The following post is by Donald Prothero, author of Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. You can also read his earlier post, Evolution: The Fossils Say Yes.
As we mark the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth on February 12, and the sesquicentennial of the publication of On the Origin of Species in November 2009, the world also reflects on the beginning of a scientific revolution that profoundly changed not only biology, but also the way we view ourselves and think about our place in nature. Evolutionary theory has come a long way since 1859, developing into a robust science that beautifully explains nature. The fact that life evolves has not been controversial in scientific circles since Darwin’s death in 1882. It has been demonstrated again and again by amazing evidence from the fossil record (see my Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters [New York: Columbia University Press, 2007]). Not only do we have irrefutable proof from fossils that organisms have evolved over millennia, but we can watch evolution in action at many shorter timescales, from the viruses and bacteria that evolve and trigger a new cold and flu season each year; to the pests that evolve resistance to every insecticide we develop, threatening our crop production; to other examples of plants and animals that evolve over years or decades, painstakingly documented by field biologists who work under harsh conditions with little reward.
Evolutionary biology has brought us enormous practical benefits, from deciphering the nature of infection, disease, and pesticide resistance; to better appreciating our peculiar anatomy (see Neil Shubin, Your Inner Fish [New York: Vintage, 2008]); to determining the likelihood of a cross-species organ transplant being rejected. More important, the study of evolution is the key to understanding all of nature. It is the central thread that connects all the branches of biology: genetics, embryology, biogeography, systematics, and behavior, among many other fields. As the great geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in 1973, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
Although there is no dispute in the scientific research community that evolution occurs and has occurred, the United States finds itself in the peculiar situation of virtual scientific illiteracy. Poll after poll shows that most Americans are appallingly ignorant when it comes to basic science. We always rank at the bottom of the list, with countries like Turkey and Croatia, while the top of the list is dominated by western European nations plus Iceland, Canada, and Japan. What do all these scientifically literate countries have in common? Science is taught in their schools without interference from meddlesome religious minorities. In particular, they have no significant creationist movements to torment school boards or influence politicians. Only the United States can claim the dubious distinction of having the best scientific labs in the world and most of the world’s Nobel Prize winners in science, along with a population that is as scientifically backward as that of a third world country. Now that many blue-collar and white-collar jobs have migrated overseas, what will happen to our country if one of our few remaining advantages—supremacy in scientific research—is destroyed by Luddites who fear science because it tells them what they don’t want to hear?
Many Americans are confused and misled by creationist mischief and meddling. Many hear the fundamentalists claim that “evolution is atheistic,” yet nearly all the mainstream Protestant denominations, plus most Jews and the entire Catholic Church, long ago came to terms with evolution and accept it as the means by which God created the universe. As Pope John Paul II put it, “The Bible tells you how to go to Heaven, not how the Heavens go.” The Clergy Letter Project bears the signatures of more than 10,000 ministers, priests, and rabbis who accept evolution. A majority of evolutionary biologists and paleontologists are religious, so there’s no conflict between evolution and God for all these devout scientists.
The history of creationist efforts in the United States is that of a religious minority trying to force its viewpoint on public institutions, in violation of the First Amendment. In the 1920s, some states passed “monkey laws,” which banned the teaching of evolution in the public schools and finally were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1967. In the 1970s and 1980s, opponents of evolutionary theory donned the label “scientific creationists,” although the very nature of their belief system, with its preconceived dogma forbidding the testing of their ideas, showed that they are not really scientists. The courts saw through this thin disguise in the 1980s, only to have creationists reemerge in the 1990s as “intelligent design creationists.” This sham was exposed during a trial in 2005 in Dover, Pennsylvania, that concerned the teaching of intelligent design and by numerous scholars who have shown that the roots and goals of the advocates of intelligent design are clearly religious. Now creationists are demanding “balanced treatment” of their ideas in schools and arguing that we should “teach the controversy.” This notion appeals to Americans’ basic sense of fairness. In some subjects where there is genuine controversy over the facts, debate might be useful. But the reality of evolution has been demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt for over a century, and science curricula are already too overloaded to waste time teaching the discredited ideas of a religious minority. After all, the flat-earth creationists insist that the earth is flat and that the NASA photos of the spherical earth in space are hoaxes. Do we give them equal time, too? Their beliefs are just as sincerely held as those of the other creationists and just as contrary to all the scientific evidence available. What’s next? Do we replace chemistry with alchemy? Astronomy with astrology? Physics with magic?
America has suffered from this foolishness long enough. If we don’t want our citizenry to become even more scientifically illiterate, and let our preeminence in science slip away, we must come to terms with the reality of evolution and stand fast against those who would sacrifice scientific knowledge for their narrow sectarian viewpoint, in violation of the Constitution. In 1959, celebrating the centennial of the publication of Darwin’s book, the great paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson wrote, “One hundred years without Darwin are enough.” Yet fifty years later, we have made almost no progress. It’s time to stand up and say, “One hundred fifty years without Darwin is too long!