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Evolution – we know it isn’t popular, but why not?

July 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Another essay I wrote for a class.

The American public widely denies the scientific theory of evolution. Only 40% of Americans know that humans developed from an earlier species of animals, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to that point. I could go on by outlining the evidence for evolution of species, speciation, and natural selection, but that is not the subject of this essay. Rather, I shall assume that the audience is aware of the incredible amounts of evidence supporting evolution. Why is evolution so heavily ignored? Partly due to organized religion, partly due to politics, and partly due to the population not knowing or understanding the evidence.

Religion quite obviously plays a role. Religion on its own needn’t oppose evolution, and people who are ‘spiritual’ or not ‘biblical literalists’ often attest to a belief in evolution while retaining a belief in God, including many religious leaders: Roman Catholicism, for example, fully accepts modern cosmology, abiogenesis, and evolution, while building their faith on matters that are actually subject to faith. Carl Sagan noted in one of his books a discussion with the Dalai Lama, the religious leader of Tibetan Buddhists: Sagan posed the question of what would happen if some central tenet of their faith were disproved by science. The Dalai Lama allegedly responded that Tibetan Buddhism would have to change, but that religion works because those central tenets would be very hard to disprove. As long as religion stays in the realm of faith, the institution of religion is not the problem.

Religion causes problems when religious leaders teach a literal interpretation of their holy book, which teaches their flocks to ignore and shun evidence and to blindly accept the church’s teachings, and when religion ventures into the realm of science and make testable predictions. Preachers often do this unintentionally – their sermons are made to praise their deity, not to teach critical thinking. However, when the congregation is taught to follow blindly, they don’t learn to extend standards of evidence and reason to their worldview. This leads to justifications of ‘intelligent design’ using arguments from authority, where someone claims that some religious authority (or book) supporting the idea of a creator is sufficient evidence. Even shepherds with a mind of science can mislead their followers by omitting critical thinking and failing to make clear the metaphorical nature of their creation story. Pastors who wish to lead their congregations rightly must stress that ancient sources are not believed to be literally true, that we now know more about the world than they did, and that the important things are the loving nature of their chosen deity and the need for reason and critical thought throughout all matters in life. Because this weakens religion, pastors are not likely to adopt this view, and very few do. This is the reason that so many nonreligious people think that religion “hardens hearts and enslaves minds” – it is directly opposed to reason and scientific thought.

Politics is another factor. Due to the dichotomy between the two parties, the teaching of evolution in public schools has been made a major political issue, which vastly changes the argument: due to the nature of the two-party system, such issues are conflated with every other major political issue, from healthcare to the budget. Since most people affiliate with one of the major political parties, they give their vote to all of that party’s views, even though they may disagree with a minority of their positions. Thus, a small far-right republican base is able to influence the entire party to deny evolution and attack the teaching of science in our schools. This isn’t hypothetical – this is actually happening. Most recently the media ran a story on how the Texas school board was trying to deny evolution, as well as certain parts of American history and a few other points. You just can’t make this stuff up.

In the general population, the evidence isn’t very commonly known, or understood. Most people don’t think that their understanding of evolution directly affects their life, and they’re probably right. And so, they don’t seek out the evidence, and continue to perpetuate their ignorance to their children, and the cycle just continues. This is evidenced by some common claims of evolution deniers. Some say that certain structures are so complex, they must require more than one mutation to occur, where only one mutation – presumably to the halfway point – provides no evolutionary advantage. One example is the eye – what use is half an eye? Whereas the evolution of the eye probably proceeded from simpler omnidirectional light-sensing cells, to more complex structures with some directionality, and finally gaining the ability to produce a complete image. An experiment on bacteria has demonstrated the possibility of this: two independent mutations were observed, allowing a set of bacteria to use a certain type of food, where either mutation individually would have had no effect. Another common claim is that evolution is merely ‘random changes’, where anyone who had even a few minutes’ education in evolution by natural selection would know that evolution works by systematically selecting for or against different traits in a manner that is certainly nonrandom. If people were introduced to that idea and considered it with an open but critical mind, they might understand their world a little more. But if people are taught to ignore evidence and only trust their religious authorities, then they’ll never know any of that. All they can hope to do is repeat the same things as they are taught, gaining no insight into how and why we came to be.

The denial of evolution – the denial of the history of our species and of all life – is rampant in modern America, and throughout history. It’s caused by a lack of scientific understanding, but there are more specific causes. Organized religion cripples the faculties of logic and reason that are necessary for any understanding of science. Politics magnifies the issue to a national level and gives the religious majority the power to censor from our children’s classrooms the teachings of science. And the population’s lack of scientific curiosity keeps them from seeking out and analyzing the evidence.

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