Last week, a New York Times article by Leslie Kaufman (1) highlighted an alarming new trend: the recurrent pairing of evolution with global warming by conservatives. On the face of it, this marriage seems odd and unexpected; the former relates to the turnover of life through billions of years of deep time, whereas the latter labels a decades-old trend toward atmospheric heating.
What do these disparate notions have in common? Both tend to make conservatives—and particularly religious fundamentalist conservatives—very nervous. Evolution, of course, raises fundamentalist ire because it portrays an entirely different story of our origins than does the bible. Concerns about human-induced global warming are a little tougher to pin down. Rev. Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network is quoted as saying that many global warming deniers consider it “hubris to think that human beings could disrupt something that God created” (1). But a deeper reason is that reducing greenhouse gas emissions threatens continued industrialization, or at least business as usual, and pro-business lobbies are waging a (thus far very successful) campaign to discredit climate science and shift public opinion.
Ok, but that still doesn’t explain why links are being forged between biological evolution and atmospheric temperatures. The answer here is education. Over the past century, fundamentalist Christians have adopted a succession of strategies aimed at keeping evolution out of the classroom, or at least have it “balanced” by alternatives (2). Each time, pro-evolution advocates have been able to thwart these efforts. The most recent iteration of this dance centered on “intelligent design,” the proposition that the sheer complexity of life necessitates design by an intelligent being. Once again, the evolutionists prevailed, achieving a resounding victory in Pennsylvania district court in 2005 (2).
Unable to inject intelligent design into science classrooms, fundamentalists redoubled their efforts to discredit evolution, pushing the mantra known as “teach the controversy” (i.e., create the illusion of academic controversy and then argue that it must be taught in schools). Advocates with a clear creationist platform attempted to have stickers placed inside biology textbooks prompting students to regard evolution as “just” as theory. Once again, a district court decision—this one in Atlanta in 2005—determined that the stickers violated First Amendment separation of church and state (since evolution alone was the target).
Undaunted, anti-evolution fundamentalists have now decided that the recent public angst over global warming can be put to good use. By creating (fictitious) debates among biologists and climate scientists over the veracity of evolution and global warming, respectively, it might be possible to foment doubts in the general public and legislate for more “critical thinking” in schools. Astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University argues that this strategy may involve even grander aims, “casting doubt on the veracity of science—to say that it is just one view of the world, just another story, no better or more valid than fundamentalism” (1). Legislative bills questioning the science of the Big Bang, evolution, global warming, and/or human cloning have now been introduced in several states, including Kentucky (still pending) and Oklahoma (not enacted).
The concern among many scientists and educators is that a few state-level victories linking doubts about global warming and evolution could have a cascading influence on school curricula around the country. Even if the legislative efforts are not successful, the appearance that the science is in question could induce text book writers and teachers to downplay or even avoid these key topics, as it has in the past.
Evolution and global warming have two other things in common. Both are founded on in-depth research supported by the vast majority of specialist researchers (within evolutionary biology and climate science, respectively), and both are accepted by less than half of the American public. It’s ironic that a society so utterly dependent on—indeed in love with—technology should question the veracity of big ideas embraced by the same scientific community that generates that technology. The profound disconnect between scientific and public consensus is a critical matter, and bridging this gap deserves our utmost attention.
Why should we be concerned about the presence or absence of evolution and global warming in the science classroom? Because literacy in both areas may well be key to sustainability, and thus to the persistence of civilization.
Rising global temperatures represent one of the greatest threats we now face. If greenhouse gas emissions continue apace, all major indicators suggest that the resulting increase in sea levels, desertification, habitat losses, and species extinctions will result in untold human suffering (not to mention its impact on nonhuman lifeforms). Whether or not you fully accept that global warming is happening or that humans are the primary cause (there is overwhelming evidence for both), doesn’t it make sense to heed the warnings of the world’s top climate scientists and cut greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2020? The alternative path is simply too frightening to consider. And if you agree in principle with such a precautionary approach, then it should make equal sense that we promote climate literacy in schools, thereby equipping the next generation with the necessary knowledge to address this global, long term issue.
As for evolution, this idea resides at the core of all the life sciences, including such areas as agriculture and medicine on which we all depend. Biology without evolution is like physics without gravity, something to consider next time you board a plane. Today, most of us in Western societies live without any meaningful sense of place or deep time, a disastrous situation for a culture seeking to become sustainable. Expanded to encompass the Great Story of cosmos, life, and culture, evolution supplies an amazing and profound narrative with the potential to embed us back into nature and imbue our lives with deep meaning. Evolution can help reinsert our minds back into the flows of energy and matter that our bodies have never left. But this will happen only if the epic of evolution is taught in schools, where it is all but absent at present.
One of the things that most concerns me is the persistent mindset that entrenches science and religion as opposing forces. The ongoing, often venomous battles involve fundamentalists on both sides who seem to think that annihilation of their opponents ideologies must be the goal. Yet the sustainability clock is ticking ever louder, and I find it difficult to envision a solution arriving in time without bridging the science-religion divide and engaging both sides in conversation. Fortunately the vast majority of science and religion practitioners are not fundamentalists, and much room remains for productive discussions that can transcend this debate and identify mutually beneficial solutions.
Nevertheless, notwithstanding the need for compassion and compromise, science education should be based on scientific consensus, not on public opinion. Whereas the former is established through the hard-won process of peer review, the latter can be shaped and distorted by disinformation campaigns. With few exceptions, when big ideas change in science, we don’t throw out all the preceding insights; we build on them. Our understanding of evolution will undoubtedly grow by great leaps and bounds in the coming decades, but no grounds exist for suspecting that we will toss out Darwin’s key insights altogether. Similarly, there is virtually no doubt among leading atmospheric scientists that our climate is warming rapidly, or that we need to dramatically reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases if we are to stave off a calamitous future. So presenting the hard science of these ideas in school classrooms is critical to our future.
1. Kaufman, L. 2010. Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets. New York Times, March 3, 2010.
2.Scott, E. C. 2008. Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction, Second Edition. Greenwood, Santa Barbara.