Revolution #155, February 8, 2009

Defend Science, Darwin, and the Biologists

Defend Science had an exhibit table at the SICB (Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology) conference in early January (the SICB is one of the major professional organization of biologists in the US. Approximately 1800 biologists and students attended). We learned a great deal: About important new organizations and efforts to popularize science; about the fierce struggle biologists are waging against creationist attacks on evolution, and in some cases just to teach evolution; and about what scientists and others can do to fight for science now—especially around Darwin Day and Darwin Year.

A few important things about the “landscape” in relation to science:

To give a basic picture of the Defend Science experience at the SICB conference: We spent the first full day talking to a wide range of people and one thing we summed up is that the biologists are the “canaries in the coal mine” of this epistemological battle—the society wide fight over the basic question of how to know and change the world. The biologists are, as a whole, sharply engaged, especially in the South and Midwest, but also countrywide, in a battle over the teaching of evolution, which they see as a part of a much larger battle over critical thinking and a scientific understanding of the world.

Predominantly, the people who came to our table were very open to our basic message that while there will be some changes with Obama, in terms of science, there remains a big fight over evolution; this fight has everything to do with science and scientific thinking; and right now, things are getting worse, not better around this—and we need to ACT!

A few stories should help paint this picture:

That was just some of what we encountered the first day!

We summed up this first day experience and concluded that we’d learned there were many positive things going on, including a widespread desire to “fight for science”, in a variety of ways. At the same time, we got a richer sense of the relentless creationist attack on evolution. We saw the need to do more to help people “fight for science”.

Off of this we developed a three part, practical program which we put out in the next few days. We called for: 1) Scientists and students to write Darwin Day editorials, op-ed pieces, and letters to the editor; 2) Where there were no Darwin Day programs, people should organize them; and, 3) Where there were Darwin Day events planned (which was true in a number of places), the scientists and students should make a big deal out of them, spread them into all parts of the campus and into the communities. We argued that doing these activities would make a difference in relation to the overall societal battle, that big things were at stake and ultimately what was involved was: What kind of world do we want to live in? We talked about Obama, why he is having creationist Rick Warren play a role at the inauguration, what this means and why Obama is not going to wage a fight for evolution. We argued why it is on us, why we need to act. All parts of this, in varying ways, were taken very seriously, and, for example, roughly 20 or so people are now seriously thinking of (and promised to do) op-ed pieces, or letters to the editor; i.e., people who were not thinking of it before our conversation. A COPUS organizer thought that it would be an excellent idea for COPUS to put out a call for this on their network (though they are going to modify it to include Darwin Day as a topic and also to emphasize doing this for the Year of Science, more generally.) In the course of this, where it was necessary, we talked with people about how we cannot cave in to the attacks on evolution; there’s too much is at stake.

We were very concrete about this call for Darwin Day programs. We talked about this at times to students who didn’t know how to organize a Darwin Day program. We suggested: Get two or more professors to talk about their work in evolutionary biology; have someone talk about Darwin and his significance; get a campus facility; create a leaflet announcing this and distribute it all over campus and into the community. We encouraged them to use the Defend Science “Darwin Day Statement,” or parts of it. Some people found this very helpful, just this basic, practical plan.

There were many discussions that went into a number of other questions—at the table and in all kinds of informal discussions. We had science author Ardea Skybreak’s The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism: Knowing What's Real and Why It Matters book on our table, which is very unique in that it combines a thorough and readable exposition of the principles of evolution with an analysis and critique of the various forms of creationism; and we talked to people about using this book in the classroom. We also talked about the financial crisis and what it means for science. And, of course, we talked about what Obama will bring—for science and not just for science.

In this crowd, where everyone more or less assumes you are an atheist or agnostic, some raised that to fight to defend evolution you must seek unity with religion and argue essentially that there should be no conflict between religion and evolution. When we got into this, we made clear that while some of us are atheists, the Defend Science position is that Defend Science is not about attacking religion, per se, but defending science; however, there is a movement by the Christian fundamentalists which is vehemently going after science and we cannot and should not have any common ground with that! For those of us who are atheists, it can be complicated to be discussing things at different levels at the same time—to unite with everyone who wants to defend evolution and to talk about our own views at the same time; but this is something we have to master because these challenges are not going to go away.

We learned from the conference that Defend Science has had a strong impact, and a number of people look to Defend Science. One man from a college in the rural South, who is very active in fighting for evolution, told us that he had wondered if Defend Science was going to go on after the end of the Bush regime; he was worried that we might “close shop” and was very glad to hear that we were on-going. (He had too many interesting stories to get into, here; however, one point he stressed is that he felt that the questions of evolution, ecology and global warming were very closely linked, at the scientific level; ideologically at the level of whether humans are the “capstone of creation” or are a component of nature; he emphasized as well that in his community, this was very practical, and had everything to do with whether you are concerned about the real world or “end times”. He emphasized that in his view there’s a lot of unity on the ground between those who support evolution and those involved even in things like recycling, which in his community is something that some preachers are opposing!)

Darwin Day and Darwin Year are going to be significant in terms of the societal impact, more so than we had fully realized; which is very good. Concurrently, there’s the continuing, relentless creationist attack which poses a challenge to Defend Science—and others! As we said to people at the conference, it is not yet decided what will come out of this—and what everyone does will make a great deal of difference!


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