In defence of Darwin

Posted on Wednesday, February 4, 2009

150 years after On the Origin of the Species, the Evolution vs. Creation debate rages on

By Neale McDevitt

When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species in 1859, he immediately joined the pantheon of great scientists whose works have profoundly changed our world and universe. His theory of natural selection, whereby advantageous heritable characteristics are expressed with increasing frequency in successive generations of reproducing organisms while less advantageous traits occur less frequently, became the very cornerstone of modern biology. Prominent U.S. philosopher Daniel Dennett has gone so far as to say Darwin’s was the single greatest idea in history because, “In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.”

But despite such lofty praise and overwhelming scientific evidence in support of his findings, a significant portion of the world’s population still does not believe Darwin.

By the hand of God…

Creationists around the world cling to the belief that the universe was created out of the void by a deity or deities. Proponents of intelligent design maintain, according to the website intelligentdesign.org, that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” U.S. Gallup polls regularly show upwards of 45 per cent of Americans believe human beings were created 10,000 years ago by the hand of God. A recent poll in the U.K. revealed 51 per cent of respondents believe the theory of evolution cannot explain the full complexity of life on Earth, and a “designer” must have lent a hand.

So why, 150 years after the publication of one of history’s most important scientific documents, are we still having to defend Darwin?

“It is the synergistic effect of three factors,” said Brian Alters, Tomlinson Chair in Science Education and Director, Evolution Education Research Centre. “Scientific illiteracy, religious illiteracy and the anti-evolution industry.”

If there is a war being waged between Creationists and Evolutionists, Alters is at the front line. In 2005, the Sir William Dawson Scholar and author of the best-selling Defending Evolution in the Classroom, was an expert witness in Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District – a landmark case in which the U.S. Federal Court ruled the teaching of intelligent design in high school science classes is
unconstitutional.

Alters said that because they are low on factual ammunition, Creationists’ primary weapon is to “get very loud, very vocal.” And they have money – as witnessed last year with the opening of the $27-million Creation Museum, a state-of-the-art, 70,000 square foot museum located north of Cincinnati. Creation Museum boasts fossils and life-sized animatronics dinosaurs alongside interactive Biblical displays. “Walk through the Cave of Sorrows and see the horrific effects of the Fall of man,” trumpets the Creation Museum website. “Sounds of a sin-ravaged world echo through the room.”

Similarly, on the website of Big Valley Creation Museum in Big Valley, Alberta (the first Canadian Creation museum) there is an attempt to use science to discredit science. “The interactive bacterial flagellum and DNA displays both provide compelling evidence for creation and refute any unguided, ‘natural’ processes such as evolution,” visitors are told.

It’s a fact! It’s a fact! It’s a fact!

But Alters said Creationist science is naturally flawed because “less than 0.1 per cent” of scientists actually believe in Creationism. “Data always wins and all I ask is for Creationists to pony up their data,” said Alters. “You can’t argue the occurrence of evolution because scientifically it’s a fact, it’s a fact, it’s
a fact.”

For Alters one of the great ironies in the debate is that scientists see religious leaders as their allies in getting the word out that a person can believe in God and evolution at the same time. “Every religion has literalists who see scripture as historical fact, but they are a very small percentage,” said Alters. “The vast majority of mainstream religious leaders – including the last Pope – have no problem with evolution. But these leaders have to be more vocal in the pulpit because lay people don’t know this. We’ve reached the point where scientists are politely asking theologians to teach theology better.”

And evolution must be championed with more vigour in schools where, Alters argues, the theory of natural selection is downplayed in order to keep the peace. “You get kids coming home from school telling their fundamentalist families that we evolved from monkeys. Suddenly the principal is getting phone calls from irate parents and, the next thing you know, teachers are pressured to de-emphasize it in class.”

“Part of the problem is that evolution is counterintuitive,” Alters continued. “But tons of science is counterintuitive. Imagine 200 years ago if I told you we would build a huge device out of metal and light it up so that it flies men to the moon who will then plant a flag on the moon’s surface and hit a golf ball around…what sanatorium would I have been locked up in?”

Looking ahead

But with the Bush administration limping off into the sunset, dragging behind it what Alters calls “allegations of rewriting scientific conclusions to better serve its needs,” there are signs U.S. President Barrack Obama will put a new emphasis on science. “Obama has said that his administration will listen to science conclusions even if they aren’t politically expedient,” said Alters. “It remains to be seen if Obama will carry out that promise, but it’s a good start.”

Meanwhile the debate rages with as much passion and fury as when Darwin’s tome first stood world order on its head back in 1859. “Darwin was so afraid of public reaction that he put off publishing his
ideas for two decades,” said Alters. “But if he came back today, I’m sure he would scratch his head and say ‘Is this still going on?’ ”

Don’t miss the Darwin Days events at the Redpath Museum from Feb. 8–19. For the full schedule go to www.mcgill.ca/redpath/whats_on/other/.

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