Teaching of evolution in Romania: an endangered species

Romania is one of those countries that, after the fall of supposedly atheistic communist governments, are still struggling with the place of religion in public life and in education. The new Romanian constitution goes beyond guaranteeing freedom of religion and explicitly endorses state support for religious organizations (“Religious cults shall be autonomous from the State and shall enjoy support from it, including the facilitation of religious assistance in the army, in hospitals, prisons, homes and orphanages.” – article 29). Yes, that is right: religious cults are autonomous but they enjoy state support. In other words, they do what they want with taxpayer money. Historically established religious denominations get government recognition; this is a major issue, because in practice only those religions enjoy ‘religious freedom’ who are recognized by the government. In other words, “Recognized religions have the right to establish schools, teach religion in public schools, receive government funds to build churches, pay clergy salaries with state funds and subsidize clergy’s housing expenses, broadcast religious programming on radio and television, apply for broadcasting licenses for denominational frequencies, and enjoy tax-exempt status.” (source). Note that the majority of Romanians see absolutely no problems with the government giving money to religious organizations, including funding for teaching religion in public schools. Religious institutions enjoy almost unlimited trust from the public (as opposed to the senate, the parliament, or universities), and if you dare to criticize a priest or a religious organization, you will quickly find yourself under a flood of attacks from people of all walks of life.

In parallel with the state-supported resurgence of religious life, the boundaries between secular and religious education are getting blurred. At the end of 2006, the secretary of state for research and education at that time, Mihail Hardau, signed a ruling that eliminated virtually all references to evolution from the science standards for public schools. In the meantime, 73% of the Romanian high-school students already think that the universe and humans were created by God. Scientific literacy is so low in the country that very few people see this as a negative development; even some biology teachers say that Darwinism does not necessarily contradict creationism and it is out of date anyway. Most journalists and politicians who express an opinion on the subject only prove that they did not even take the time to look up the words “Darwinism” and “evolution” in a dictionary.

This is sad news for me. I learned basic biology in communist Romania, in the eighties, and at that time there was no place for God and creationism in biology classes.[Of course, that was about the only good thing about communism — so I am delighted it is a thing of the past, do not get me wrong]. Although my understanding of evolution largely comes from popular science books rather than those old biology lectures, at least you could not finish high school without hearing about Darwin and evolution. Now it is different: it has become difficult to get through the public education system without being indoctrinated (on taxpayer money) with the dogma of your favorite religion, and you might only hear about Darwin in the context of outdated atheistic thinkers who are not relevant any more.

If you want to help, here is the email address of the Romanian Ministry of Education: informare.publica@medu.edu.ro; more info here. Also, if you have a blog or website, feel free to spread the word. More people in Romania and outside Romania need to realize that the integrity of science education in one of the largest countries in Europe is at stake here.

The culture of science

[this article was published in Ad Astra in 2004]

An interview grabbed my attention in a Romanian newspaper a few months ago. A “researcher” claimed that, in his book entitled “The Final Truth”, he presented a theory that “bridges the gaps between the idealistic, materialistic and ezoteric worldviews”; that thoughts cannot arise in the human brain, they must come from somewhere else; that Darwininan evolution is wrong; that there must be another Universe that “consists of electromagnetic waves of higher frequencies”; and that this high-frequency Universe is the source of all human thought, UFOs, religion, astrology and paranormal phenomena.

The fact that somebody, who by all means would satisfy most criteria for the recognition of a crackpot, comes up with a handful of ideas that are either age-old or simply silly and tries to sell them as revolutionary scientific results is not new and would not grab my attention anymore. It was the style of presentation that forced me to think about this article a bit longer: the editor (and interviewer) tried to create an aura of scientific authenticity by saying that people from Chalmers University in Goteborg, Sweden and the Hungarian Academy of Science “expressed interest” in the book; and by mentioning that the author has spent many years doing research on these subjects in Sweden. I could not resist writing a letter to the newspaper and pointing out that the “research” of this gentleman is far from being science and, if presented at all, it should be presented accordingly, either as metaphysics or philosophy (of the sloppiest kind, I must add), or as just another muddled rambling about other-worldly energies and paranormal nonsense. But not as science and a Nobel-prize-worthy intellectual achievement.

