Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Evolution and Intelligent Design

Author: Jeff Schweitzer, Ph.D.

What about evolution creates such a fuss in our society? We do not see people getting exercised about Quantum Mechanics, String Theory or the Theory of Relativity. But mention evolution and you invoke an immediate and visceral reaction. Local school boards are elected, rejected and then re-elected solely on this issue. No other scientific discovery is so deeply embedded into the fabric of American politics.

The debate about intelligent design in public schools is a uniquely American phenomenon, a quirk of our history and culture. Beyond the theocracies of the Middle East, religion permeates American politics in a way not found anywhere else in the world. No other developed country, east or west, is host to a serious political movement dedicated to the destruction of secularism.

We have to go all the way back to Italy in 1614 to find another example of a powerful political machine dedicated to the suppression of a broad scientific truth with deep implications for human understanding. That is the year in which Galileo's observations of the earth orbiting the sun were first denounced as a threat to the established authority of the Catholic Church, which claimed Galileo's doctrine to be false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture. We have regressed four centuries. Intelligent design is nothing but a transparent fig leaf for creationism, a child of that dark era in the 1600s. Comparing creationism or intelligent design to evolution is no different than insisting that we teach today that the sun actually orbits the earth as an alternative theory to modern astronomy. Only in the United States are such discredited views taken seriously by a large portion of the citizenry. We can and should do better. Intelligent design has no place in a science classroom.

Nevertheless, the debate will inevitably continue: evolution strikes at the core of expanding religiosity deeper than other scientific truths such as the age of the earth because the conclusions are more personal. Imagine yourself back in that amazing year of 1859 when Charles Darwin published his masterpiece. The day before Darwin's book was published, you woke up thinking yourself the image of God; the next morning you realize you have the face of a monkey. Not everybody immediately embraced this rude demotion. Resistance to the idea was inevitable, if not futile.

Sometimes the word ""theory"" associated with evolution is misunderstood to mean that the concept is not well established. Oddly, that burden is not shared by the Theory of Relativity. Einstein apparently hired a better publicist than Darwin, if not a better barber. Evolution is a fact, an undeniable, proven fact, as certain as the existence of atoms. Only some of the details of the mechanisms of evolution remain to be elucidated. Cancer is a fact, though not all the mechanisms leading to malignancy are understood. Theory does not imply uncertainty; instead, a grand idea, such as General Relativity or Evolution, can be well-established but remain under the rubric of a theory because the ideas encompass and explain a broad range of phenomena.

Complicating public acceptance of evolution as a scientific truth is the fact that society is still largely scientifically illiterate. Although understanding the basics of science is critical to everyday life in a technology-driven society, the subject is given only cursory treatment in most public schools. As a result, people are often poorly equipped to understand the complexities of an issue before forming an opinion about the costs and benefits of adopting or restricting a particular technology. The issue of therapeutic cloning offers a prime example. Religious bias and scientific illiteracy combine powerfully to restrict a technology with extraordinary potential for good, with little associated risk. The upside of therapeutic cloning could be cures for diabetes, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, and a host of other devastating diseases. There is no downside.

As religiosity has ascended in American life, policy debates have become faith-based rather than being anchored in logic. Support for a policy position becomes unmoved by contradictory facts because proponents simply ""believe"" the position to be correct even in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. That explains why 80% of Republicans still support the current president. Just as there is no way to determine relative validity between religions, or to diminish faith with facts, as soon as logic is removed from policy debates, competing positions are no longer evaluated based on relative merit, but are supported as inherently right, immune to any reasonable counter arguments. This slide away from secular debate leads increasingly to polarization, greater animosity and a loss of civility because the only way to support a position is simply to assert supremacy as loudly as possible. We are reduced to childlike tantrums of ""I'm right, you're wrong, I win."" Without logic, there is no common basis for discussion, and no way to mediate disputes. The death of secularism is the death of civility, and nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the debate about teaching science in schools free from religion.

About the author: Jeff Schweitzer spent much of his youth underwater pursuing his lifelong fascination with marine life. He obtained his doctorate from UCSD and has published in an eclectic range of fields, including neurobiology, marine science, international development, environmental protection and aviation. Visit


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