As the circus that is the Republican presidential sweepstakes pulls into New Hampshire, local legislators seem to be working overtime to shift the political pendulum even further to the right. And by doing so they’re threatening to destroy both religion and science.
Two anti-evolution bills have just been introduced and will be taken up by the New Hampshire legislature in February. The first, the handiwork of Republican legislators Gary Hopper and John Burt, is little more than the standard anti-intellectual attack on evolution claiming that evolution is “only a theory” and thus shouldn’t be presented as fact in science classes. The only thing that makes this attempt to keep students from learning the best science possible different from similar failed attempts elsewhere is the fact that Hopper didn’t hide his motives as well as other legislators have.
As the Concord Monitor noted, “Hopper points to the state constitution and its order that teachers support their students’ ‘morality and piety’ for the justification of his bill.” The article goes on to explain, “He would like to see intelligent design – the idea that a creator controlled how early life on Earth developed – taught in classrooms, but hasn’t been able to find an example of the philosophy being successfully legislated into schools.”
Of course Hopper hasn’t found an example of intelligent design successfully legislated into public schools. How could he? Intelligent design, after all, is nothing more than standard-fare creationism gussied up to look like something it isn’t – and even with its fancy accoutrements, it has never passed legal muster. Simply put, as the courts have determined, teaching intelligent design in public schools tramples on the constitution’s first amendment protection by promoting one particular form of religion in the name of science.
As ridiculous as all of this is, it doesn’t compare to the looniness that defines the second anti-evolution bill. This one, introduced by Republican Jerry Bergevin, also demands that evolution be taught as a theory (as if there’s any other way to teach it), but it goes much further. It would require that public school science classes be dramatically expanded to explicitly include politics and religion. Bizarrely, Bergevin demands that students be taught about the personal opinions, opinions unrelated to science, of the scientists, from Darwin to the present, who are responsible for the theory of evolution. Just so you know I’m not making this stuff up, here’s what the bill requires students learn: “the theorists’ political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism.”
As oddly worded as that is, it’s far more coherent than how Bergevin justified his position to the Monitor. Here, in full, is what he had to say:
I want the full portrait of evolution and the people who came up with the ideas to be presented. It’s a worldview and it’s godless. Atheism has been tried in various societies, and they’ve been pretty criminal domestically and internationally. The Soviet Union, Cuba, the Nazis, China today: they don’t respect human rights. As a general court we should be concerned with criminal ideas like this and how we are teaching it. . . . Columbine, remember that? They were believers in evolution. That’s evidence right there. (ellipsis in original)
It’s all but impossible to know where to begin to set the record straight – or if it’s even worth the effort to do so. Recognizing the hopelessness of the task, let me make just a couple of points.
First, Bergevin is channeling Tom DeLay, the indicted former congressman from Texas, when he points to the Columbine tragedy as a reason to steer clear of evolution. DeLay famously had his own incoherent moment on this topic on the floor of the House when proclaimed that Columbine happened “because our school systems teach our children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized (sic) out of some primordial mud.”
Second, Bergevin seems to have no sense of what happened in the Soviet Union when it outlawed the basics of evolutionary theory. T.D. Lysenko, the dominant Soviet voice in genetics from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, felt that evolutionary theory had too many capitalistic overtones and demanded that genetics research in the Soviet Union conform with Marxist ideology. The result? The loss of an entire generation of agricultural geneticists and the decimation of Soviet agronomy leading to massive wheat shortages.
Third, scientific knowledge must be judged independently of the political beliefs of scientists. Whether an idea has standing within the scientific community should be a result of the data in support of that idea and not whether you like the politics of the scientist proposing the idea. Scientific knowledge, but not the creation of public policy based on science, is independent of politics.
Fourth, evolutionary theory has absolutely nothing to do with religion and it certainly makes no statements about the viability of atheism. As I’ve said so many times before, the very existence of The Clergy Letter Project demonstrates that thousands of religious leaders have absolutely no trouble embracing evolution while remaining true to their faith. Yes, one narrow view of religion, the view that Bergevin seems to be embracing, has a problem with modern science, but we should recognize it for the narrow perspective that it is.
None of this is new – and all of it becomes incredibly tiresome. So why should we care? Simply, it’s important that we consistently resist anti-intellectual, anti-science and anti-religious legislation of this sort whenever it appears because if we don’t, we run the risk of further destroying our scientific infrastructure and limiting our religious freedoms.
The US Supreme Court perhaps said it best in 1968 when it unanimously ruled that Arkansas’s creationism law was unconstitutional: “The antecedents of today’s decision are many and unmistakable. They are rooted in the foundation soil of our Nation. They are fundamental to freedom.”
Forty four years later, those words remain every bit as powerful and every bit as important. Perhaps it would be useful if some legislators spent some time studying history rather than attempting to dismantle science education.
Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D.
Founder, The Clergy Letter Project
During a meeting with the editorial board of the Nashua Telegraph, Rick Santorum urged public schools to begin teaching claims that undermine evolution, no matter their scientific veracity. He blamed “the left and the scientific community, so to speak,” for the inability of schools to teach about the role of God or a Creator, and said that “maybe the science points to the fact that maybe science doesn’t explain all these things.”