The letter was published, and it generated a series of pro-and-con articles in the Transylvanian newspaper. With the exception of a mathematician, who was slightly critical of “The Final Truth” and its author, everybody, including the editor, were enthusiastic about them. They either said that this was science, my opinion nonwithstanding, or that this was more than science, because it integrates the ‘spiritual dimension’ with what we know from science. Those who argued against my criticisms included a ‘chief psychiatrist’ and a ‘university professor’. After a few months of replies-to-the-replies, the editor finally closed the argument by writing that he was proud of starting these series of articles about “The Final Truth”, and the importance of the book was also suggested by the fact that it drew the attention of “American researchers” as well. He just forgot to mention what the “American researchers” had to say about it.

It is true that the newspaper I am talking about is not a major paper in Romania; that it is published in Hungarian, therefore it has a relatively small readership in Transylvania, more precisely in the city of Cluj. I think however that it is diagnostic of the attitudes towards science in this part of Europe. After all, Cluj has one of the largest universities in Europe (more than 40,000 students and 1500 faculty), and I find it worrysome that nobody of the several thousand Hungarian-speaking faculty members and students takes the time to fight such science-bashing or science-degrading nonsense that surfaces from time to time in the media. They either don’t know how to tell good science from bad science or pseudoscience, or they do know but they couldn’t care less.

It seems to me that back home, science, if the word is understood correctly – as we saw, sometimes it isn’t -, is not considered an essential part of being well-read, well-informed, and well-educated. A lot of ‘intellectuals’ are enthusiastic about science – as long as astrology or chinese medicine are included, as long as great scientists can be used as boosters of national pride, or as long as you do not exclude postmodern literary criticism (the term “literature science”is often used in Hungarian and it gives a hint of how broad the meaning of the word ‘science’ is in some circles). When I was in high school in a small Transylvanian town near Brasov, math and physics were thought to be important only because at that time (in the eighties) these subjects meant the safest route towards college education. Almost everybody seemed to know that real knowledge and real culture can only come from the study of literature, art and history. And I think this attitude did not change since then, or it even got worse: it is still OK if you don’t know what a fractal is or how the genetic machinery inside us works, but you cannot be a real intellectual if you cannot talk about Shakespeare, Ionesco, Derrida or Tarkovsky for at least as long as two beers last at the pub. In their excellent paper on the status of science in post-communist Romania, Liviu Giosan and Tudor Oprea suggest that “culture wars” between the “two cultures” would be “suicidal at best”. However, I am afraid that there is no danger of “culture wars” or “science wars” in Romania, simply because the intellectual elite is dominated by people with little or no scientific background and a ‘culture of science’ does not exist. One obvious piece of evidence is that none of the major Romanian daily newspapers has a science and/or technology section. While ‘science writing’ has become an exciting profession in the West, it is essentially non-existent in Romania. Yes, Discovery Channel is available in many cities [let’s put aside now the fact that not all of its programs are scientific] and I hear there is even a Romanian edition of Scientific American, but, to put it mildly, there is a lot of room for improvement in making science more socially accepted, better understood, and part of mainstream culture.

More reliable than my little pieces of anecdotic evidence are the results of a recent study prepared for the European Commision: an Eurobarometer report on “public opinion in the countries applying for European Union membership”. There are several statistics that suggest a positive attitude towards science in the candidate countries in general, including Romania. For instance, 78 % of Romanians (81 % on average in the thirteen countries) agree with the statement that “science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier and more comfortable”. Also, 74 % think that “even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research which adds to knowledge, is necessary and should be supported by government”, and scientists are regarded by 51 % of the respondents as having a highly prestigious profession. Other numbers however are less encouraging. In the category of “knowledge of fundamental scientific facts”, the average number of correct answers given by participants in Romania is significantly below the average in the EU or in many other Eastern European countries. Compared to the rest, Romanians did poorly in in recognizing the scientifically correct method for drug testing (15 % correct answers compared to more than 30% in most other countries).

I am not convinced that these differences are extremely important or disconcerting. The gaps between statistics on science in Romania and in other candidate countries or the EU increase from barely significant to orders of magnitude as one goes from the attitudes and knowledge among the population to governmental investments in R&D and to the number of scientific publications. To add only one number to the detailed analysis by Giosan and Oprea (2003): the gross domestic expenditure on R&D in the field of natural sciences in 2000 was 12.1 million euros in Romania, compared to 59.1 million in Hungary, 185.9 million in the Czech Republic, and 261.9 million in Poland (Simona Frank: R&D expenditure and personnel in the candidate countries in 2000, Statistics in focus, Science and technology, Theme 9-1/2003).

