By Paul A. Hanle
Sunday, October 1, 2006
I recently addressed a group of French engineering graduate students who were visiting Washington from the prestigious School of Mines in Paris. After encouraging them to teach biotechnology in French high schools, I expected the standard queries on teaching methods or training. Instead, a bright young student asked bluntly: "How can you teach biotechnology in this country when you don't even accept evolution?"
I wanted to disagree, but the kid had a point. Proponents of "intelligent design" in the United States are waging a war against teaching science as scientists understand it. Over the past year alone, efforts to incorporate creationist language or undermine evolution in science classrooms at public schools have emerged in at least 15 states, according to the National Center for Science Education. And an independent education foundation has concluded that science-teaching standards in 10 states fail to address evolution in a scientifically sound way. Through changes in standards and curriculum, these efforts urge students to doubt evolution -- the cornerstone principle of biology, one on which there is no serious scientific debate.
This war could decimate the development of U.S. scientific talent and erode whatever competitive advantage the United States enjoys in the technology-based global economy. Already, U.S. high school students lag near the bottom in math skills compared with students in other developed nations, and high school seniors are performing worse in science than they were 10 years ago.
These trends can only worsen if students come to regard evolution as questionable or controversial. Thirty-seven percent of the high school Advanced Placement biology examination tests knowledge of evolution, evolutionary biology and heredity, according to the College Board. Students who do not thoroughly understand evolution cannot hope to succeed on this exam; they will be handicapped in competitive science courses in college and the careers that may follow.
By teaching intelligent design or other variants of creationism in science classes at public schools -- or by undercutting the credibility of evolution -- we are greatly diminishing our chances for future scientific breakthroughs and technological innovations, and are endangering our health, safety and economic well-being as individuals and as a nation.
This is not a war of religion against science. The two have thrived together for centuries. Nor is it a struggle of believers against godless materialists; many believers practice science and find inspiration for it from their faith. It is a battle between religious dogma cloaked as science and open inquiry that leads to new knowledge and understanding of the natural world.
The notion of intelligent design is clever; it has a certain philosophical appeal. The evolution of a human eye from a series of random mutations, for example, is indeed difficult to understand; the notion of an intelligent creator solves such problems, and feeds our spiritual needs. But it distracts us from learning what is scientifically testable and reduces students' will to probe the natural world.
The opposition to evolution discourages the development of entire high-school classes of future scientific talent. "It seems like a raw deal for the 14-year-old girl in Topeka who might have gone on to find a cure for resistant infections if only she had been taught evolution in high school," H. Holden Thorp, chairman of the chemistry department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote in the New York Times last spring.
Multiply that girl's plight thousands of times -- in school districts in Georgia, Kansas, Ohio and other states that are discouraging the teaching of evolution.
Last year, a report from the National Academies' Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century showed us a glimpse of the future. Of all the patent applications reaching the U.S. Patent Office, the report noted, the most by far still come from the United States. However, from 1989 to 2001, the rate of increase of patent applications from the world's fastest-growing economies, such as China and India, was nearly three times that of the United States. By that measure, innovation in those economies will blow past ours in little more than a decade -- just about the time the current classes of high school biology students will be starting their research careers.
Non-scientific viewpoints deserve respect. But to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, bio-warfare and pandemic diseases, to discover lifesaving cures and life-improving breakthroughs, tomorrow's biologists must be equipped with scientifically based knowledge today.
Nations that value open inquiry and use scientific criteria in education, research and industry will outperform those that do not. If we are to continue to be leaders in the global economy, we must teach science, not religion, in the science classroom.
Paul A. Hanle is president of the Biotechnology Institute.