Such attacks on the teaching of evolution are nothing new from Santorum, who attached language in the Conference Report of the No Child Left Behind Act that says a “quality science education” include topics that challenge biological evolution as part of his “teaching the controversy” campaign. He also endorsed the Dover, Pennsylvania school district’s requirement that teachers offer textbooks on “Intelligent Design,” which was developed by proponents of Creationism, and the teaching of “Intelligent Design” was declared unconstitutional in Kitzmiller v. Dover. In fact, the “teach the controversy” approach originates from the anti-evolution Discovery Institute, and the National Center for Science Education points out that evolution “is not scientifically controversial, nor are resources for each side of comparable quality – evidence for evolution comes from peer-reviewed literature whereas evidence against evolution is built on flawed assumptions and popularized misconceptions.”
WASHINGTON An analysis of 2-million-year-old bones found in South Africa offers the most powerful case so far in identifying the transitional figure that came before modern humans, findings some are calling a potential game-changer in understanding evolution.
The bones are from Australopithecus sediba. The research places that pre-human branch of the evolutionary tree as the best candidate to be the ancestor of the human line, said Lee R. Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa.
The bones, found in 2008 in the fossil-rich cave region of Malapa near Johannesburg, show a head-to-foot combination of features of Australopithecus and the human genus, Homo.
“It’s as if evolution is caught in one vital moment, a stop-action snapshot of evolution in action,” said Richard Potts, director of the human origins program at the Smithsonian Institution. He was not among the international research team, led by South African scientists. Their research was published online Thursday in the journal Science.
Scientists have long considered the Australopithecus family, which includes the famous fossil Lucy, to be a primitive candidate for a human ancestor. The new research establishes a creature that combines features of both groups.
The journal published five papers detailing the findings, including separate reports on the foot, hand, pelvis and brain of A. sediba.
Berger said the brain, hand and foot have characteristics of both modern and early pre-human forms that show a transition under way. It represents a bona fide model that could lead to the genus Homo, Berger said.
Kristian J. Carlson, also at Witwatersrand, said the brain of A. sediba is small, like that of a chimpanzee, but with a configuration more human, particularly with an expansion behind and above the eyes.
This seems to be evidence that the brain was reorganizing along more modern lines before it began its expansion to the current larger size, Carlson said in a teleconference.
“It will take a lot of scrutiny of the papers and of the fossils by more and more researchers over the coming months and years, but these analyses could well be ‘game-changers’ in understanding human evolution,” according to the Smithsonian’s Potts.
So, does all this mean A. sediba was the “missing link”?
Well, scientists don’t like that term, which Berger calls “biologically unsound.”
This is a good candidate to represent the evolution of humans, he said, but the earliest definitive example of Homo is 150,000 to 200,000 years younger.
Scientists prefer the terms “transition form” or “intermediary form,” said Darryl J. DeRuiter of Texas A&M University.
“This is what evolutionary theory would predict, this mixture of Australopithecene and Homo,” DeRuiter said. “It’s strong confirmation of evolutionary theory.”
But it’s not yet an example of the genus Homo, he said, though it could have led to several early human forms including Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis or Homo erectus â€” all considered early distant cousins to man, Homo sapiens.
These articles “force a rethinking of how traits are coupled together in human evolution,” the Smithsonian’s Potts said in an email from Kenya, where he is doing research.
“For example, in previous definitions of our genus, the leading edge in the emergence of Homo has been brain enlargement. The sediba bones show, however, that reorganization of the brain and pelvis typically connected with the evolution of Homo need not have involved brain enlargement,” he noted.
“The more we learn about human evolution, the more we see that traits” that must have happened together could occur separately, Potts said.
The study of the hand shows that major changes in the thumb usually associated with stone toolmaking “did not imply abandoning life in the trees. In the foot article, we’re introduced to a unique and previously unknown combination of archaic and advanced traits in sediba,” Potts explained.
A full fossil hand
The fossil provides the first chance for researchers to evaluate the function of a full hand this old, said Tracy Kivell of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. Previously, hand bones older than Neanderthals have been isolated pieces rather that full sets.
The researchers reported that the fingers of A. sediba were curved, as might be seen in a creature that climbed in trees. But they were also slim and the thumb was long, more like a Homo thumb, so the hand was potentially capable of using tools. No tools were found at the site, however.
The heel bone seems primitive, the researchers said. Yet its front is angled, suggesting an arched foot for walking on the ground, and there is a large attachment for an Achilles tendon as in modern humans, they said.
Bigger pelvis predated bigger brain
The pelvis is short and broad like a human pelvis, creating more of a bowl shape than in earlier australopith fossils like the famous Lucy, explained Job Kibii of the University of the Witwatersrand.
That find may force a re-evaluation of the process of evolution because many researchers had previously associated development of a humanlike pelvis with enlargement of the brain, but in A. sediba the brain was still small.
The subjects of the research were the bones of an adult female and a child. After the discovery, the children of South Africa were invited to name the child, which they called “Karabo,” meaning “answer” in the local Tswana language. The older skeleton has not yet been given a nickname, Berger said.
The juvenile would have been aged 10 to 13 in terms of human development; the female was in her 20s and there are indications that she may have given birth once. The researchers are not sure if the two were related.