But my main concern here is not science policies, R&D expenditure, or the quantity and quality of research in Romania. What I wanted to and started to talk about is the lack of a culture of science in the mass media and among intellectuals in general, including even many of those who are employed by universities or research institutes.
Science has become much more popular and fashionable in the West during recent decades. Numerous science books written for the general public in a simple and easy-to-understand language – but without too much dumbing down – are bestsellers; it is possible now to make a succesful Hollywood movie about the life of a mathematician (I am talking about ‘A Beautiful Mind’); most large bookstores have an impressive collection of popular science books. Some of these books are much more than popular science: they are frequently cited in the real scientific literature and have a strong influence on the field; many represent an inspired – and inspiring – mix of scholarship in the natural sciences, philosophy, and good writing. Authors like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Steven Weinberg have become a lot more popular than numerous highly regarded names in postmodern literary criticism and philosophy. [Frankly, I am not surprised. Try reading an essay or a book by one of the science guys and compare it to a representative writing of the of the postmodernist camp.] Museums of science, technology and natural history in the United States are larger, richer, and more interactive than ever. Whenever a famous scientist gives a public presentation, lecture halls are quickly filled and tickets are sold out in advance. A few months ago Stephen Hawking gave a lecture in Houston. All of the almost 5000 tickets that went on sale were gone by the time of the presentation.

It seems like the two cultures of C. P. Snow are antagonistic or lack real communication only in the eyes of those who still see the arts and the social sciences entirely independent of the natural sciences. The best and some of the most influential thinkers of our time are scientists who are also good writers – or writers/artists who know quite a bit about science. This ‘culture of science’ has been given the name “third culture” by literary agent and science writer John Brockman and is promoted on his website “The Edge” (http://www.edge.org), a discussion forum for a distinguished group of scientists and ‘new humanists’. Twelve years after introducing the idea of the ‘third culture’, Brockman suggests that “the third culture now includes scholars in the humanities who think the way the scientists do. Like their colleagues in the sciences, they believe there is a real world and their job is to understand it and explain it. They test their ideas in terms of logical coherence, explanatory power, conformity with empirical facts. (…) They are not reducing the humanities to biological and physical principles, but they do believe that art, literature, history, politics – a whole panoply of humanist concerns – need to take the sciences into account.”

As I already suggested, I do not think that the ‘third culture’ and the ‘new humanists’ have a strong presence in Romania. Most people base their worldviews entirely on tradition and authority or embrace either the numerous new waves of mysticism and pseudoscience or a nihilistic and relativistic postmodernism. Although not everything is going well in this regard in the Western world either, I still hope that getting closer politically and economically to the European Union will increase not only the quantity and quality of research in Romania, but will also improve science education and the acceptance and understanding of science.

Like in other, more western parts of the world, most people in Romania seem to have an overall positive attitude toward science. They just don’t know what exactly it is. Those few who know better have the responsibility of educating the general public. For example, by speaking out when pseudeoscientific or antiscientific nonsense hits the media; explaining in simple terms but with convincing logic why pseudoscience is not science or why darwinism and evolutionary theory cannot and should not be blamed for the horrors of fascism and communism. It is unlikely that a country will have its Silicon Valleys and a greatly succesful economy as long as its political leaders and influential intellectuals do not recognize the importance and value of both scientific research and science education. In the long term, they should also realize that the social sciences and humanities cannot ignore the natural sciences anymore. As evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson put it, “most of the issues that vex humanity daily – ethnic conflict, arms escalation, overpopulation, abortion, environment, endemic poverty, (…) cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities. Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as seen through the lens of ideologies and religious dogmas or commanded by myopic response to immediate need.”


1. L. Giosan and T. Oprea. Science in post-communist Romania. Ad Astra, 1 (2) 2002.
2. Candidate countries Eurobarometer. Public opinion in the countries applying for European Union membership. CC-EB 2002.3 on science an technology. European Commission, January 2003.
3. S. Frank. R&D expenditure and personnel in the candidate countries, in 2000, Statistics in focus, Science and technology, Theme 9-1/2003.
4. C. P. Snow. The two cultures. Cambridge University Press, 1993.
5. E. O. Wilson. Consilience: the unity of knowledge. Vintage Books, 1999.

