Congressman promotes a Charles Darwin Day to fight science skepticism

Susan Haigh, AP writer

U.S. Rep. Jim Himes has taken on the role of promoting a Charles Darwin Day in the House of Representatives, saying he believes it’s the type of legislation his southwestern Connecticut constituents want him to pursue at a time when skepticism surrounds science.

“I represent one of the most educated districts in the country. And so, I think my constituents expect this of me,” said Himes, who took over proposing the perennial long-shot legislation commemorating the birth date of Charles Darwin from former New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt, a research physicist who is now chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Himes said he has championed the legislation for several years because “science and truth remarkably always need advocacy against the forces of nostalgia and fear and irrationality.” That message, he said, is especially important now in light of statements from President Donald Trump and his Environmental Protection Agency chief, Scott Pruitt, who has alarmed scientists by saying he does not believe carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming.

“At the end of the day, policy has to be guided by facts and truth,” Himes said.

The legislation comes as lawmakers in at least three states, South Dakota, Texas and Oklahoma, have weighed bills this year allowing teachers to decide how much skepticism to work into lessons on contentious scientific issues such as evolution and climate change. Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee have enacted similar laws, according to Glenn Branch, deputy director of the California-based National Center for Science Education.

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, proposed a similar bill in the Senate this year. Such proposals, however, don’t get very far. Branch said the legislation is typically defeated in the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology by Republicans who don’t call a hearing on the bill.

The bill is unlikely to ever pass Congress, given that Darwin, who developed the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection, was British.

But Holt praises Himes, a former investment banker, for taking on the legislation, which only expresses the House’s support in designating Feb. 12 as Darwin Day, recognizing him as “a worthy symbol of scientific advancement on which to focus and around which to build a global celebration of science and humanity intended to promote a common bond among all of Earth’s people.”

Himes’ proposal comes at a time when when efforts by the Trump administration to silence scientists and stifle their research have inspired a global a global protest that will come together on Earth Day as the first-ever March for Science.

Scientists will march on Washington April 22 and in more than 280 satellite marches around the globe. They’ll be rallying under the banner “Science, not Silence.”

Darwin, who was a religious person, didn’t let personal bias interfere with him looking at evidence, Holt said. That’s a stance worth celebrating at a time when ideology and opinion are crowding out evidence, he said.

“Of course, the Darwin Day legislation is more symbolic than practical, but there’s an important lesson there that public issues should be informed by the best publicly available scientific evidence,” Holt said. “It’s really to Jim’s credit that he’s speaking up for this. It’s harder for a non-scientist to do that.”

Himes has taken other pro-science stances recently, including signing a congressional letter in December to Trump, urging the president to appoint a “universally respected scientist” to the position of assistant to the president for science and technology within his first 100 days in office — an appointment that has not yet been made. The president has not responded.

Himes drew some criticism during his last re-election campaign for proposing the legislation. His Republican opponent, former Rep. John Shaban, called it a political stunt and a waste of time and resources.

“Indeed, I believe in both evolution and that we must pursue balanced polices to address global climate change, but passive-aggressive resolutions do little to advance the cause,” Shaban wrote on his campaign website.

For decades, there have been efforts to recognize Darwin and his theory of evolution, both nationally and internationally. The American Humanist Society promotes International Darwin Day each year, calling it a “day of celebration, activism and international cooperation for the advancement of science, education, and human well-being.”

A 2013 analysis by the Pew Research Center determined that 60 percent of Americans believe “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while a third reject the idea of evolution. Pew also found about 24 percent of Americans believe that a “supreme being guided the evolution of living things” for the purpose of creating human beings.

Himes, an elder in his Presbyterian church, said he doesn’t see his faith as being at odds with the Darwin Day bill.

“No science can explain why human beings evolved,” he said. “But we shouldn’t argue with the fact that they did evolve.”