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Down with Darwinism

Hot on the heels of Darwin Day, scientists following the cultural debate over teaching evolution say focusing on Charles Darwin might be exactly the wrong thing to do. And based on the different experiences in the United States and Europe, some say the controversy has as much to do with the sorry state of religious literacy as with the sorry state of science literacy. These and other bits of unconventional wisdom were passed along today during a trans-Atlantic meeting of the minds at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The theme of today's session was anti-evolution sentiment in Europe, a place where the ideas developed by Darwin and his successors in evolutionary biology haven't historically stirred up as much of a fuss as they have in the United States. Last year, a study published in Science indicated that Europeans were far ahead of Americans in their acceptance of evolutionary theory.

However, that situation may be changing, according to Ulrich Kutschera, a plant physiologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Kassel in Germany. "The 'Anti-Darwin movement' is currently spreading in European countries and in Russia," he reports in a paper presented at the AAAS meeting. One German-language textbook on intelligent design has just gone into its sixth printing and has been translated into several other languages, he said.

"The more one argues against this creationist propaganda ... the less you can convince people who are not scientists," he observed during a news briefing today. Darwin's detractors are just too heavily "indoctrinated" for the arguments to have any effect, Kutschera said. (One could say that the volumes of back-and-forth argument over the subject on Cosmic Log bear out this hypothesis as well.)

So what's the remedy? "My recommendation is simply ... to no longer talk about 'Darwinism,'" Kutschera said. "You could say that Darwinism is one man's outdated ideology of the 19th century. And Darwinism sounds like Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism ... that's a problem. The second point is that it must be made clear that the modern theory of evolution is in part anti-Darwin. Darwin did not, for instance, take into account the principle of evolution by cooperation."

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the California-based National Center for Science Education, said Kutschera had a good point. She noted that the advocates of intelligent design "can't get through two sentences without using 'Darwinism' or 'Darwinist.'"

"Geologists don't refer to themselves as Lyellists. Physicists don't refer to themselves as Kelvinists. We don't refer to ourselves by our 19th-century representative. The science has grown up," she said. "This is a rhetorical point. There are some scientists who make that error, and they get it from the creationists."

The controversy relates to cultural and religious trends much more than scientific issues, said Antje Jackelen, associate professor of systematic theology/religion and science at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago and director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science. It's common to complain about science illiteracy in the United States, but she noted that most American public schools don't adequately address religion. Meanwhile, religious schools focus almost exclusively on one church's doctrine rather than broadening a student's understanding of other religions.

"What we need to do is [increase] both the scientific and the religious literacy," she said.

Here again, Scott largely agreed:

"We will never solve this problem by throwing science at it. Science is necessary but not sufficient to solve this problem. We have to look at this problem of evolution and creationism in this country from a very broad perspective. Yeah, people don't know that evolution is really good science, so that's something that the scientific community needs to make clear - and that applies to astronomers and geologists and biologists and anthropologists. We all use evolution.

"But people also believe in this dichotomy, that you have to choose between science and religion, between evolution and creation. And here's where the religious professionals have that role to play, in showing that middle position. That it's not necessarily a dichotomy, that there's a great deal of variation out there.

"And at least in the United States - and I strongly suspect in Europe as well, but I don't know - one of the major arguments is that it's fair to teach both: 'We'll give the students all the choices, this is good pedagogy, it's critical thinking. Give the students evolution and creationism, or evolution and evidence against evolution, and let them work this out and they'll become good critical thinkers.' Americans really resonate to that argument. But it's a false argument, and here's where the teachers can help.

"So we have a role for scientists, for the religious professionals, the teachers, and we want a role for parents, too, because parents ought to be demanding that the best science be taught in their local schools. Because in the United States, education is very politicized. You vote for the school board members. It's very different from the top-down system you have in Europe."

Michigan State University science professor Jon Miller, the author of that study on international perspectives on evolution, took an interesting approach to that political question: He ran for a seat on the DeKalb (Ill.) Community Schools board back in the early 1980s - and won. Now he thinks other scientists should do the same.

"When I served, it was a lot more work and a lot more frustration than I thought," he said in a university news release. "But I would do it again. In order to make schools better, you have to do it. A couple terms from every scientist would be fine."

Does that make you think about running for office - or running away? Feel free to add your comments below.