In 2008, the year I moved to the state, the Louisiana Science Education Act was passed with the backing of the then governor, Bobby Jindal. The name of the law is misleading, as it allowed schools in Louisiana to teach the Biblical account of creation in science classes as an alternative to evolution.

Jindal went as far as to say that local schools should determine how science is taught in classrooms. That meant that if the local public school’s science teacher wanted to teach that all living land animals were the descendants of creatures carried on Noah’s Ark, then well, that was just fine with the governor and the supporters of the law.

At the time, I presumed that Bobby Jindal (born Piyush Jindal) was probably a smart person who was somehow misled. I jokingly called him “my uncle Bobby” because as an Indian person I could claim all other Indians as kin, and maybe saying the governor was a relative could get me out of a speeding ticket (it couldn’t).

My Uncle Bobby should have known better than to pass anti-evolution legislation. He was, after all, someone who held a Biology degree from Brown University and a Rhodes Scholar (but going to an Ivy League school and Oxford doesn’t necessarily make you smart, just educated).

Part of the reason he promoted this law was to pander to the so-called “religious right”. At the very least, he knew that the law was illegal because of the “separation of church and state” clauses of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. He did know this, and he ignored it.

So what’s the big deal anyway? Well, you just don’t teach your own religious views in a public science class. Science is about observing and testing natural phenomena in order to give a reasoned, evidence-based explanations for those events. Religion, on the other hand, can provide answers to questions science doesn’t cover (eg, what is the meaning of life?) but it can also provide answers that can’t always be tested.

For instance, let’s say your answer to why apples drop to the ground when they fall out of a tree is “god made it happen”; that isn’t something I can prove false, because I can’t test it. There isn’t room for questioning things or scientific inquiry if you believe flatly that “god controls everything that happens”.

The other problem with teaching religion in a science class is that there are many religions with a variety of beliefs. Faith-based beliefs about creation differ by your religious persuasion. In one version of the Hindu creation myth, the Earth was part of the lotus flower that grew from the navel of Vishnu, and then the world was populated by Brahma and will be destroyed by Shiva.

If I taught that version of creation as the truth in my science class, I wouldn’t last very long as a teacher. However, maybe this religious take would do well in the so-called “Indian Science Congress”, especially among participants pushing fringe Hindutva ideas that take some religious ideas literally (eg, Brahma discovered dinosaurs).

The problem again with the teaching “god controls everything” is that you can’t prove or disprove it. In order to respond to a “Noah’s flood” scenario I say, “There is no boat that can fit a pair of all living land animals, and having just a pair of each species wouldn’t provide enough genetic variability to restock the Earth; also it can’t rain for 40 days and 40 nights worldwide because we have a finite amount of water on Earth; and also all the freshwater animals would go extinct as they would be inundated by salty marine water; and where did all that water go afterwards? And there is no evidence of a huge worldwide flood from a few thousand years ago…”

The reply is just always, “God did it, so anything is possible.’ Well, I guess that would be the end of the conversation. “God did it” can be your go-to answer, and that is fine. I am not here to judge or tell you how to live. My only issue is using that explanation to shutdown scientific discourse in an academic setting.

Science is all about testing explanations of natural phenomena to see if they hold up to rigorous testing. If you can explain everything away with “God did it and controls everything”, what’s the point of the testing? What’s the point of school? What’s the point of curiosity? Religions ask for your faith in explaining the untestable and unprovable; science is here to help explain the rest by making testable predictions.

However, does science require some faith? Yes, I would say. You have to believe that the results and observations you make are based in reality and that the results are the outcomes of predictable phenomena. (This idea dates back before Aristotle but is explicit in the writings of religious philosophers such as Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Avicenna, Averroes and surely many others in every culture / religion / region.)

If a deity changed and influenced every scientific experiment on a whim so that we couldn’t make predictions and the laws of physics were not immutable, then frankly, we wouldn’t be able to explain our universe with any scientific investigations.

