Sunday, February 12, 2006

Happy Darwin Day

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

Charles Darwin was born on this day in 1809. His theory of evolution by means of natural selection, presented in The Origin of Species in 1859, has stood the test of time and is a central organizing principle for our knowledge of the biological sciences.

It is also, sadly and unbelievably, a theory rejected by a majority of Americans.

The stubborn ignorance and anti-scientific mindset of large segments of the American public was one of several factors that drove me to emigrate permanently from the United States. Others were the atrocities and war crimes systematically committed as part of U.S. foreign policy, the deplorable and worsening state of the health care system, and sprawl . No doubt these topics and more will surface periodically as and if this blog develops.

Today, in honor of Charles Darwin's birthday, I post two commentaries written in the summer of 2004, shortly after I left the U.S. for Slovenia:

America’s Taliban

(Broadcast in Slovene translation on Radio Student Ljubljana, August 5, 2004)

Against my better judgment, I recently spent some time residing in Bush’s America. Long enough to conclude that it’s not a place I’d want to stay permanently or bring up my Slovenia-born daughter in. There are many reasons why I feel this way, but perhaps one of the most compelling is the influence of religious fundamentalists on American society, education, and politics.

Here’s just one illustrative example. One day last January my sixth-grade daughter came home from her Indiana school angry, frustrated and upset. She had come under attack in a classroom discussion for arguing a radical and unpopular point of view. And just what was all the controversy about? The Iraq war, perhaps, or Bush’s presidency? No, it was about the theory of evolution. The teacher had told the kids she didn’t believe in evolution, favoring instead a literal interpretation of Genesis. My daughter defended Darwin, citing the fossil record, especially hominid finds. Most of the kids sided with the teacher, and harangued my daughter for days afterwards in an attempt to persuade her of the error of her ways. “But it says so right in the Bible!” they kept repeating.

When I recounted this incident to a scientist friend of mine in Slovenia, he wittily, if unkindly, suggested that we ask this same teacher whether she also refused to believe in the general theory of gravitation, which is as anti-Biblical as evolution. If so, he proposed, she should prove her faith by jumping out an upper-story window. I rather liked his suggestion, but my daughter decided not to act on it—the school she attended was situated entirely at ground level.

Shortly after this incident Kathy Cox, the Republican superintendent of schools in Georgia, proposed banning the word “evolution” from the K-12 biology curriculum, replacing it with the phrase “change over time.” Evolution, she said, was a “buzz word that causes a lot of negative reaction” among devout Georgia families because it was associated with “that monkeys to man sort of thing.” After an onslaught of withering criticism from university professors, the National Science Teachers Association, and former President Jimmy Carter, among others, Cox and her crusaders eventually backed down. But no one should expect the creationists in Georgia or anywhere else to remain idle for long. They may be ignorant, but they are doggedly persevering.

My late mother Betty McCollister, herself a free-lance journalist, clashed frequently with creationists and others from the religious right, particularly during the Reagan administration. After the incident at my daughter’s school, I dug around in some of her archives and came across a letter from an Iowa biology professor in praise of her recent article on evolution. He introduced himself as “an evolutionary biologist who tried to ignore creationists in the hope they would disappear. Now I know better and am starting to enter the fray.”

That letter was dated February 23, 1985. As you can see, the creationists still haven’t disappeared.

Given my daughter’s experience, I began to wonder whether Indiana’s schools were in fact any safer than Georgia’s from this creationist claptrap. After speaking with the head of the biology department at Harrison High School, whose district we were living in at the time, I was somewhat, though not entirely, reassured. I doubted whether any Indiana teacher would be so bold as to declare that humans descended from ape-like ancestors—you know, “that monkeys to man sort of thing”—but, should Monika enroll at Harrison, she would at least be taught the basic principles of evolution, as required by the Indiana state educational standards for biology. However, if we ended up buying a house closer to the Purdue campus, as was my husband’s wish, our daughter would attend not Harrison, but West Lafayette High School.

There were two biology teachers there. One, a woman, was well-educated, normal, and taught evolution. The other was an avowed creationist who went around giving “creation science” workshops to religious gatherings in his spare time. At West Lafayette High he taught Honors Biology—in other words, he got the brightest kids with the greatest scientific aptitude, many of them no doubt the offspring of some of Purdue University’s top scientists and engineers. Although by law he was not permitted to discuss religious topics in a public school classroom, it was hard to imagine that the topic of evolution as the central organizing principle in the biological sciences would be taught as it should be by someone who, counter to all the accumulated scientific evidence, believed that the Earth is 6000 years old and that some Christian deity created humans and all other species in their present immutable forms in six days.

Of course, the irony in all this is that the vast majority of American religious groups do not oppose the teaching of evolution. A book called “Voices for Evolution,” published by the National Center for Science Education (and edited, by the way, by my mother), contains statement after statement from hundreds of mainstream religious organizations and authorities, including the Pope, affirming that the scientific theory of evolution is not in conflict with religious faith. It’s only the extremists—America’s version of the Taliban—who hold such rigid and anti-scientific views.

My mother battled the religious right for years, and was frequently the target of some decidedly un-Christian attacks as a result. I often wondered why she was bothering to pay so much attention to an obviously lunatic fringe that no normal thinking person could possibly take seriously.

I’ve learned a thing or two since then. It’s true that these people are a lunatic fringe, far outside the mainstream. Alarmingly, their power is nonetheless far-reaching and pervasive, extending from the elementary school classroom right on up to the Oval Office of George Bush, Jr. The right-wing fundamentalist Christian lobby shapes not only much of what goes on in American biology classrooms, but many other aspects of American policy as well.

