What’s at stake in the evolution debate


On my desk is the fragment of a tooth from an ancient camel that roamed the area around Fossil, Ore., 40 million years ago. My kids and I unearthed it on a summer camping trip, and today I found myself fingering it as I read yet another story about the evolution "debate."

This controversy pits Darwin’s concept of evolution and natural selection against "intelligent design," which asserts that life is so complex that it must reflect a guiding intelligence. Mindful that the teaching of creationism has been barred by the courts, intelligent design advocates are careful not to name the designer, but their arguments postulate a creation that was perfect and unchanging; in other words, divine.

Across the country and throughout the West, school boards are struggling with this issue, often seeking incoherent "compromises" that satisfy no one. They must certainly confuse students. In Utah, for example, a conservative state senator recently withdrew his plan to require instruction in "divine design," but only after being assured by the state superintendent of public instruction that human evolution would not be taught in Utah schools.

Meanwhile, in a recent sit-down with Texas journalists, President Bush weighed in on the issue: "both sides ought to be properly taught ... so people can understand what the debate is about." Many may feel — well, fair enough. Give this intelligent design idea equal time, or at least a fair hearing. What’s the problem with that?

The problem is that there simply is no debate in the scientific world about the validity of evolution. After a century and a half of research, there is near-universal agreement among biologists that Darwin’s principle of natural selection, coupled with modern knowledge of genetics, explains the development and workings of life on earth. This consensus is fundamental to modern medicine, to genetics, to embryology, to the classification of plants and animals, and to every other branch of biological science.

Everywhere we look, the living world shows evidence of both past and continuing evolution, from the development of feathers on dinosaurs and birds to the rapid spread of antibiotic resistance among bacteria. In contrast, "intelligent design" makes no testable predictions, and it is not supported by any data at all — certainly nothing as tangible as my fossil camel tooth.

No, the debate over evolution is not really about a scientific idea. It is just one part of a struggle over how Americans understand the world. At issue is this: Will we continue to be a reality-based society, or not?

Placing our understanding of reality in the hands of purveyors of belief — whether they are political ideologues, religious zealots or corporate spin doctors — would mean that we have decided to believe what we choose, rather than rely on factual evidence. Unless compelled by facts, people rarely choose to revise comfortable assumptions or to make sacrifices. America’s conversion into a belief-based society would mark the beginning of an inexorable slide into delusional thinking. Some could argue that this process is already well-advanced.

Before the invasion of Iraq, neoconservative members of the Bush administration disparaged "reality-based" diplomacy as quaint and old-fashioned. An unnamed senior official was quoted as stating: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

The disastrous course of events in Iraq following our "victory" there has proved the folly of allowing belief to pre-empt attention to facts. Any society that believes it is immune to the basic workings of cause and effect is doomed to decline.

Relying on science to understand reality and to predict consequences does not diminish religion. For almost all people the world around, religion fills existence with meaning and provides moral instruction on how to live. Neither evolution, nor the fact that the earth is not the center of the universe, nor any other once "blasphemous" finding of science, threatens religious faith.

Those who condemn science in the name of religion have a terrible record, ranging from medieval Christian clerics who plunged Europe into the Dark Ages, to contemporary Islamic extremists who reject any conclusion that conflicts with their interpretation of the Koran. How could the United States even contemplate surrendering our understanding of the world to purveyors of belief? That surrender will have begun if we allow a trumped-up debate between science and non-science — evolution and intelligent design — a place in our education system. The stakes could not be higher.

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a Ph.D. biologist who lives and writes in Ashland, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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