by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Commentary of the Day - May 29, 2001: Isms, Religions, and Myths of Origin - Darwinism in the Schools. Guest Commentary by Ben Carter.
Darwinism has been controversial in the United States since the late nineteenth century. The controversy is now relatively tame in the colleges and universities, where Darwinian ideas are now almost universally accepted. But fierce battles are still being fought over the textbooks, curricula, and standards for high school biology. Opponents of Darwinian ideas have apparently chosen secondary education as the target for their fiercest attacks on the scientific establishment.
The controversy between proponents and opponents of Darwinian ideas has developed a curious symmetry. Whatever the proponents say is copied, with minimal changes, and thrown back at them by the opponents, who thereby show a remarkable lack of originality.
Darwinian ideas combined with genetics and molecular biology have developed into a theory which is the centerpiece of modern biology. This theory of organic evolution is accepted by all reputable biologists and by most people who have been educated in the sciences.
I would bet that the rate of acceptance of evolutionary theory would show positive correlations with IQ and socio-economic status in any properly conducted survey of the U.S. population.
Nevertheless, there do exist otherwise intelligent people who noisily object to evolutionary biology. Their objections are always based on their religion, not on an honest scientific appraisal. These people are called "creationists". Their propaganda is called "creationism" and is often aimed at children.
At first, creationists tried to keep Darwinian ideas out of the classroom. That is what the Scopes "monkey trial" was all about. When that effort was not completely successful, creationists asserted that evolution was "only a theory" and should not be presented without giving equal time to the alternative "theory" of "scientific creationism". Now that the U.S. courts have judged the latter "theory" to be religion masquerading as science, the creationists have devised a more subtle "theory" of "intelligent design". This is the latest form of their continuing effort to keep children ignorant of modern biological science.
Creationists don't especially like to be called creationists. They have retaliated by applying the label "evolutionist" to anyone who accepts the theory of organic evolution. This is a childish reaction: "you called me a name; I'll call you a name right back". And furthermore, the creationists assert: if one "ism" is a religion, then so is the other. Creationists are not above calling "evolutionism" a religion, and thereby denying the difference between science and religion. This is, among other forms of intellectual dishonesty, an attempt to evade the court decisions.
Why do creationists behave the way they do? It seems that most creationists believe that the theory of evolution in general, and Darwinism in particular, cause people to turn away from God and therefore to do all kinds of evil deeds.
Why creationists believe this myth is not entirely obvious. It has something to do with the reception of Darwin's magnum opus in the United States shortly after 1859. The fact that Darwin's own loss of faith was related to his scientific explorations is probably a contributing factor.
In any case, creationists
view Darwin's theory the way ancient Greeks viewed Pandora's box, except
that creationists think they can stuff all the bad things back into the
box and close it up again.
Ben Carter is a freelance writer from California who holds a Ph.D. in physics. He held a variety of positions in industry and academia before his retirement several years ago.
The Irascible Professor comments: Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the attempts to challenge the teaching of evolution in the schools is that even though creationists have been unsuccessful in obtaining "equal time" for their religious views about the origins of life, they have been able to create a very chilly atmosphere for the teaching of evolution. Many high school biology teachers avoid the subject to avoid the controversy. As Dr. Carter notes in his commentary, the evidence in favor of the modern theory of evolution is very strong indeed -- far stronger than the evidence in favor of biblical theories of creation. We do our children a disservice when we avoid talking about it in the schools.
The "scientific revolution" is now only a few hundred years old. During that time religion has slowly adjusted its interpretation of dogma to accommodate incontrovertible scientific observations. At one time, sections of the Bible were used to challenge heliocentric models of the solar system. Eventually, people adjusted to the fact that the earth is not the center of the solar system (or the universe). No doubt, in time people will adjust to the fact that life evolves.
© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.