Americans talk Turkey about evolution

Sometimes on Sunday I catch up on my backed up journal reading. High profile journals like Nature and Science are great except for one major defect: they come once a week, every week. They tend to pile up. So I browse them, looking for interesting articles or just satisfying my somewhat eclectic scientific interests. No surprise, with a Freethinker Sermonette due, the article by Miller, Scott and Okamoto, "Public Acceptance of Evolution" would catch my eye (Science 11 August 2006:Vol. 313. no. 5788, pp. 765 - 766):

Beginning in 1985, national samples of U.S. adults have been asked whether the statement, "Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals," is true or false, or whether the respondent is not sure or does not know. We compared the results of these surveys with survey data from nine European countries in 2002, surveys in 32 European countries in 2005, and a national survey in Japan in 2001.


A dichotomous true-false question format tends to exaggerate the strength of both positions. In 1993 and 2003, national samples of American adults were asked about the same statement but were offered the choice of saying that the statement was "definitely true, probably true, probably false, definitely false," or that they did not know or were uncertain.

Americans, it turns out, are among the least convinced of evolution of any country surveyed. On the "yes" or "no" question, they are split about 40% - 40% - 20%, the latter group uncertain. In the more flexible version, about a third of adults firmly rejected evolution with only 14% saying it is "definitely true." Combining the "probably" and the "not sure" gives us about 55% of Americans with varying degrees of hesitation as to whether humans were the product of an evolutionary process.

This pattern is different from that seen in Europe and Japan. Looking first at the simpler true-false question, our analysis found that significantly (at the 0.01 to 0.05 level by difference of proportions) (11) more adults in Japan and 32 European countries accepted the concept of evolution than did American adults (see figure, right). Only Turkish adults were less likely to accept the concept of evolution than American adults. In Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and France, 80% or more of adults accepted the concept of evolution, as did 78% of Japanese adults.

A cross-national study of the United States and nine European nations in 2002-2003 used the expanded version of the question. The results confirm that a significantly lower proportion of American adults believe that evolution is absolutely true than adults in nine European countries. . . . A third of American adults indicated that evolution is "absolutely false"; the proportion of European adults who thought that evolution was absolutely false ranged from 7% in Denmark, France, and Great Britain to 15% in the Netherlands.

So what's the explanation for why the US is so different than Europe and Japan? The authors believe the political role of American Protestant fundamentalism is the reason:

First, the structure and beliefs of American fundamentalism historically differ from those of mainstream Protestantism in both the United States and Europe. The biblical literalist focus of fundamentalism in the United States sees Genesis as a true and accurate account of the creation of human life that supersedes any scientific finding or interpretation. In contrast, mainstream Protestant faiths in Europe (and their U.S. counterparts) have viewed Genesis as metaphorical and--like the Catholic Church--have not seen a major contradiction between their faith and the work of Darwin and other scientists.

Second, the evolution issue has been politicized and incorporated into the current partisan division in the United States in a manner never seen in Europe or Japan. In the second half of the 20th century, the conservative wing of the Republican Party has adopted creationism as a part of a platform designed to consolidate their support in southern and Midwestern states--the "red" states. In the 1990s, the state Republican platforms in seven states included explicit demands for the teaching of "creation science" (1). There is no major political party in Europe or Japan that uses opposition to evolution as a part of its political platform.

Using a causal modeling statistical technique, the authors identify the influence of pro-life views and religious conserative views on beliefs about evolution. No suprises, so far. But the authors also identify a third factor, which seems highly problematical to me.

Third, genetic literacy has a moderate positive relationship to the acceptance of evolution in both the United States and the nine European countries. This result indicates that those adults who have acquired some understanding of modern genetics are more likely to hold positive attitudes toward evolution. The total effect of genetic literacy on the acceptance of evolution was similar in the United States and the nine European countries.

Although the mean score on the Index of Genetic Literacy was slightly higher in the United States than the nine European countries combined, results from another 2005 U.S. study show that substantial numbers of American adults are confused about some of the core ideas related to 20th- and 21st-century biology. When presented with a description of natural selection that omits the word evolution, 78% of adults agreed to a description of the evolution of plants and animals. . . . But, 62% of adults in the same study believed that God created humans as whole persons without any evolutionary development.

The authors label these views "human exceptionalism," i.e., evolution doesn't apply to humans.

Elements of this perspective can be seen in the way that many adults try to integrate modern genetics into their understanding of life. For example, only a third of American adults agree that more than half of human genes are identical to those of mice and only 38% of adults recognize that humans have more than half of their genes in common with chimpanzees. In other studies [cites omitted] fewer than half of American adults can provide a minimal definition of DNA. Thus, it is not surprising that nearly half of the respondents in 2005 were not sure about the proportion of human genes that overlap with mice or chimpanzees.

I can't really believe the problem is lack of biological education. I expect many people who believe in evolution and know some biology were nonetheless surprised at the extent to which mammals share the same genes. The problem isn't, as the authors suggest, that science eduction is lacking in US middle schools and high schools. It is that religious fundamentalism represents a particular reaction to the modern world. The one third of Americans who outright deny evolution are a hard core who have reacted to the changes in society, as reflected in MTV, sexual mores, popular culture and the manifest diversity in religious perspectives, in a specific way. For them, science represents a particularly threatening set of doctrines that strike at the heart of social beliefs that are already in a precarious state. The authors come close to recognizing this in their final paragraph:

The politicization of science in the name of religion and political partisanship is not new to the United States, but transformation of traditional geographically and economically based political parties into religiously oriented ideological coalitions marks the beginning of a new era for science policy. The broad public acceptance of the benefits of science and technology in the second half of the 20th century allowed science to develop a nonpartisan identification that largely protected it from overt partisanship. That era appears to have closed.

