Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Double Dose of Darwin in 2009

This is a banner year and I’m up for a year-long bash in honor of Charles Darwin. Both the bicentennial anniversary of his birth and the sesquicentennial anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection will be celebrated in 2009. Here’s to learning more about the man, his book, and the theory. Cheers!

Still, I know there will be at least one local school board somewhere in the United States that will try to add alternatives to evolution, such as “Intelligent Design,” to its biology curriculum and to inform students that evolution is “just” a theory.

I suspect that Darwin would be surprised that his now time-tested theory is still generating controversy over its general validity. True, he certainly experienced criticism and vilification in his lifetime, and not always from his enemies. In one letter, asking for an opinion on the Origin of Species, he wrote: “Pray do not suppose that I expect to convert or pervert you; if I could stagger you in ever so slight a degree I should be satisfied; do not fear to annoy me by severe criticisms, for I have had some hearty kicks from some of my best friends.” (Letter to Joseph Prestwich, a professor of geology, March 12, 1860, emphasis in original)

But, later, he did see his theory take root in scientific circles despite continuing controversy, and he expected a popular consensus in support to follow. “To the present day I am continually abused or treated with contempt by writers of my own country; but the younger naturalists are almost all on my side, and sooner or later the public must follow those who make the subject their special study. The abuse and contempt of ignorant writers hurts me very little.” (Letter to W. Preyer, a professor of physiology, March 31, 1868, emphasis added)

I’m not surprised that it’s now “later” and a substantial portion of the U.S. public doesn’t follow the overwhelming majority of scientists on this issue. This is partly explained by the strength of religious belief in this country and, as the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found (link), many here trump science with faith when they feel the two conflict. I co-teach a course on church-state issues in the U.S., focusing on clashes over religion in public education, including the ongoing legal battles surrounding the teaching of evolution. Though I don’t agree with them, the depth of feeling of evolution’s opponents doesn’t baffle me, because, after all, religion and children are involved.

At the same time, I am bemused by the heated exchanges about the reality of evolution and the role of natural selection that can erupt in online discussion groups of fossil collectors. Fossil collectors? Haven’t they listened to what their fossils are actually saying to them?

Note: The quotations come from The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, edited by Francis Darwin (1887) (link).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Nature Blog Network