Editor's Note: This editorial appeared on the Op-Ed page of The Stamford Advocate on Labor Day (September 6) 1999, a couple weeks after the Kansas school board decided its children might be better served if they were taught the sort of biology, cosmology, geology, etc., that was popular in European universities during the mid-1300s. Evidently, in America’s heartland, they still consider the scientific knowledge written down in the Bronze Age to be superior to anything we’ve discovered since. The statistics on American student’s test scores, as well as some of the material on Lysenko, came from Carl Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World, which attempted to shed a little light on the state of science, pseudoscience  and superstition in our country. Dr. Sagan would be laughing (or maybe crying) in his beer if he’d lived long enough to see the direction of scientific education in Kansas as we approached the Millennium.


  Science Education in the Heartland — Headed Forward or Back to the Middle Ages?  

 

In what the New York Times has termed “A Creationist Victory,” the Kansas Board of Education has voted to remove any mention of evolution from the state’s science curriculum. With this triumph of religion over science, those organizations dedicated to breaking down the wall of separation between church and state (e.g., the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, and the American Center for Law and Justice) can be expected to ratchet up their efforts to remove from our schools’ science education programs other areas of scholarship (such as the Big Bang) that contradict their own narrow world view. And they will be encouraged to push ever harder to have their own religious doctrine (i.e., creationism) included in science curricula, both alongside and in place of mainstream scientific thought.

At a time when American schoolchildren have scored 43% on a math test on which their Japanese counterparts scored 78%, and when students in only two of 13 nations managed to be ranked lower than the United States in chemistry, it seems foolhardy to discard modern biology in order to please the intellectual Luddites who’ve managed to gain control of the school boards in many parts of this country. While the rest of the developed world is unencumbered by requirements to make science conform to the Procrustean bed of religious dogmatism mandated by scriptures written during the Bronze Age, American biology teachers must constantly defend their right to teach scientific theories that are accepted by the vast majority of biological scientists the world over.

Based on an overwhelming weight of corroborative data, evolution has become the cornerstone of 20th century biology, the sine qua non without which such disciplines as paleontology, anthropology and genetics cannot be explained or integrated in a coherent fashion. Banishing evolution from biology textbooks is tantamount to eliminating Newton and Copernicus from the study of astronomy and reinstating the idea that the earth is the center of the universe, about which all the other heavenly bodies, including the sun, revolve.

Someday, the fundamentalists will abandon creationism and accept evolution, as the Pope has recently done. And they will likely forgive Darwin, just as the Catholics have now pardoned Copernicus and Galileo for their “heresies.” However, until that happens, what damage will be done to the level of scientific education in this country by this dalliance with medieval pseudoscience, at a time when we should be progressing toward 21st century standards of knowledge?

This isn’t the first time this century that such assaults on science have taken place. In the Soviet Union during the mid-1930s, an agronomist and charlatan named Trofim Lysenko became a favorite of Stalin. Lysenko argued that the laws of classical genetics, as discovered by Gregor Mendel, did not accord with Marxist dialectical materialism. Stalin, who probably knew even less about biology than the average American televangelist, installed Lysenko as head of the Institute of Genetics of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1937.

Lysenko’s theories became communist orthodoxy and won the official backing of the Soviet Central Committee in 1948. With the support of Stalin and later of Khrushchev, classical genetics, as taught throughout the rest of the industrialized world, was denounced as heretical and suppressed to the point that, by the early 1960s, there was almost no mention of chromosomes in Soviet biology textbooks.

The one major problem with Lysenko’s theories was that they were (and are) totally wrong. Completely outside the mainstream of genetics, they were contradicted by a huge body of evidence. What’s more, the data used to support them was fabricated, Lysenko had employed no experimental controls in his research and essentially the only reason for their acceptance in the Soviet Union was that they were deemed to be more in tune ideologically with Marxist-Leninist principles than classical genetics.

One of Lysenko’s theories concerned the inheritability of acquired characteristics — the idea that modifications produced in an organism by environmental factors, such as mutilations, could be passed on to the next generation. For example, it was believed that by bobbing the tails of dogs, puppies with bobbed tails would eventually be born. This now totally discredited theory had been proposed by a French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1809, before it was discovered that inheritance is solely resident in the reproductive cells, which are unaffected by the effects of the environment on somatic (body) cells.

Ironically, this misconception was mirrored by a rather ludicrous piece of misinformation that was promulgated by American fundamentalists during the early part of the 20th century. At one time, many Christians, particularly in the Deep South, believed that men have one fewer rib than women, because, in the Garden of Eden, God had removed one of Adam’s ribs in order to fashion Eve. This is not only verifiably false — one can easily compare the skeletons of men and women and count up the ribs — but it also reveals the same misunderstanding of genetics propounded by Lysenko. If God had cut off one of Adam’s fingers, would his male descendants then be born with only nine? If you were to lose an arm in a farming accident, would your sons be more likely to be born with only one arm?

Lysenko’s theories were looked on as gospel in the Soviet Union until 1965, when he fell into disrepute, and Soviet genetics returned to the mainstream. However, two generations of Russian biologists were lost, Soviet agronomy and agriculture were set back many years and, to this day, Russia, which is on the cutting edge in so many other areas of science and technology, is years behind the rest of the world in both molecular biology and genetic engineering.

During the Stalin era, American scientists were shocked and appalled that scientific truths could be held hostage by state-sponsored political ideology. Little did they know that, as this century draws to a close, American biological science would itself be censored by the forces of medievalism and religious dogmatism and that the issues that had made the Scopes Monkey Trial necessary more than 70 years ago in Tennessee would continue to reverberate.

Recently, scientists studying rock formations in Australia have determined that primitive forms of life have existed for 2.7 billion years, which is a billion years longer than had been previously proved. Will this new discovery ever make it into high school textbooks, or will it be suppressed by school board creationists who believe the world was literally created in seven days, a mere six or seven thousand years ago?

In a 1936 address to the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences, American biologist Hermann Muller, outraged by Lysenko and Stalin’s prohibition of good science for the sake of doctrinal orthodoxy, attacked those who would support “theories and opinions that are obviously absurd.” He compared this choice to that “between witchcraft and medicine, between astrology and astronomy, between alchemy and chemistry.”

Today, the choice for American science educators is similar; however, in our globally competitive environment, many of our competitors will be only too happy to see us make the wrong choice between evolution and creationism, between scientific progress and pious stagnation. And our first step backward on this trek to the dark ages of science has just been taken in Kansas.


(For rational scientific discourse and debate on this subject, here’s a useful educational site.
For a somewhat less objective view, try this one. For utter nonsense, try this one.
And for a little wit on the subject, there’s always Gary Trudeau.)

My All-Time Favorite Doonesbury Cartoon


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