But it is the Republican party, at this stage in its history, that has exploited this issue and politicized it (cf. Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science). When the Republicans have milked it for all its value, it will abandon this "base" and science policy will resume its non-partisan aspect. First, we will have to spank the Republicans good and hard by turning them out of office in the November mid-term elections.


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Oh, right on! You go guy!

Just had to weigh in on this. I've taught middle school life science for 15 years, and biology in HS for 5. In my experience, those students - particularly in Middle School - who arrive with a hard core fundamentalist background have to be handled with a great deal of empathy if one hopes to have them learn about and come to accept natural selection and evolution, particularly about the human species. You can't just stomp on their religious beliefs, because they will simply shut down on you. They have been raised to absolutely fear taking in any evidence to the contrary of what they've been taught at home and church: to do so means to "go over to the dark side". Things like DNA - which they can't see, feel, or experience in any other form of realia than via models, pictures, or computer simulations - is pretty easy for reality based minds to negate, on a par with just another story book tale. It almost has to be taken on faith, and thus has no more credence than the Bible version of things. For evidence of how little reality DNA has for the average layman, one needs look no farther than the OJ trial. The evidence was as complete and undeniable as if a photo had been taken of the crime in progress, yet the jury dismissed it all in favor of "Where's the blood?"...Oh my!

In my classes I take great care to build a case for god: not teaching creationism, but saying that we have no real evidence for where the first life came from: The concept that molecules as complex and delicate as DNA, Chlorophyll, proteins, enzymes etc could have managed to accidentally come together and remain together in the perfect coordination necessary for life processes, and to do so in a hostile environment bombarded by cosmic rays, UV, volcanic upheavals, meteorite bombardment etc., is not only statistically improbable, but despite 60 years of testing by thousands of scientists in the best labs in the world under the most controlled conditions possible it has yet to be duplicated...not even close. So, I tell them, in that case lets give the creation of life over to "god" or divine intelligence. And the method for that life to continue and thrive on this planet, the "invention" of DNA as a means for evolution and adaptation via continuous genetic mutation, which has been proven beyond all doubt...We'll just credit God with that one too. All the rest of science is based on factual evidence of that which has gone on since that first life, and that is what we'll study.

When presented that way, all but the most serious biblical literalists will become quite happy to accept the rest of evolutionary science theory, although a few still balk at their connection to monkeys. Those I just throw a banana.

But on the other hand, I have to wonder why atheists often have such a problem with this view. Who cares if the first life came by chemical accident or an "intelligent design?" It makes absolutely no difference in the study of it, in all its aspects but that one. I've always had a problem with scientists who literally fume at the idea that the first life might have been at the hands of an intelligence beyond ours, and not just a stupid if serendipitous accident. I've seen some get as irate as the biblical literalists do at the opposite view. I personally think that is just ego, balking at the idea that there might be something out there smarter than we are. Like dolphins, for example.

By mary in hawaii (not verified) on 20 Aug 2006 #permalink

The first life, or the entire universe itself might have been at the hands of a creator, but this is mere speculation and its rejection has nothing to do with ego.

The problem with this line of speculation is that it exists solely because there's a religious view that favors it. We don't see the same people producing 'plausible' explanations for how electromagnetism works, or the possible existence of a chemical element with an atomic weight of 1492.

Thus, the goal of such a speculation is not necessarily to understand how the universe works. But science classes are about understanding how the universe works. They are not about consoling students by telling them that the evidence and the analysis does not contradict their belief system; the science class is not the place for that. Priests should analyze this issue and provide the necessary spiritual guidance to these students; not biology teachers.

MiH: I'm a bit shocked to learn you have decided to teach religion in science class. You are teaching Intelligent Design and from the scientific viewpoint it has been soundly refuted many, many times. It isn't just that you are being considerate of a minority of students who don't want to learn because of their religious upbringing. It is that you have decided to weigh in and teach everyone what they (and you) believe. I would urge you to reconsider your responsbility here. If you were teaching my children this, I would be very upset. Teach them about genetics and teach them what science kows about evolution. If you want to teach them religion, do it in church on Sunday.

Interesting. In the Sermonette thread, I quoted Mary

these little meat machines we run around in become a constant nuisance to us, a source of guilt, embarrassment and shame

and advanced the thought that it was particularly true in the USA that, because of our Puritanical forebearers, we were particularly hung up on biological functions, especially those having anything to do with sex.
That goes double here. I have to agree with Revere. The science teacher that teaches religion in my kid's (now, my grandkid's) science classes will earn the right to explain why to me in front of the school board and on the Op-Ed pages of the paper. It is why I don't live in Kansas, Toto. (and why people in the rest of the world make a joke out of the Kansas State Board of Education.)

