What We Talk about When We Talk about Darwin

Article excerpt

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Evolution is the most culturally complex and controversial idea in all of science. Nothing else comes close. More than a century after Darwin's On the Origin of Species, the theory arouses hostile reactions in everyone from clueless high-school students to TV preachers to the well-educated senior fellows at the Discovery Institute. Less than half the country agrees with the scientific community that evolution is the best explanation for origins. Courts have had to protect the central role played by evolution in high school biology. If popular consensus refereed the schools, the embattled theory would be long gone. Teachers in school districts from Oregon to Florida struggle with how to present evolution to their students. Many don't bother, omitting or glossing over the topic to avoid controversy. Some Christian colleges and universities, even accredited ones such as Cedarville College in Cedarville, Ohio, and Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, teach that evolution is false.

Professors at secular universities in conservative parts of the country report that students arrive in their classes with strong creationist sympathies, and many of them graduate without changing their minds. Consider the remarkable case of Kurt Wise, the leading young-earth creationist. Wise completed an undergraduate degree in geophysics at the University of Chicago and then went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, working for the late Stephen Jay Gould. Wise graduated from Harvard with the same young-earth creationist beliefs he had when he entered college. Creationism can be hard to dislodge.

Teaching evolution is almost impossible. In no other subject, even outside of science, is the primary challenge whether the students believe what is taught, rather than understand what is taught. Despite the simplicity of Darwin's equation-free theory with its winsome stories of giraffes stretching their necks to reach the top of the fruit trees and peacocks preening to impress the peahens, few high school students seem able to learn it. Despite its universal presence in high school and college classrooms, Americans reject evolution with the same enthusiasm today as in previous decades. And despite its increasing relevance to research in biology, well-educated antievolutionists continue to oppose it.

The controversy surrounding evolution generates enormous press. Books appear daily attacking the theory or defending it against attack. A secondary literature has emerged analyzing the controversy and tracing its roots. Books arguing that evolution is incompatible with Christianity counter those arguing the opposite. There are magazines devoted to promoting evolution, disputing it, and even dealing with the disputations. Publications nominally covering the intersection of science and religion provide disproportionate coverage of the creation--evolution controversy. Television presents the same coverage. The seven-part PBS series Evolution devoted an entire episode titled "What About God?" to the controversy. The creation-evolution controversy is only, in the most trivial sense, a scientific dispute. It is, instead, a culture war, fought with culture-war weapons by culture warriors. Facts are almost irrelevant. Truth is valued when it serves a purpose and not for its own sake. Name-calling, caricature, cover-up, and hyperbole dominate. Compromise is out of the question. And, in the midst of all this, high school teachers are supposed to teach evolution to their students, oblivious to the gunfire outside the window.

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A TALE OF TWO WORDS

After decades of reflecting on the evolution controversy, I am convinced that the conflict is only tangentially scientific. Those who would adjudicate this dispute by appealing to science are wasting their time. The conflict is not about determining the proper inferences to draw from fossils, genes, and comparative anatomy. …