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Defending Science Education Against Fundamentalist Attacks


by James E. Darnell - September 13, 2005

With a chronic shortage of funds, too few well-trained teachers, and in many cases inadequate physical plants, the public schools in America hardly need yet another serious problem. However another serious problem has arisen. A resurgent challenge to the teaching of science has been mounted by evangelical Christians. Teachers are being intimidated from teaching biological evolution by individuals and organized groups. In a survey by the National Science Teachers Association over 30 % of public school teachers reported being pressured to alter teaching of evolution. Well-funded and politically well-organized outfits like The Discovery Institute and its subsidiary, The Center for Science and Culture, in Seattle push demands to include “intelligent design” or ID in public school science classrooms on local school boards, state legislatures, and even in one instance the U. S. Senate.

With a chronic shortage of funds, too few well-trained teachers, and in many cases inadequate physical plants, the public schools in American hardly need yet another serious problem. However another serious problem has arisen.  A resurgent challenge to the teaching of science has been mounted by evangelical Christians.  Teachers are being intimidated from teaching biological evolution by individuals and organized groups.  In a survey by the National Science Teachers Association over 30 % of public school teachers reported being pressured to alter teaching of evolution.  Well-funded and politically well-organized outfits like The Discovery Institute and its subsidiary, The Center for Science and Culture, in Seattle push demands to include “intelligent design” or ID in public school science classrooms on local school boards, state legislatures, and even in one instance the U. S. Senate.  (Senator Rick Santorum inserted language aimed at questioning evolution that was actually in the version of the No Child Left Behind bill that the Senate passed.  The statement was removed from the Bill in the House–Senate conference.)  ID is the premise that the universe at large and living things in particular are too complicated not to have been brought about through the agency of an intelligent designer.  Spoken or unspoken this means the god of Christian fundamentalists.


These efforts represent an impediment to science education that the country can surely do without.  If this country is to continue to benefit from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of scientific discovery followed by innovative technology, all obstacles to public school science education must be removed.  This appeal is not to prevent children from hearing about and learning about religious ideas in the appropriate setting, for example, in history or social studies classes where all types of religious ideas should be open for discussion.  The appeal is to have our best possible science taught in science classes without interference from religion.


Beginning two centuries ago and reaching a crescendo in the second half of the 20th century, scientists in various fields have reached a virtually universal consensus on how and when the universe as we understand it came into being; how and when the earth was formed; and how the parade of life on earth began with simple one cell organisms and progressed through evolution to produce all living things, including humans.


Scientists did not set out to undermine religion.  However those religionists who seek to explain nature through supernatural intervention are quite understandably threatened by the conclusions of modern science.  Nevertheless, this is no reason to deny the school children of the country the chance to hear and learn science without the introduction of religion into the science classroom.  To be clear about the scientific principles and conclusions that underlie the confrontation between fundamentalists and science, let us summarize a few salient points.


Physicists now have a deep understanding of the nature of the atom.  They know the particles contained within the atomic nucleus, the enormously strong forces that maintain the structure of the atomic nucleus and the energy yielded when the nucleus of the atom either is caused to break apart or when atomic nuclei are fused such as hydrogen into helium—think atomic bombs or hydrogen bombs.


Astronomers have built ever increasingly powerful instruments, not only light telescopes but instruments that sense all types of radiation, for example, radio telescopes, infrared telescopes, and x-ray telescopes.  Recording instruments have been placed into outer space where especially faint signals can be received without interference by the earth’s atmosphere.  These instruments have captured images and then explained mass and energy relationship in an ever-increasing list of celestial phenomena—black holes, quasars, supernovae, radio galaxies, and on and on.  They have taught us that our sun is an ordinary star among a billion others off to the edge of our ordinary galaxy, the Milky Way.  But there are billions of galaxies all speeding away from each other as if from a common starting point.  Linking the knowledge of high energy physics with this modern astronomy has provided firm confirmation of the “Big Bang” theory of the beginning of the observable universe 13 to 14 billion years ago.  All energy and mass in the present universe was concentrated in a single unimaginably dense and hot starting point and was released at the time of the “Big Bang.”  The physical aftermath—the inflation or expansion—provided conditions for the formation of all the objects in the universe—galaxies, stars, all the elements within the stars, and the solar systems.  Galaxies began forming within a few hundred thousand years, and the process still continues today.  The time of creation of individual stars and of the elements within the stars has also now been timed quite well.  Our sun is estimated to be ~5 billion years old.  The process of hydrogen fusion into helium that occurs in the sun is what provides energy to us on earth.


