Why Evolution Matters

Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones (a publication that, I admit, I rarely read) has said something rather dumb about evolution. Not that he’s a creationist (I’d be using the word “douchebucket” a lot more if he were). Rather, he’s concerned about how we, as people with functioning brains, should view the importance of the evolution/creation battle in America. According to Drum, it’s not all that important and has little relevance to the political issues that matter today.

He’s wrong. And he clearly knows very little about the anti-evolution movement in America and what their agenda really is. Simply put, if you support things like equality based on gender and sexual orientation, responsible economic policy (as opposed to slash-and-burn capitalism), religious freedom and secularism, and the all important task of trying to keep the American populace at least un-stupid, then the unending onslaught against facts and reality in America’s public schools should be on your radar.

Drum is responding to an article by Andrew Sullivan, who after lamenting the fact that polls consistently show that roughly 45% of Americans believe Jesus had a pet velociraptor, argues that this is perhaps not an issue of deeply held belief, but that instead creationism functions as a sort of “cultural signifier” demarcating “us” (good Christians) from “them” (Commie Muslim liberal fags). I think he’s probably at least partially right about this. My guess is that a sizable portion of American creationists don’t care about the theory of evolution in biology any more than they do about string theory in physics or dynamical systems theory in cognitive science. But they adhere to it because it has become a calling card that differentiates their tribe from the atheists and “socialists” (they typically don’t understand socialism any better than they do biology). Sullivan rightly asks how we could ever hope to have a productive dialogue when such a large chunk of he population decides even the most basic facts about reality based solely on tribal affiliation. (Although I also agree with Ed Brayton, who points out that Sullivan somewhat misses the mark by making this about “bring[ing] our country together.”)

Enter Drum. He thinks this is all a bunch of hooey:

Come on. This 46% number has barely budged over the past three decades, and I’m willing to bet it was at least as high back in the 50s and early 60s, that supposed golden age of comity and bipartisanship. It simply has nothing to do with whether we can all get along and nothing to do with whether we can construct a civil discourse.

If you’ve ever tried to argue with a creationist, you know what kind of “discourse” you’re in for. Civility will be the least of your problems. Intellectual honesty, logical reasoning, and the facts are going to suffer a lot more.

Honestly, I don’t much care for all the babble about “civility”.  If Drum wants to claim that the unchanging nature of American creationism shows that it is irrelevant, I would like to point out to him that American political discourse has never been civil. Read Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America, written in 1832, for evidence of that. American political discourse has always been noisy, rude, loud and unruly. Really, nothing has changed in the day of teabaggers and fundamentalists except that they now have the internet amplifying their barking lunacy.

The fact is that belief in evolution has virtually no real-life impact on anything. That’s why 46% of the country can safely choose not to believe it: their lack of belief has precisely zero effect on their lives. Sure, it’s a handy way of saying that they’re God-fearing Christians — a “cultural signifier,” as Andrew puts it — but our lives are jam-packed with cultural signifiers. This is just one of thousands, one whose importance probably barely cracks America’s top 100 list.

I’m not so sure of this. The Gallup poll found that there is a strong negative correlation between education attainment and rejection of evolution:

December 2010 Views of Human Origins (Humans Evolved, With God Guiding; Humans Evolved Without God's Involvment; God Created Humans in Present Form) -- by Education

Now, this probably has a lot to do with the fact that the more pig ignorant you are, the more likely you are to believe that Jesus personally sculpted out the human rectal orifice. However, we should also consider the possibility that accepting bogus science might hinder one’s ability to think critically and achieve higher levels of education. Regardless, I don’t think one can just flippantly claim that belief in evolution has nothing to do with real life when it correlates so strongly with something so important.

And after making that highly dubious claim, Drum really goes off the rails with this:

And the reason it doesn’t is that even creationists don’t take their own views seriously. How do I know this? Well, creationists like to fight over whether we should teach evolution in high school, but they never go much beyond that. Nobody wants to remove it from university biology departments. Nobody wants to shut down actual medical research that depends on the workings of evolution. In short, almost nobody wants to fight evolution except at the purely symbolic level of high school curricula, the one place where it barely matters in the first place. The dirty truth is that a 10th grade knowledge of evolution adds only slightly to a 10th grade understanding of biology.

