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Published: Wednesday, 1/9/2008

In defense of Darwin

IN THE interest of strengthening science curricula in America's public schools, the National Academy of Sciences has issued an updated and even more emphatic report in defense of evolution. If only the academy's publications - issued earlier in 1984 and 1999 - could be the last scientific word to stress evolution's importance as the bedrock principle of modern biology.

But for some reason, the religious conservatives pushing creationism, which finds its genesis in the Bible, will not retreat from their crusade to weaken science with religious conjecture. It is their related belief that some biological structures are so complex they could only have been created through "intelligent design" by a superior being and not merely through natural processes.

That may be a perfectly valid theory to be supported, opposed, and debated in classes that encourage dissection of philosophical or religious positions and arguments. But to present religious conviction as an alternative to evolutionary biology, which is supported by abundant empirical evidence from many different fields of scientific investigation, does a grave disservice to students.

It puts them at a distinct disadvantage with their peers in a world increasingly reliant on science and technology. Religion-based ideas and science-based data were never meant to compete with each other, the academy report concludes, and "needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future."

Moreover, said the academy, which advises the government on science and technology matters under a congressional mandate, the theory of evolution can still be fully compatible with religious faith. Researchers argued that science and religion are different ways of understanding the world.

The report's authors say teaching creationist ideas in science classes confuses students about what constitutes science and what does not.

They further insist that understanding evolution, the theory explaining change in living organisms over eons due to genetic mutation, is critical to building on the modern biological sciences, including the biomedicine.

Evolutionary developments and discoveries continually reinforce the Darwinian link first offered for scientific scrutiny in the 19th century. Yet some religious conservatives refuse to accept generations of scientific reasoning as anything but an affront to their stand that humans did not evolve but were created by God in their present form a few thousand years ago.

Even more frightening to mainstream scientists is a 2006 Gallup poll showing that almost half of Americans agree with the creationist gospel. That would suggest the teaching of evolution remains open to renewed attacks.

Even President Bush levied a salvo against science in 2005 when he said "intelligent design" should be taught alongside evolution as a competing theory.

Regrettably for American students caught in the middle, education on evolution could be watered down unless the National Academy of Sciences and others without a religious ax to grind get the last word.



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