However, that latter scenario isn’t the case. We scientists can have faith in the fact that what we observe is an unmanipulated reality because our inquiries yield consistent and reliable results that allow us to reveal the secrets of our planet and of our universe ever more exactly. To paraphrase Galileo, “Religion shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”

Some would argue that there is room for studying nature in the slightly different religious take of “god started everything and made the rules’. That is, you can study the rules (eg, gravity, evolution) and their consequences, without having to determine the origination of those rules. This playbook suits the “non-overlapping magisteria” Stephen Jay Gould describes in his book Rocks of Ages.

In that book, Gould argues that science and religion can complement each other without interfering with one another, as it does for many. I would perhaps state it more plainly as, ‘Science should not be anti-religion; and religion should not be anti-science.’ There is certainly room for compromise, and improved “cultural competency” on both sides.

That anti-evolution law is still on the books in my state. I don’t mean to pick on Louisiana – I genuinely love the state and am proud to call it my adopted home. My kids were born in Baton Rouge, and I’ve lived here for more than ten years. Louisiana isn’t the only state with issues over the teaching of evolution.

In Alabama, biology textbooks include a disclaimer sticker warning you about the “theory of evolution”. In 2018, Arizona briefly had all references to the word “evolution” deleted from the state’s science education standards. It isn’t just the so-called conservative states; I’ve met anti-evolution people in liberal Ann Arbor (where I obtained my PhD in evolutionary biology) and New York City (where I grew up).

In fact, one in five high school teachers in the US teach creationism along with evolution in their classes (many teach it as the preferred scientific alternative).

It isn’t just the US either – only 26% of people in Afghanistan accept human evolution, and in 2017 Turkey removed references to evolution from its textbooks. Notably, the US ranks near Turkey in terms of how human evolution is accepted by the general public. Indians appear to be much more accepting of evolution and science despite also being deeply religious.

Again, I’m here with no other motive but to explain the scientific facts that are available. The science is why the vast majority of people who understand those facts accept evolution. I’m not here to challenge your beliefs – we all have our own truths. We get to pick our own beliefs, but we don’t get to pick our own facts. I’m here to help you better understand how science explains the origin of our species and of all life on Earth.

In discussions with many people who actually accepted evolution and science, I came to realise that a good percentage of them didn’t really understand the science of evolution. They just accepted evolution as fact because they trust science. They may understand even less than some people who don’t accept evolution because those people don’t trust science or may see some conflict with their religion.

I want to help more people on both sides to understand evolution, so that hopefully it will be less divisive. (I think difficult subjects, like politics, are so acrimonious because no one really knows what they are talking about.) It is ultimately up to you to accept scientific facts (or not), and to convince yourself of whatever “truth” you are willing to acknowledge.

Evolution isn’t the easiest topic to understand – nor the hardest either (“It ain’t rocket surgery”, as they say), but it is easy to misinterpret, and it is often portrayed incorrectly. For instance, evolution is often depicted as something like the “March to Progress / Road to Homo sapiens” mural by Randolph Franz Zallinger, but that is very wrong.

A panel from 'The March of Progress', by Franz Zallinger.

This image is often interpreted as presenting evolution as a progressive force making life more “complex” or “perfect”, and that we (humans) are the most complex and perfect forms of life – we are not, there is no such thing and there is no way to objectively measure “complexity” or “perfection”.

Evolution isn’t goal-oriented or progressive. This mischaracterisation led one Louisiana state senator to ask, “They evolved into a person?” when told of a long-term evolution experiment on bacteria. That experiment, actually called the LTEE (Long-term evolution experiment) provided a surprising example of an evolutionary adaptation observed as it occurred.

That experiment in the lab of Dr Richard Lenski found that some E coli populations (from over 70,000 generations), all captive reared from the same source population, had evolved an adaptive trait. That is very clear evidence of evolution (eg, change in the inherited characteristics of a population). What that state senator believed, based on that common misunderstanding of evolution, was that the only definitive evidence of evolution from that experiment would be if the bacteria turned into humans.

Even given an infinite number of generations reared in those lab conditions, those bacteria would never turn into humans – that’s not how evolution works.

Explaining Life Through Evolution

Excerpted with permission from Explaining Life Through Evolution, Prosanta Chakrabarty, Penguin Allen Lane.