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Survival of the Fittest Beliefs

From well-funded think tanks to faith-driven activists to determined politicians, the theory of evolution is again under attack—and evolutionists aren’t winning

It would be difficult to find a pair of more starkly contrasting images than these two, projected side-by-side on a large screen. The Troy audience for this recent evening lecture on the relationship between Christianity and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution were appropriately startled and amused by the juxtaposition; they laughed out loud. On the one side was a detail from Michelangelo’s tremendous portrait of creation in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, showing a majestic god touching the noble, newly created figure of man with the divine gift of life. On the other side was an artist’s rendering of an early, rodent-like mammal. To say the poor critter looked goofy would be an understatement. Half-rat, half-weasel, the creature appeared to be the work of an omnipotent creator, all right—a cartoon auteur like John Kricfalusi (The Ren & Stimpy Show) or Tex Avery (father of Screwy Squirrel, a character with more than a passing resemblance to this forlorn little beast).

The lecturer deftly voiced the pertinent theological question, which happily doubled as a perfect punch line: “How do you connect evolutionary science with the Christian tradition?”

The answer, for millions of Americans, is simple: No connection between evolution science and religious tradition is possible. A joint poll conducted by The New York Times and CBS News just after the 2004 presidential election revealed that while around one-third of all Americans accept the theory of evolution, a little less than half professed a belief that God created mankind 10,000 years ago. Breaking the numbers down further, in a bizarre bit of red state-blue state solidarity, 61 percent of Republicans and 51 percent of Democrats were in complete agreement that man was created, in his current form, by God. In contrast, only 9 percent of Republicans and 16 percent of Democrats said that humans evolved from “less advanced” beings over millions of years.

And the battle over evolution is heating up again. According to a March 14 story in the Washington Post, the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Virginia-based Liberty University is sponsoring a Creation Mega Conference in conjunction with “a Kentucky group called Answers in Genesis, which raised $9 million in 2003.” That same week, The New York Times reported that some IMAX theaters in the South were not going to show the James Cameron-produced documentary Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, because of the film’s references to evolution. (An unhappy Cameron told the Times that this was “symptomatic of our shift away from empiricism in science to faith-based science.”)

As Lisa Buzzelli, director of the IMAX theater in Charleston, S.C., explained to the Associated Press, “many people here believe in creationism, not evolution.”

If nothing else, at least some of the folks who support evolution have a defiantly bracing sense of humor about the ongoing struggle. In an April Fool’s Day lead editorial titled “Okay, We Give Up,” the editors of Scientific American were caustic and concise: “In retrospect, this magazine’s coverage of so-called evolution has been hideously one-sided. . . . We owe it to our readers to present everybody’s ideas equally and not to ignore or discredit theories simply because they lack scientifically credible arguments or facts.”

With mock solemnity, the SA editors resolved to henceforth dedicate themselves to “fair and balanced science.” (Italics theirs.)

Why is this theory so threatening to so many?

Biological evolution, as laid out by Darwin and generally accepted by the vast majority of scientists, refers to the process of changes in a population over time. (A long, long period of time.) Some of the changes are based on random genetic mutations. Others are based on “natural selection,” the concept that successful members of a specials will survive, breed and pass on their favorable traits, while those with less-than-favorable traits will pass these on in fewer numbers, and eventually disappear. Oh, and as a PBS Web site on the basics of evolution puts it, “All organisms, both living and extinct, are related.”In other words, that early mammal—the one who looks like Screwy Squirrel—is our ancestor.

But while the public may be divided, the people who study this stuff—biological and geological sicentists—overwhelmingly say the evidence is behind evolution. “Evolution is not the fringe,” explains Jason Cryan. “The other side is the fringe.”

This has been born out by surveys both serious and silly. A 2002 poll of Ohio scientists, conducted by faculty members at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, concluded that 93 percent of scientists did not know of “any scientifically valid evidence or alternate scientific theory that challenges the fundamental principles of the theory of evolution.” The National Center for Science Education started Project Steve two years ago, which has (so far) collected the signatures of over 500 scientists named “Steve” who attest to their support for evolution, a sly attempt to mock similar unscientific surveys collected by supporters of non-evolution based theories.

Cryan is the director of the Laboratory for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics at the New York State Museum. Cryan, who earned his Ph.D. at North Carolina State University, is also an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University at Albany.

