Gradual Change

The Shawshank Redemption was a terrible movie, wouldn’t you agree? Gandhi was such a chump! And what’s so bad about Jack Kevorkian? (After all, what kind of twisted soul would have a problem with youth in Asia…) This week, write something controversial, and make it convincing. If you don’t have any enemies yet, this is your chance to make them.

There is a war raging in the world over an idea first proposed by a bearded Englishman upon his return from South America.  The idea, published 154 years ago, has been the centre of controversy pretty much ever since.  In the majority of the world, the idea has been accepted, but it seems the battle is still going on in the schools of the United States of America.

So what is this idea?

Evolution of species by means of natural selection.

While Charles Darwin was not the only 19th century naturalist concerned with how species changed over time, his seminal work, On the Origin of Species, catapulted him to academic immortality.  Darwin has left an indelible impression on modern science and culture.  He is widely considered the father of evolutionary biology, there are over 120 species named after him, and he is even on the U.K.’s ten pound note.  In the 1859 book, Darwin suggests, given that organisms reproduce, that there is some random genetic variation, and that there are not enough resources for all offspring, not every member of a given generation will survive.  Since traits are heritable, those offspring with traits that allow them to better survive and reproduce will leave more offspring in future generations.  This rather simple idea, that there is not enough room for all possibilities so the best suited ones will thrive, has helped to explain many of the mysteries of our world and provides a very robust framework for modern biologists.

Natural selection is an intuitive mechanism for the production of the variation we see in the world.  But, like many useful scientific theories and laws, it depends on a bit of imagination.  Evolution is brought about by an individual’s struggle for survival, but individuals do not evolve.  Evolution requires many, many generations in order be appreciated.  Much like gravity, natural selection is an invisible force of nature.  We can’t observe it directly.  We see objects fall and we feel the weight of a textbook, and we  infer that gravity is causing these phenomena.  The equations and laws of the theory of gravity allow reliable predictions to be made and with these predictions humans have been to the moon, flown across continents, and know to use parachutes if they intend on jumping out of airplanes.  In the same way, we find fossils of creatures that seem to be halfway between two extant organisms, we sequence the DNA of bacteria over successive generations and see they are able to develop resistances, and we infer natural selection to be the mechanism.  By making predictions using the theory of evolution, we have been able to develop better disease-prevention strategies, discover what led to the extinction of other hominids, and turn the clock back to the first instance of life on Earth.

Controversy arises because natural selection denies the necessity of intervention by an omnipotent being and a lot of people rely on omnipotent beings.  According to a very well-respected source written thousands of years ago, one such being created the world in seven days.  A literal interpretation of this source leads some to believe that all the creatures on this Earth were created as we see them.  From their pulpits, pews, and porches they decry evolution and say that to insinuate that Creation was imperfect is to insult the Creator.  They don’t take kindly to those that insult the Creator.

In order to avoid insulting the Creator, some Americans insist on their schools teaching alternative theories like Intelligent Design either in conjuction with or instead of evolution.  Intelligent Design is basically the theist idea that the Universe is much too complicated and fine-tuned to have been created by chance or by an undirected process.  It says that there was in fact a Creator and that species are created whole and do not change.

To me, there are two types of mental gymnastics a creationist can perform in order to come to terms with evolution:

  1. The evidence for evolution by natural selection contradicts my faith, and so I choose to ignore the evidence.  The Creator made the world as we see it today.
  2. The evidence for evolution by natural selection is compelling.  I think the mechanisms make sense, but I think the Creator set it all in motion.

There is really not much that can be done to convince number one.  They have heard the rational arguments and chosen to reject them out of hand.  They don’t want to play the science game.  That’s fine, they can play their own game, just don’t ruin ours.

Number two is really already convinced.  If they want to insist on a Creator, that’s totally ok.  For the same reason that I don’t really care about the whole free will/fate debate, I don’t think it matters whether or not a Creator set evolution in motion.  Everything still works the same way, it’s just a different rationalization for how it works that way.  Number two is playing by the same rules as the rest of the science world, he just wants to call the game Sai-ents instead of Science.  Sure, let him!

Darwin’s ideas form the basis of much of modern biological thought and to ignore evolution in biology class is akin to disregarding Newtonian kinematics in physics or not talking about Rome in an ancient history class.  American schools that continue to fight the lost battle for Intelligent Design are hamstringing their students and doing society an injustice.

Science and Faith need not be enemies.  By setting them up as such, people are forced to take sides and lose out on much of the discovery and wonder our Universe has to offer.

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