By Man of Misery (not verified) on 20 Aug 2006 #permalink

Revere, Koray and MoM: In the first place, I do NOT teach or preach religion or intelligent design. I ALLOW those who wish to believe that life was created by ID to continue to do so, as I point out - quite correctly - that science has not even come close to proving life could have just formed all by itself by a chemical accident. This is FACT. I have gone to seminars where the leading scientists in the field are discussing their work. No one has come closer than creating a few of the precursor chemicals. You fume that I am teaching that? Get real, that is science!! Science is based on hypotheses that are tested and retested and supported. The idea of spontaneous accidental chemical creation of life is not supported by any of the tests so far. That is what I tell them. So if it is in their comfort zone to believe in a "creator" that is fine with me. And while you are pounding me into the dirt for such outlandish and unscientific ideas, might I point out that Einstein favored similar views, the more he understood about the nature and mechanism of the universe?

Man of misery: How do you justify bringing something I said in another thread into this conversation? I do not teach or preach religious views in the classroom. I am not an atheist, but I am an agnostic. I am open to all possibilities, and the most important thing I can pass on to my students is to also be open to all possibilities, to question everything.

By mary in hawaii (not verified) on 20 Aug 2006 #permalink


Sorry you were offended. My point was that in the US of A we are far too hung up on sex and not nearly attuned to what science teaches us.

Are not your views consistent no matter where you are? Do you have one set of comments for one audience and another for a different crowd? That's so very Karl Rove.

Having said that, I think you need to take your kids out of their "comfort zone" if that comfort zone perpetuates the myth that God created man out of a pile of dust in his image 6000 years ago.

Maybe he took a hank of hair and a piece of bone and made a walkin', talkin' honeycomb, too. For sure, men like spare ribs, especially after the application of a dry rub and some fine smoke.

By Man of Misery (not verified) on 20 Aug 2006 #permalink

Rereading my comment, I discovered I did not address MiH's point.

In the first place, I do NOT teach or preach religion or intelligent design. I ALLOW those who wish to believe that life was created by ID to continue to do so,

But you said:

In my classes I take great care to build a case for god

It seems to me that these two statements, from your postings in this discussion above, are at odds with each other. Either you "build a case for god" and the origin of man as put forth in Genesis, or you teach your students about evolution. One is scientific theory, the other is religious myth.
To which do you subscribe, and more importantly, which do you teach your students in "middle school life science for 15 years, and biology in HS for 5"

Like I said before, if you're teaching Genesis to my (grand)kids, we've got a date with the school board.

By Man of Misery (not verified) on 20 Aug 2006 #permalink

The book of Genesis offers an explanation for the origin of life, but it does not attempt to explain how organisms change over time. Evolutionary theory offers an explanation for how organisms change over time, but it does not attempt to explain the origin of life. The fundamentalist may easily be forgiven for failing to appreciate this, just as high school students may not be expected to have mastered the art of critical thinking, or to understand the principle of falsifiability, or to recognize an argument from authority -- but if my child's science teacher doesn't, I'd rather teach him myself.

What if God turns out to be Buddha?

I misspoke in saying I "build a case for god." That was only meant as a dramatic device. I thought what I meant was made quite clear in the rest of what I wrote. Obviously not so to some of you. I teach science. I teach it very very well. I teach all the theories of the origin of life, the early earth, the biochemistry of life. I teach genetics quite thoroughly, and throughout the course demonstrate it as the means by which organisms have adapted and evolved throughout the history of life on earth. It is the fundamental principle and unifying theme of my entire curriculum. However I stand by my statement that the creation of life - the creation of the very first microorganisms, the archeobacteria and cyanobacteria that appeared 3.7 billion years ago - is still unsolved. Do you understand the difference between saying that and teaching a biblical version of genesis??? I certainly do. I never implied in any way shape or form that I teach anything remotely related to the origin of man nor any reference to biblical genesis, or that god created man out of a pile of dust 6000 years ago. Are you all hallucinating? reread what I wrote. I said simply that there has been absolutely no valid scientific proof that life - that simple bacterium of long ago - was created out of a bunch of inorganic chemicals which just happened to come together perfectly under a bombardment of cosmic rays. How you turn that into the teaching of god creating man out of dust...god knows!!!!

By mary in hawaii (not verified) on 20 Aug 2006 #permalink

One more: to Revere: you say "You are teaching Intelligent Design and from the scientific viewpoint it has been soundly refuted many, many times." Care to back that up?

The only way something as indefinable and untestable as "Intelligent design" can be "soundly refuted" is by proving the alternative hypothesis: that the origin of life came by spontaneous chemical accident. Intelligent design is simply the catch all, the null hypothesis, what you have left after you fail to support your alternative hypothesis in test after test after test. Since the chemical accident theory of the origin of life has yet to be proven or even strongly supported by such testing, then how can you say that the alternate hypothesis of origin of life by intelligent design is "soundly refuted." By what means has science refuted all possibility of god?

By mary in hawaii (not verified) on 20 Aug 2006 #permalink

Evolution through natural selection does not attempt to explain Genesis. That is simply an old theory. Modern evolutionary theories often gear somewhat more towards environmental effects verses competition with other organisms.

That said, Evolution, if applied as a physical process or a force (or emergent force) of nature, could explain genesis. Of course, the science is not completely there, *yet*.

