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the entire world is preparing to celebrate the birthday of Charles Darwin, who is ranked alongside our greatest scientists—Galileo, Copernicus, Newton and Einstein. Both emancipators share the same birthday, Feb. 12, 1809. With his theory of evolution, Darwin liberated the human mind, while Lincoln liberated millions of human beings by helping to end slavery. Evolutionary theory is the single unifying concept in modern biology. Unfortunately, there are groups working against the teaching of evolutionary biology in our schools, even as the United States continues to lag behind most other developed countries in math and science education.
Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution was an essay by evolutionary biologist and Russian Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky, criticizing creationism and espousing theistic education. Yet, a 2013 poll shows that, in contrast to most of the civilized world, a surprising number of Americans do not believe in evolution—only 43% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats believe in it.
International Darwin Day (www.darwinday.org), a global celebration of the advancement of human knowledge and the achievements of science and reason, reminds us to improve our world through education and reasoned discourse and to reject today’s opposition to scientific knowledge and inquiry, the religious traditions that often feed such opposition, and the politicization and undermining of science by ideologues and zealots believe in it. By encouraging human beings to practice critical thinking and inspire them to wonder about the world they live in, it promotes an environment of learning that advances human development and fosters a sense of interest and respect for the natural world.
Unfortunately, the anti-science fervor has gripped too many politicians, at a time that science should be elevated rather than disdained. Many Republicans, especially Rick Santorum, deny the overwhelming evidence of climate change or even assert that vaccines somehow cause mental disabilities in children. The fervor is not merely rhetorical; many in Congress reject teaching science-based health and sexual education in public schools. Politicians around the country remain opposed to teaching evolution in public schools or want religious texts brought into science classrooms. Worldwide, people view the United States as a country living in a religious delusion unaligned with the facts that does not seem to care how ridiculous this ignorance appears!
We must make an important distinction between science and politics. While politicians cherry pick statements and deliberately take them out of context to “prove” their predetermined desiderata, scientists do the exact opposite; they try to find shortcomings in each other’s data to arrive at better explanations. As frustrating as it to seekers of certainty (and that includes me), science is always changing. Politicians cite such differences and changes as “proof” that scientists disagree with each other and that science cannot be trusted, unlike scripture and other immutable “truths.”
As a lifetime member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and as an AAAS Fellow, I regularly read Science, its flagstaff journal that features the most significant scientific articles. Although scientists may differ in details about climate change, none of them disputes its reality. Would you believe these “elite” (a term that the right uses with derision to accentuate its purported identification with the “common people”) authorities or eminent climatologists like Donald Trump or Rep. Jim Imhofe (R–Okla.)? Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest publicly traded international oil and gas company, and Koch Industries, which invested more than $50 million, have spent unlimited funds to advance the view that global warming is a “hoax” perpetuated by “liberal” scientists to promote their nefarious goals.
Why do politicians spout and repeat over and over these obvious lies. Simple. They work! However, will the American people, in their infinite wisdom, discover these lies? Are you kidding me? Politicians cleverly depend on the inability of most people to concentrate on an issue for more than a nanosecond until the next scandale du jour replaces it. Rather than perform their own analysis and investigation of issues from the many sources of information that are readily available, these “ditto heads” prefer to rely on simple sound bites provided by Rush Limbaugh, the most listened to radio talk host in America, and others of his ilk. Although I was not surprised that CNN Chief Jeff Zucker stated that Fox News is a propaganda front for the Republican Party, I was dismayed to learn from Media ITE that it has been No. 1 in total day and primetime for 47 consecutive quarters and 141 consecutive months with Bill O’Reilly as the reigning champion of the network.
On Jan. 29, 2014, House Resolution 467 “Expressing support for designation of February 12, 2014, as ‘Darwin Day’ and recognizing the importance of science…in the betterment of humanity” was introduced to the 113th Congress, 2013–2015, but died (Referred to Committee) in a previous session of Congress. This was the second time that the resolution, introduced by former Rep. Rush D. Holt, Jr. (D–N.J.), who, during his tenure was one of only two physicists in Congress and its only Quaker. As Holt’s final term in Congress was ending, the AAAS announced that he would become its chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. Upon accepting the position, Holt praised the AAAS mission statement and said that “fostering science and public engagement and advancing science in international affairs is what I’ve been doing for decades in one way or another.”
What can we do? Two points are paramount.
First, education. We can reach out to our fellow citizens and enlighten them about the true state of affairs. While my current health (open-heart surgery and a stroke) does not permit me to march or demonstrate as many of you do, I take time from my scientific publishing (17 books and more than 2,400 publications since 1955) to write for the Community Alliance, our Valley’s progressive newspaper. I advise you to do likewise.
Scientific aptitude is inarguably the key to global competitiveness, yet students in 22 countries posted better results in science than the United States, including Vietnam, Canada and Poland (www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/us-students-lag-around-average-on-international-science-math-and-reading-test/2013/12/02/2e510f26-5b92-11e3-a49b-90a0e156254b_story.html). Hey, I thought we were No. 1 in everything! What are religious schools teaching our students in science? Catch this unbelievable story (www.dailykos.com/story/2013/04/26/1205102/-South-Carolina-Christian-School-Fourth-Grade-Science-Test?detail=email).
Second, information technology (IT). It’s easy to overcome apathy by using the social media that science has given us (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Thunderclap). With a mere click or two, you can sign and forward dozens of worthy petitions without stirring from your computer. I do it daily. Some work, some do not, but at least you are doing your part in the fight. Never give up!
For Central Valley Darwin Day events: www.patheos.com/blogs/yearwithoutgod/event/darwin-day-2015-from-faith-to-reason and http://events.berkeley.edu/index.php/calendar/sn/CNR.html?event_ID=73153&date=2015-02-12
George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at Fresno State and a Guggenheim Fellow, is the recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the American Chemical Society (ACS), respectively.