04/01/2013 05:06 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2013

Are We Really Evolving?

It has been truly edifying over the course of the last several months to watch politicians "evolve." On the question of marriage equality and on gay rights more broadly, politicians have been evolving at speeds not seen since the mammalian revolution at the end of the Cretaceous period. Even Republicans, for whom ossified ideology seems to be a badge of honor! So many politicians - all evolving so quickly.

Unfortunately, it isn't clear how those politicians are "evolving" on the actual topic of evolution and on other questions of science. Take, for example, Senator Marco Rubio. The GOP's great Hispanic hope has evolved on the issue of immigration, but he found himself in the national spotlight shortly after the election when he punted a simple question about the age of the earth. "I can tell you what the Bible says," Rubio fumbled, "but I think that's a dispute amongst theologians." Which may well be true - but there certainly isn't a dispute about it among scientists.

That gaffe made Rubio the odds-on favorite to win this year's "James Inhofe Flat Earth Prize for Distinction in Scientific Literacy," and fittingly the GOP Senate leadership put Rubio on the Commerce, SCIENCE and Transportation Committee. "I'm not a scientist, man," proclaimed Rubio, but presumably he can tell us what the Bible says about a great many scientific issues.

Having a major Republican figure reveal himself to have a medieval understanding of science hardly counts as news any more. More insidious things, however, have been happening away from the bright lights of Washington, DC.

A year ago, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill that permitted public school science teachers to introduce creationism - along with evolution - in the classroom. This was done, according to the bill's sponsor state Senator Bo Watson, to promote "critical thinking" in science classes.

This is a nice touch, and one that is used increasingly by creationists: teach students "both sides of the issue" and let them decide. Sounds fair - even progressive - were it not for the fact that there aren't two sides to the question - not among scientists at any rate. So in essence, students in 10th grade biology classes in Tennessee might well be taught real science one week and then some theological point of view the next and told that they are scientifically equivalent.

That isn't critical thinking - that's intellectual dishonesty and a recipe for confusion. The great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould refused ever to debate creationists because he would not dignify their position with that of science - theology, sure; philosophy, maybe. But not science. We don't demand that students learn astrology along with astronomy.

Meanwhile, at the end of February the Ohio State Supreme Court heard a case about virtually the same issue. In 2011 John Freshwater, a science teacher at Mount Vernon middle school, was fired after he repeatedly forced his creationist views - tarted-up as "intelligent design" - on his students. He asserts that he was merely "teaching both sides of the issue" and pointing out the flaws in standard evolutionary theory. He sued the school board and the parties found themselves in Columbus before the justices on February 28.

I don't know how the court will rule in this case, but the comments of one justice certainly don't bode well for science. Judge Paul Pfiefer questioned why evolution was not considered one of the "controversial issues" covered by a Mount Vernon school board policy about such matters. "So, there's nothing controversial about evolution?" he asked skeptically and went on, "It is a theory, isn't it?"

Well. . .no, and no.

The only controversy about Darwinian evolution is that generated by right-wing Christian activists and it is a "theory" only in the sense that all scientific explanations are theories - subject to change and refinement as new data emerge and new evidence presents itself. The fact that an Ohio Supreme Court judge appears wholly ignorant about both Darwinism and the nature of scientific theory only underscores just how little public understanding of science has evolved.

There are real consequences that result from attempts to confuse religious dogma with scientific explanation. When I teach Darwin in my undergraduate classes I do a quick survey: How many of you were taught Darwinian biology in high school? A few hands go up. How many of you were taught creationism? Again, a few hands. How many of you were taught nothing at all about the subject? Lots of hands go up. Creationists don't have to win in legislatures or in the courts in order to subvert the teaching of science - they merely have to make the subject controversial enough that teachers avoid it altogether.

It certainly helps explains why American students don't do well in science against our international competition.

But maybe the sight of all these politicians evolving on other issues is a good sign. After all, the fact that they use the word at all is a kind of step forward. Remember during the 2008 GOP convention when delegates contorted themselves not to use the word "choice" to describe Bristol Palin's decision to become a teen-mom?

Evolution has been a dirty word among GOP hard-liners for a long time. Now, at least, they acknowledge that it has something to do with change over time. A first step, perhaps, in becoming more evolved about evolution.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is "To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government" (Oxford University Press).