Okay, several points:

1.) There are people who would love to remove evolution from the universities, but they know it will never happen. Unlike local school boards and state legislatures, universities have a lot of smart people in them. You can sell your bullshit pseudoscience to a bunch of rubes at the local PTA meeting much more easily than you can at a university biology department (where people know stuff about, you know, science and all that).

2.) I think that the existence of a $20 million creation museum in Kentucky should disabuse us of the notion that creationist don’t take their beliefs seriously. Some don’t, but some most certainly do.

3.) Most importantly, the push to teach creationism in public high schools is not “purely symbolic”, and this is where it really matters. Also, this is where Drum shows his complete ignorance of what’s at stake in this battle.

Kevin Drum needs to read the Wedge Document and get a taste of what the creationists (currently playing dress up as “Intelligent Design Proponents”) are up to. He’s right that they don’t really take their beliefs in creationism very seriously (the document barely even talks about science). But there is something that they do take very seriously: Infiltrating the public school system and turning it into a tool for training up conservative religious freaks who will take over the country and institute biblical law over the rest of us.

Believe it or not, the people pushing creationism today are not stupid (their followers, on the other hand…).  They’re savvy. They know that once people reach adulthood, their outlook on life and their beliefs are basically set. If you want to turn people into mindless Godbots, you gotta start young. The younger the better, in fact.

Intelligent design creationism is not an end in itself to them. It’s a tool, a “wedge” as they call it, that (if they succeed) will be used to usher a whole slew of right wing nincompoopery into the school system, where it will be taught as fact. Would you like for your children (or anyone’s children for that matter) to be taught that our Founding Fathers were religious fundamentalists who founded a Christian nation, that gays can be cured, that relentless laissez-faire capitalism is the only economic policy endorsed by God, that AIDS is a punishment for gays, that America has been on the side of good in every war it fought, that atheists caused the Holocaust and slavery, that welfare only makes people lazy, that abortion causes breast cancer, that “secular humanism” is equivalent to Marxism, and a whole slew of other demonstrably false and ludicrous right wing fantasies that get spewed daily on talk radio and from pulpits? Well, that’s kinda what they’re going for.

The problem is that since creationism, in most people’s minds, serves merely as a cultural marker, they will vote in the person who promises “balance” in the biology classroom without realizing that they are voting in all this other stuff as well. Since so many people accept creationism, savvy (and cynical) politicians who want to radically alter our current system to favor white, wealthy Christians over everyone else can use it as a wedge issue.

So, yes, the creationism issue is very important, even if it’s merely a cultural signifier that most people don’t take very seriously. And this is why Drum completely misses the mark in his conclusion:

Now, I think evolution should remain in high school texts anyway. Why? Because it’s true. Biology is a science, and evolution is one of the pillars of modern science. For me, that’s a cultural signifier every bit as much as a literal reading of the Bible is for 46% of the country. But you know what? I could spend an entire day arguing politics and economics and culture with a conservative and never so much as mention evolution. It’s just not that important, and it doesn’t tell us much of anything about our widening political polarization. We should keep up the fight, but at the same time we shouldn’t pretend it has an epic significance that it doesn’t. I’m not optimistic about anyone or anything “bringing the country together,” but not because lots of people choose to deny evolution. Frankly, that’s one of the least of our problems.

I’m not optimistic about “bringing our country together” either, but that’s just fucking irrelevant. The importance of evolution isn’t in whether it can bring us all around the campfire where we can sing and roast marshmallows. It’s in the fact that its advocates have a much broader agenda, with creationism being the first step in infiltrating the schools. Simply put, if they succeed, we’re all kinda fucked, as future prosperity and progress depend pretty heavily on having a well-educated population.

I find it hard to believe that a liberal like Kevin Drum could be so dismissive about the importance of education. Does he really think that the ongoing attempts to put pseudoscience in public school curriculum is “one of the least of our problems”?  Does he really think that we can just ignore pedagogical concerns about what’s being taught in our schools and expect to be able to solve economic or social problems with an uneducated population?

My guess would be that he doesn’t think these things. He probably just didn’t think at all when he said it. And that’s kinda the problem with these types of issues.

2 responses to “Why Evolution Matters

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