Monday, February 12, 2007

Happy birthday, Charles Darwin

Today is the 198th birthday of Charles Darwin. Mr. Darwin’s theory of natural selection not only helped explain the phenomena of evolution but also popularized the concept in the public imagination.

However, certain Christians have never felt comfortable with explanations of the creation of life than seem to contradict the Book of Genesis. They have devised so-called alternative theories such as Intelligent Design (a.k.a., I.D.) that explains evolution as a series of changes controlled by a supernatural being. They have pushed hard to have this taught in public schools as a legitimate scientific theory. The proponents of the I.D. scheme have been challenged in school boards and in the courts.

While I.D. seems to be fading it is only likely there will be another effort to dismiss evolution and prohibit or inhibit its teaching.

Edward Hume visited the trial in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania during 2005 in the case of whether or not the teaching of Intelligent Design in public school science classes overstepped the constitutional boundaries prohibiting the state indoctrination of religion. He shares these thoughts of his realization there are two interpretations of Darwin’s writings:
… There are really two theories of evolution. There is the genuine scientific theory, and there is the talk-radio pretend version, designed not to enlighten but to deceive and enrage.

The talk-radio version had a packed town hall up in arms at the "Why Evolution Is Stupid" lecture. In this version of the theory, scientists supposedly believe that all life is accidental, a random crash of molecules that magically produced flowers, horses and humans — a scenario as unlikely as a tornado in a junkyard assembling a 747. Humans come from monkeys in this theory, just popping into existence one day. The evidence against Darwin is overwhelming, the purveyors of talk-radio evolution rail, yet scientists embrace his ideas because they want to promote atheism.

These are just a few highlights of the awful and pervasive straw-man image of evolution that pundits harp about in books and editorials and, yes, on talk radio, and this cartoon version really is stupid. No wonder most Americans reject evolution in poll after poll.

But then there is the real theory of evolution, the one that was on display in that Harrisburg courtroom, for which there is overwhelming evidence in labs, fossils, computer simulations and DNA studies. Most Americans have not heard of it. Teachers give it short shrift in schools because the subject upsets too many parents who only know the talk-radio version. But real evolution isn't random; it doesn't say man came from monkeys. Those claims are made up by critics to get people riled up — paving the way for pleasing alternatives like intelligent design.

Real evolutionary theory explains how life forms change across generations by passing on helpful traits to their offspring; a process that, after millions of years, gradually transforms one species into another. This does not happen randomly but through nature's tendency to reward the most successful organisms and to kill the rest. This is why germs grow resistant to antibiotics and why some turtles are sea animals and others survive quite nicely in the desert, and why dinosaurs — and more than 99% of all other species that have ever lived on Earth — are extinct.

The environment changes. The recipe for survival changes with it. And life changes to keep up — or it dies. Darwin's signature insight is both brilliant and elegantly, brutally simple.

The real theory of evolution does not try to explain how life originated — that remains a mystery. The truth is that many scientists accept evolution and believe in God — and in a natural world so complete that it strives toward perfection all on its own, without need of a supernatural designer to keep it going.

The judge in Pennsylvania eventually found that real evolution was not stupid; that intelligent design was religion, not science, and that the school board in Dover, Pa., whose actions had precipitated this replay of Scopes, was out of line. Judge John E. Jones III was rewarded for his sensible and well-documented ruling with death threats. Such is the power of talk-radio evolution.

Meanwhile, a creationist history of the Grand Canyon is on sale in national park shops. A major American museum expressed interest in having me speak about my new book but decided the subject of evolution was too "political" right now to risk it. And teachers across the nation tell me they feel compelled to downplay or skip evolution lessons to avoid controversy; one L.A.-area high school instructor said she is the only one of five science teachers on her faculty to even mention evolution in class, notwithstanding a clear state mandate to teach it.
Happy birthday, Charles Darwin.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin. You did us proud. Thanks for the amazing contribution in the field of science. The evolving generations will always remember you as the father of evolution.
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