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Evolution's survival

February 12, 2009

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, an occasion that ought to be cause for universal celebration. Not only was Darwin's theory of evolution a scientific epiphany, millions of people owe their lives and their health to research that is predicated on Darwin's insight that human beings share a common ancestor with other species. But there is a malodorous skunk at this garden party: a movement rooted in American-style biblical fundamentalism that seeks to discredit Darwinism and undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Like species in the Darwinian account, the opposition to evolution has mutated over the years. The initial strategy was to ban the teaching of evolution outright, as Tennessee did in 1925 (provoking the Scopes "monkey trial") and Arkansas did in 1928. It wasn't until 40 years later that the Supreme Court invalidated Arkansas' law. That should have been the last word, but opponents of evolution have ingeniously recast their crusade, from "creationism," with explicit invocation of the Book of Genesis, to "creation science" to "intelligent design." For good measure, they have couched their arguments in terms of academic freedom.

Fortunately, the courts have seen through these subterfuges. But the fact that they had to intervene at all is a reminder that opposition to evolution persists in the face of overwhelming evidence. In a debate during the 2008 Republican presidential primary, three of the 10 candidates raised their hands when the moderator asked who didn't believe in evolution. Two-thirds of the respondents in a 2007 USA Today/Gallup poll said that it is definitely or probably true that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.

Explanations for this attitude abound: biblical literalism, uneasiness with Darwin's theory of natural selection, the mistaken belief that a scientific "theory" is just a guess, and a failure to distinguish between minor revisions of Darwin's theory and fundamental objections to it. The overriding reality may be that many Christians don't realize many of their coreligionists see no conflict between evolution and belief in God. In 1996, Pope John Paul II declared that evolution was "more than just a hypothesis." Francis Collins, who retired last year after 15 years as head of the Human Genome Project, an enterprise that presumes the truth of evolution, is a Christian.

However ingenious the arguments, opposition to evolution is literally unreasonable. Schools must stand firm against attempts to introduce theology into science classrooms -- not out of veneration for Charles Darwin, but because students deserve to be told the truth.

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