The Importance of Honoring Darwin


Feb. 3, 2010

As we approach February 12–the anniversary of Charles Darwin's birthday and International Darwin Day–it's worth reflecting on current attitudes about evolution in our country.

The overall data is not good.

Based on a 2006 study, acceptance of the theory of evolution by natural selection is abysmal compared to many other countries. About a third of all Americans reject as false the statement that human beings developed from earlier species of animals.  Compare that to Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, France, Japan and many other Westernized countries, where rejection of evolution hovers around or below only 10% of the population.

The contrast between the U.S. and these nations is even starker when looking at how many acknowledged evolution as "definitely true": less than 15 percent of Americans versus over 80 percent of the other nations listed. In the entire survey, only Turkey had percentages more likely to reject evolution than in the United States. And even worse, the study shows that the percentage of Americans who are uncertain about evolution is growing.

Moreover, anti-science politicians at the federal, state and local levels continue to publicly undermine evolution, both by deriding the evidence supporting it and by trying to keep that evidence out of public science classrooms. Legislation that attempts to present Intelligent Design-Creationism in sheep's clothing-as an equally-merited, competing theory to evolution in science class continues to introduced and passed in state congresses.

When not successful with Intelligent Design, they are pushing "teaching the controversy," where students are taught that there are substantial "holes" in the theory of evolution–but the evidence promulgated to convince students as much is often bogus and religiously-motivated.

So, of course, in many classrooms where it's the norm to have religiously conservative teachers and majority Christian students, "teaching the controversy" becomes simply an excuse to attack the theory of evolution. It's difficult to persuade Americans about the strength of evidence supporting evolution by natural selection when such measures are being taken by our elected officials and implemented in public school classrooms.

However, we also have good reason to be optimistic. President Obama has repeatedly proven himself to be a pro-science leader. Moreover-and more specifically-he has publicly supported evolution. In an interview with the York Daily Record as a presidential candidate, Obama answered a question about the teaching of evolution in public schools by saying:     

… (I) believe our schools are there to teach worldly knowledge and science. I believe in evolution, and I believe there's a difference between science and faith. That doesn't make faith any less important than science. It just means they're two different things. And I think it's a mistake to try to cloud the teaching of science with theories that frankly don't hold up to scientific inquiry.

This year, the American Humanist Association is continuing a Darwin Day celebration tradition, sparked by AHA member Bob Stephens and extended with his continued involvement and support. We are urging President Obama to show his support for the theory of evolution and Charles Darwin by issuing a presidential proclamation declaring February 12 to be Darwin Day. Our suggested proclamation states:

On this anniversary of Darwin's birthday, it is important to recognize the contributions he has made to the advancement of science. It is also important that we continue to educate future generations about evolution by natural selection in our science classrooms. We must not water down the significance of Darwin's theory, nor the breadth of evidence supporting it, and we must at every turn challenge efforts to undermine science so that we can keep alive in our children and grandchildren the wonder of discovery and the eagerness to obtain knowledge.

Click here to read the full proclamation and sign our petition.

If President Obama were to recognize Darwin Day, a day in which people gather together to commemorate the life and work of this great man and to celebrate scientific progress, it would send a powerful message to the world that Americans are once again on the side of science.

Our suggested proclamation calls on all Americans to preserve scientific discovery as a bedrock of our society and to celebrate Darwin Day with appropriate events and activities. It also calls on Americans to challenge religious infiltration into our science classrooms-which is more important today than ever before.

As I wrote in a letter to AHA members and supporters urging support for our petition, incomplete education about evolution in our classrooms sends the message that not only can the theory of natural selection be sidestepped, but all science can be muzzled if it doesn't neatly fit within a particular ideology. Failure to provide our children with a first rate science education will create future generations who are scientifically illiterate and unable to compete in the global market of ideas.

There's no better time to recommit to science education than Darwin's birthday: please support our efforts and sign our petition today.


(Roy Speckhardt is executive director of the American Humanist Association where he actively promotes the humanist perspective on progressive political issues. He also serves as a board member of the Humanist Institute and the United Coalition of Reason and as an advisory board member of the Secular Student Alliance.)