Darwin and the Tree of Life Vs. Science Illiteracy

A section of the Darwin shelf. Photo by Richard Brewer

I got an email message from Barack Obama today–well, maybe not from Barack personally.  The heading of the message was, “What does your T-shirt say?”

The next message in my mail box was from the Center for Inquiry, Michigan chapter, reminding me not to forget Charles Darwin’s birthday, Saturday February 12th.

The Obama T-shirt is very nice, a pretty blue, and says, “We Do Big Things,” which I think may be from the State-of-the-Union speech.   All in all, though, a better T-shirt to wear this time of the year would be one of the T-shirts you can get with the “tree of life” diagram based on gene sequencing.  This is the diagram where the end branches of the phylogenetic tree are arranged to form a big circle. The primate branch or maybe it’s the hominid branch, has an arrow pointing to it and a label, “You are here.”

Wearing such a shirt might be a good way to start some conversations.  We know from polls that many Americans doubt the existence of evolution.  As to the specific question, Did human beings develop from other species of animals?, the figures for the U.S. (in 2005) were 40% yes and 40% no.  Twenty per cent hadn’t decided yet.

In the 33 other countries where the same question was asked, the yeses were over 60% for most of them.  I’m reading from a graph, but it looks like Denmark had yeses just over 80%, France just under 80%, followed by Japan, the UK, Norway, Spain, Germany and several others above 70%.

At least the U.S. isn’t the lowest on the list. Turkey is below us, with yeses below 30%.  In fact, since only 34 countries were included it’s not impossible that some country omitted–Iraq or Afghanistan perhaps–would have been below the U.S. and Turkey.

The figures don’t give me much reason to believe that America has progressed a whole lot since my boyhood in southern Illinois.  After the gospel quartet was done, the preachers in the little country churches, in tones rising toward hysteria, would fulminate against the idea that man had descended from the monkey.

But belief or non-belief in evolution is not America’s main problem.  With or without our endorsement, genetic variation will go on, natural selection will do what it’s going to do, and adaptation will continue apace.  Our poor showing on the evolution issue is an indicator of a bigger problem–America’s low level of scientific knowledge and, much more serious, our general lack of understanding of scientific reasoning.

Of course, that’s not news. The newspapers have all had reports recently telling us how poor we are in science.  The National Assessment of Educational Progress  (NAEP) tests say that 40 per cent of U. S. high school seniors function below the basic level in science and only 1 per cent  perform at the advanced level.  We also are confronted with a dismaying variety of other data showing the same deficiency: For example, 49 per cent of U.S. adults don’t know how long it takes for the Earth to circle the Sun.

The fact of the matter is that, despite our country’s many fine scientists and excellent research in most fields of human knowledge, America as a nation has rarely shown a strong interest in science. Figuring out what causes this and how to fix it are things Obama needs to work on. There’s not much evidence he’s on the right track as yet.

For my part, as a beginning, I’ll order a “You Are Here” tree-of-life shirt and wear it on Darwin’s birthday. Maybe for the whole week.

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