Suppose we asked a group of Presidential candidates if they believed in the existence of atoms, and a third of them said “no”? That would be a truly appalling show of scientific illiteracy, would it not? And all the more shocking coming from those who aspire to run a technologically sophisticated nation.
Yet something like this happened a week ago during the Republican presidential debate. When the moderator asked nine candidates to raise their hands if they “didn’t believe in evolution,” three hands went into the air—those of Senator Sam Brownback, Governor Mike Huckabee, and Representative Tom Tancredo. Although I am a biologist who has found himself battling creationism frequently throughout his professional life, I was still mortified. Because there is just as much evidence for the fact of evolution as there is for the existence of atoms, anyone raising his hand must have been grossly misinformed.
I don’t know whether to attribute the show of hands to the candidates’ ignorance of the mountain of evidence for evolution, or to a cynical desire to pander to a public that largely rejects evolution (more than half of Americans do). But I do know that it means that our country is in trouble. As science becomes more and more important in dealing with the world’s problems, Americans are falling farther and farther behind in scientific literacy. Among citizens of industrialized nations, Americans rank near the bottom in their understanding of math and science. Over half of all Americans don’t know that the Earth orbits the Sun once a year, and nearly half think that humans once lived, Flintstone-like, alongside dinosaurs.
Now maybe evolutionary biology isn’t going to propel America into the forefront of world science, but creationism (and its gussied-up descendant “Intelligent Design”) is not just a campaign against evolution—it’s a campaign against science itself and the scientific method.