Evolution is generally perceived with lines drawn between and at organisms. There is much more depth than that- the process involves every physical force of nature, going beyond dna to properties of particles and energy. It's unscientific to say otherwise, in fact. We cant explain a lot of complex adaptive systems -they still exist- and may have even been human created, that doesnt mean theres room for ID, though.

The association between genesis (religious) and evolution is only made because there is a religious desire to do so. There is no legitimate reason to say, "oh well, we might as well include god and/or aliens to fill in the blank spots."

By thebigmacattack (not verified) on 20 Aug 2006 #permalink

big mac; You say the association between genesis and evolution is only made because there is a religious desire to do so. Wrong!! I don't make any association between genesis and evolution. You still miss the point: I am talking about ORIGIN OF LIFE. Bacteria. First cells. That is what I say there is no proof for one way or the other, which therefore allows the possibility that it came from Intelligent Design as much as from Chemical Accident. Period. Evolution is what happened afterward, under as you say a complexity of physical factors which affect the mechanism of genetic mutation. That mechanism for mutation and adaptation is found in the DNA (or RNA), which - when you consider it - is an amazing chemical, at once simple enough to duplicate and complex enough to allow for millions of possible combinations and variations in its genetic code...thus endlessly adaptable and reusable, one organism to the next. One can teach the science of that without negating or losing the sense of awe, can one not? As for you saying there is no legitimate reason to say "oh well, we might as well include god" I say there is no reason not to allow people to believe in god as well as science. Who cares? And why did you throw in "aliens"? Just a little unnecessary dig in an attempt to disparage me? All I am doing is making it so that the two subjects do not appear to be mutually exclusive to the youngsters who come to me to learn. Good teaching requires that one address preconceived beliefs whenever introducing a new subject. And then to present all evidence to support or refute those belief systems (sensitively!!)as well as any new ones you have to teach. Not one child in any of my classes in all the years I have been teaching would ever ever tell you I promoted the belief in god, the bible, creationism or intelligent design. Not one. I simply do not destroy it for those who do have that belief system. That's not my job either. By making it possible for both belief systems to coexist, I am making it possible for kids who would otherwise reject science out of hand as an enemy to their religious teachings, to appreciate and learn from it and make science a part of their belief system as well. I would venture that the majority of students who have come into my classroom over the years as biblical literalists went out with a much different and more scientific viewpoint of where life came from and how it evolved...BECAUSE they were allowed to hold onto their basic belief in God, and didn't feel they had to give it up to learn science. And if you think that's wrong, too bad. I happen to be a nationally board certified teacher and I do know exactly what I am doing. It is my field of expertise.

By mary in hawaii (not verified) on 20 Aug 2006 #permalink

MiH: I am on a slow dialup so I read the comments seriatum and with delay. I don't want to misrepresent you or accuse you of doing something you aren't doing, so if you aren't teaching that it is possible that life originated in some way that is not explainable, even in principle, from science I apologize. But it still sounds to me as if that is what you do.

It is fair to say science has not yet proferred a complete explanation of how biological forms may have originated, although the outlines of such an explanation have been given. That is very different from implying this is something science can never or can't explain, which is the sense I am getting from you. It is fine to remain silent on this issue in your teaching or to bring it up in comparative religion class, but not in science class. Science class is for science and if science has nothing to say about this in your opinion (which is not the opinion of most scientists working in this area), fine. Don't teach it at all, if you can't teach it well.

There is an underlying idea about science and the origins of life you are implicitly rejecting: that they are compatible. Don't teach kids, even by inference, this is true in science class or you are distorting science. Teach it in Sunday school, if you must, but don't mix it in with your science teaching (which I am sure is exceptional, given your comments here on other subjects). In this regard, however, if you teach students that science has nothing to say about the origins of life, it is distorting science for religious reasons.

MiH: Why is ID the default? Why isn't science the default for a science teacher? This argument isn't about science or about evolution. It is about your personal God who is/are your "null hypothesis." Incidentally, a null hypothesis is always relative to an alternative hypothesis. In conventional use, however, it refers to the hypothesis that the difference occurred by chance alone.

I for one believe in the Almighty and then by the same token there is just one helluva lot of stuff that just goes unexplained. ID, Creation, Big Bang, Big Accident, Small Accident and the Garden of Eden are just some of the mystery that is the universe. Things like how the dinosaurs dissapeared supposedly 65 million years ago in a cosmic blinding flash according to scientists. Then recently finding mushy bone marrow from T. Rex bones that contained red and white blood cells that were supposed to be inert which would mean it couldnt be more than a few thousand years old. Shake the faith or add to it? .

Who and what is God? I am a believer and the descriptive terms that I would use are all based in science. Evolution? The most scientifically available information is all it is. I for one use science right up to the point that it doesnt explain what I am seeing or feeling and wont reach out into it any farther. I'll bet you that Revere is only one step on the other side of that line and would either be dancing a jig when science proves that God doesn't exist or absolutely stunned when it does.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 21 Aug 2006 #permalink

In defense of MiH - she has a point - about life, that is - the science of chemistry has misled us for nearly 2 centuries by pretending that life doesn't exist. This allows us to ignore such minor planks of wood as chirality and carbon-chlorine bonds and more generally, the compact and finite nature of the set of chemicals that comprise life.

