Recent attacks on the teaching of evolution in science classrooms are of grave concern to the Biotechnology Institute. For years, the Institute has sought to educate the public — especially young people and those who teach them — about the science of biotechnology and its tremendous potential for solving health, foodrelated, and environmental problems. Evolution, the evidence-based theory that all living organisms have descended from common ancestors, is a cornerstone principle of the biological sciences on which biotechnology is based. There is overwhelming consensus in the scientific community on the validity of evolution: the National Academy of Sciences and more than 50 other scientific associations endorse the concept of common ancestry among living organisms. While hundreds of papers and books are published every year discussing and debating the details of evolution, there is no serious scientific debate about whether this basic process occurs in nature.
Our understanding of evolution has already improved our lives in undeniable ways. Biotechnological research depends on insights built on the concept of evolution for discoveries that make us healthier, safer, and better fed. Vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus, polio, and many other life-threatening diseases are developed through “directed evolution,” the alteration and selection of certain viruses to force a desired immune response. Because disease germs constantly adapt to survive, following the principles of evolution, vaccines must be continually updated using those principles. Outbreaks of new lethal viruses such as SARS are potentially predictable through evolutionary studies of gene-exchanging patterns among such viruses. Comparative studies of the immune systems of humans and chimpanzees have already provided major insights into therapies for AIDS, malaria, and other fatal diseases. In addition, the race to develop new antibiotics and antiviral drugs to combat rapidly-evolving bacteria and viruses is a well-known example of evolution-based research in action. Epidemiologists must take into account evolutionary relationships among disease-causing organisms when they track the transmission of diseases over time and geographic space. The same scientific techniques are also used to trace the spread of bioweapons, thus contributing to our national security. In agriculture, genetically modified crops show great promise for relieving human hunger. Ensuring the long-term safety of such products for both humans and the environment requires an in-depth understanding of the modified genes’ effects on other, related species. In these and many other ways, knowledge gained from evolutionary biology informs and directs biotechnological research which, in turn, improves — and often saves — our lives.
The Institute observes that many members of the scientific academic community and biotechnology industry maintain strong personal commitment to religious beliefs. In fact, many scientists and biotechnology leaders find their faith and their life’s work mutually reinforcing. Thus the Institute sees no inherent conflict between religious faith and the pursuit of evolutionary science.
But some individuals and groups obviously disagree. Some believe evolution should be either explicitly excluded from the classroom or at the very least “balanced” by the teaching of some form of creationism, including its variant “Intelligent Design.” These alternatives may not reasonably be called “science.” Science is based on the testing of theoretical explanations against meticulous observations of the natural world; explanations that fail such tests are rejected, while those that pass are accepted provisionally. By appealing to unseen or supernatural forces to explain the origin of life, creationism is by definition untestable via scientific methods, and thus inappropriate for science classrooms.
Policymakers considering issues of science in general, and of biotechnology in particular, should certainly respect nonscientific viewpoints. But they must ultimately uphold the standard of science in order to evaluate the implications their decisions carry for our society’s future in a global economy. In our global, science-based economy, nations that value open inquiry and use scientific criteria in research, industry, and education will outperform those that don’t — in several dimensions. The US must continue to train scientists and engineers who will dedicate themselves to research that will enable the American science-based industries to grow and compete successfully with foreign counterparts. Many of these are housed in nations whose students routinely outperform ours on standardized science tests. The development of scientific literacy and the successful completion of training in the sciences demand a clear understanding of evolution as scientists understand it.
For these reasons, the Biotechnology Institute urges state boards of education, local school districts, and individual teachers to support the teaching of evolution and leave discussions concerning issues of faith to their appropriate settings in classes on religion and in our nation’s churches, synagogues and mosques.