As paleontologists, the principles of evolution touch all the work we do. Change through time - that's what we document with every fossil we find. Geologic concepts of plate tectonics and geologic dating help us place our finds in a temporal context. Biological concepts of adaptation, ecology, and phylogenetic relatedness bring our fossils to life as they once were. As our policy statement on evolution says:
"The fossil record of vertebrates unequivocally supports the hypothesis that vertebrates have evolved through time, from their first records in the early Paleozoic Era about 500 million years ago to the great diversity we see in the world today. The hypothesis has been strengthened by so many independent observations of fossil sequences that it has come to be regarded as a confirmed fact, as certain as the drift of continents through time or the lawful operation of gravity."
The details of evolution of particular groups are still debated, but the fact of evolution is not, despite any claims to the contrary. These claims are often couched in arguments about "fairness" and "equal time", but science is not a democracy. It is a rigid meritocracy, and within that framework, evolution has risen to the top as the best, and only, explanation for the diversity of life on our planet, now and in the past.
Recently, another of these challenges has come up in Tennessee. A law has been proposed by the state legislature that would allow science teachers to portray evolution, as well as other well-established concepts such as global warming, as less than what they are - facts supported by a wealth of evidence.
Below is a letter from the president of our society, Philip Currie of the University of Alberta, on behalf of our entire society that was sent to the governor of Tennessee to urge him to veto this bill. The governor's decision on it will be soon, so we urge you to contact the governor yourself to express your opinions on this.
Dear Governor Haslam,
I am writing this letter on behalf of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, an organization of 2,500 professional and avocational paleontologists, the majority of whom live in the United States.
Many of our members, particularly those from Tennessee, expressed concern recently when the Tennessee State Legislature passed legislation (HB 368/SB 893) that would allow classroom teachers to refer to well-known and well-established scientific topics such as evolution and global warming as “controversial.” In reality, such legislation encourages support and legal protection for the inappropriate introduction into public school science classes of religious, creationist concepts, including intelligent design.
The apparently innocuous wording in this legislation masks an anti-science and anti-evolution agenda that repeatedly has been rejected by the courts. Although everyone may not agree with all aspects of the concepts of evolutionary theory, they are accepted overall as fact by the vast majority of scientists, technologists, and educators; and applications of evolutionary theory have made lasting contributions to the improvement of human health. It is disingenuous to confuse students by implying controversy about well-supported, well-established scientific principles. Evolutionary theory ranks as one of the most robust, generally accepted, thoroughly tested and broadly applicable concepts of modern science. From the standpoint of science, there is no controversy about whether evolution happens.
We encourage you to support the international reputation of your state as forward-thinking and progressive, and veto HB 368.
Philip J. Currie, MSc, PhD, FRSC
President, Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
UPDATE (4/14/12): HB 368 did become a law last week, but the governor did not sign it. Governor Haslam offered the following explanation:
"The bill received strong bipartisan support, passing the House and Senate by a three-to-one margin, but good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion. My concern is that this bill has not met this objective. For that reason, I will not sign the bill but will allow it to become law without my signature."
So although the Governor chose not to veto the bill, because of the efforts of many people who contacted him opposing the bill, it became law without his signature. It's not exactly what we were hoping for, but is still a sign about the lack of support for the bill. Residents of Tennessee, and members of the science community, will continue to fight against both this law, and other similar bills as they arise across the country.