One amongst many results of this 'oversight' was the near destruction of the ozone layer. Another is the continuing problems with air fresheners made with di-cholro-benzene.

My point being that science cannot claim a privileged position since it is as vulnerable to error as a theologian can be. There is such a thing as wisdom and it behooves us all to acknowledge it's value.

By kyangadac (not verified) on 21 Aug 2006 #permalink

Mary, it looks to me like you are either unclear on what your position is, or unwilling to admit it.

One of my closest friends is a proselytizing, born-again Christian. He never quite gives up on converting me, but he's learned not to devote too much time to the project. We occasionally indulge in casual debates over theology, but we mostly talk about other things. Despite the fact that we each consider the other to be dead wrong in this area, we coexist. Peacefully. Our beliefs, however, can never coexist in a single brain. One cannot accept -- yet simultaneously deny -- the existence of a supernatural intelligence.

My friend and I have learned that respecting a person doesn't have to mean respecting his beliefs, but I don't always get along with everyone whose beliefs clash so strongly with mine. I don't want to disparage you, but to challenge you to examine your own assumptions more closely. In exchange, I might hope to glean from you some tips for developing greater sensitivity when challenging the beliefs of others. It is clear that you have a genuine respect for your students. This is something that seems not to be quite as natural for me, but requires a bit more focused effort. The psychology of fundamentalism has some subtle aspects, but it's pretty much a no-brainer that when his beliefs are attacked directly, the fundamentalist invariably responds by digging his trench deeper. As this is likely to be particularly true in the case of the ADOLESCENT fundamentalist, the best results will be obtained with a gentle hand. Whatever else, yours is clearly that.

The question of abiogenesis is beyond the current scope of science, but it's bound to come up. Ultimately, what it boils down to is that either God did it, or He didn't. It can't be both. I guess what bothers me is not that you teach that "science has not proved that the origin of life came by spontaneous chemical accident", but that you appear to think that science is in the business of "proving" things. If a truck driver or a bricklayer thinks that, it's no big deal, but a science teacher is held to a higher standard. In science, things are "disproved", "not disproved", "not tested", or "not testable". Nothing is "proved".

That you apparently embrace the creationist's lament that the scientist lacks a "sense of awe" also bothers me. A lot. Have you never encountered this quote:

"My objection to supernatural beliefs is precisely that they miserably fail to do justice to the sublime grandeur of the real world"

by Richard Dawkins?

Revere: you say: "It is fair to say science has not yet proferred a complete explanation of how biological forms may have originated, although the outlines of such an explanation have been given.That is very different from implying this is something science can never or can't explain, which is the sense I am getting from you."

To clarify: I do not imply science can never explain how life originated. I am just saying that so far they have not. The most popular theory - first brought out in the Miller Urey experiment - is that life formed by accident in the early seas when chemicals got together. Other more advanced scientists have since proven that Miller and Urey had the mixture and conditions all wrong, that the early atmosphere wouldn't have had the composition they used, pretty much debunking all their results (which were, after all, only a few amino acids). Since then the problems with this theory have been manifest. The lack of an ozone layer would have made it impossible for many of the delicate chemicals to survive more than a few seconds at the earth's surface. So some postulated that life formed deep under the sea in near volcanic vents. However that doesn't explain how cyanobacteria survived, close enough to the surface to photosynthesize and create the atmosphere and consequent ozone layer necessary for the rest of life to flourish, yet somehow deep enough not to be split apart by UV or cosmic rays? Also, having talked to scientists who are the actual world renowned researchers into this chemical's spontaneous origin, they told me chlorophyll is one of the most complex and at the same time delicate of organic molecules. They told me they hadn't even come close to synthesizing it under the most ideal conditions. As for other ways spontaneous origin might have occured: There are bubble theories galore, on clay surfaces that wouldn't have existed back then, and in the air (making them even more susceptible to bombardment) Point is, there are tons of theories and subtheories to explain this idea of chemical accident, none proven, all very much flawed. IN the Raven and Johnson College Biology book - a very well known and respected textbook that I use as reference for this section of my course - under the category Origin and Early History of Life, It does take the time to mention, in a paragraph each, that the prevaling theories of the origin of life are Panspermia (which begs the question), Special Creation (meaning ID) which it admits as the oldest hypothesis, but non scientific explanation, and then the chemical accident/ spontaneous origin theories, which it says is the only one they will deal with in this book as it is the only one which can be "tested and potentially falsified." (Their words) The author goes on to say and I quote: "This is not to say that the third possibility is definitely the correct one. Anyone of the three possibilties might be true. Nor does the third possibility preclude religion, for a divine agency might have acted via evolution. Rather we are limiting the scope of our inquiry to scientific matters. Of the three possibilities only the third permits testable hypotheses..." etc.

This is EXACTLY what I teach my students, and exactly what I have been saying to you all in defense of that.

By mary in hawaii (not verified) on 21 Aug 2006 #permalink

I have to stand up for Mary in Hawaii here. I'm a biologist and an atheist, and I think that the way she teaches evolution is quite possibly the only way to get through to people who have been taught to doubt it. That is exactly how I explain it to my relatives who don't believe in evolution, because they simply won't listen to the scientific arguments in favor of evolution unless and until they are convinced that science is compatible with belief in God.

