The Evolution Debate
The level of animosity that exists between supporters of science-based evolutionary theory and others who believe in the concept of divine creation is frequently frightening to behold. That this argument has existed in nearly its present form for over a century despite rapid advances in the study of human history, pre-history, and paleoanthropology is astounding; sadly, the debate continues and is unlikely to reach a resolution in our lifetime unless one side or the other uncovers irrefutable, ironclad evidence that proves the correctness of its position. The likelihood of this event is extraordinarily low since no objective evidence whatsoever exists to support Creationism and all scientific evidence is provisional; it is possible, though extraordinarily unlikely, that evolutionary biology could be proven false, no matter how much data are accumulated supporting it.
The debate has been further muddied by the recent introduction of so-called Intelligent Design Theory, which purports to be a scientific, reason-based position and therefore permissible content for public school science classes. This offshoot of traditional Creationist thought arose following Supreme Court and other legal decisions rightly classifying Creationism firmly in the category of religious dogma; its proponents have attempted to create a legal fog by removing specific references to the Judeo-Christian god from their arguments, instead substituting a vague and unnamed "Designer" who created humanity and the rest of the universe. This, however, is an outright falsehood, as revealed by the so-called "Wedge Document" published first as an internal memorandum by the pro-Creationism Discovery Institute in 1999. This document reveals to all that the overall strategy of the movement is the replacement of what they term "materialism" or "materialistic science" with traditional Judeo-Christian theology.
First, it must be understood that not all practicing Christians reject evolution. The Catholic church has stated flatly that evolutionary biology is not a rejection of Biblical literature, and most mainstream churches accept evolution as a valid scientific study. The main resistance to evolutionary biology is to be found within fundamentalist sects that preach the literal authenticity of the Bible; they see evolutionary biology as a rejection of Biblical teaching, and thus a major threat to their control. In painting their picture of evolution's tenets, they also grossly misrepresent its meaning and incorrectly combine the work being performed in a number of discrete scientific fields, as will be shown below.
Misunderstanding Science, Misrepresenting Evolution
A general reading of Creationist / Intelligent Design web sites and other literature immediately reveals a number of massive misrepresentations apparently intended to inflame debate and misrepresent the study of evolutionary biology, though these falsehoods may also represent a complete misunderstanding of the science by the authors. In order to appreciate this misrepresentation, it must be understood that the term evolution in the context of the science of biology means the process by which populations of organisms acquire and pass on novel traits from generation to generation, affecting the overall makeup of the population and even leading to the emergence of new species. Evolutionary biology has no relationship to human origins, which is the realm of paleoanthropology. Nor is it concerned with the origin of the universe (which is studied by physicists and astronomers), the reason for humanity's existence (the realm of philosophers and theologians), or to social theory. However, many Creationists assert that evolution studies the origins of humanity and the universe, and that it seeks to consign humanity to the realm of "unethical, undirected animals." All these assertions are absolutely wrong, but this type of material is frequently presented to the public in order to demonize evolution and present it as an attempt to overthrow Christian values or culture.
In other cases, I.D. proponents and other Creationists misrepresent or misunderstand the nature of evolution itself, and present simplistic cases that are absolutely incorrect (during one debate, a Creationist asked me "when was the last time you saw a whale give birth to a monkey?"). This is not the mechanism by which evolution works, though a description of the actual mechanism can be found in any basic text on the process. Evolution describes slow, gradual changes that occur through often very minor mutations within a species, resulting in a specimen that is slightly more fit for its environment. A wolf with a slightly keener sense of smell, or a giraffe with a somewhat longer neck may become more successful and therefore capable of passing on these traits to their progeny; over a period of many generations, this competitive advantage spreads throughout the gene pool and becomes common. Other, less successful adaptations (i.e. a diminished sense of smell or shorter neck) are selected out of the gene pool since a specimen displaying such traits is less likely to compete successfully. Evolution does not state that a specific animal will suddenly give birth to another type of animal; this is a gross misrepresentation of the theory that is often used by detractors as a convenient reductio ad absurdatum, or "reduction to absurdity," to belittle and ridicule the process.
Many other erroneous arguments are used to present evolution as an evil, misguided concept. For instance, many opponents attempt to link it to Social Darwinism and Eugenics. Neither of these ideas were science-based, neither was ever legitimately part of Darwin's original theory, and both were rejected long ago. However, the imagery of Hitler's "Aryan Race" myth and the practice of Eugenics by Nazis and others became associated with evolution, strengthening the alleged link with evil.
