Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Politics of Education

Something that gets a fair amount of attention, but is by no means new, is the controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution in schools. It points the overall feeling toward evolution that the United States holds. I have taken entire classes where the curriculum is dedicated to analyzing the rift between science and religion. The most important thing that I've gathered from observing and learning is that evolution will not be taken seriously unless teachers are behind it and it is presented as a law of nature, not a hypothesis. 

I received a public school education and I was taught about evolution. I don't really recall there being much issue and there was never town wide dissent and arguments around teaching. I don't remember ever discussing the topic of evolution at church. However, I was also in high school when the intelligent design movement really received nationwide attention in 2005 in Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District. At this time I was no longer in biology class so I don't know what my teachers reactions were or if it was even discussed. 

In defense of intelligent design, it is a good way of reconciling religion and evolution, however it is by no means science. I have attended a lecture by one of it's lead proponents, Dr. Michael Behe, and watched several specials and documentaries in which the above mentioned court case and the "teach the controversy" movement have been analyzed. Behe's arguments rely on proof by an absence of evidence, which is not how science operates. 

In my opinion, science and religion can't be compared because they are fundamentally different in the way they analyze the world. In religion, "truth" is set out and mandated; there are guidelines. People seek religion to give answers, and they can't really be rewritten, only interpreted through a new view point or sect. In science, "truth" is what has yet to be disproved. Something that has been held for years must be abandoned in light of new evidence. Yet people are constantly being forced to choose between evolution and creation as if they are opposing viewpoints in an argument. Creation is a religious origin explanation, based on faith. Evolution is a scientific theory concerning long term change, based on study and observation. It's not going to be quick or easy to make them compatible especially since evolution does not give an origin of life. 

Evolution is not about the origin of life. It is about the process of change that species undergo over time in response to various selective pressures. Creation is about the origin of life, but fundamentally denies the ability of species to change. 

The problem lies in people wanting an explanation for how and why we're here. Evolution can tell us that it's because our ancestors adapted to bipedal locomotion and enriched our diets allowing for the brain to get bigger and more complex. But it cannot tell us what led to the first single celled organism (I'm hopeful that someday science will be able to figure that one out). Therefore, I suppose that when it is contrasted against religion, it is somewhat unsatisfying in it's ability to provide answers. 

I really don't like to involve myself in a debate between religion and science because I don't think they should be debated in the first place. However, because I live in the United States, this debate deeply affects how funding is allocated to the types of things I study. This debate taints the perception of my field, the study of human evolution, and how people react to me when they find out what I study. This debate leads to preachers on my campus, harassing me on my way to class telling everyone that those who believe in evolution are going to hell. 

The US needs better biology education because by propagating this so called controversy we are only further fueling this "argument". The theory of evolution needs to be given it's credit as a scientific theory on the same level as the theory of gravity, not a theory as in some lofty idea that may or may not be true.