Genetics and Evolution - The Modern Evolution-creation Debate
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Arguments over the accuracy and importance of Darwin's theories have continued to the present day. Creationists believe the biblical account of the earth's creation as it appears in the book of Genesis. Some acknowledge "microevolution"—changes in a species over time in response to natural selection—but they generally do not believe in speciation—that one species can beget or become another over time. There are various gradations of creationist beliefs, but all reject evolution and its argument that the interaction of natural selection and environmental factors explains the diversity of life on Earth.
At the core of the conflict is the observation that evolution threatens the view that human beings have a special place in the universe. Many creationists find it disturbing to contemplate the idea that human existence is a random occurrence, or that universal order is a chance occurrence rather than a response to a divine decree or plan.
The issue remains prominent enough in present-day society to have warranted a feature article, "15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense," by John Rennie in the July 2002 issue of Scientific American, which rebuts some of the arguments raised against evolution. For example, one of the creationist assertions addressed is that "nobody has ever seen a new species evolve." Rennie explains that speciation often occurs over the course of centuries and that recognizing a new species during its formation may be challenging; however, he contends that existing scientific literature documents speciation in insects, plants, and worms. He also dispels the notion that life is entirely too complex to have been created by a process other than "intelligent design."
In the November 2004 issue of National Geographic, David Quammen asked, "Was Darwin Wrong?" Quammen, an award-winning science writer, wrote that despite seemingly overwhelming evidence, many Americans believe evolution is simply an unproven speculation rather than an explanatory statement that fits the evidence. Despite the fact that observation and experiment support evolutionary theory, its apparent contradiction with many religious tenets renders it unacceptable to those Americans who choose to believe that God alone, and not evolution, produced human life on earth.
One-Third of Americans Believe Darwin's Theory
Nearly a century and a half after Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, his theory remains highly controversial. A 2004 Gallup Organization survey found that only 35% of Americans believe that Darwin's theory is well supported by scientific evidence, and the same percentage feel it is not supported by scientific evidence. As Table 3.1 shows, the balance of Americans surveyed, nearly 30%, say they do not know enough to judge the veracity or merit of Darwin's theory. (Frank Newport, "Third of Americans Say Evidence Has Supported Darwin's Evolution Theory: Almost Half of Americans Believe God Created Humans 10,000 Years Ago," Gallup Organization, November 19, 2004, http://www.gallup.com/poll/content/default.aspx?ci=14107).
The Gallup poll revealed that nearly half of the U.S. population rejects evolution in favor of the belief that humans were created by God approximately 10,000 years ago. The remaining Americans surveyed hold beliefs consistent with evolutionary theory—that human beings developed over time with or without guidance or involvement from a divine figure. (See Table 3.2.)
The poll characterized those most likely to accept evolutionary theory as those who are well educated, self-described social and political liberals; those living in the West; those who infrequently attend religious services; and Catholics. People least likely to ascribe to Darwin's theory were those with the least education; older Americans (many of whom expressed uncertainty about the theory in general); frequent church goers; self-described social and political
conservatives; Protestants; those living in the middle of the country; and Republicans. (See Table 3.3.)
BELIEFS ABOUT EVOLUTION AMONG TEENS.
A February 2005 Gallup Poll asked teenagers to choose one of three statements as most consistent with their own beliefs about the origins of human life on earth:
- Humans developed over millions of years, but God guided the process;
- Humans developed over millions of years, but God had no part in the process;
- God created humans pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so.
As Figure 3.1 shows, 43% of teens believe that God guided human evolution over millions of years; more than a third of teens (38%) think that God created humans in more or less their present form; and just 18% believe in evolutionary theory without divine guidance.
The Gallup pollsters also asked teens whether or not they believe evolutionary theory is supported by scientific evidence. More than a third (37%) think evolution is a theory well supported by evidence; 30% feel it is not well supported by evidence; and 33% conceded that they don't know enough to say. Unlike adults, who are more or less evenly divided (35% feel Darwin's theory is well
supported by evidence and 35% think it is not), teens appear to favor of Darwin's theory. (See Figure 3.2.)
Some States Move to Teach Creationism in Public
Since almost 70% of Americans say they do not believe in evolution, it is not surprising that the decision about which theory—evolution or creationism—should be taught in America's public schools has been hotly contested. The National Center for Science Education, an organization that defends the teaching of evolution in public schools, reported that between 2001 and the close of 2004 there were school board battles over the issue in forty-three states.
Some opponents of teaching evolution propose teaching an alternative known as intelligent design (ID), an explanation that credits intelligence, as opposed to an undirected process such as natural selection, as the source of life on earth. Proponents of ID disagree with a basic tenet of evolutionary theory—Darwin's claim that the complex design of biological systems resulted by chance. They contend that direction from an intelligent designer—a supernatural being—is necessary in order to explain adequately the origins and complexity of life on earth, particularly human life.
In an article in the New York Times (February 7, 2005), Michael Behe, a professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University, asserted that the concept of intelligent design does not involve the notion of an all-knowing creator. Behe claimed that ID is science based on physical evidence and logic. He reminds readers that "it's important to keep in mind that it is the profound appearance of design in life that everyone is laboring to explain, not the appearance of natural selection or the appearance of self-organization.… Design should not be overlooked simply because it's so obvious."
Throughout the United States, school boards have considered whether they want to teach students Darwin's theory, creationism, or alternatives such as intelligent design. In 2002 a school district in Cobb County, Georgia, voted to place stickers on new biology textbooks warning students and parents that "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered." On January 13, 2005, federal district court Judge Clarence Cooper ordered the stickers removed. Judge Cooper maintained that any "informed, reasonable observer" would know why the sticker was there, and "interpret [it] to convey a message of endorsement of religion."
In January 2005, eighty years after the Scopes trial, the school board in rural Dover, Pennsylvania, became the first in the nation to require that students be taught that an alternative to evolution exists. As of February 2005, no state school board had mandated the teaching of intelligent design exclusively; however, school boards in Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin have moved to include it in the science curricula.
Interestingly, even staunch advocates of Darwin's theory do not necessarily wish to exclude the teaching of creationism or intelligent design—they would simply prefer that these alternative explanations be taught in the context of religion classes rather than in science classes. There are even those who advocate both theories. The Vatican has stated that it does not consider evolution to be in conflict with Christian faith. Francis Collins, a committed Christian and the director of the Human Genome Institute at the National Institutes of Health, has repeatedly expressed his view that God created the universe and chose the remarkable mechanism of evolution to create plants, animals, and humans.