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Accept it: Talk about evolution needs to evolve
ists have done a splendid job of convinc-
ing the public that evolution is weak
science because scientists are always
changing their minds about things.
those who accept evolution often don’t
understand it well. They think it’s a great
chain ... of gradual increases in com-
plexity of forms through time, which is
certainly an impoverished view of evolu-
tionary biology. That view is the source,
in my opinion, of: “If man evolved from
monkeys, then why are
there still monkeys?” ...
That’s probably the sec-
ond most common ques-
tion I get on talk radio.
It’s like saying, “If you
evolved from your cous-
ins, why are your cousins
still here?” And of course
the answer is, well, in fact,
I didn’t evolve from my
cousins. My cousins and
I shared common ances-
tors, in our grandparents.
Watch your language! It’s a common message from Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist
and director of the National Center for
Science Education ( www.ncseweb.org),
an organization dedicated to promoting
and defending the teaching of evolution
in public schools. Scott recently spoke
with Science News writer Susan Milius.
So you urge scientists not to say that
they “believe” in evolution?!
Right. What your audience hears is
more important than what you say.…
What [people] hear is that evolution
is a belief, it’s an opinion, it’s not well-substantiated science. And that is
something that scientists need to avoid
You believe in God. You believe your
sports team is going to win. But you
don’t believe in cell division. You don’t
believe in thermodynamics. Instead,
you might say you “accept evolution.”
How does the language used to discuss
new discoveries add to the problem?
To put it mildly, it doesn’t help when
evolutionary biologists say things like,
“This completely revolutionizes our
view of X.” Because hardly anything we
come up with is going to completely
revolutionize our view of the core ideas
of science.... An insight into the early
ape-men of East and South Africa is not
going to completely change our understanding of Neandertals, for example. So
the statement is just wrong. Worse, it’s
miseducating the public as to the soundness of our understanding of evolution.
You can say that this fossil or this
new bit of data “sheds new light on this
part of evolution.”
So how do you explain what science is?
An idea that I stole from [physicist]
James Trefil visualizes
the content of science as
three concentric circles:
the core ideas in the center, the frontier ideas in
the next ring out and the
fringe ideas in the outermost ring....
[ We need to] help the
public understand that the
nature of scientific explanations is to change with
new information or new
theory — this is a strength
of science — but that science is still reliable. And
the core ideas of science do
not change much, if at all.
The core idea of evolution is common ancestry,
and we’re not likely to
change our minds about
that. But we argue a lot
about … how the tree of
life is branched and what mechanisms
bring evolutionary change about.
That’s the frontier area of science.
And then of course you have areas
that claim to be science, like “creation
science” and “intelligent design,” that
are off in the fringe. Scientists don’t
spend much time here because the
ideas haven’t proven useful in understanding the natural world.
“ ‘If man
then why are
question I get
on talk radio.”
What’s the current state of
the effort to keep schools
Sometimes it feels like
the Red Queen around
here, where we’re running
as hard as we can to stay in
the same place. The thing
is, creationism evolves.
And for every victory we have, there’s
pressure on the creationists to change
their approach. We constantly have to
shift our response. Ultimately the solution to this problem is not going to come
from pouring more science on it.
So people get confused when scientists
discover things and change ideas?
Yes, all the time. This is one of the real
confusions about evolution. Creation-
You’ve been on talk radio a lot. What’s
your sense of what the public understands about evolutionary biology?
The public has a very poor understanding of evolution. People don’t
recognize evolution as referring to the
common ancestry of living things. Even
What should scientists and people who
care about science do?
I’m calling on scientists to be citizens.
American education is decentralized.
Which means it’s politicized. To make
a change ... you have to be a citizen who
pays attention to local elections and
votes [for] the right people. You can’t
just sit back and expect that the magnificence of science will reveal itself and
everybody will ... accept the science.
32 | SCIENCE NEWS | August 1, 2009