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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

DARWIN DAY CELEBRATION report by David McCamus

“Evolution in Canadian Education”

: Noel Ryan Auditorium, Mississauga Central Library - 7 p.m. Date: February 10, 2009
, 301 Burnhamthorpe Road West, Mississauga
Edgar Coxeter, Marc Devenish, Elka & Ernie Enola, John & Doreen Giesbrecht, John Jackson, Andy Krantz, Dave McCamus, Bene Pirtam, Fred Riche, Kevin & Lisette Saldanha, Shaun Lalla (new).

After an introduction by our Past-president, Elka Enola, Dr. Douglas Currie, Entomolgy Curator at the ROM, gave a preview of the new Schad Gallery of Biodiversity, which is scheduled to open in the middle of May, 2009. This all new gallery will have 7 ecosystems represented: Coral Reef, Western Alberta, Great Lakes Basin, Grasslands, Tropical Forest, Boreal Forest, and the Arctic. There will be a special section called the Earth Rangers Studio with high tech presentations as well as live birds and animals on display. Among the many other features there will be an active Leaf Cutter Ant colony. Dr. Currie indicated that they are expecting in excess of 250,000 visitors per year. It all sounded very exciting, and it does serve to illustrate the story of evolution in a way that will undoubtedly appeal to a very broad audience.

This was followed by the keynote speaker of the evening, Dr. Jason Wiles, from the University of Syracuse, who was introduced by our President, Dr. Kevin Saldanha. Dr. Wiles is also the co-director of the Evolution Education Research Centre at McGill University. He began his discourse by indicating that there appears to be a relatively high level of awareness of the theory of evolution amongst the general public and academia. By way of illustration he presented two humorous videos one entitled the “Evolution of Homer Simpson”, and a Canadian Tire commercial called “The Evolution of Need”, both suggesting that the public are generally aware of the theory of evolution, but with a very fragile grasp of the fundamental principles involved.

He went on to talk about a statement recently signed by leading senior scientific officials representing 67 countries around the world (in some cases representing more than one country) about the Theory of Evolution. They agreed that the world began 4.5 billion years ago and that life appeared 2.5 billion years ago and that, while life has taken many forms, DNA research reveals a common primordial origin.

He outlined why the study of evolution is so important:
  • It provides a fundamental understanding of science and how it should work.
  • It requires a basic understanding and integration of Biology, Geology, Astronomy, etc.
  • Nothing in Biology makes sense without evolution.
  • In the field of medicine, without the Theory of Evolution how would one explain the development of antibiotic resistant drugs? How would it be that using animals to test drugs can possibly work, if we are not related to the rest of the animal kingdom?
  • In agriculture, we have a very long history of using selective breeding, or perhaps more accurately, “directed evolution”, in order to evolve stronger, larger, more disease resistant, and fertile strains of crops and animals.
  • In the environmental sphere we are rightly concerned about the ability of many species to adapt to the altered reality that we humans are creating. It is essential that we gain a far better grasp of the critical issues involved before we lose more and more of world’s biodiversity.
  • A basic understanding of the Theory of Evolution is essential to grasp the fundamental imperative that we as humans must continually adapt or ultimately perish. “The very future of humanity is at stake”!
Despite the high level of general awareness, approximately half of all adults in the United States do not buy into it, and most students have a very weak understanding of the Theory of Evolution. In contrast, polls show that 59% of Canadians believe in evolution. In the US, 43% of respondents in a recent poll agreed that “ dinosaurs and humans had coexisted”. This result speaks to the successful efforts of some well organized ultra-conservative churches. As an example of their activities, Dr. Wiles described the Creation Museum based on intelligent design located at the Family Discovery Center in Kentucky, with the following stated intent; “The Museum will be a wonderful alternative to the evolutionary natural museums that Satan is using to influence so many minds”. He also pointed out that Canada has a number of such museums including one located nearby the Tyrell Museum in Alberta. He noted that the intelligent design idea was not developed through any accepted scientific process, but is non-the-less being promoted by these religious organizations as an equivalent theory to that of evolution. It is his view that these efforts to equate the two as simply two alternative theories that should be taught in our schools must be actively resisted.

Dr. Wiles warned us not be complacent about the teaching of the Theory of Evolution in Canada. He stated that “it is not unusual for Canadian students to go through their entire public school career without being taught about evolution”. Indeed, it is often omitted from the curriculum, or taught by teachers with limited knowledge and/or commitment to the subject.

Dr. Wiles went on to discuss the recent controversy about the Canadian Government’s denial of a grant to the Evolution Education Research Centre at McGill to conduct a study of the teaching of evolution in Canadian schools on the basis that there was not adequate justification provided for the assumption that evolution is correct versus intelligent design, an objection which not only revealed an appalling lack of insight into the subject area, but which was also totally irrelevant to the purpose of the study. Apparently, they have found other funding for the study and are planning to proceed regardless.

His final message was:

  • Learn the science of evolution well.
  • Help educate the world about evolution.
Dr. Wiles’ speech was followed by a discussion period, with broad participation from the audience of forty plus people.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin

Our Darwin day event went off marvelous if I may say so myself, thanks to the assistance rendered by the staff (Kathryn Franklin) of the Mississauga Library and the Mississauga Freethought Association (Tom Ulanowski).

Dr. Doug Currie gave us an overview of the upcoming Schad Gallery of Biodiversity, including the rationale behind the exhibit, which will be one of the crowning achievements of the new ROM and a leading natural history exhibit on the continent.

Dr. Jason Wiles opened our eyes to the state of affairs regarding the dissemination of evolution information via the academic system in this country. We are not as bad as our American neighbours but we aren't lagging far behind... only 3 out of every 5 Canadians 'believes' in evolution BUT 46% still think that man co-existed with dinosaurs. We all owe it to the younger generations to do everything in our power to educate them on one of the fundamental theories of biology which will, in turn, help them make educated decisions on their future.

A spirited Q&A period followed his hour-long presentation. Zak Fiddes of CFI/ was at the event selling fundraising material for the campaign which has topped $40,000 in less than a month. Our congratulations to them in getting the debate into the streets, literally. Check out the website for more information.