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Friday, August 19, 2005 CE

The Evolution Wars: Where are we heading in education?

This is a topic which is extremely interesting and at the same time depressing. It is interesting because it addresses one of the most important questions that man has ever formulated, the one that inquires about our origin. It is depressing because we have witnessed the rise of non-scientific viewpoints regarding a topic that should be analyzed in the most rigorous scientific way. For the past months, here in the United States, there has been an advance of creationism in its new form: Intelligent Design (ID). Will ID be taught in the schools of the future?

Educating children and adolescents is probably the most important duty of adult people of a society. A well-educated human being is usually able to succeed in life based on carrying a sufficient amount of knowledge and having a solid moral behavior. It is clear that the knowledge that a person receives has to be the most current and that the morals that a person is taught have to be basically oriented to promote altruism and avoid disrespect for other people and elements of nature, essentially a human rights and pro-environmental approach.

Almost 100% of the knowledge gathered by humanity has been collected by science, either by empirical (in the antiquity) or more rigorous ways (presently). Many of the conclusions found in the past have been improved, changed or discarded based on more modern methods of measuring variables. As time passes, it is clear that the conclusions that scientists obtain explain the phenomena of the world and provide us with tools for newer technologies that let us solve previously unresolved questions or problems. The scientific method, defined as: a systematic approach of observation, hypothesis formation, hypothesis testing and hypothesis evaluation that forms the basis for modern science, is the basis for knowledge gathering. It has to be as unbiased as possible in order to be certain that the conclusions obtained will not be either challenged or modified in the future.

In the other hand, religion is a cultural phenomenon. It varies between societies. Some believe on one god, others believe in multiple. There are thousands of ways in which human beings communicate with their gods. Even within societies, individuals have their own approaches that differ amongst them. Some people choose not to have a god. Religion provides peace of mind, a hope for an afterlife, psychological support in hard times, however it does not provide knowledge. Even if the supernatural exists, it cannot be studied because it would be, by definition, outside nature. If it cannot be studied it cannot be taught in formal school educational programs.

Today, we are witnessing an attempt of religious conservatism to introduce the notion that an intelligent being had to be responsible for the design of life forms in our planet. This idea provides them a platform to introduce the study of religion in schools and to discredit hundreds of years of scientific knowledge gathering. As it was said before, beliefs are entirely personal, they should be taught at a personal or family level. The thrust is so strong that already in the most conservative regions of the United States politicians are trying to modify what is taught in schools. The current amount of knowledge makes impossible what 200 years ago was possible, which was the teaching planet Earth and its life forms was created in 6 days or that our creation occurred 4000 years ago. Scientists will never prove or disprove the existence of a supreme being. That is not its role. As it was said before, the supernatural cannot be studied. However, ID has not gone through the rigorousness of the scientific method. Therefore, it cannot be called scientific.

The response of the scientific community to this issue has been dual. Although it recognizes the non-scientific origin of ID, it has not done much marketing of those concepts. This is why we are getting increasing amounts of advocates of ID preaching their ideas and gaining space among politicians. The reasons for this lack of response are understandable. ID advocates are trying to introduce the idea that there is a debate in the scientific community with respect to this subject. By not talking, scientists are showing that there is no debate among them. No biology, molecular biology or biochemistry school will ever debate something that is non-scientific. In order to be unbiased, according to the scientific method, we should not let a personal belief alter the results of our research. In other words, if someone believes a supernatural being, that belief should not alter the conclusions of the experiments. The problem with this approach is that a poorly educated society, which did not receive all the pieces of information since childhood is at risk of accepting ID as a scientific “option” if taught in schools. There would not be any problem if ID were left as a matter of personal belief. This is why it would be satisfying to see scientists emerging from their universities, institutes and museums and attempting to educate the people through the mass media.

Are we going to finally teach religion in schools? Are we going to succumb to the conservatives who find hard to tolerate the notion that life evolved from simple, primitive forms to the complex structures seen nowadays? Are we going to discredit Darwin’s Theory of Evolution? (Theory is defined as: a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena). The answer lies in 2 pillars. First, our ability to differentiate knowledge from belief, science from religion, natural from supernatural and, second, in the will of our scientists to surface up and to educate us all.
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