Why doesn’t America believe in evolution?

evolution.jpgCould it be something to do with invisible men in the sky? And apes in the White House?
New Scientist reports.

19 August 2006
New Scientist
Jeff Hecht

HUMAN BEINGS, AS WE KNOW THEM, developed from earlier species of animals: true or false? This simple question is splitting America apart, with a growing proportion thinking that we did not descend from an ancestral ape. A survey of 32 European countries, the US and Japan has revealed that only Turkey is less willing than the US to accept evolution as fact.

Religious fundamentalism, bitter partisan politics and poor science education have all contributed to this denial of evolution in the US, says Jon Miller of Michigan State University in East Lansing, who conducted the survey with his colleagues. “The US is the only country in which [the teaching of evolution] has been politicised,” he says. “Republicans have clearly adopted this as one of their wedge issues. In most of the world, this is a non-issue.”

Miller’s report makes for grim reading for adherents of evolutionary theory. Even though the average American has more years of education than when Miller began his surveys 20 years ago, the percentage of people in the country who accept the idea of evolution has declined from 45 in 1985 to 40 in 2005 (Science, vol 313, p 765). That’s despite a series of widely publicised advances in genetics, including genetic sequencing, which shows strong overlap of the human genome with those of chimpanzees and mice. “We don’t seem to be going in the right direction,” Miller says.

There is some cause for hope. Team member Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, finds solace in the finding that the percentage of adults overtly rejecting evolution has dropped from 48 to 39 in the same time. Meanwhile the fraction of Americans unsure about evolution has soared, from 7 per cent in 1985 to 21 per cent last year. “That is a group of people that can be reached,” says Scott.

The main opposition to evolution comes from fundamentalist Christians, who are much more abundant in the US than in Europe. While Catholics, European Protestants and so-called mainstream US Protestants consider the biblical account of creation as a metaphor, fundamentalists take the Bible literally, leading them to believe that the Earth and humans were created only 6000 years ago.

Ironically, the separation of church and state laid down in the US constitution contributes to the tension. In Catholic schools, both evolution and the strict biblical version of human beginnings can be taught. A court ban on teaching creationism in public schools, however, means pupils can only be taught evolution, which angers fundamentalists, and triggers local battles over evolution.

These battles can take place because the US lacks a national curriculum of the sort common in European countries. However, the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind act is instituting standards for science teaching, and the battles of what they should be has now spread to the state level.

Miller thinks more genetics should be on the syllabus to reinforce the idea of evolution. American adults may be harder to reach: nearly two-thirds don’t agree that more than half of human genes are common to chimpanzees. How would these people respond when told that humans and chimps share 99 per cent of their genes?

New Scientist magazine, issue 2565.

Pestival

pestival.jpg

Mark Pilkington is organising this insect arts festival. Looks great, I’ll have to try and get down to see it. Nice that Phase IV, Saul Bass‘s strange and rather fascinating feature film, is one of the highlights.

27 May – 4 June 2006
London Wetland Centre

“If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” E.O Wilson

The First International Arts Pestival is dedicated to raising awareness of the integral role insects play in the global ecosystem and in all animal societies. Many of those insects are increasingly endangered through human action.

Through appreciation of “insects in art and the art of being an insect”, the Pestival aims to create positive PR for this 400-million-year-old, highly evolved taxon that has had thousands of years of bad press.

We are building up a fantastic programme of talks, demonstrations, workshops, art installations, films, music and performance, fusing art and science to reach out to a broad, interested audience of homo sapien adults and children.

Bridget Nicholls & Mark Pilkington

On behalf of the International Arts Pestival
Patron: Zac Goldsmith

Download the Pestival Programme as a PDF (455k)

Download the Press Pack (3.7MB zip)

Cosmic zooms

powers.jpg

Cosmic Zoom was a short animated film by made by Eva Szasz in 1968 for the National Film Board of Canada.

This film probes the infinite magnitude of space, and its reverse, the ultimate minuteness of matter. Animation art and animation camera achieve this journey to the farthest conceivable point of the universe and then into the tiniest particle of existence—an atom of a living human cell—with a freshness and clarity that would seem impossible with other means of exposition. Film without words.

The film zooms out from a boy rowing a boat across a lake, into the farthest reaches of space, then back down to earth again to focus on a mosquito on the boy’s arm, then further down into cells and atoms.

A similar film called Powers of Ten (from which the still above is borrowed) was made in 1977 by Charles and Ray Eames. The Eames’ film is a lot more detailed and with a running commentary full of scientific information. You can see it on YouTube here.

The ultimate Eamesian expression of systems and connections, Powers of Ten explores the relative size of things from the microscopic to the cosmic. The 1977 film travels from an aerial view of a man in a Chicago park to the outer limits of the universe directly above him and back down into the microscopic world contained in the man’s hand. Powers of Ten illustrates the universe as an arena of both continuity and change, of everyday picnics and cosmic mystery. The film also demonstrates the Eameses’ ability to make science both fascinating and accessible.

Just to show the persistence of a fascinating idea, there’s a nice java animation here.

View the Milky Way at 10 million light years from the Earth. Then move through space towards the Earth in successive orders of magnitude until you reach a tall oak tree just outside the buildings of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida. After that, begin to move from the actual size of a leaf into a microscopic world that reveals leaf cell walls, the cell nucleus, chromatin, DNA and finally, into the subatomic universe of electrons and protons.