“The world needs you, badly” wrote E.O. Wilson in his book Letters to a Young Scientist. Wilson, one of the greats of modern biology, wrote his book with the hope of providing guidance to young scientists and those who may be looking at science as a potential path. Wilson has years of experience as not just a researcher in the field of ecology, but as a scientific educator. Wilson later on goes to talk about the importance of having a scientifically literate public as humanity is now fully into the technoscientific age. Scientific literacy is an issue that concerns many scientists. So when I read about school vouchers being used for schools that would not teach evolution in the classroom I grow concerned.
School vouchers are a hot topic of conversation. The idea behind them is that in areas where public schools are failing, families have the option to use the funding that would have gone to their child in the public school system and apply it to a private school or to reimburse home schooling expenses. There are reasons why this may be a viable idea, such as in cases where a student requires greater special-education resources. But it is troubling to think that some schools that would be receiving public money may not have curricula that are set to basic standards — namely that they would not be properly teaching science and would instead teach creationism. The problem is that teaching creationism in a school that receives public money is outright unconstitutional.
Zack Kopplin has compiled a list of over 311 schools currently receiving taxpayer money that teach creationism. This list was inspired over the recent revelation that this was commonplace in Louisiana, a state with an extensive voucher system. This isn’t a case of Louisiana being sneaky about it either— the state publicly displays this on its website. As many as 46% of Americans believe in creationism (the idea that a deity created everything we see). This is in stark contrast to the scientific community, where there has never been a single paper discrediting evolution. The fight over evolution in schools has a long history. The famous Scopes Monkey Trial is the most well known. The 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial put the most recent attempt to insert creationism (or intelligent design) into public schools under scrutiny. In fact, creationism has been illegal to teach in public schools since the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard Supreme Court case. due to the First Amendment and its Establishment Clause. Despite all of this, the fight to stick creationism in schools continues to this day. Texas is making yet another push to place creationism in the science classroom.
To teach intelligent design in schools is an insult to scientists everywhere. At no point did a velociraptor lay an egg that a bald eagle hatched out of. Evolution is simply the changing frequency of genes over time. Over time populations, if separated in some way and given enough time, will change enough so they cannot interbreed. The very biological definition of species is a population that is reproductively isolated. To be extremely reductionist, biology is in essence the study of both the results of genetic combinations, and how these results interact with each other. To quote Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.
It is unfortunately clear that evolution is still a major part of the American culture wars. (This is unfortunate as there are many Americans who have found ways to reconcile evolution with their religious views). If school vouchers are going to be used, there must be some form of vetting process to ensure that taxpayer money does not go to pay for a science curriculum that doesn’t include science. Bill Nye said it right: If you want to believe that the earth is 6000 years old and we were created in our present form, fine, but we need to have the right science education. Or to invoke E.O. Wilson once again, humans are now fully into the technoscientific age, and the better understanding of science the general public has, the better.