Another misrepresentation is the common claim that evolution is only a theory. This is a word game, since the term theory has numerous meanings based on the context in which it is used. While a colloquial meaning might simply be guess, a scientific theory is a logically self-consistent model or framework for describing the behavior of a certain natural or social phenomenon, thus either originating from observable facts or supported by them [...] a theory is a systematic and formalized expression of all previous observations made that is predictive, logical, testable, and has never been falsified. Evolutionary biology has access to billions of years worth of supporting material in the form of the fossil record, DNA, and geologic material; many of Darwin's original concepts have been proven repeatedly to be accurate, and millions of fossils have been uncovered that support the basic tenets of natural selection. Every time the evolutionary model has been challenged by new evidence, it has been shown to be accurate.
Even if the "only a theory" argument was valid, it must be asked why Creationists have not demanded equal time for other, alternative theories in science classes. Science is, by its very nature, based on theory. Gravity, heliocentrism, general astronomy, physics, chemistry, and other areas of science are theory oriented, but the Creationist attack is only against evolutionary biology. If I.D. must be taught along with evolution, why not teach Lamarckian biology, geocentrism, and other ideas as well? Creationists' lack of sincerity is clearly shown by their failure to insist on equal time for competing theories in other areas of study.
Additionally, the terms natural selection and survival of the fittest have been frequently misused by opponents of evolutionary theory, or hijacked by Eugenicists and Social Darwinists in order to support their own prejudiced views. The "fittest" quote has been used to justify various groups' attempts to overwhelm enemies using the idea that "the strongest will survive," but this not what Darwin meant. He wrote of species adapting to their physical environment and survival being associated with the development of competitive advantages, as described above. By "fittest" he meant best suited (i.e. "most fit") for their particular physical setting. He did not mean "strongest" or "smartest," but this argument has been used by Creationists for over a century to ridicule and misrepresent evolutionary theory.
Finally, the Intelligent Design (I.D.) movement has attempted to alter the definition of science itself. It presents I.D. as a valid competing theory, when it is only a baseless supposition. The basic statement proponents of I.D. rely upon is that "the universe is too complex to have come into being without outside influence, therefore some Designer must exist." At best, this is an initial, unsupported hypothesis with no confirming evidence, no observable facts, and no consistency.
This is, however, not to say that it is impossible; it is only improbable given our current knowledge base. The possibility is open for the existence of some Designer, whether a deity or an advanced alien species. However, it is impossible to test I.D. in a scientific setting. No experimental structure can be produced to test the presumption that the so-called Designer has or has not had an impact on the results. Therefore it is not science and should not be taught as such. Creationism and Intelligent Design would be best presented as components in a course on comparative religion, but neither has any place in a class on biology or any other scientific discipline.
The Persistence of Creationism
It is not difficult to find reasons why a belief in the literal nature of Biblical teaching has persisted into the modern age. Modernity is accompanied by an increasing rapidity of change in both social and technical structures, and many people fear change to the extent of denying the validity or usefulness of new information. It should be noted that archaeological evidence suggests the change from stone to copper tools in the Middle East took thousands of years; today, it is not uncommon for technologies to be supplanted in less than a decade. Today's constant barrage of data, changes in scientific theory regarding the origins of humanity and the cosmos, and new technology is likely to produce the "future shock" so aptly predicted by Alvin Toffler in his book of the same name. Those who find the pace of modern technological change daunting (if not completely intimidating) are apt to take refuge in books such as the Bible, which they find comforting in its antiquity and apparent completeness. The Bible, as with the Koran and other religous works, serves as a bastion of consistency for people who find themselves overwhelmed by the pace of change inherent in other aspects of daily life.
Seeking comfort in consistency is nothing new, nor is it wrong to do so; however, caution must be exercised since flat denial of the reality of change brings not only stagnation, but also uncertainty and fear. As many have said, change is the only constant in the universe. Those who find themselves in the position of defending an established position against an assault of conflicting data may resort, as have many Creationists, to increasingly hysterical and counterproductive methods. The misunderstanding and apparently wilful misrepresentation of scientific principles, as outlined above, are representative of a desperate defense against what fundamentalist Christians see as an all-out assault by an enemy bent on the destruction of their faith. That this is not science's intent is irrelevant; fundamentalists are convinced of the reality of the threat that "materialist science" represents, and feel it is their duty to fight against it in order to protect the existing social fabric.
