Archive for Monday, February 19, 2007

2 evolution theories drive debate

February 19, 2007


When I first arrived at the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse in Harrisburg, Pa., for what was billed as the second coming of the Scopes "monkey trial," a man mingling with the media gaggle handed me an invitation to a lecture titled "Why Evolution Is Stupid." The fellow advised me to come hear the truth about Charles Darwin's dangerous idea. Then he jerked a thumb toward the courtroom and said, "You're sure not going to hear it in there."

I had gone to Harrisburg just more than a year ago to research a book, expecting cutting-edge arguments for the theory of evolution pitted against an upstart movement called "intelligent design," which claims there is evidence of a master designer inside living cells. And hear them I did, in frequently riveting (and occasionally stupefying) detail, as the judge considered whether teaching intelligent design in public schools breached the wall separating church and state.

And yet that invitation and the angry, volatile town meeting it led me to that week proved even more enlightening. It showed me an essential truth of the culture wars in the United States: There are really two theories of evolution. There is the genuine scientific theory, and there is the talk-radio pretend version, designed not to enlighten but to deceive and enrage.

The talk-radio version had a packed town hall up in arms at the "Why Evolution Is Stupid" lecture. In this version of the theory, scientists supposedly believe that all life is accidental, a random crash of molecules that magically produced flowers, horses and humans - a scenario as unlikely as a tornado in a junkyard assembling a 747. Humans come from monkeys in this theory, just popping into existence one day. The evidence against Darwin is overwhelming, the purveyors of talk-radio evolution rail, yet scientists embrace his ideas because they want to promote atheism.

These are just a few highlights of the awful and pervasive straw-man image of evolution that pundits harp about in books and editorials and, yes, on talk radio, and this cartoon version really is stupid. No wonder most Americans reject evolution in poll after poll.

But then there is the real theory of evolution, the one that was on display in that Harrisburg courtroom, for which there is overwhelming evidence in labs, fossils, computer simulations and DNA studies. Most Americans have not heard of it. Teachers give it short shrift in schools because the subject upsets too many parents who only know the talk-radio version. But real evolution isn't random; it doesn't say man came from monkeys. Those claims are made up by critics to get people riled up - paving the way for pleasing alternatives such as intelligent design.

Real evolutionary theory explains how life forms change across generations by passing on helpful traits to their offspring, a process that, after millions of years, gradually transforms one species into another. This does not happen randomly but through nature's tendency to reward the most successful organisms and kill the rest. This is why germs grow resistant to antibiotics and why some turtles are sea animals and others survive quite nicely in the desert, and why dinosaurs - and more than 99 percent of all other species that have ever lived on Earth - are extinct.

The environment changes. The recipe for survival changes with it. And life changes to keep up - or it dies. Darwin's signature insight is both brilliant and elegantly, brutally simple.

The real theory of evolution does not try to explain how life originated - that remains a mystery. The truth is that many scientists accept evolution and believe in God - and in a natural world so complete that it strives toward perfection all on its own, without need of a supernatural designer to keep it going.

The judge in Pennsylvania eventually found that real evolution was not stupid; that intelligent design was religion, not science, and that the school board in Dover, Pa., whose actions had precipitated this replay of Scopes, was out of line. Judge John E. Jones III was rewarded for his sensible and well-documented ruling with death threats. Such is the power of talk-radio evolution.

Judge Jones has since told me that his only regret in the case is that he did not bend the rules to allow live TV coverage so more people could see the powerful evidence supporting his decision. Because the one thing the prophets of talk-radio evolution have, it seems, is the loudest megaphone.

- Edward Humes is the author, most recently, of "Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion and the Battle for America's Soul."


drewdun 11 years, 2 months ago

But, but, but...uhhh....hmmmm.....oh yeah - .JESUS!

Besides, its well-known that most Darwinists are anti-American, godless, atheistic, Islamocommunohomoextremofascist LIBERALS.

davisnin 11 years, 2 months ago

Where do these more successful organisms come from to be selected? RANDOM mutations. Computer simulations based on the math you use to explain your theories used as evidence for those same theories?

Both sides present the theory in a light that shows their side to be correct. Neither tells it all. And just like 99% of the science people argue about, most people can't understand it in the first place. If they did, there would be no argument as this article correctly points out it isn't even an origin of life theory, merely a change mechanism. Maybe instead of mocking, people should concede or explain that origin isn't even part of the argument.

What do you bet though, that they don't and all day in here all you'll see is arguments for and against the theory and how it explains origin and one side will be called godless and the other will be called ignorant.

imastinker 11 years, 2 months ago

He makes a very good point. The argument is about the origins of life and really has nothing to do with whether or not evolution occurs.

ID supporters believe in evolution too - they just think it's an incomplete story.

Personally, I don't want public school teachers trying to teach ID, because if they screw it up nearly as bad as the math, science, or english they tried to teach me - my kids will never figure anything out. Oh, well - at least they are not spending a whole week in January traveling around lawrence singing songs about Martin Luther King. Wait - that happened too - to me.

gr 11 years, 2 months ago

"The real theory of evolution does not try to explain how life originated"

Is that outside the realm of science? Or just of evolution?

jonas 11 years, 2 months ago

At this time, it's outside of science, I think.

This article should be sent to every parent of a school-aged child in the country. If only we could break the information hold of the pundits in some fashion, this world would be a better place.

gr 11 years, 2 months ago

"At this time, it's outside of science, I think."

Hmmm. I think there's something here, I just can't quite put my finger on it....

Nullifidian 11 years, 2 months ago

At this time, it's outside of science, I think.

At this time the origins of life is an ongoing research program (and has been for decades) within science.

gr 11 years, 2 months ago

I would agree that orgins should be a part of science in the same way as some seem to think we need to teach what we can't observe nor repeat as being within science. It would seem really strange to say science should not include origins and ESPECIALLY strange saying evolution shouldn't include origins. As a side note, saying that some things are outside of science would imply that other things are outside, too. Such as all life descended from one organism?

And for those such as K....., this is fully substantiated within evolution's own rules: We see change in individuals, therefore all life descended from a common group. It also follows that if all came from one "group" (whatever that means), then speculating similarly, that group also descended from a smaller one on down to one individual. Unless one thinks it's turtles all the way down.

Kodiac 11 years, 2 months ago

Ah Gr,

Really now, referring to me as K. Won't even spell out my name anymore how sad is that.... Anyway I see you are still up to your usual games. Not sure why I even respond to you anymore. I guess I do find it curious that you bring up the "turtle story" especially since it is a direct challenge to Intelligent design and is irrelevant to evolution. Who designed the designer? How did the designer become complex? Oh don't you know it is designers all the way down. Of course creationism cops out of this by saying the Creator is infinity so basically we have one Absolutely Gigantic Infinite Turtle. That sure clears just about everything up doesn't it Gr. Hmmm that sounds eerily close to the Flying Sphaghetti Monster...

But I do have a point somewhere in here. While evolutionary theory makes no claim about infinity or origins of life, science itself can, and does, strive to grasp everything about our natural world including the origins of life. To understand the origins, science has gone BEYOND principles of evolutionary theory to a paleontological examination of life's history on our planet.

Alas I must continue another time. Have a good night Gr and please consider studying paleontology. It is quite fascinating and illuminating....

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