Before discussing cultural science literacy, I want to briefly revisit the usefulness of evolution. Consider medicine:
“I think evolutionary biology could be taught to a much greater extent, but as a dean who has many passions about education, there are many competing priorities for the time in the curriculum”, says Robert Alpern, Dean of Yale Medical School. As to whether additional medical training in evolution would improve the way doctors treat patients or conduct research, Alpern says, “I don’t think they’d change a lot.” — Boston Globe
Let me personalize this sentiment. Both of my parents are doctors. My mom is board-certified in both child and adult psychiatry. My dad worked in family practice for over 30 years. They both know almost nothing about the theory of evolution. They can’t really explain natural selection, and they have a very vague, imprecise understanding of common descent. So if practicing doctors, a profession steeped in biology, don’t need evolution, there is probably even less of a need for everyone else. Since evolution is not necessary, there have to be other reasons we as scientists want people to learn it.
Which finally brings me to the subject of this post. I think culture is the most compelling (only?) reason for non-scientists to learn the theory of evolution. Education is important for more than utilitarian reasons like economic growth. It helps promote civic virtues, patriotism, a sense of national identity, and a common culture (see Chapter 8 here). Science education can align with these goals. Evolution in particular is a profoundly important scientific theory. Darwin is undoubtedly one of the greatest scientists ever.
But there are limits to how far we can push this argument, and cultural cohesion does not automatically trump individual rights. The landmark West Virginia v. Barnette, for example, declared that children cannot be forced salute the flag if doing so violates their–or their parents–conscience. What if learning or believing evolution violates some parents’ conscience? Is there really a compelling state interest that everyone must learn it? How should we draw these limits? Suppose some parents said they don’t want their children to learn evolution. Suppose entire school districts said that.
If we grant exemptions to the Pledge of Allegiance, surely we can grant exemptions from certain types of knowledge. Especially since evolution, unlike basic numeracy and literacy, has almost no practical value. And especially since it is an empirical fact that rejecting evolution does not necessarily prevent you from reasoning in other domains.
So we return to the purposes of public science literacy. Why do we as scientists want everyone to learn science? How does evolution fit into these goals? Even if everyone agrees on the aims of science education (which we won’t), and that evolution critical to these aims (it probably isn’t), it may still be reasonable to permit exemptions. Culture is important. But it isn’t everything.