Fan Mail from the Fringe

``Let me get this straight,'' writes Gus Laskaris of Ruston, La. ``Because Kansas no longer teaches evolution, we should call our local universities and have them refuse to admit students from Kansas? In some circles that is called blackmail.'' Funny, in some circles, it's called having standards.

My editorial against the Kansas Board of Education's decision to stop requiring the teaching of evolution (Total Eclipse of Reason, October 1999) evoked hundreds of responses, bringing me untold hours of enjoyment. I've been called a Nazi brownshirt, a totalitarian, a gangster, an enemy of children, a closed-minded fanatic, an embarrassment to science, an atheist and a Democrat. (Did I miss something? Has antievolutionism really become a plank of the Republican party platform?)

What inspired this ire was my suggestion that college educators contact Kansas officials and say that, given the lowering of standards in the teaching of biology, applications from Kansan students might need to be considered more carefully. Mr. Laskaris to the contrary, I didn't say (and don't believe) that Kansas students should automatically be denied admission, if only because many good teachers will try to teach evolution anyway. But unless parents and lawmakers know that ignorance carries consequences, the quality of science education will erode.

The letters furious at me for attacking religion were particularly entertaining. Theirs is a telling criticism because I never mentioned religion. They correctly intuit that the hidden motive in the Kansas decision was to promote a creationist agenda by undercutting the teaching of real science - you're right, I am against that.

Some critics were offended by my calling evolution a fact instead of a theory. Evolution is the principle of modification through descent, that the traits of living populations change over time in response to differential reproductive success. It is an inescapable, mathematical result of population biology. When it happens within species, it is called microevolution. When the changes isolate parts of a population so effectively that they become different species, it is macroevolution, and that is the most reasonable explanation for what we see in the fossil record. No one yet knows precisely how evolution acted during the origin of life, but even if the first cells fell out of the blue sky, that would not erase the action of evolution since then. Evidence from every subdivision of biology and every other scientific discipline supports evolution. Evolution unifies all the diverse observations of biology as no other idea can. That is why I call it a fact.

And to the people who say they learned biology without evolution, I can only answer that chemistry and physics used to be taught without reference to atoms, but today why in heaven's name would you want to? 


JOHN RENNIE,
Editor In Chief
editors@sciam.com
from the October 1999 issue of Scientific American