By Marsha Sutton
When I received this email message from my cousin – “We’re doomed; we’re just so utterly doomed.” – I figured it was his usual cynical hyperbole.
But after clicking the link and reading the article, I confess I share some of his gloom.
The Pew Research Center’s recent survey on evolution found that 60 percent of Americans accept the principle of evolution of the human species while 33 percent don’t. [The remaining respondents were undecided.]
The question was phrased to ask whether respondents believed humans have evolved over time or existed in their present form since the beginning. [https://www.pewforum.org/2013/12/30/publics-views-on-human-evolution/]
The difference in opinion on this issue between Republicans and Democrats is striking.
In 2009, 54 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of Democrats embraced the principle of evolution. Today. it’s 43 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats.
That means the majority of Republicans and one-third of Democrats don’t believe humans have evolved over time. Of those who identify as Independents, 28 percent reject evolution.
Women are 10 percentage points more likely than men to disagree with evolution, with 55 percent accepting and 38 percent rejecting (65 percent of men accept evolution and 28 percent reject it).
Pew also found that the older one is, the less likely they are to support evolutionary science. Saying humans have evolved over time are 68 percent of those 18-29 years old, 60 percent of those 30-49, 59 percent of those 50-64, and 49 percent of those 65 and older.
Education is also a factor. Saying they agree with evolution are 72 percent of college graduates, 62 percent of those with some college education, and 51 percent with a high school diploma or less.
The survey was based on telephone interviews of 1,983 adults 18 years or older, from all 50 states, between March 21 and April 8, 2013.
I want to attribute the unsettling findings to the notion that scientifically-oriented people don’t respond to anonymous telephone surveys. But I’m grasping at straws. Another straw, that the margin of error might be unusually high, is also just as flimsy, because it’s only the standard 3 percentage points.
So what are we to make of this survey?
Just a theory?
As we move to implement the new national Common Core standards in our schools, which seek to address the deficiencies in America’s education system, one wonders how educators plan to improve the academic achievement of our children when so many among us believe it’s acceptable to reject overwhelming scientific evidence about human origins in favor of an allegorical creation story.
We’ve heard the argument that evolution is just a theory; therefore, it is not proven. But disputing the theory of evolution is like disagreeing with the theory of gravity. Asking people if they “believe” in evolution betrays a bias in the question itself. Would you ask someone if they “believe” in gravity?
This is the definition of the word “theory,” according to LiveScience.com:
“When used in non-scientific context, the word ‘theory’ implies that something is unproven or speculative. As used in science, however, a theory is an explanation or model based on observation, experimentation, and reasoning, especially one that has been tested and confirmed as a general principle helping to explain and predict natural phenomena.
“A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. If enough evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, it moves to the next step – known as a theory – in the scientific method and becomes accepted as a valid explanation of a phenomenon.”
The news over the years is peppered with reports of biology textbook controversies in state after state – notably and most recently in Texas, where self-described creationists on the state Board of Education are objecting to biology textbooks that teach evolution, Charles Darwin’s findings on the origin of our species, natural selection, DNA and fossil evidence, and the geologic age of the earth.
Because Texas is so large, and its adoption of textbooks has ramifications nationally, it matters, even to far-away states like ours.
When we teach our children to respectfully challenge notions that have not been rigorously substantiated and verifiably supported with well-founded scientific evidence, then we are teaching kids how to respect their natural curiosity and to be good scientists.
But when we teach our kids to ignore science and reject meticulously-tested evidence, in favor of personal beliefs unsupported by any logical or objective methods, we are teaching them to disregard truth, embrace unscientific ideology, and close their minds to the reality of the world around them.
As we try to elevate the intellectual power of our youth, religious convictions in fact-based science textbooks are contra-indicated for success.
With Darwin’s theory of evolution universally accepted by the scientific community, teaching children alternate versions of reality is not teaching – it is indoctrination.
Locally, in the San Dieguito Union High School District, we can thank trustees, the superintendent, principals, and department chairs for ensuring that science is taught, religion is respected, and both can co-exist peacefully – just not together in the classroom.
Americans are a deeply religious people. But that doesn’t mean religion and science have to be incompatible.
According to the Pew poll, of the 60 percent who said humans have evolved over time, 32 percent say evolution is “due to natural processes such as natural selection” while 24 percent say God or a supreme deity played a role in evolution.
Of all Pew’s findings, this one is the most encouraging, because it indicates that a large segment of the population (well, 24 percent of 60 percent) is able to distinguish between science and faith, and have both co-exist, each in its own realm.
A Catholic nun I once met told me she fully endorsed the theory of evolution as fact, based on all the incontrovertible scientific evidence.
But she also said that science and religion need not be mutually exclusive. Although she firmly believed that God made the world and all things in it in six days of creation, her way of reconciling the two positions was this: “We just don’t know what kind of a watch God has.”
However, George Coyne, a Roman Catholic priest and former director of the Vatican Observatory who holds a Ph.D. in astronomy, issued a statement in 2005 about what’s called “intelligent design,” saying it “isn’t science even though it pretends to be. If you want to teach it in schools, intelligent design should be taught when religion or cultural history is taught, not science.”
Many religious schools teach evolution as part of their science curriculum and teach the biblical stories of creation in classes on religion. The hoped-for result is that students come away with a scientific understanding of the universe and how life on earth was formed, and are able to successfully integrate their faith-based beliefs to complement rather than undermine the science.
I’m reminded of famous astronomer Carl Sagan who, when speaking about the majesty of the universe, said the beauty of the cosmos and the laws of nature allow space for a belief in God.
However, Sagan also said, “It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
Evolution need not threaten religious faith. But let’s not allow religious beliefs to threaten instruction in science. Teach our children science in biology classes – and leave religion for theology lessons and for churches, synagogues and mosques.
— Marsha Sutton can be reached at SuttComm@san.rr.com.