When a ‘balanced view’ is wrong, wrong, wrong

Time magazine has a cover story about the “Evolution wars”, that is, the controversy surrounding the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution in schools. Again, thanks to the lame and stupid idea of ‘we are not taking sides’ that dominates present-day American journalism, anti-evolutionists are given about the same space and consideration as virtually all the biologists and scientists combined, Michael Behe’s and a baptist theologian’s opinion having apparently the same weight as that of Steven Pinker or Francis Collins. I am sure Behe and co. are celebrating: this is what they wanted, to have a credibility in the eyes of the media that equals that of some of the best scientists around.

Anyway, I just want to take note here of Pinker’s short but, as usual, crystal-clear answer to the question “Can you believe in God and evolution?”:

The theory of natural selection explains life as we find it, with all its quirks and tragedies. We can prove mathematically that it is capable of producing adaptive life forms and track it in computer simulations, lab experiments and real ecosystems. It doesn’t pretend to solve one mystery (the origin of complex life) by slipping in another (the origin of a complex designer).

Many people who accept evolution still feel that a belief in God is necessary to give life meaning and to justify morality. But that is exactly backward. In practice, religion has given us stonings, inquisitions and 9/11. Morality comes from a commitment to treat others as we wish to be treated, which follows from the realization that none of us is the sole occupant of the universe. Like physical evolution, it does not require a white-coated technician in the sky.

The Catholic Church: a step in the wrong direction

When defenders of evolution try to be sympathetic towards people of faith, and show that evolution and faith are clearly compatible, they often quote what pope John Paul II stated in 1996: that “evolution is more than a hypothesis”. I did that as well a while ago.

Well, that relatively open-minded approach might change, or has already changed, with the new boss in the Vatican. Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, has written an op-ed article for the New York Times, and according to cardinal Schönborn,

Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense – an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection – is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

Pretty disappointing statements from a man of higher learning. And it is ridiculous that a high priest of the Catholic Church is claiming that mainstream biologists (that is, ~99.999 percent of all biologists who matter) are doing ideology, not science. How on earth is he qualified to decide what is science and what is not in biology? Does he have a PhD in biology? No. Did he publish any scientific papers in biology? No. Did he spend most of his life studying, teaching, and spreading religious ideology? Yes. So who is doing science, and who is doing ideology?

Darwin on geology and epistemology

Here is a geology quote that Michael Shermer seems to like a lot (for example, in this book). It is from a guy called Darwin:

About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!

Creationist karstology

I never knew there was a branch of science called ‘creationist karstology’. But now I know: probably the best known (and potentially the only) practitioner of it is Emil Silvestru, who was head scientist at the Speleological Institute in Cluj, Romania, before he immigrated to Canada and became a member – and apparently employee – of Answers in Genesis, a creationist organization. ‘Creation Magazine’ claims he is a ‘world authority on caves’ – OK, he probably did indeed spend some time in caves and knows something about them. But how seriously can you take someone who honestly thinks that this is reasonable and this is good science:

After becoming a Christian he quickly realized that the ‘millions of years’ interpretation, so common in geology, was not compatible with Genesis. ‘Once I became a Christian,’ Emil says, ‘I knew I had to “tune up” my scientific knowledge with the Scriptures.’

‘Although philosophically and ethically I accepted a literal Genesis from my conversion, at first I was unable to match it with my “technical” side.’

E-mail discussions with qualified creationist geologists, creationist books, Creation magazine and especially the TJ helped him realise what he calls two ‘essential things’:

  1. Given exceptional conditions (e.g. the Genesis Flood) geological processes that take an extremely long time today can be unimaginably accelerated.
  2. The Genesis Flood was global, not regional.

    ‘These factors were immensely important in my conversion and my Christian life. I am now convinced of six-day, literal, recent, Genesis creation. That doesn’t mean that there are not still some unanswered problems, but researching such issues is what being a scientist is all about.’”

