Creationism, Mr. Nye, and Dr Pepper

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 09:  Scientist Bill Nye arrives at Tesla Worldwide Debut of Model X on February 9, 2012 in Los Ang
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 09: Scientist Bill Nye arrives at Tesla Worldwide Debut of Model X on February 9, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images for Tesla)

Recently, Dr Pepper posted a picture to its Facebook page showing a mock evolution graphic -- a "pre-Pepper" chimp morphing into an upright "post-Pepper" human. There are many such humorous adaptations of this classic monkey-to-man "march of progress" graphic, and the Mad Men working for Dr Pepper probably had no reason to think that their ad would elicit unusual controversy.

Wrong. Immediately after its posting, enraged commenters descended upon the site, ranting against Dr Pepper's tacit endorsement of well-established science taught in every high school biology classroom. Some of their proclamations:

"Well, there goes my support for this company."

"I ain't no freaking chimp. No more Dr Pepper for my household."

"This is showing the theory of men evolving from apes. I have lost all respect for Dr Pepper and if Dr Pepper wants business from thousands of people they will need to apologize."

And this ominous observation: "Dr. Pepper wasn't served until 1885... 3 years AFTER the death of Darwin! Sounds like a conspiracy if you asked me!"

Evolution should not -- in the year 2012, after a century and a half of scientific verification from multiple independent lines of evidence -- be the subject of controversy. Historians of science note that among the community of practicing scientists, serious doubts about evolution faded by the 1870s.

And yet in the United States and a handful of other countries, the topic of evolution provokes a fierce, emotional response from some sectors. This social (not scientific) controversy is especially true when human evolution is taught in public schools. For example, the 1925 Butler Act -- the law under which John Scopes was tried and convicted -- did not technically ban evolution wholesale but criminalized teaching "that man has descended from a lower order of animals." The Tennessee legislature of the 1920s simply was unwilling to accept the reality of common descent with modification for all organisms, including humans, from earlier ancestors.

And there hasn't been a lot of progress since. Science communicator Bill Nye, the "Science Guy," recently found out just how controversial talking about evolution can be.

When Nye released a short video in which he made some common-sense statements about creationism and evolution, there was no reason to think it would become especially viral. Nye remarked that the denial of evolution is uniquely prevalent in the United States. He explained, correctly, that the theory of evolution is as fundamental to the life sciences as the theory of plate tectonics is to the earth sciences. Nye also linked acceptance of evolution with basic science literacy, connecting the denial of science with future economic problems, noting, "I say to the grownups, if you want to deny evolution ... that's fine, but don't make your kids do it, because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future ... We need engineers [who] can build stuff, solve problems."

As Nye's video went viral, racking up over 4.7 million views at the time of this writing, media outlets descended on this story as if they had never heard of a conflict between creationism and science:

We at the National Center for Science Education -- a nonprofit organization that Bill Nye supports -- know that controversy over the teaching of evolution is hardly new. In our decades of defending the teaching of evolution in public schools, we have observed the same creationist arguments -- some dating from the time of the Scopes trial -- recycled over and over, retooled into newer, spiffier forms, such as "scientific creationism" or "intelligent design" or "academic freedom," but at the core sharing the same grotesque assumptions about science.

Nye's video spoke to many viewers because he clearly and unapologetically called out creationism as the nonsense it is. Nye's great skill as a science communicator is to cut to the core of something and express its essence. Here, creationism isn't simply an "alternative" to evolution; creationism involves such a degree of irrationality that teaching creationism could actually be harmful to the developing minds of children.

Predictably, the creationists responded. Answers in Genesis (AiG) is one of the best-funded creationist ministries, operating the multi-million-dollar Creation Museum in Kentucky, with plans to construct a life-sized Noah's Ark. AiG has a long history of attacking Nye, mockingly awarding him their 2010 "Humanist of the Year" award, and publishing articles such as "Bill Nye's Crusade for Your Kids."

AiG released videos attacking Nye, with its president, Ken Ham, declaring that Nye "doesn't really understand science," and instead promotes "an agenda to teach children not to believe in God." The real problem, according to Ham, is "people like Bill Nye [who] are damaging kids" by promoting evolution.

How could teaching evolution be damaging? AiG thinks learning evolution makes children default to murderous behavior; one of their billboards, unveiled in 2009, showed a kid pointing a gun toward the viewer with the caption, "If God doesn't matter to him, do you?" (Just imagine what such dissolute kids might do if they were chugging cans of Dr Pepper as they learned biology.)

Another AiG piece on Nye warned that he is "out to get your kids for evolution," adding:

I recall watching his program about dinosaurs with my children. In it he and his assistant repeatedly declared that dinosaurs did not live at the same time as people. Yet God reported in Genesis that He created all kinds of land animals on the same day He created Adam and Eve, and dinosaurs were land animals. Who are we to believe, Bill Nye... or God...?

You can't argue with that kind of... um... reasoning.

What we can do is work toward the day when American schoolchildren are taught evolution in the same way as any other well-established scientific idea, without caveats or apologies. With evolution at the center of biology, and thus important to the success of medicine, biotechnology, and agriculture, we can't afford to keep it bottled up or to kick the can.