I try not to get too concerned with the content of political debates when elections are in the preliminary stages. I inevitably find candidate opinions that I don’t agree with (to put it mildly) and those candidates often don’t make it to the primary stages anyway. For me, examining all candidates at this stage is kind of like watching a forensic snapshot of political opinion in the U.S.

So, when I read the CNN article entitled, Debate evolves into religious discussion I wasn’t surprised to find that three candidates for the Republican Presidential ticket are once again bashing one of the best supported scientific theories in favor of their own faith.

Throwing reason to the winds in favor of a gut feeling or faith might be occasionally viewed as personally irresponsible in a day-to-day setting, but if a religiously-motivated ‘gut feeling’ is held by a public figure with authority and power over armed forces, it could be dangerous.

Suppose a President had a gut feeling that we should go to war with another country with opposing religious views? Suppose that gut feeling was based on faith that he or she was guided by a higher power and shaky evidence rather than reason, logic, and lots of evidence? It seems rather apocalyptic—accepting faith over reason, and then hoping to govern with that philosophy. If your cynicism meter is going off, it’s calibrated correctly.

I’ve been following the anti-evolution political camp for a while. In 2003, I was at a Gordon Conference, sitting at a table with other attendees. The anti-evolution topic came up, along with a discussion of the “intelligent design” (ID) movement. I expressed my concern that the ID camp and creationism was something to be concerned about here in the U.S. The other people at the table pooh-poohed my concern, by holding that creationism and the ID movement are made of a bunch of crackpots that couldn’t possibly have any kind of long-term staying power. Reason, they said, would win out in the long run, and creationism and the ID movement would fall by the wayside. I’m afraid that just pooh-poohing this kind of thing isn’t working. We need more education, and we need it fast.

Maybe someone should mention that part of the U.S. economy relies on the tools given by evolutionary theory. Most of us in the molecular biology field know that we use mathematics based on evolutionary principles regularly in understanding biological systems and genomics. Drug discovery, in many ways, depends on evolutionary theory to supply the logical framework and tools around molecule and sequence analysis, as one example. Evolution isn’t “just” an incredibly supported explanation for an extensive collection of facts. It also defines a mathematical tool that allows us to group sequences into a logical order. The industry needs students ready to embrace this kind of science, not deny it.

So, how to educate the next generation in ways that allow them to see the consequences of evolution with their own eyes? How to introduce the new biology into primary or secondary schools? In fact, how do we educate teachers on this subject?

I’m teaching a graduate-level genomics course this semester, and I’m lucky enough to have a couple of high school teachers in my class. It occurred to me this semester that the material in my class—say, one lecture—could easily be adapted to several high school lesson plans. The evidence for evolution, and with it the reasoning behind it, could be presented to the student, in ways that show the obvious sequence-based evidence.

I think the community could develop a strong collection of lessons including sequence analysis and the basis of molecular evolutionary theory in ways that allow students to view the consequences of evolution with their own eyes.

The ‘new biology’ is at a stage where it’s ready to be taught to the high school level. We need teachers able and willing to teach genomics and sequence analysis, and we need computational resources available that will do the analysis on a server-side, so all the students would need are web browsers to do analysis.

There might be molecular-based or sequence-based biology initiatives out there, but I haven’t found many.

We need future scientists, and we need education of the broader public, so that anti-reason positions, like those found in the CNN article above are very, very rare. Molecular biology is a good place to start, and shouldn’t be a topic that’s left for college.

Post filed under Higher Education.

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