Both Andrew Sullivan and Kevin Drum are wrong, but I think Drum is infuriatingly wrong.

They’re arguing over a statistic, the observation that about 46% of Americans believe the earth is 6000 years old and that a god created human beings complete and perfect as they are ex nihilo. Andrew Sullivan sees this as a consequence of the divisiveness of American politics, that they’re using it as a signifier for red vs. blue.

I’m not sure how many of the 46 percent actually believe the story of 10,000 years ago. Surely some of them know it’s less empirically supported than Bigfoot. My fear is that some of that 46 percent are giving that answer not as an empirical response, but as a cultural signifier. That means that some are more prepared to cling to untruth than concede a thing to libruls or atheists or blue America, or whatever the “other” is at any given point in time. I simply do not know how you construct a civil discourse indispensable to a functioning democracy with this vast a gulf between citizens in their basic understanding of the world.

Drum is quite right to point out that this is a bogus correlation: the US has been about evenly split on the issue for as long as we’ve been polling our citizens on it. There’s been a gradual drift to sharpen the distinction along political lines — a hundred years ago, the most likely proponents of creationism would have been liberal Democrats — but it’s largely because the Republican party has stepped in to embrace the demographic of ignorance and anti-intellectualism, becoming a kind of general know-nothing party. These differences have been here all along and are not a product of partisan politics; it’s just that one party had the brilliant idea of enthusiastically waving the flag of stupidity.

But Kevin Drum goes too far. He claims the fight over evolution isn’t actually all that important, and that the science doesn’t really matter.

The fact is that belief in evolution has virtually no real-life impact on anything. That’s why 46% of the country can safely choose not to believe it: their lack of belief has precisely zero effect on their lives. Sure, it’s a handy way of saying that they’re God-fearing Christians — a “cultural signifier,” as Andrew puts it — but our lives are jam-packed with cultural signifiers. This is just one of thousands, one whose importance probably barely cracks America’s top 100 list.

And the reason it doesn’t is that even creationists don’t take their own views seriously. How do I know this? Well, creationists like to fight over whether we should teach evolution in high school, but they never go much beyond that. Nobody wants to remove it from university biology departments. Nobody wants to shut down actual medical research that depends on the workings of evolution. In short, almost nobody wants to fight evolution except at the purely symbolic level of high school curricula, the one place where it barely matters in the first place. The dirty truth is that a 10th grade knowledge of evolution adds only slightly to a 10th grade understanding of biology.

Oh, great. That’s all we need — for both parties in our polarized political system to abandon science.

Drum is making a very stupid argument. Most Americans have trouble balancing a checkbook — ever witnessed a confused high school student try to make change at a fast-food restaurant — so what the heck do they need algebra for? Why even bother with basic arithmetic? Teach them how to use a calculator in first grade, bam-pow, math education is done.

How many Americans read a novel as adults? How many bother with magazines, even, short of looking at the pictures? You don’t even need to read to be able to navigate our highways — knowing symbols and names are enough. Teach kids the alphabet, show ‘em how to write their name and roughly recognize place names, and wham-bam-zowie, reading is done by second grade. Ship ‘em out into the workforce by third grade.

We’ll just let the eggheads take the advanced courses, like geometry and creative writing and literature.

Drum isn’t arguing anything that extreme, of course, but it’s a logical consequence of his reasoning: he doesn’t use biology, and he doesn’t think most Americans use much biology, therefore it’s a frippery that can be set aside.

Now, I think evolution should remain in high school texts anyway. Why? Because it’s true. Biology is a science, and evolution is one of the pillars of modern science. For me, that’s a cultural signifier every bit as much as a literal reading of the Bible is for 46% of the country. But you know what? I could spend an entire day arguing politics and economics and culture with a conservative and never so much as mention evolution. It’s just not that important, and it doesn’t tell us much of anything about our widening political polarization. We should keep up the fight, but at the same time we shouldn’t pretend it has an epic significance that it doesn’t. I’m not optimistic about anyone or anything “bringing the country together,” but not because lots of people choose to deny evolution. Frankly, that’s one of the least of our problems.

You know what? I could spend all day arguing science with a conservative (and I have!) and never once mention politics or economics or culture. Therefore, politics and economics and culture are unimportant.

Funny how that works.

The evolution statistic does have epic significance. If kids were graduating from high school unable to read or do basic arithmetic, we’d see that as a serious indictment of our educational system…and we’d be right to worry about our future as a technological society. That 46% of our citizens graduate with a complete denial of a most basic, fundamental fact about our world — that all of the sciences, not just biology, but physics, geology, chemistry, and astronomy concur that the planet is billions of years old — represents a massive failure of our educational system. In itself, it’s a small problem — it’s knowledge of one small detail. But as a symptom, it indicates a nation-wide problem.

I don’t just blame the schools, though: it’s not that they can’t teach a simple, fundamental fact. It’s that there is immense cultural push-back that opposes a scientific truth. If it were just an omission in the school curricula, it would be trivial to fix — but no, it’s a symptom of systemic rot in the whole body politic and a reflection of a crippling anti-intellectualism in this country. That’s what has epic significance.

It directly affects us in two ways.

One is that it’s nice to be able to American biology departments and medical research and say they’re doing fine, and it’s true that we have excellent opportunities for advanced research, but it’s our public schools that fill the pipeline leading to those places. Look in our research labs, and what will you see? Swarms of Chinese students. I have no objection to that, but think long term: most of those students will go home to build careers there, not here. Students who do not get the basics of science are handicapped when it comes to progressing up the academic ladder, so sure, let’s knee-cap our student base by telling them all that the most minimal, trivial understanding of an entire large discipline isn’t actually all that important. Where are our future American biologists going to come from, then?

Second, this is going to be the century of dependence on the sciences. Climate change is going to hit us all; environmental crises are going to rise up all over the place; we’re going to face shortages of energy and fresh water; emerging diseases will be a major concern; new biomedical technologies will cause cultural shocks; the whole world is going to change. Most people, I agree, will not be doing the research that leads to changes, and most of those problems will require political and social changes to correct, but how are you going to convince people to, for instance, change their fuel consumption habits when they’re in complete denial of the basic facts? How can you expect people to appreciate the importance of ecology and global interactions when you tell them that evolution doesn’t matter? How will you get them to make rational decisions to control pandemics when they can’t comprehend probability, epidemiology, and viral/bacterial evolution on even the most basic level?

Most importantly, though, this utilitarian attitude that all that matters is what people can directly use in their day-to-day life is a denial of the Enlightenment and principles on which our country was founded. It’s a rejection of the liberal ideal that human beings should be well-rounded and informed individuals — the informed citizenry that should be the foundation of a democracy. We can’t expect everyone to be biologists or poets or political scientists, but we should expect that one outcome of a public education is an appreciation of the breadth of human endeavor, and at least a smattering of the fundamentals of a wide range of subjects, sufficient that, to make it practical again, students can make informed career decisions and understand a basic argument from evidence from an expert. We lack that now. And to wave away a simple but essential starting fact about our existence as unimportant is deeply offensive.

I’ll leave you with the words of Thomas Jefferson, who understood deep down how important the principle is, even if he never heard a word about evolution.

I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness…Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.

Shorter Thomas Jefferson:

If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.