During an interview early in the new millennium, the Dalai Lama was asked what would happen if science uncovered irrefutable evidence that some aspect of Buddhism was incorrect. His response was that "Buddhism would have to change" in order to accept the new evidence. This answer is admirable and absolutely correct, but it is a response that Christianity is seemingly incapable of producing. The Church has been consistent in its opposition to new schools of thought, especially when they threatened established dogma. From the opposition to Copernicus' heliocentric theory of the solar system to bans on medical practices such as dissection and anatomical studies, the Christian church has sought to preserve its control of knowledge; in all cases it has lost and been forced to accept the validity of the new data. In the case of evolutionary biology, it has already lost--as witnessed by recent Papal statements accepting the validity of evolution as established scientific fact. However, certain fundamentalist sects have not accepted this outcome, and are attempting to preserve the illusion that evolution is "only a theory" or unsupported by data.
The "Fragmentation of Knowledge"
Building on the above theme, a great deal of the fear and uncertainty displayed by religious bodies in relation to scientific discovery appears to be related to what has been called the fragmentation of knowledge in the modern era. While this term is sometimes used to describe the increasingly atomic and over-specialized nature of higher education, some clergy have used it when discussing the problem of education itself. Richard Feynman described its use during a meeting where the ethics of equality in education were discussed:
"The Jesuit priest was always talking about 'the fragmentation of knowledge.' [...] This Jesuit was looking back into the thirteenth century when the Catholic Church was in charge of all education, and the whole world was simple. There was God, and everything came from God; it was all organized. But today, it's not so easy to understand everything. So knowledge has become fragmented." 1
Thus the fear felt by many religious adherents when confronted by scientific progress becomes clear: any debate involving phenomena previously defined in a religious document such as the Bible or Koran represents yet another challenge to comforting, long accepted beliefs found in those works, which are presumed to have emanated directly from a divine source. In other words, acceptance of evolutionary biology, heliocentrism, or even changes in the established social order (familial relations, sexual orientation, or women's rights, for instance) is tantamount to acceptance of Biblical error. The emotional and psychological distress produced by such a dichotomy is too much for many to bear, so they take refuge in the more comforting, long held beliefs while ridiculing or dismissing the opposing viewpoint.
As noted earlier, the debate between science and religion shows no sign of abating and is likely to continue for the forseeable future. The controversy over evolutionary biology and Creationism's place in public education represents the most public, visible aspect of this debate, and assaults against evolutionary science are likely to continue despite the 2005 judicial decision (2) rejecting Intelligent Design as a valid scientfic topic.
It is worth restating that only fundamentalist groups have staged active attacks on evolutionary biology. However, a significant percentage of the American public accepts divine creation as the mechanism by which humanity was produced; this seems to indicate that either the topic of evolutionary biology is not being delivered clearly enough in science classes (teachers may be glossing over the topic due to fear of parental objection or as a result of their own religious belief) or that students are not being taught the difference between belief and evidence. That critical thinking skills are rare in today's students suggests the latter is at least partially true, and several cases of teachers refusing to deliver material related to evolution have been reported. In such cases, the students suffer by being taught to ignore that with which they disagree. The damage to the educational process is incalculable.
Possibly the best hope for defusing the debate lies in improved education regarding the nature of scientific discovery, theory, and its relationship to religious belief. Given the assault on science being conducted by many fundamentalist religious leaders and the misrepresentations offered as part of these attacks, the scientific community should make a more concerted effort to present its discoveries in an accessible manner as they are made. That more people are unaware of the magnitude of evidence in favor of evolutionary biology and other controversial theories is evidence of two failures, one on the part of the scientific community and another perpetrated by mass media outlets that produce limited and often inaccurate coverage of new discoveries. The fact that many Hollywood films portray scientists as morally ambiguous, calculating, and often unethical characters also produces a skewed public perception of the value of science and the methods under which it operates.
Science and scientists are not the enemies of humanity or of religious belief; ignorance and fear are.
Notes & References
- The "Wedge Document"
- Wikipedia on Evolution
- Answering the Challenge of the Fossil Record (Talk.origins)
- Wikipedia on Social Darwinism
- Wikipedia on the definition of Theory
- 1) Feynman, Richard. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. Vintage Press 1992. P. 280.
- 2) The Kitzmiller Decision (Dover PA Public Schools)
Note: All information contained in these pages is © 2005 Richard E. Joltes. Excerpts may be used where proper credit is given and permission is obtained in advance. All rights reserved.