05/24/2008 05:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Animal crackers

I was re-reading a book (Steve Jones "In the blood") the other day that I first read a decade ago. I came to two sentences that I had obviously read then without really noticing, and did the same again, for a moment. Then something struck me, and I read again the sentences "Human genetics is done, more and more, on animals. We are, after all, related to other creatures." When I first read this, if I had thought about it at all, it would have been only to question why Jones had bothered to include the second sentence. "Dur" ("obvious, stupid father" a loose translation) as my daughter used to say when a teenager. Reading it then I would have confidently assumed that most of the world's population would also simply have read it as redundant, a tautology. That we all had this knowledge shared by common agreement, in the same way as we agree that the sun rises in the East, or that the date line runs through Greenwich. Reading it now, I do so in the knowledge that education and culture has regressed so much since 1996 that, to a large percentage of Americans, and smaller percentages in some other western countries, the second sentence would either be seen as blasphemous, or as an oxymoron (think military intelligence). As a result of the actions of evangelical christians, their influence in American politics, and the acquiescence of the media, there is no longer a shared world view between most Americans and the rest of the world. Any moment now the terminology for describing sunrise might be unilaterally changed in Kansas, as a result of new interpretations of the actions of Joshua at Jericho.

It came back to me this week when I read one of those "oh, I wish they hadn't told me that" posts, the first by Alison Kilkenny who notes - "A recent ABC poll reports that 16% of U.S. science teachers are Creationists, and worse, one in eight of them admit to teaching Creationism as a kind of valid science in their classrooms". One in six science teachers are creationists? They received, presumably, some kind of science education themselves, and remained creationists? Sounds like a test you could use for Democratic voter registration in West Virginia. And the second news item was about the Louisiana Science Education Act, which has the backing of Religious Right groups such as the Louisiana Family Forum and the Discovery Institute, and "allows public school teachers to use supplementary materials when teaching about evolution".

And I wondered about these teachers. I mean the humblest backwoodsman from the Appalachians knows, even without a college degree, that other mammals are rather similar to human beings. May even know that there are great apes which are very close to humans. Knows that birds are more different, reptiles even more different and frogs more different again. When he catches a fish he might not see much similarity beyond a backbone, but in seeing that would realize that it was more similar to humans than the worm he had put on his fishhook. This kind of classification is fundamental to the way we see the world around us, and, for the same reasons, as Jones points out, fundamental to how we test, say, human medicines (and indeed, how we train doctors in the early stages).

Science is based in large part on classifying the world around us, seeing patterns, similarities, differences, organizing observations into a coherent world view. Biologists see the same relationships your average backwoodsman sees, but take them even further into more detail. Recognize fine anatomical as well as functional similarities and differences, take into account tissues and genetic components, and biochemistry. How do these creationist science teachers do that? And how do they teach their students to make sense of the world around them?

All around the world when native peoples came into contact with western explorers they struggled to make sense of what they were seeing. In some cases they converted observations into their own world views. The Aztecs saw Cortes and his soldiers as gods, Australian Aborigines thought that James Cook and his sailors were dead men come back to life because of their white skins. In the case of sailing ships, some groups simply didn't acknowledge they were seeing them because they were so far outside their experience. Is it like this for the creationist teachers? Are they so blinded by evangelical ideology that they are incapable of seeing the real world? And if they are, then they are also teaching their students to cover their ears, close their eyes, in order not to see the inconvenient truths of the natural world. It is as if we had astrologers teaching astronomy, or crystal worshippers teaching physics, or witch doctors teaching medicine.

Teachers have to be qualified to teach. A teaching test for American science teachers should be "When you read the sentence "We are, after all, related to other creatures" what do you think? Those who answer "Dur" get to teach. The others can work for the Mike Huckabee Vice-Presidential campaign.

And those who answer "Dur" get to visit the Watermelon Blog. Not suitable reading for the others.