Geologists and geophysicists by incredibly accurate physical measurements on rocks from the earth (including meteorites) and from the moon have settled without a doubt the age of the earth at 4.5 billion years, soon after the birth of our sun, and also of the asteroids and meteorites that are so common in our solar system.  The land masses on the earth have been charted with great accuracy to be crustal plates temporarily presented by the churning action of the partially molten mantle and the movement of the plates—the science of plate tectonics—is known to be the cause of earthquakes.  These conclusions about the beginning of the observable universe and about the formation of the earth are widely accepted among qualified physicists, astronomers, and geologists.  Any rational discussion about “creation” should start with these facts.


As G. Brent Dalrymple (2004, p. 204) states in his very readable book Ancient Earth, Ancient Skies, “It is all too easy to summarize the ages of the universe, the Milky Way galaxy and solar system in a brief paragraph or a simple diagram.  The evidence that led to this chronology however represents more than two centuries of clever research and surely is one of the most notable and spectacular achievements of modern science.”


The oldest scientific conclusion that is repeatedly questioned by religious fundamentalists is biological evolution, recognized and described initially by Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin in 1858.  Evolution is still referred to and attacked as Darwinism as if we had learned nothing past that great man’s observations of nature and his very shrewd logical deductions that animals and plants were not all created in one instant of time.  Rather species change with time—evolve—from simple to complex.  Darwin’s observations and those of naturalists (biologists/paleontologists/geologists) who followed his lead have strongly confirmed and extended Darwin’s conclusions.  An easy-to-grasp synthesis by an expert evolutionary biologist of recent and past accomplishments in these disciplines just appeared (Coyne, 2005).


But modern molecular genetics has furnished even more emphatic evidence of evolution. The human genome project to obtain the sequence of human DNA was funded originally to provide results that were to be—and are being—widely used for medical purposes.  However, once the machines and techniques for large-scale sequencing were in place, the DNA sequence of many organisms in addition to humans was obtained.  Species both simple—bacteria, yeast, insects, worms—and complicated—mice, rats, chimpanzees—have now been completed.   Perhaps the most unsettling comparison to fundamentalists is that the coding sequence of human DNA is 98-99% identical to that of the chimpanzee (The Chimpanzee Sequencing and Analysis Consortium, 2005).  The conservation in sequences evident in the comparative relationship between the DNA sequences of all these species leave no room for doubt that biological evolution is the explanation for the diversity of life on this planet.  Gradual changes, preserving core sequences, are clear.


All life from bacteria to humans uses many remarkably similar biological and biochemical processes.  The pattern for any specific organism is stored in that organism’s DNA.  The information and rules for the use of this information to make all the proteins in an organism is also in the DNA blueprint in packets of information—the genes.  Each gene specifies information to make a particular protein.  Proteins are the working parts of our cells that allow such fundamental processes as burning sugar for energy, physical contraction that allows movement, and for cell growth and division.  Proteins are remarkably complex, folded, modular three-dimensional objects.  The modules which can be similar in different proteins serve as the building blocks of the more complex proteins.  X-ray crystallography shows at the level of atomic resolution how these modules allow proteins to carry out functions.  About 1000 of these modules are now recognized, and the estimated total number is perhaps 2-3 times that at most.  The highly conserved shapes of the modules in proteins from all different species show clearly that the same folded shapes have been used over and over again throughout evolution.   We see extremely clearly at the molecular level the intimate Darwinian relationship of all living things from the simplest bacteria to humans.


