Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Even a Caveman Should Know It

The evolution wars are over. This may seem hard to believe, considering that 55% of Americans don't believe humans evolved. But behind the scenes there is growing a quiet revolution - of data. It used to be that the strongest evidence for evolution came from the fossil record, how whale nostrils turn into blowholes over millions of years. But now we've got a second, even better source: our genes.

Our genetic code is a biological history book, so long and convoluted that it takes millions of years to erase a single typo. And as we learn to read that book, we discover time and again that Darwin was right. A good example is the recent discovery that most humans share genetic markers with Neandertals (in other words, we dated them). When you compare our genomes to those of other animals, you can see the random changes that happened over time to differentiate our species. There are also special places in the genome that are protected from mutation called CpG islands, and we can tell how the rest of the genome has changed by comparing it to these special sections.

None of this is understood by the Young Earthers. One reason is that sciences continue to be woefully underrepresented in liberal arts curricula. The average American college graduate therefore has very little basic understanding of biology or any other science. Thanks to this institutionalized ignorance, the debates going on in newspapers today are based on data 20 years old - and are about as relevant. We are flapping our gums, spending energy and time, over questions that are already settled. If America is going to lead the world in the 21st century, we are going to have to do better than that.