Scientific arguments alone are not going to convince anyone of the truth of evolution. The people who reject evolution don't reject it because they think the scientific evidence is weak, they reject it because they think it undermines their religion. Therefore, you've got to address the question of god before you can even begin to talk about the science.

"In 1993 and 2003, national samples of American adults were asked about the same statement but were offered the choice of saying that the statement was "definitely true, probably true, probably false, definitely false," or that they did not know or were uncertain."

How about a metaphysics based on survey results? Or maybe this is the dominant modern American metaphysics already...

By traumatized (not verified) on 21 Aug 2006 #permalink

If no science can be taught in science class until the question of God has been addressed, then maybe we should just forget the whole thing, because the question of God has to be one of the most unaddressable questions ever raised. There are a great many other questions which science also does not address, precisely because they cannot be addressed scientifically. Must we also address these before we can proceed with the actual science?

A thought that has often occurred to me (and which this discussion underscores) is that (in U.S. public schools at least) it might be better to start with the fundamentals of logic and critical thinking, maybe at least an overview of the philosophy of science. Without those tools, memorizing a heap of "facts" seems like a pretty pointless exercise anyway.

"Convincing" her students of "the truth of evolution" is not, strictly speaking, Mary's job. Her job is to present as much as she can of the results of scientific inquiry into the (admittedly limited) areas it has investigated. Sifting for truth is up to the student, who, upon entering the adult world, will be presented with a great deal more that will need sifting. Schools in the U.S. churn out students who can fill in lots of the right bubbles on computer-scorable test forms, yet cannot accurately define the words "hypothesis", "theory", and "law", as they are used in science, cannot recognize simple logical fallacies, cannot distinguish between subjective opinions and reasoned judgements, and as adults, they consistently fill in the bubbles on election ballots in such a way as to make them the laughingstock of the world.

Forget science. What we need is "Thinking 101."

Good summation Racter; doubt it will put this teapot tempest to bed.

Some here might enjoy the refutation by Sam Harris of the recent Francis Collins heresy, Language of God. It's no wonder we have such a silly discourse in the USA about our probable origins when religiously pinheaded people like Collins blather on about the "harmony" between science and evangelical X'tianity.

Harris points out that the "book reveals that a stellar career in science offers no guarantee of a scientific frame of mind."

Well put, Racter! Unfortunately, education in the US has been steadily moving away from teaching critical thinking. TPTB fear a democratic populace capable of critical thought, or knowledgeable in history and the lessons we should have learned from it. The political polarization and issue oversimplification rampant in the US today is a result of the degradation of US public education (with apologies to M in H who seems to be swimming against that stream).

STH-That was a response to the assertion. Not a cast in stone scientifically proven fact. In addition, those "fragments" that were described created an immunity response in subjects. The other fact was that the stuff was "wet" but back to the Revere Sermonette. Different discussion for a different day.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 21 Aug 2006 #permalink

Revere, et al., I am a retired clinical psychologist who has lived for over 30 years in a scientific town whose main employer is a national laboratory. I never cease to be surprised by the simplistic answers to complicated social questions that I often get from scientists. I fear this is being displayed here in this "cytokine storm" resultant from Mary's sensitive and, likely, effective methods in dealing with fundamentalist adolescents in science classes. Scientists, in your defensive rage to defend this perceived attack on science, you could end up destroying a lot more than your imagined enemy. Science, as you may have noticed, is in a funding squeeze. American students, again, as you may have observed, are often embarrassingly ill equiped to compete with foreign students on any collegiate level. Defending Holy Science against all perceived slights is embarrassingly reminiscent of the response of fundamentalist Islam to the onslaught of modernity. And about as effective. What you are doing isn't working. You don't get no respect. Would some one please smell the coffee? Mary's methods work. Yours don't. Can we call this an experiment? The results, it seems to me, are clear.

Gary: I couldn't disagree more. We have had two decades of right wing assault on science. Look at the results of this survey if you want to see how well these "methods" work. Those are the "results." Teach science in science class, religion in other classes.

The fundamentalist response to modernity (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc.) is just that, a response to modernity. It isn't solved by teaching children that there is room for fundamentalism in the modern world, because the problem of modernity isn't just science. This battle has been going on since the 17th century. We are winning, but there is the inevitable backsliding. I guarantee you that telling an Islamic or Christian fundamentalist that maybe God started it all but everything from then on is science won't solve their problem.


There is an association between genesis and evolution because the two are in fact disassociated, explicitly separated. You obviously make this association; not merely the assumption that they are different things, but the belief that they are discontinuous. This perception is gained largely through the concept of religious Genesis.

A lack of understanding about genesis does not allow for the possibility of god, such a possibility (ID: religious supernatural genesis) is unscientific, or at least should be in a public science class.
With no evidence of god or the divine having ever existed, there is evidence that the earth and its components have always behaved in acceptable and predictable ways (regarding science). Scientific ideas about genesis may not be accurate or proven, but they are still much more valid than any religious mythos.

There is no legitimate reason to mention god in a science class. You dont have to mention it, especially if it is mentioned in text. If you do, it's because you're making an expression of religion, which is simply technically wrong. Aliens and god, like all unknowns, should not venture inappropriately near the blanks. My issue with religion in science class is that it really does undermine the validity of science. It allows students to pick and choose, and I think, encourages them to do so. Science class is not about weighing personal beliefs against the text. That would be Sunday school or a philosophy class.