Can there be a practical resolution of the aims of fundamental religionists with the aims of those scientists and many others who stand for science in the classroom?  I suggest that there is and it lies in effective political action.   To give an example, a courageous Montana senator, Ken Toole, introduced this year a resolution (Joint Resolution No. 8) to the Montana legislature, the heading of which reads “A joint resolution of the senate and house of representatives of the State of Montana recognizing the importance of the separation of church and state and supporting the right of local school board trustees to adopt a science curriculum based on sound scientific principles and supported by science teachers, parents and the local community.”   There follow a short list of expressed “whereas” statements, the key points of which are:  (a) A high quality science education is critically important to Montana students.  (b) There are a number of national fundamentalist organizations seeking to force local school boards to adopt a science curriculum that conforms to their particular religious beliefs; and it includes theories commonly referred to as creationism, creation science and intelligent design.  (c) The doctrine of separation of church and state protects citizens, churches, and religious organizations from the government adopting or endorsing a particular religion’s teachings.  


These statements are followed by a section of resolutions—“therefore be it resolved—” in which there are two key points:  (a) “that the Montana legislature support local adoption of a science curriculum that is based on sound scientific principles and supported by science teachers, parents and the local community;” and (b) “that the Montana legislature opposes the efforts of national organizations seeking to impose their religious interpretation of events or phenomena on local schools under the guise of science curricula.”  And finally an appropriate peacemaking clause states that “the Montana legislature recognizes the importance of teaching Montana students about religious traditions and beliefs and encourages inclusion of these topics in religious studies, sociology and history.”


Every state legislature in the country as well as Congress should be forced to deal openly with the intrusiveness of fundamentalism into the science classroom.  Although Toole’s proposal for a resolution never got out of committee, it should be a call to arms for those who wish America’s children to be educated in modern science without interference from fundamentalists.  Politicians who fail to understand this problem and move to deal correctly with it must be held to account.  It is not, I believe, overly dramatic to claim that America’s future depends on stopping this interference with science education, perhaps as a first step in assuring the continued separation of church and state in this country.


References


Coyne, J. (2005, August 22).  The faith that dare not speak its name: The case against intelligent design.  The New Republic, 233, 21-33.


Dalrymple, G. B. (2004). Ancient Earth, Ancient Skies.  Stanford California:  Stanford University Press.


The Chimpanzee Sequencing and Analysis Consortium. (2005). Initial sequence of the chimpanzee genome and comparison with the human genome.  Nature, 437, 69-87.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 13, 2005
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12170, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 3:56:58 PM

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About the Author
  • James Darnell
    Rockefeller University
    E-mail Author
    JAMES E. DARNELL, Jr., M.D. has for 40 years conducted research into RNA biosynthesis and regulation in mammalian cells. Darnell's group discovered in 1962-63 that ribosomal RNA was manufactured as a precursor molecule that was cut in two before use, the first evidence for RNA processing, molecular carpentry that changes the first product into a usable one. In 1971, Darnell and other scientists also obtained the first direct evidence for RNA processing in messenger RNA formation, the addition of poly A to the 3' end of large nuclear RNA transcripts. Darnell's group showed also that cells copy viral genes into very large nuclear RNA molecules, all beginning at a well mapped starting site. Since these were too large to be mRNA, it was strongly suggested that some of the copied RNA ends up on the cutting room floor. During the 1980’s and early 90’s Darnell’s group studied the coordinated control of sets of genes that are expressed mainly in liver cells and in so doing discovered a number of transcription factors that proved to be important in development. Perhaps the most far reaching results from Darnell's laboratory began with research in the 1980's that culminated in 1992 with the discovery of a direct signaling pathway, the so-called JAK-STAT pathway, from the cell surface to genes in the nucleus. Darnell's group discovered that a set of dual function proteins they named STATs (Signal Transducers and Activators of Transcription) remain quiescent in the cell until activated when circulating polypeptides bind to their specific cell surface receptors. There are seven human STAT proteins. Specific STATs then are activated, pair and travel to the nucleus to activate appropriate genes to support a wide variety of specific events in development and in maintaining homeostasis in adults. Recent research from the lab has concerned STAT3 which is persistently active in a large fraction of human cancers, serving, perhaps among other functions, to erect an anti-apoptotic shield. Details in the cooperation of STAT3 with other transcription factors in enhanceosomes are being acquired with the hope of providing well understood targets for inhibition and thus to serve as anti-cancer agents.
 
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