Moving towards theocracy

(Broadcast in Slovene translation on Radio Student Ljubljana, Thursday, September 9, 2004)

Tom Delay would be shocked and horrified by what my daughter and thousands of other Slovene schoolchildren are learning. The other day I took a closer look at her 7th grade biology textbook. Right there, in black and white, very last chapter, plainly stated—modern humans evolved from ape-like ancestors, who in turn derived from earlier, more primitive life forms. Horrors! What kind of radical, heretical, pernicious garbage are Slovene educators feeding our innocent children?

We can expect a massive outbreak of violence among Slovene schoolchildren once they have absorbed the implications of this knowledge. Tom DeLay, you see, believes that the Columbine school shootings occurred “because our school systems teach our children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial mud.” Just for good measure, he laid additional blame on contraception and the provision of day care for the children of working parents.

According to DeLay’s logic, then, Slovene schools should be experiencing an ongoing series of murderous rampages, since Slovene women enjoy unrestricted access to a range of contraceptive methods, including abortion, virtually all Slovene toddlers attend day care, and Slovene schoolchildren learn that they are descended from apes. Presumably other developed European countries with roughly similar educational and social policies should also be swept by this wave of adolescent violence. Funny, though, how the phenomenon of school shootings seems to have originated in, and be largely confined to, America.

Who is Tom DeLay, anyway, and why should anyone care what he thinks? As it happens, Tom DeLay is the House majority leader, and one of the most powerful men in America. He is a Christian zealot who openly declares himself sent by God to “stand up for a biblical worldview.” He says that he seeks a “God-centered” nation that, among other things, would discriminate against homosexuals, limit contraception, ban abortion, abolish the separation of church and state, and post the Ten Commandments in every school.

Delay’s is the true face of today’s ruling Republican Party, which has been effectively taken over by an extremist faction known variously as “social (or religious) conservatives,” “the religious right,” or, by its detractors, “America’s Taliban.” Spiritually, they’re born-again evangelical Christians, inclined to a very rigid, literal interpretation of the Bible (including Genesis, which is why they find the theory of evolution so threatening to their children’s souls). Politically, they’re theocrats, which means they want to impose their extremist beliefs on the rest of us by codifying them in law and policy. And they’re damn close to achieving their goals.

White House staffers regularly meet with Christian fundamentalists to solicit their views on social policies such as gay marriage, faith-based initiatives, and abstinence-only sex education. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who insisted on covering up statues at the Department of Justice which were too scantily clad for his prudish sensibilities, is a devout Christian who holds daily prayer meetings with his staff and had himself anointed with cooking oil before being sworn into office. (Perhaps coincidentally, he is also a zealous persecutor of Muslims, whether or not they have broken the law.) Elliott Abrams, the National Security Council's top Middle East aide, consults with apocalyptic Christians—those who are eagerly waiting for the second coming of Christ and the ensuing “Rapture” to occur, and hence implacably opposed to the establishment of any kind of Palestinian homeland —on U.S. policy towards Israel. General William “Jerry” Boykin, the Bible-thumping crank who said Bush “was appointed by God” and has preached that the United States is in a holy war as a Christian nation battling Satan, was appointed deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence last fall, and has since been implicated in the torture scandals at Abu Ghraib and other American-run prisons.

President Bush is himself a born-again Christian, and has a large following among the estimated 19 million Americans who are religious conservatives. Bush regularly invokes his faith in public speeches, speaking in messianistic and crusading terms of good and evil. Moreover, he is apparently convinced that he knows God’s will: “God told me to strike at al Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East,” he has said. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, he proclaimed that “America is called to lead the cause of freedom in the new century....Freedom is not America's gift to the world. It is the Almighty God's gift.”

In Bush’s case, it’s hard to say how much of his rhetoric and his policies stem from sincere religious belief, and how much from Karl Rove’s power-obsessed politically calculating advice: Evangelicals represent a powerful grassroots force and voting constituency in American politics. But whatever Bush’s true motives, the dismal end results are the same. And not just for Americans, but for other planetary inhabitants as well, from the dead and maimed Iraqis who are the beneficiaries of the Almighty God’s gift of freedom as delivered at the hands of American occupiers, to the Palestinians who must remain forever homeless since a Palestinian state conflicts with the Rapture scenario of American Christian Zionists, to the women and children of the Third World who are suffering from the Bush administration’s cutoff of funds to the United Nations Population Fund for the third year running. Experts have estimated that the $34 million from the United States could prevent two million unwanted pregnancies per year, 800,000 induced abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths and 77,000 infant and child deaths, but American social conservatives have succeeded in blocking funding on the grounds that the family planning programs it supports provide abortions and do not take an abstinence-only approach to female reproductive health.

Which brings us back to the American school classroom. There, too, the social conservatives are pushing an abstinence-only approach to sex education—despite all the evidence, from the world statistics compiled by the UN Population Fund to a study published in the British Medical Journal, that abstinence training actually increases the rate of teen pregnancy.

With Bush’s theocratic administration poised to win a second term, it looks like my (teenaged!) daughter and I escaped to a more advanced and civilized part of the world just in time.


Blogger Libby said...

Very interesting and well-written post. Education is anathema to religion . . .so that's what America is gutting the public school system and funding the religious schools. It's easier to control uneducated people.

9:14 PM, March 02, 2006  
Blogger Libby said...

so that's WHY America . . . not sure if anathema is spelled correctly either!

But I have an excuse, I was educated in the American public school system!

9:16 PM, March 02, 2006  

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