Monday, May 10, 2010

The Evolution Litmus Test

A couple days ago when I was waiting for my Biomedical Ethics exam to begin, I started chatting with this girl sitting near me. She was in my recitation class, but I didn't really know anything else about her. Somehow I mentioned I was a biology major, and she brought up the one biology class she took as an Animal Science major: it was my favorite Biology class at Purdue, Evolution of Behavior.

Now, even though one of my research advisors teaches that class, I promise I'm not being biased - every day I left that class absolutely amazed at how interesting and inventive nature was. I've always been more of a lab rat and genetics nerd, but this gave me real appreciation for natural history and behavior. We talked about insanely interesting topics like the evolution of echolocation, altruism, dominance regulated ovulation suppression, and electric fish communication. And as a perk, I thought the class was pretty easy; if you just understood basic evolutionary principles and paid attention at all (which was a given, since it was so cool), you'd do fine.

So when this girl brought it up, of course I gushed about how much I loved that class. To which she replied,

"Oh, I don't believe in evolution. I just took that class to see what the different opinion was like."

The only thing that kept me from calling her out on the stupidity of her statements (EVOLUTION IS NOT FUCKING OPINION) was the fact that I didn't want to totally upset myself right before I had to take a difficult exam. But of course, she had to go on,

"It was so hard! I didn't understand anything he was saying all semester!"

I asked her if she took the required introductory evolution classes before taking this one, and she said no - her Animal Science advisor said the class was easy and she waived the requirements. This made me fume. Evolution of Behavior is a 500-level class meant for upperclassmen and graduate students. We spend about a day reviewing the principles of evolution because it's assumed you've already learned them in the various required classes. So if you stick a creationist in that class with no knowledge of evolution, of course they're going to be totally confused. And now they can proudly claim "well I took a class on evolution and so I know it's wrong" just because they didn't have the skill set to understand the class!

The thing that annoys me the most is that this person is graduating with a degree in Animal Sciences. If you are getting a degree in something biology-related, you should understand and accept evolution. Hell, I know Biology students (mostly molecular or pre-med people) who don't accept evolution, so it's not a matter of curriculum*. But to know that we're giving degrees to people who fail to understand - no, outright deny a basic tenet of biology is shameful.

Would chemistry give degrees to someone who thought the five elements were more accurate than the periodic table? Would physics give degrees to a someone who thought gravity was fairies holding us down to the ground? Would earth and atmospheric sciences give degrees to flat-Earthers? Would astronomy give degrees to people who think the moon is made of cheese?

Maybe with the way American education is set up, you can't stop someone from graduating based on these things. Maybe they adamantly believe in fanciful superstition, but are smart enough to give the desired (aka correct) answers on exams. How do you hold back someone with crazy beliefs if they got As in all the classes?

And while I hate giving creationists undeserved credentials ("I got a degree in Biology, and I know evolution is false, trust me!"), I guess they can go have jobs where evolution doesn't matter as much. Go pipette for hours at some company for all I care. But when these people are going on to become teachers or scientists, it's scary. You need to be able to understand and accept evolution to 1) Teach it to others so we don't keep perpetuating ignorance, and 2) Come up with plausible hypotheses, do good research, and interpret results correctly.

This is why I think we need an Evolution Litmus Test in these fields. Do not accept people into your school or Masters/PhD program unless they accept evolution. I don't care how you do it - a written test, an essay question on the application, a simple check box to weed out the honest, asking pointed questions during interviews, sending grad student spies to mingle and get the truth out... But figure out what people deny basic science before you turn them into scientists. A friend shared with me a story about a fellow grad school interviewee at a very prestigious university who was a unabashedly proud young earth creationist around the other prospective students (but not current ones or professors) - do not let this ignorance infiltrate your program.

I know people are going to claim I'm just putting an "atheist requirement" on studying biology, but I am not. There are many many biologists who are religious but still accept evolution. I have friends here at Purdue who go to church weekly, are in religious clubs, and will still laugh at Intelligent Design for it's anti-science lunacy. This is just a scientific standard. If you don't believe in a fundamental of the field, you should not be able to claim some sort of expertise in it. It's as bad as graduating in History with a focus on WWII and believing the Holocaust was a hoax. It proves you do not understand the topic, and it is embarrassing to the school.

But really, is it that outlandish to require people to understand the field you're hiring them in?

*Note for non-Purdue people: AS is part of the College of Agriculture, and Biology (what I'm in) is part of the College of Science, so we have very different curriculum. Hence why she didn't have to take those intro Biology courses that teach evolution (though those still fail to educate some bio majors).

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