Evolution wars

There is a war of sorts going on between science and fundamentalist elements of three of the world's religions. At stake may be science education and open-minded critical thinking.

"Young Earth creationists" invoke a concept called "intelligent design," literal Biblical Creation, and also a literal Biblical timeline to deny not only the validity of biological evolution but also scientifically established geological time scales. They would substitute their view for science, and do attack evolution, ignoring or distorting facts. When challenged, they cite the authority of literal biblical interpretation.

Young Earth creationists have countered evidence-based facts of biological evolution and an ancient Earth timeline with the pseudo-scientific intelligent design approach to attempt to show that living organisms were created in more or less their present forms by an intelligent "designer" and, through generational biblical calculations that all life on earth is between 10,000 and 5,700 years old.

Scientific studies show quite convincingly that on Earth, which is determined to be about 4.6 billion years old, simple cell life appeared about 3,500,000,000 (i.e., 3.5 billion) years ago and anatomically modern humans about 200,000 years ago.

Creationists have influenced education in a number of countries and within the religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Generally speaking, creationism and intelligent design are essentially the same although proponents of each would disagree. Creationism is widely accepted and taught throughout the Middle East.

It is prominent in the United States but generally not accepted in schools and colleges.

Creationists are only a fraction of each religion but seemingly have influence beyond their numbers. In the U.S., one may see bumper stickers that read, for example, "Evolution: fairytales for grownups."

I am concerned by how extensive their campaign continues to be to discredit, misconstrue, and ridicule the facts of evolution. To broadly paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, one would suppose that God would be more approving of the application of reasoned investigation than determined ignorance.

These types of denial are at least as old as Darwin's 1859 On the Origin of Species. They not only roll on unabated, but also seem to have intensified, especially in the U.S., notwithstanding greater informational resources available that support the factual basis of evolution.

One notable skirmish completed in 2005 In the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover. Federal Judge John E. Jones in his 139-page "findings of fact and decision" concluded that intelligent design, rooted in creationism is religious and not scientific. He barred the Dover school board, whose members supported creationism, from "maintaining the Intelligent Design Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious alternative theory known as Intelligent Design."

The school board's Policy included reading a statement in classes to the effect that intelligent design was a parallel scientific theory that explained the origin of life. Because, in fact it is religious-based and not scientific, it was judged unconstitutional to be taught in public schools. Judge Jones, a church-going conservative Republican and no activist judge, was vilified and received death threats.

On one side there are, for example, the misleading presentations of Kent Hovind an anti-evolution evangelical Christian minister.

Curiously, he is presently incarcerated in a New Hampshire prison for tax evasion. As an advocate of young Earth creationism, Hovind aims to convince listeners to reject biological evolution, geophysics, cosmology, archeology, paleontology, and, in his convoluted pseudoscientific notions, common sense in favor of a literal belief in Creation given in the Book of Genesis, and a total earth history of about six thousand years. On the other side of the spectrum for this issue, is, for example, Richard Dawkins, self-identified strident evolutionary biologist and avowed agnostic near atheist. Dawkins' discussion of evolution is lucid and factual whatever one might think about his religious views. These presentations led me to the following thoughts.

Some people enter into a discussion about evolution without correct information or clear definitions. This lack of common understanding leads to fruitless discourse since each side is thinking about evolution or scholarship or scientific research with different definitions. Of course, the chasm in such discourse is even more profound: as long as extreme fundamentalists assume to know the truth, speak for all peoples, and shut out reasoned scientific investigation, more sensible discussions are unlikely to happen.

Evolutionary biologists mean rather specific things when they say that they have observed evolution or that humans and chimps have evolved from a common ancestor. (Note how different the latter statement is from saying humans evolved from monkeys.) Biological evolution is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the genetic material from one generation to the next.

Biological evolution may be slight or substantial. Applied to living creatures, evolution is a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations. When biologists say that they have observed evolution, they mean that they have detected changes in the frequency of genes in a population. When they say that humans and chimps have evolved from a common ancestor they mean that there have been successive heritable changes in the two separated populations since they became isolated approximately 6 million years ago.

It is important to have a clear definition of evolution in mind - or for that matter clarity of information about any controversial scientific issue. It is also important to distinguish between biological evolution and theories about the mechanism of evolution of which one is natural selection - a successful mechanism in explaining the factual evidence. Contrary to creationists' assertion, evolution is not a random process. The genetic variation on which natural selection acts may occur randomly, but natural selection itself is not random at all.

It is likewise important to understand that science's use of the word theory is quite different from how it is often commonly used. The word theory in science does not imply a hypothetical conjecture. It means "a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena." For example, Einstein's theory of special relativity works very well, within its specified limitations, to explain and predict observed natural phenomena. The theory of evolution, within the range of its application, does the same.

In the case of the theory of evolution, the following are a few of the evidence-based phenomena involved: (1) life forms have changed and diversified over life's history on earth; (2) species are related via descent from one or a few common ancestors; (3) natural selection - the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment survive and produce more offspring - not randomness, was a significant factor affecting how species change. The theory of evolution has proved its utility in practice; if it had not, science would have discarded it in favor of something that worked better.

The vast majority of scientists and many notable religious figures do not say evolution in any way negates belief in or refutes the existence of God. Many people believe in theistic evolution - God's hand is behind it all in some unseen way. Science and religion are separate realms. God may well be behind all that scientists find, but whether that is true or not is a question science can't answer.

Science has nothing to say one way or the other about the existence of God or people's spiritual beliefs.

When someone declares, "I don't believe in evolution" he or she cannot be referring to the scientific definition of evolution because he/she would be denying something which is demonstrable and not a matter of belief. It is like someone saying they don't believe in gravity. Perhaps what such a person was really trying to say is, "I don't want to even contemplate biological evolution because its conclusions conflict with a faith-based world view I prefer to hold."

Fair enough; but putting one's head in the sand ostrich like also has consequences. Such views, if they gained controlling strength in the U.S. educational system as they have in some other countries, could conceivably undermine science education, critical thinking, and even innovation.

To support more productive discussions, scientists should work harder to convey to the public readily understandable information. Likewise, doubters of scientific results could work harder to use science's information, concepts, and conclusions fairly with due consideration - no doubt a quixotic hope. Only then, however, might future discussion between the two sides on this issue (or any other science-based controversial issue) lead to more sensible and informed discussions.

Richard Scribner is a resident of Manchester.


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