According to Dr. Silvestru, radioactive dating is wrong; he is “now convinced of six-day, literal, recent, Genesis creation” and that “currently prominent creationist modeling of the post-Flood Ice Age is an important tool in understanding the karst in a young-earth framework“.

No comment.

To wrap it up, a little piece of blatant misinformation. Asked if he

experienced any ridicule or persecution because of his strong stand on Genesis creation

, I guess back in Romania, Dr. Silvestru says:

“Not really, for two main reasons. First, after so many years of almost compulsory atheism/evolutionism, most people welcome biblical creationism as a breath of fresh air. Second, God has granted me a professional status that practically bars any attempt to ridicule my creationist convictions.”

It is true that religion has gained quite some ground since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe; but I don’t think that you can make a blanket statement like “most people welcome biblical creationsim as a breath of fresh air”. In fact, most of the people I know, even those who are much more sympathetic toward religion then I am, would definitely not consider bibilical creationism a breath of fresh air.

Regarding his “professional status that practically bars any attempt to ridicule” his creationist convictions – well, here is one.

It is also true that they are ridiculous enough by themselves.

Kingdoms of Either and Or

Something really worth taking note of, from Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch (p. 231-232):

Currently most evolutionists regard the possibility of speciation among neighbors as unorthodox, even though Darwin himself proposed it. The standard model of speciation requires geographic isolation. That has been the canonical pattern for half a century, and many evolutionists belive it is the universal pattern. But evolutionists are forever dividing and subdividing into schismatic sects, kingdoms of Either and Or. Do new species arise in archipelagoes, like Darwin’s finches, or do they arise among neighbors? Is the origin of species fast or slow? Is the mechanism natural selection or sexual selection? And so on. None of these questions really have ot be framed either-or. It is almost a law of science: the more indirect the evidence, the more polarized the debate. Evolutionists sometimes catch themselves sounding like the Little-Endians and Big-Endians in Gulliver’s Travels, fighting tooth and nail over the proper way to crack an egg. Meanwhile, the more direct the evidence, the less the answers look either-or.

This ‘law’ of indirect – or poor – evidence resulting in more polarized debates seems to work in other areas of science as well. For example, in sedimentary geology, there is (was?) a strong debate about whether most thick-bedded sands deposited in the deep sea are due to deposition from turbidity currents or debris flows. Probably the only positive outcome of the debate is that some people are paying more attention to the evidence and they are starting to realize exactly that “the more direct the evidence, the less the answers look either-or”. Debris flows can easily become turbulent flows – and the other way around: in their final, depositional stages, turbidity currents can transform into predominantly laminar flows. To claim that 99% of deep-water sands result from debris flows rather than turbidity currents just because many depositional features suggest laminar behaviour is a perfect example of thinking in terms of black-and-white or kingdoms of ‘Either and Or’. It is analogous to calling cars ‘frictional machines’ because they use friction to stop.

Going back to the last subject: of course, the other side of the coin is that our inborn moral intuitions can only serve as safe guidance in situations that were not uncommon in times when our brains formed — that is, a long time ago. To rely on these intuitions in issues as complicated as bioethics is a big mistake, as it is more than convincingly pointed out on Carl Zimmer’s weblog.

Hardwired morality

Carl Zimmer has an article in the April issue of Discover Magazine about how neuroscience is providing more and more evidence that morality is hardwired into the human brain. For example, there are two variants of a famous moral dilemma about saving the lives of five people who are about to be hit by a train. In the first version, you can throw a switch and thus kill one person (he or she would be hit by the redirected train; in the second, you can push a fat guy off a footbridge, who would fall on the tracks and thus stop the train. Most people tend to say they would throw the switch, but they would not push the guy to his death. It just does not feel right. The two versions of the dilemma also light up different areas of the brain, as shown by MRI imaging: we tend to use logic to reach a conclusion in the first case, but emotions play an important role when it comes to killing somebody without the indirectness of some intervening machinery. The reason for this probably is that evolution has hardwired our brains for the latter case, but there are no hardcoded, visceral responses to throwing a switch, even if we know that it leads to the death of another human being.

Such findings should be serious food for thought for those who argue that morality can only originate in the brains or souls or hearts (whatever, pick your favorite) of true believers, and you must be an immoral animal if you do not believe in some supernatural power. But I guess somebody who rarely thinks does not like too much food for thought.