Science and religion are often mutually exclusive, but we can be hypocritical in some cases, no problem, and both ambiguous and open minded along the way. Just say that religion and science are two different things that they can coexist, in a balance to be found by each person.

Theres a difference between expressing empathy towards a persons religion, and outright validating it. I dont know which you do, however, if you spend any amount of time explicitly mentioning ID and God, then I imagine that you are not merely being empathetic. If a person is religious, Im sure theyll imagine what isnt explained to them anyway, (the battle is probably about rationalizing these imaginings more than it is about empowering them, I would think) is there an educational reason to mention ID, besides the whole, "the jury is out", argument?

And finally, if students are so hostile to science that they need to have their religious beliefs validated, then they have had a severely lacking education, requiring reform greater than throwing occasional god-bones at them.

Evolution and science is not a belief system, btw.

By thebigmacattack (not verified) on 21 Aug 2006 #permalink

Revere got this one pegged but I wouldnt say that science is winning. Its just moving us farther along into the unknown just as Copernicus did. I certainly dont want religious zealots shutting down science because I see science complementing religion all through history, and scientists getting hammered for it. Sometimes on pain of death. Religion in many cases becomes the thought police and that has always lead to the execution of the scientists. If we had stayed with Roman Catholic thought, we would still be sailing around within sight of the coast and you and I would be worrying about Torquemada. I wouldnt impinge on people like Revere ever because like every scientist to a religious persons favorite line, I would say to him "Prove me wrong." Since he cant, I cant then we agree to disagree....and move on.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 22 Aug 2006 #permalink

I would like to post a comment but I see there has been no activity here since August. Has this thread been closed? I'll check back in a day or two and if I see this comment then I'll start saying something of substance.

The twists and turns of this discussion have been very interesting to me considering my backround. Mary really got jumped on, when she clearly stated that she did not teach creationism. Though she was also definitely skating a fine line.

I was an agnostic for many years. (The only reason I was not an atheist is that it is illogical to believe something does not exist unless one has explored every nook and cranny of the universe. Can you prove there are no purple spotted geese? On another planet? Somewhere? Anywhere?) I read the atheist magazine every month, knew the spokesman for the American Atheist, majored in chemistry and later clinical psychology with a great emphasis on research methods.

Contrary to what many of you believe science has not proven evolution! As Racter pointed out science is generally in the position of disproving the null hypotheses. Although for all daily purposes that is the same as proving the hypotheses. If I say it's not raining (null hypotheses) you may prove me wrong by observing rain.

Science is about making observations about the natural world. If something cannot be observed or it is supernatural (word used in the technical sense. I'm not talking about ghosts.) it is out of the domain of science. It is not neccessarily false or myth just not something that science can comment on. This is both a strength for science, as it keeps it pure and objective, and a weakness as it limits what can be studied.

Maybe someday science will begin to point toward God. If God is ever observed by scientist in a replicatable way many will have to rethink their atheism. Of course, atheism is a religion since the belief that God does not exist when that belief cannot be scientifically proven has to be accepted on faith. It is a faith based statement about God - a religion.

Maybe someday science will disprove Christianity. (It is rude to call it X'tianity; we should respect each other especially when we disagree.) So far it has not, and is completely compatible. One of the great strengths of Christianity is that it can be disproven just like any scientific hypothesis. I'm not saying it is a scientific hypothesis it is a religeous belief. A few years ago I saw a newspaper article that said the bones of Christ had been found. Obviously this would disprove Christianity and I would abandon my faith. The article was wrong. There wasn't even any evidence. If the bones could have been produced the Romans would have done it in the first century.

The first person to introduce God into the Theory of Evolution was Darwin who stated that Evolution took place without any influence from God. Clearly a very unscientific statement outside the realm of what science can address. (So yes, at least one theory of evolution tries to explain the origin of life, albeit in an incomplete way) If in the discussion of Evolutionary theories Darwin and God are brought up it seems legitimate to discuss it in public school. Of course, religeous viewpoints should be proposed by the students who have a first ammendment right to say whatever they want and cautiously by the teacher who is an agent of the state and has a different responsibility.

In any case, Mary said, "and the method for that life to continue and thrive on this planet, the "invention" of DNA as a means for evolution and adaptation via continuous genetic mutation, which has been proven beyond all doubt." Sorry it loses some of its readability pulled out of the paragraph.

Well, evolution has not been proven beyond all doubt. I wonder if some have confused several concepts. DNA, Natural selection, survival of the fittest, and evolution can all be described by various theories but strong evidence for one of them is not the same as strong evidence for the others. (btw, evidence is no the same as proof)

In other words, if the truth of natural selection becomes obvious to everyone it does not mean that evolution is true too.

Most of us know the numerous examples of natural selection: Moths that change from light moths to dark moths over a period of time during a time of environmental stress (dark soot) - a clear causal connection; fossils of small horses and later fossil of large horses; australapithicus man, neanderthal man, homo erectus, homo sapiens. In fact, there are many many examples of species adapting and changing. Go to any dog show and you can see how selective breeding has created many different kinds of dogs.

