Florida–Where The Living Is Still Contradictory

The deja vu is hitting hard.

Two years ago a Pennsylvania court was hearing a challenge to introducing intelligent design into a public school in the town of Dover. At the time, I argued that people should look south to understand the stakes of the conflict. Down in Florida the state government seemed to be trying to have it both ways when it came to creationism. The chair of the state House Education Council introduced a bill that would allow students to sue their professors if they didn’t consider intelligent in class. Governor Bush refused to comment on whether intelligent design should be taught in class.

The timing was deliciously ironic. Bush had just broken ground on a huge new scientific institute–a Florida branch of the Scripps Research Institute–that he called “a defining moment in Florida’s future.” I explained how evolution is an integral part of the research at Scripps. “All our work at Scripps gives evidence of the existence of evolution,” said Claes Wahlestedt, a Scripps biologist who was about to set up shop in Florida.

Fast-forward two years and change. I’m watching the Nova documentary on the Dover case, in which the court ruled that intelligent design had no place in science class. (You can catch the 2-hour show in 12 video chunks here). And down in Florida, people are once again getting worked up about evolution.

For some months now, the state has been deciding how to deal with evolution in their state education standards. In recent days, some members of local boards of education have been speaking out, saying evolution shouldn’t be in the standards, or at least teaching alternatives too. In Polk County, for example, a majority of board members want this false balance. “There needs to be intelligent design as well,” one member said. “You need to show both sides.”

(How about this lesson plan: show both sides of the humans-were-put-on-Earth-by-aliens debate. It’s got two sides, after all, so it must be science…right?)

Meanwhile, over in Palm Beach County, Scripps Florida continues to take root. Many in the community see it as an economic engine for fostering Florida’s biotech industry. While the construction of the new campus is finished up, the Scripps researchers are working in temporary quarters at Florida Atlantic University.

Have the scientists realized over the past two years that all their work gives evidence of the non-existence of evolution? Have they gradually come to conclude that evolution has gotten in the way of their scientific research? Have they decided that they need to investigate immaterial designers in order to learn more about genes, viruses, medicine, and all the rest?

Of course not. They’ve been doing the kind of science I described two years ago–biology based on a sound understanding of evolution. Here are three examples of research at Scripps Florida that came out after my original post in 2005:

1. Predicting future outbreaks of the flu through evolution. “If we could predict how a virus, such as H5N1, might evolve, we could have antibodies or vaccines ready, and be prepared for whatever move the virus might make,” says Scripps scientist Ian Wilson. Need I say more?

2. Understanding how the genome works. Wahlestedt is continuing to investigate the function of different bits of the genome by studying how it evolved over dozens of millions of years.

3. Evolution of variations. To make genomes truly useful to medicine, scientists have to better understand how mutations arise and spread through species, producing many different variations. Phillipe Bois is studying this process in mice, reconstructing hundreds of thousands of years of gene flow.

It occurs to me that it’s just a three-hour drive from Polk County to Scripps Florida. Maybe someone can organize a field trip, so that board of education members can look for “both sides” at a cutting-edge research lab. Then maybe this annoying case of deja vu would fade away.