Let’s cut to the chase about the proper role of religion in public life.
Nobody, to my knowledge, has directly posed this question to the presidential candidates, so I’ll ask it here: Is evolution an established fact, and should it be taught as such in public schools alongside such principles as gravity and magnetism?
Anyone who answers “no” is unprepared to distinguish between fact and faith. I see this as a disqualifier for high public office, and certainly for someone seeking the presidency. Presidents must deal with science every day. The “football,” a guarded briefcase containing the country’s nuclear launch codes that is never out of the president’s immediate presence, is the most consequential repository of scientific handiwork that mankind has ever known.
Rick Santorum has been less than crystal clear about his position, and I am not aware that the other Republican candidates have said much about this, either. Liberal-leaning websites, most notably The Huffington Post, are still buzzing about an interview Santorum gave last fall, in which he disjointedly complained, “oh my goodness you might mention the word, God-forbid, ‘God’ in the classroom, or ‘Creator,’ that there may be some things that are inexplainable by nature where there may be, where it’s actually better explained by a Creator, and of course we can’t have that discussion.”
For some people, those comments demonstrate that Santorum believes that science teachers should advise students that there is a debate in the scientific community about the existence of evolution. There is no such debate, but I’ll give Santorum the benefit of the doubt on that interview for now. On the other hand, we must note that in 2001, when he was still in the Senate, Santorum unsuccessfully pushed for an amendment that would have required the teaching of “intelligent design” as an alternative theory to evolution in science courses. The Senate actually passed the Santorum Amendment 91-8, which sparked an outcry from the scientific community. The House-Senate conference committee that wrote the final draft of the legislation, which became the No Child Left Behind law, struck the amendment.
At the time, Santorum portrayed his amendment as a promotion of academic freedom. He said his measure consisted of “two innocuous sentences” stating that it is the sense of the Senate that “1) good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science, and 2) where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject.”
Had Santorum’s language made it into law, he probably would not have liked the result. Contrary to the claims of those who advocate creationism and its metaphysical fellow travelers such as intelligent design, evolution is both fully backed by data and thoroughly tested. We fully understand how it works and why it has helped life adapt to and exploit its environment. We replicate evolutionary processes and genetic results in labs all over the world, and we deal with its natural consequences in hospitals every day.
In fact, just about the same time Santorum’s amendment was rejected, evolution threatened the life of my daughter, who was 15 at the time.
It started with a skin infection near her elbow. Her mother brought her to the pediatrician, who diagnosed a probable staph infection and prescribed Clindamycin, a standard treatment.
A day or two later my daughter went to bed early. As my wife and I prepared to turn in, our teenager suddenly started screaming for us. We found her crying in her bed, clutching her arm, which was swollen and inflamed. Her forehead was hot, and a nasty-looking red welt was spreading outward from the site of the pus-filled infection.
We rushed her to the hospital. The attending doctors quickly diagnosed cellulitis, an infection that spreads through the lower layers of the skin. It can become life-threatening if it reaches the bloodstream or lymph nodes that can carry it though the body, or it can spread into muscle and do permanent damage.
They admitted our daughter and started giving her a broader-spectrum antibiotic, Doxycycline. This should have stopped the spreading infection. To monitor the spread, the doctors used a pen to draw a line around the border of the infection.
By morning the infection was beyond the border. Doctors switched from oral to intravenous Doxycycline. Still the infection spread.
This was a decade ago, when drug-resistant staph infections were just coming onto the public’s radar. Staphylococcus bacteria live harmlessly on most people’s skin all the time. In 2002, when my daughter was sick, frontline antibiotics killed most such bacteria easily. The hardier bugs were typically picked up in hospitals or doctors’ offices. It took some time for the doctors to persuade themselves that our daughter would not respond to the standard treatment because she was infected by bacteria that had, through evolution, become resistant to most common antibiotics.
Those were the worst days my wife and I have ever experienced as parents. I stayed each night in our daughter’s room. My wife would spell me during the day for a while, and mostly we dealt with the doctors together. It helped that one of my wife’s cousins is an infectious disease specialist; she gave good advice about the right questions to ask.
Sometime around the second or third day, the doctors went to yet another drug, Vancomycin, which had to be administered intravenously. It worked. The infection stopped spreading beyond the most recently drawn border, and began to shrink. Our girl perked up. On the fourth day, while my wife and I were out of the room, her teenage friend proudly drove herself to the hospital for a visit. Toting an IV pole and dressed in her hospital gown and a robe, my daughter walked out of the hospital to admire the way her friend had parallel parked. That’s the sort of thing that drives parents happily crazy, because when they take themselves on adventures like that, your kids are okay.
Those who claim evolution is not proven or provable are asserting faith, not fact. We can measure, observe and replicate the processes of natural selection and genetic recombination that create drug-resistant microbes. We can see the same evolutionary activity in the emergence of new strains of influenza, in the development of herbicide-tolerant corn, and in the breeding and marketing of goldfish with bizarrely shaped tails. Abundant evidence ranging from fossils to DNA shows how evolution gave rise to new species.
Had the Santorum Amendment passed, the proper response would have been to teach evolution in science classes, and to “help students understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy” by examining the politics of faith in social studies programs, while discussing various groups’ views of the literal truth of their holy tracts in courses dealing with religion. Public schools are not, and never have been, banned from mentioning God, nor must they promote atheism in order to teach science. There are plenty of scientists who are not atheists. Schools are, however, banned from promoting one religion over another, from promoting any religion over none, and from conflating religion with other elements of civic life.
My daughters are healthy young adults today. Medical science helped get them here. Faith played a role, too; religion is not absent in our household. But when we had our worst moment along the way, on those nights when a drug-resistant germ threatened to spread uncontrolled throughout our child’s body, we needed facts - not faith - to save her. Fortunately, her doctors were trained at schools that distinguished the two.