Ben Bova: National Science Board caves on evolution, big bang questions

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True or false? Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.

True or false? The universe began with a huge explosion.

In a survey run by the National Science Foundation in 2008, 55 percent of those asked replied that the first question was false. A whopping 67 percent said the second was false.

In other words, a majority of Americans do not believe that we humans have evolved from other animal species, and they especially don’t believe in the cosmologists’ concept that the universe originated in a big bang explosion that occurred roughly 13.5 billion years ago.

Those two questions — and the answers from the people surveyed — appeared in the 2008 edition of Science and Engineering Indicators, which is published every two years by the National Science Foundation. Indicators is a sort of national report card on the health of scientific endeavors in the United States.

And the report is this: most Americans don’t accept the idea of evolution. Despite the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, despite court decisions about creationism and intelligent design, despite science classes for youngsters and decades of documentaries on television — most Americans do not accept the idea of evolution.

It’s not that way overseas. In Japan, for example, 78 percent of those asked agreed that we have evolved from other animal species. In Europe, the replies were 70 percent positive; in China, 69 percent.

Faced with this disturbing reality, the National Science Board, which oversees NSF and is the actual publisher of Indicators, has decided to drop those two questions from the 2010 edition of the report.

This seems to me like sticking your head in the sand so you can ignore an unpleasant reality.

The board, however, claims that the questions are poorly put. They “conflate” the scientific issue with the beliefs of those asked. In other words, the questions don’t merely ask if Charles Darwin and the cosmologists have it right; they ask if the respondent accepts the scientific view.

But, again, it seems to me that this misses the point. If a person agrees that Darwin is correct in concluding that we evolved from earlier species, how could that same person fail to believe the truth of that conclusion?

To give a personal example, I have my doubts that the big bang theory really explains the origin of the universe — but all the available evidence points to a big bang happening some 13.5 billion years ago. If I’m asked about it, I would have to say that as far as the evidence shows, the statement about the origin of the universe is true.

And that’s the difference between science and religion. No reasonable scientist claims to know the ultimate and final truth. Any idea, no matter how dearly cherished, no matter how many revered scientists uphold it, can be toppled by new information, new discoveries.

The National Science Board is trying to get away from the controversy over evolution in the 2010 edition of Indicators. To me, that’s like Neville Chamberlain trying to get away from war by allowing Adolf Hitler to gobble up Czechoslovakia. It’s appeasement. It didn’t work in 1938 at Munich and it’s not going to work today.

The zealots who deny Darwin and modern cosmology firmly believe that they know the truth. They will not go away and they will not be appeased.

For the National Science Foundation, created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science.” to back away from this issue seems to me to be little more than a betrayal of its purpose for existence.

* * *

Meanwhile, evidence for evolution keeps piling up.

A new species of early human ancestors has been found. Australopithecus sediba lived about 2 million years ago in Africa. Its skeleton shows some features similar to older Australopithecus fossils, and some features more like our own. It is another link between ourselves and earlier species of apes.

And observations by a European Space Agency spacecraft show that the planet Venus’ surface is being reshaped by volcanic eruptions. While they once thought that Venus’ surface hasn’t changed much in the past 500 million years, they now see evidence that our “sister planet” is indeed (dare I say it?) evolving.

Bova is the author of nearly 125 books, including “The Hittite,” his first historical novel. His website address is www.benbova.com

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