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Darwin, still the bad man of science



Darwin Today, guest blogger Jonathan P. Smith writes in honor of Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. Smith is a board member of Florida Citizens for Science, a professional member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the National Center for Science Education. He writes:

"Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, and published On the Origin of Species some 50 years later. That of course means that 2009 is the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of his most famous -- or infamous -- work. Celebrations are planned worldwide, many taking place in America and several in our own state of Florida.

"However, just how many members of the general public will attend these events is another matter.

"In this country, one that at present leads the world in science and technology, Darwin is still the 'Bad Man of Science.' Americans have readily embraced and utilized the theories of Pasteur, Einstein and Marconi. We have even forgiven Galileo for suggesting that, contrary to biblical text, the earth is not the center of the universe. But not so with Darwin.

"His revolutionary ideas that turned science on its head are the very ones that alienate him from much of religious America. For many, the implications are just too hard to comprehend -- that man does not possess a divinely gifted domain in an anthropocentric universe, but rather our species is the result of purely natural processes.

"Among 34 Western countries surveyed on the acceptance of evolution, America placed just above Turkey at a lamentable 33. While 75 percent of Americans believe the devil exists, only 25 percent accept that we evolved from a common ape-like ancestor. Americans are still fighting a culture war between science and religion, a war that ended in many other countries decades ago. It’s a fight that if not resolved, or at least reconciled, will, despite all the honest intentions of a forward-thinking president, inexorably harm the scientific credibility of our nation.

"In spite of the efforts of the scientific populace to teach our schoolchildren evolution, rather than a specific religious philosophy, many Americans still passionately resist those efforts, even ignoring the pleadings of many from within their own religious communities. Battles are being raged in state and local school districts, including our own state of Florida, where efforts have been made to 'water down' the newly proposed state science standards.

"Last year, state Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, and state Rep. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, narrowly failed to secure passage of the so-called Academic Freedom Bill, which required a 'critical' analysis of evolution. [Note: A similar bill is pending in this year's Legislature.] In fact what was actually at issue were the purely religious objections to a scientific theory which seems to many to be a denial of their faith.

"Some who support evolution recognize this dilemma, arguing that science and religion may co-exist, and that many prominent scientists are also people of faith. Of course neither of these factions, the creationist or the scientists, can speak for all of their communities and herein lies the hubris.

"Science and religion may co-exist, but only if we try to redefine one or the other. And that concept does not hold well in either camp. Scientists like Kenneth Miller, a biologist and practicing Catholic, and Francis Collins, head of the human genome project and an evangelical Christian, seem to have no problems in balancing evolution with their religious faith. But others, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, both world renowned scientists and authors, as atheists find this impossible.

"Those of religious conviction who support the science of evolution say other believers should transcend the literal meanings of scripture and that the creation accounts, such as those found in Genesis, should be viewed only in an allegorical concept. Yet to many, this position is just not acceptable; it simple erodes the inerrancy of scripture and denies their status as God’s favorite species.

"Holding on to these beliefs presents meaning and purpose to their lives, while evolutionary biology appears to do neither one. It must be said that this frame of thinking is the single reason why so many still press for evolution to be excluded from our science classrooms, or at least have creationism taught in conjunction with it.

"Evolution has and does influence people’s lives every day, whether you accept its premise or not. It’s there from our choices in medications such as antibiotics, to ensuring an adequate food supply, to decisions we make about conservation and the environment, to learning skills in software development and in particular biotechnology, which as an industry is rapidly growing within the state of Florida.

"Educators at any level never impress on their students that they must believe in evolution, only that they study it, assimilate the facts and be prepared to be tested on those facts, just like any other area in which knowledge is acquired. As for the students’ spiritual education, not only is it illegal for teachers to teach-preach about religion in schools (covered by the First Amendment), it simply is not their responsibility. This rests squarely upon the student’s family and the religious community.

"When Darwin first wrote On the Origin of Species, it was a full 20 years before he decided to publish, knowing full well the impact it would have, not only in the scientific field, but also in the social-religious community. At the time, confiding to a friend, Darwin said 'he felt that he was about to confess to a murder.'

"Now 150 years later, attempts in this country to reconcile God and Darwin still remain a stumbling block to science education. Will science and religion ever be harmonious? I think we all know the true answer to that question.

"Perhaps the most we can expect is that we may come to the realization that science and religion are merely different but complementary ways of explaining the universe in which we all live. If we fail, this conflict will continue. And ultimately, it will be the children of our state and our country who will reap the unfortunate legacy of the past 150 years."


[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 10:14am]


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