Darwin: A Symbol to Protect: Sarah K. Darville

First Place High School Essay — Blanche Fearn Memorial Award

Sarah received a $2,000 cash scholarship from the Freedom From Religion Found­a­tion for her first-place winning entry in the 2008 essay competition for new high school grads who are college-bound in the fall.

By Sarah K. Darville

He belongs in the hall of fame, in the exclusive club of scientists whose discoveries and accomplishments form the bedrock of our understanding of science and how science is taught. Like Copernicus, Einstein, Newton and Kepler, he made one of the observational and experimental leaps that now explain the world around us.

But somehow that man, Charles Darwin, is often left out of this club. His research is denied and his findings refuted, qualified, ignored or opposed. That would not make him unique—the public, the Church and other scientists have doubted most influential scientists—but as their discoveries are eventually bolstered by increasing evidence, the public accepts the new ideas, raising up the discoverers as geniuses. Darwin’s theory of evolution, first explained in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, has been treated otherwise.

Despite a literally limitless supply of evidence supporting Darwin’s theories and near-universal acceptance by the scientific community, the public remains unconvinced. One hundred fifty years after Origin of Species’ publication and over 80 years after the Scopes trial (in which a teacher was fined for teaching evolution in a public school), millions of people still publicly deny the idea of evolution, and hundreds of battles over science curricula flare up nationwide every year. And so Charles Darwin’s importance is that of a symbol, an embodiment of the knowledge we must fight for, as so many others fight on the side of ignorance.

Those fighting for such ignorance are not quiet or old-fashioned. Creationism has vocal and modern ad­vocates, including those influential enough to finance the two-year-old, $27-million facility known as the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Its ex­hibits include a human riding a triceratops, fossils created by the Great Flood, and the Garden of Eden teeming with creatures from the Cretaceous and Modern periods alike. This museum, devoted almost exclusively to refuting Darwin’s theory of evolution, is designed to look like a museum of scientific merit.

Once you factor in an animatronic Adam and descriptions of how all of the animals fit inside Noah’s Ark, it becomes clear who the museum’s targets are: parents and their children, children who will take what they see as fact, just as they take what adults and other museums present to them as fact. These children will bring up their “knowledge” in science class one day with no way to reconcile what they “know” with real science, the science of Darwin.

College professors know what those children become: students who are “unlikely to succeed in science courses at the college level” and who “will need remedial instruction in the nature of science,” according to a petition circulated by the National Center for Science Education. More dangerous than that is the prospect that those presented with such false ideas will at some point in their education reject science altogether as something they cannot understand or do not value. That is where the danger lies—ignorance begetting ignorance.

Every student who gives up on the challenges of the empirical, rigorous study of science and technology is one fewer American working toward alternative energy solutions, preserving the Earth’s habitats, mapping our genome and probing the real origins of life. Evolution is the underlying process of all biology and the life sciences. I know from experience that you cannot even be successful in a high school AP biology course without an extensive understanding of natural selection and how it connects to every other aspect of the discipline. Those who do not or are unwilling to understand the basics of Darwinian evolution remove themselves from an entire realm of knowledge that could be used to improve our world.

That population is staggeringly large: A 2005 CBS poll reported that only 15% of Americans believe in evolution without divine guidance, and a full 51% believe that God created humans in their present form. If one takes a belief in natural selection as the bare minimum required to go into a scientific field—disregarding whether one believes in divine guidance—over half of the American population is unable to grasp the basic ideas that lead to scientific contribution. Accord­ing to Science Magazine, the United States ranks 33rd of 34 countries surveyed for the public acceptance of evolution, ahead of only Turkey. Since 1985, the proportion of American adults who believe in evolution has dropped 5%.

Thus it cannot be surprising to find out that as that number decreases, our stature as a leader in education diminishes. In a worldwide study by the Organization for Economic Coop­eration and Development, the United States ranks 29th in science skills of its teenagers. What is most striking about those results is that this country’s raw scores have not decreas­ed but have remained fairly steady over time. Scores like ours used to be “the gold standard,” according to Andreas Schleicher, one of the scientists who wrote the report. As other countries emphasize science and technology, separate from religious ideology and moderize their populations, we are being left behind.

That is a chilling thought, and creationism is at its heart. At this very moment, evolution is “absent or useless” in the public schools of 18 states and “exemplary” in only ten, according to Scientific American magazine. Just last year, I covered the adoption of new science standards in my home state of Florida. The state’s big accomplishment was including the word “evolution” at all—but to pass, the phrase “scientific theory of” had to qualify it in every sentence (a necessity that made it clear that most people do not understand what a scientific theory is at all).

These battles over wording have taken the place of rigorous education, and we suffer accordingly. America is not seen as being on the cutting edge of technology, and increasingly we are steps behind Euro­pean and Asian countries. Countries like India, where a rapidly growing population coexists with a growing focus on fact-based science education, will soon leap ahead of those of us still trying to convince millions that Darwin is not the devil.

So we must continue the fight against ignorance. Every time a state or local school board votes to exclude evolution from their school curriculum, every time an education bureaucrat voices support for teaching “all sides of the issue” or including intelligent design, every time education is publicly confused with religious education, we must take up arms. Our weapons are not violence but our shared passion for reason, knowledge and the continued preeminence of American education. Too often, religious groups launch coordinated efforts to pressure politicians to stay away from evolution while those advocating true science are left shaking their heads.

Groups like Citizens for Science, with its 20 state subgroups, need to focus their efforts not only on lobbying for teaching evolution in schools, but also on recruiting students to push for those standards themselves. Teenagers often have powers of persuasion that come from their current experiences in school that adults do not have, and have been an underused resource in the nationwide push against creationism. In the meantime, science teachers who teach natural selection with plenty of explanations but no apologies are the most effective weapons in the arsenal, because they represent what evolution should be: an indisputable part of scientific knowledge.

Charles Darwin was a real man and a real scientist too often caricatured into a religion-hater, when in fact his discoveries only contributed to our understanding of our unfathomably complex and beautiful world. Because his theories are so often censored, Darwin is a symbol for the knowledge we must all work to promote and protect.

Sarah Darville of Coral Springs, Fla., will be attending Columbia University to study English or political science. She is interested in a career in journalism or publishing and plays the French horn.

Freedom From Religion Foundation