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The devolution of evolution

Lance Gallop | Friday, September 1, 2006

Normally, when the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) issues a 13 page memorandum of detailed rules relating to a new federal grant for college students, a few financial aid directors will groan, a few students will cheer, and most people will continue on as if nothing at all had happened. But not this year.

Issued just this summer, the table of acceptable fields of study for the new Academic Competitiveness Grant reads like Einstein’s shopping list: molecular biology, toxicology, computer science, mathematics, physics. These are only some of the scientific, engineering and linguistic majors to which Congress allocated additional funds, because it deemed them essential for the continued success of the nation.

Conspicuously absent from the list is major number 26.1303: Evolutionary Biology.

The DoE claims that the omission was simply a “clerical error,” but a closer inspection of the memo shows that 26.1303 breaks what would have otherwise been a sequence of 10 contiguous biology majors, and, furthermore, there is a blank line in the document clearly indicating an omission. Giving the obviousness of this “error,” it is difficult to understand the removal as anything other than purposeful. Evidently someone in the DoE thinks that evolutionary biology is not an acceptable field of study.

But, besides insulting to all of science, what does this omission actually mean? If you happen to be studying evolutionary biology this fall, it means that you could be out several thousand dollars of federal aid. However, in the grand scheme of things, it probably means very little. The ACLU has already threatened to sue if the major is not restored to the list, and chances are good that it will be added very soon.

What is troubling about this incident is that it is just one symptom of a much larger problem spanning the entire nation – sort of a bureaucratic canary in a mine-shaft.

On August 11, the journal “Science” published the results of a study that examined American and Western acceptance of human evolution since 1985. While some of the results were promising, overall the conclusions of the study were profoundly negative. As of 2005, 39 percent of Americans rejected the concept of human evolution, which places America second from the bottom among the 34 nations surveyed. Only the country of Turkey had a higher rate of rejection of this fundamental science.

While this is a decrease of nine percentage points from 1985, at the same time the percentage of Americans who are uncertain about their views on human evolution has increased at an astonishing rate, from just seven percent in 1985 to 21 percent as of 2005. One can safely conclude that most of those who no longer reject evolution outright end up in this intermediate category, and therefore much of the gain since 1985, though hopeful, is nonetheless moot.

As recent as May of 2005 we witnessed an unfolding comedy of errors, as the Board of Education of Kansas once again attempted to handicap the teaching of human evolution in its schools. Additionally, there are now several Republican conventions which have adopted campaign platforms that are openly hostile to the continued soundness of Americans’ understanding of the concepts of evolutionary biology.

This reason that all of this is important, notwithstanding the intrinsic value of scientific understanding and the profoundly troubling implications for our nation’s cherished and essential separation of church and state – and perhaps even for religious freedom itself – is that today the American people are increasingly called to make qualitative and ethical judgments on topics that are grounded in biology. Future generations will no doubt look back on this era as a formative moment in our legal understanding of bioethics, in the same sense that the late 19th century was formative in our legal understanding of the role of private corporations. We should not take this lightly.

Reproductive human and animal cloning, genetic discrimination, the implications of transgenetic modification, stem-cell research, therapeutic cloning and incidents of viral mutation (e.q. bird flu) are only a handful of the scientific issues closely linked to policy decisions that are currently being debated, and which are all fundamentally grounded in biology. But biology itself is fundamentally grounded in evolution. This is not advanced or specialized scientific knowledge – it is a basic, middle-school level understanding, which an unacceptable number of Americans lack. I contend that without a firm understanding and acceptance of evolutionary biology, we as a society are not equipped to make any kind of meaningful judgments about biologically oriented issues.

Our nation has already lost a great deal because of the rejection of evolution. It has diminished our ability to permit science to enlighten our spiritual understanding of the world. It has overthrown scientific fact as the standard par-excellence on which to base public policy, and it has terminated the ability of a section of our population to do more than babble and wave its hands everywhere that public policy and biology intersect.

Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He can be contacted at comments@tidewaterblues.com. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer