May 3rd, 2005


Dance Dance Evolution! (Part One)

(Title borrowed from Cruel Site of the Day)

The people at Gallup conducted a poll, late last year, that illustrates what I consider to be the greatest danger facing America today. I've been stewing about it ever since, and I'd like to offer you a huge, steaming bowl of stew.

The poll concerned Americans' viewpoint on the theory of evolution. Only 35%—about one in three—Americans surveyed believed evolution to be "well supported by the evidence." That is simply frightening.

I strongly suspect that the one-third of American who believe evolution to be well-supported by the evidence are precisely the one-third who understand, at least at a basic level, what the evidence actually is. And there lies the problem: the crisis of science education in the US. I don't believe that science teachers are to blame, although if teachers were adequately paid—and had more opportunity to actually teach, as opposed to baby-sitting—we would undoubtedly see a sharp upswing in the quality of teaching in the sciences. No, the root of this crisis appears to be a general hostility to science and science education held by the American people. People who have grown accustomed to being told how to think by their preacher, or their TV set.

I don't intend to present a detailed scientific argument in favor of evolution—many have already done so much more eloquently than I could (see the essays of Stephen Jay Gould, for example)—but rather to disparage the sheer folly of the denial of evolution, in the context of history, modern society and the Bible itself. None of these ideas is beyond the average American...if they would just think.

This rant got so long that I had to split it in two. The historical section grew out of control, once I came to realize that it was a good opportunity to write about how scientific thought displaces popular misconception, using our good friend Galileo as the centerpiece. In consequence, I'll speak of astronomy as much as biology.

In this first section, let's look at what history has taught us so far:

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