The problem with this as proof of evolution is that in every single example the animals changed from one species into the same species. Every type of moth was still a moth afterwards. Every horse was still a horse. Every man was still a man.

Despite the huge fossil record there is not a single example of a species changing into another species.

An example of a species changing into another species is called the "missing link." The missing link does not have to be a link from animal to man. It can be a link from any species to any other species. And it is still missing.

This is no doubt why evolution is accurately called a theory and not a fact as some believe.

Teachers should not be attempting to have their students "learn about and accept natural selection and evolution". They should attempt to have students learn about, understand, and think logically about natural selection and evolution.

There are many smart and learned men and woman who fall into both camps. The issue is not black and white. One idea is not clearly wrong and the other right.

Scientist and theologians both make mistakes in their understanding of our world. When we go beyond the limits of our knowledge we become dogmatic. This is a disservice to the greater truths we will discover as a race. We must stop thinking about who is right and start thinking about what is right.

alan: First, no thread gets closed here, although I may politely ask that a non-productive discussion be ended. This is a blog, however, so posts scroll off the front page and become devoid of comment because they aren't seen as easily. However comments will still appear under Recent Comments and a discussion can start anew.

Regading your long and thoughtful post, I don't have time to comment on each item specifically here, but I intend to address many of the issues you raise in my round-up of responses to the chicken soup challenge of last weekend where some of the same issues about what is '"science" were raised. I would only observe that the only discipline where things are "proved" is mathematics. Nothing is proved in the empirical sciences. It is only demonstrated to various degrees of satisfaction, using tools that have been accepted as "scientific." You also mischaracterize the nll hypothesis, but I'll probably talk more about that elsewhere.

You are clearly not a believer in evolution and I won't bother to argue that with you. Many sites here on ScienceBlogs cover this in far more depth than we do and I refer you to them if you want to argue about it. Like most scientists I accept evolution as a fruitful and "true" scientific theory better than any competitor at the moment.

Thank you for taking the time to comment and I hope you keep reading, despite your obvioius disagreements about some fundamental epistemological issues. We do more than that here, as you will see.


Thank you for your comments on my post.

Despite the use of scientific jargon I was attempting to speak primarily as a layman. You are right science does not prove things only math and logic, as a subset of math, do.

But in everyday usage very strong evidence in science is presumed by most to constitute proof.

There are very precise definitions of a hypotheses, null hypothesis, alternative hypotheses. It was not my intent to use the precise definitions but rather the everyday equivalents. It has been over twenty years since I took a statistics class but in reviewing the article in wikipedia about the null hypotheses and taking into account that I wanted to use it casually, I stand by what I said, while being willing to admit an error after your comments.

The most important point of my comment was not about science and statistical practices but that in everyday life it does not make much sense to assert that a scientific theory is a hard fact when there are no examples in nature of any species ever evolving into another.

I have no complaint with most aspects of evolution save for the following:

1) Many (no particular person in mind here)use it as a weapon against religious ideas which they understand less than evolutionary theory.

2) Some proponents, including Darwin, make it a religious argument rather than a scientific argument.

3) One aspect of it contradicts the bible: In the Bible there was no death until after the fall of a reasoning thinking Adam and Eve. If someone proposes a "progeny of the fittest" theory instead of a "survival of the fittest" theory it may go a long way in winning over those who see literal truths in the Bible. They may also find that they advance science in much the way that the discoverer of ocean currents was first inspired by the Bible when reading about rivers in the sea.

In my opinions, the life experience has to deal with the paradox of merciful and fairness.

You may experience to have a competent teacher with pretty fair rating system. His appraisal is reasonably precise, therefore you have ascended your knowledge greatly. You have appreciated for his instruction. Nevertheless, he never remember your name, he/she is so detached and logic and cold. Here comes your mother, luckily you have one. She accepts your idiosyncracy, she trusts you even you have failed hundred times, supports you almost un-conditionally. That is source of you passion and love. This is what we have grown up.

We survive as a species of competencies and passion which originating from fair instruction and unconditional love, symbolized in Heavenly Father's justice and mercy. Our life is learning to integrating this paradox, thru numerous mistaken unbalances, but we are capable to keep moving on. This is the driving force of scientific work and faith of renewing our capacity.

I personally accept Martin Buber's advice, " Those who are truly entering into the world are truly into God." In his book " I and Thou", he advised, we do not need to look for God, once we stretch ourselves to serve the world with our total gifts and resources, then we will touch the hand of God.

The American poet, Wallace Stevens has a note as bellow: Last night I spent an hour in the dark transept of St. Patrick's Cathedral where I go now and then in my more lonely moods. And old argument with me is that the true religious force is not the church, but the world itself: the mysterious callings of nature and our responses. What incessant murmurs fill that ever-laboring, tireless church! But today in my walk I thought that after all there is no conflict of format but rather a contrast. .....The priest in me worshipped one God at one shrine; the poet another God another shrine. The priest worship Mercy and Love; the poet, Beauty and Might. ...... As I sat dreaming with congregation I felt how the glittering altar works on my senses stimulating and consoling them; and I went tramping the fields and woods I beheld every leaf and blade of grass revealing or rather betokening the Invisible.

Martin Buber also says that the person delect the term of God is thrilling and brave, because he lives the reality of the experience of Thou without a term.

What do you think?