Why won't Americans accept evolution? This was the question on the table on Feb. 19 as science educators, researchers and writers gathered at the National Museum of Natural History in D.C. The meeting was preceded by an off-hours tour of the remarkable exhibit on human evolution. (I took advantage of the special access to morph myself into a Neanderthal, the results of which are now on my Facebook page.) The museum and Rick Potts, the curator of the human evolution exhibit, are to be commended for an exceptional presentation of a complex and fascinating topic.
This project of teaching evolution in America, some variation of which I have been engaged in for more than two decades, looks increasingly impossible. Polls show no progress of any sort, with about half of the country continuing to reject evolution in favor of young earth creationism -- the view on display in the country's various "Creation museums," based on a literal reading of the first chapter of the Bible. Only Turkey, with a strong Muslim commitment to creationism, lags behind the United States in accepting evolution.
Participants in the workshop interact with this topic across many fronts and report an alarming set of challenges. In conservative parts of the country, students come to public -- not Christian -- schools with anti-evolutionary intelligent design books from the Discovery Institute. Public school teachers often reject evolution. Many who accept it don't want the political hassle of dealing with fundamentalist parents and so they ignore or downplay the significance of evolution. Millions of evangelical children have been raised to believe that evolution is incompatible with their faith, an unfortunate confusion that Francis Collins and I dispel in our new book, The Language of Faith and Science.
Even the vocabulary of this conversation is challenging. We discussed the great divide between the meanings of central terms like "theory" and "evolution." Theory in science means something like, "A well-tested and broadly accepted natural explanation that successfully accounts for a wide range of observations." On main street America, however, "theory" means "guess," as in "My theory is that Sarah Palin will not run for president." "Evolution" in science refers to a set of ideas in biology that explain how organism adapt and change over time in response to various stimuli. On main street, however, "evolution" mean "an origins story for atheists."
By these linguistic lights the "Theory of Evolution" means, for millions of Americans, "The atheists' best guess about how everything came to be without God." Who would feel compelled to take that seriously?
Further confusion surrounds the origin of the theory of evolution in the 19th century. Millions of evangelical students go off to college believing that "Darwin was an anti-religious crusader who wanted to do away with belief in God." Many of them believe he repudiated his theory on his deathbed as "youthful delusions." Few believe he developed his theory in response to careful observation of the natural world. These blatant falsehoods circulate on main street America like a dense smog, making it hard to see clearly.
Anti-evolution in America is big business. There are museums, glossy magazines, books at every level, curriculum for private schools. There are T-shirts and mugs and bumper stickers. Tens of millions of dollars are spent annually by organizations like The Institute for Creation Research, Answers in Genesis and the Discovery Institute to convince Americans that need not and should not accept evolution. Evolution, such groups tell us, has no scientific basis and is simply the a "just so" story that atheists have conjured to rationalize their unbelief. And evolution is responsible for all manner of mischief, from Hitler and Stalin, to drug abuse and pornography. Even if it were true, we should not believe it.
Addressing such a complex social problem is an overwhelming challenge and will require resources on so many fronts. Some are working with religious communities, trying to dispel myths, counteract urban legends and make science less frightening. My new book with Francis Collins is a salvo in that direction, as are the various projects of the Biologos Foundation. Others are working to show the remarkable evidence for evolution. The exhibits in the Smithsonian, particularly the ones on human evolution, are superb example of this. And there are those on the front lines, like Eugenie Scott and her foot-soldiers at the National Center for Science Education, who are trying to keep anti-evolutionary pseudoscience out of the public schools, protecting the progress to date.
Despite these various efforts, polls reveal widespread opposition to evolution in America that shows no sign of abating. Even as I write these words there are school districts in various parts of the country plotting to undermine the teaching of the science of evolution in their schools.