Cryan’s research centers on lantern-fly DNA sequencing. As he explains on his Web site, he uses “DNA nucleotide sequences from nuclear and mitochondrial genes to infer phylogenetic trees (similar to genealogies), thereby hypothesizing evolutionary relationships among insect groups.” In other words, he travels around the globe collecting various kinds of lantern flies, and then analyzes their DNA sequences to see how they’re related.

According to Cryan, the whole argument is framed incorrectly. “It’s artificial.” Among members of the scientific community, he explains, the theory of evolution is, essentially, universally accepted. It’s not a matter of belief; it’s not—as he says is the case with intelligent design—a “faith-based endeavor.”

But isn’t evolution a “theory”?

In other words, that early mammal —the one who looks like Screwy Squirrel—is our ancestor.

This, Cryan says, is a misunderstanding of the what the word means in a scientific context. As described in information available from the National Center for Science Education, “theory means a logical, tested, well-supported explanation for a great variety of facts.” It is not a “guess, or a hunch.”

Cryan co-lectures in a course on evolution at UAlbany for biology majors. Choosing his words carefully, he says that he is surprised at how “misunderstood” evolution is, even among bio majors. Part of the problem, he suggests, is the time crunch in secondary education, which makes it difficult to “cover evolution in any meaningful way.” He also laments that there is also a general lack of scientific education among the general public—and, he adds, it certainly doesn’t help when the president of the United States says that “the jury is still out” on evolution.

He’s involved, however, in doing something about improving the teaching of evolution. For the past three years, he has organized the Teachers Workshop for Teaching Evolution at the State Museum: “The thrust of the workshop here is [to help educators] with specific lesson plans and concrete ideas for teaching evolution.”

This year’s conference, held Feb. 3 and 4, drew secondary-school teachers from all over New York state, and had its largest attendance yet: 65 teachers. The reaction, Cryan says, has been overwhelmingly positive; the only restriction many teachers complain about is the lack of course time they have for actually teaching evolution. For, while evolution is included in the topics required for the regents biology exam, Cryan says, “it’s not a big part of the exam.”

(Ironically, this minimal requirement does force private religious schools to teach evolution—even if evolution is placed in a “Biblical context.”)

Asked about the various movements to restrict the teaching of evolution in public schools—or introduce the teaching of “intelligent design” into school curriculums—his response is succinct.

“It could happen here.” The scientific and education communities, Cryan says, need to be proactive to see that it doesn’t.

Example: According to a March 31 story in New York Teacher (a publication of New York State United Teachers), a pair of high-school teachers in the rural Erie County town of North Collins were targeted in 2003 by “a local parent who, as a clergyman, sermonized about the teachers’ evolutionary teachings during Sunday services and bought a half-page ad in the local newspaper questioning their morality.”

A recently released informal survey by the National Science Teachers Association revealed that 31 percent of teachers said they feel pressured to include “nonscientific alternatives” to evolution in their classes.

And not all this pressure is coming directly from parents and activists. According to a Gallup poll released on March 8, 38 percent of teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 don’t believe in evolution. These teenagers do believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”

What, you may be wondering, is the main “rival” theory to evolution? It’s no longer strict Biblical “creationism.” Twenty years ago, the battle to have creationism taught in public schools was fought and lost. Now, many of the same anti-evolution activists have rallied around “intelligent design.” This is the concept that some of the processes and mechanisms of life are too complex to have randomly developed, and must be the result of design—which, logically, implies a designer.

Michael J. Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, is the author of Darwin’s Black Box, a very readable book for lay people that relates biochemical complexity to the theory of evolution. When the subject of intelligent design comes up, so does Behe. It is his suggestion that many life systems are “irreducibly complex,” and thus suggestive of design rather than the three pillars of evolution, time, genetic mutation and natural selection.

“I used to think Darwinian evolution was true,” Behe remembers, “because that’s what I was taught in schools. So I never had any trouble with it, until I read a book called Evolution: A Theory in Crisis by a man named Michael Denton, who was a geneticist working in Australia, and an agnostic who just raised scientific objections to the theory.”

Behe found Denton’s arguments to be “compelling,” and was surprised by his ideas, primarily because he had “never heard any objections before to evolution by scientists.”

“It made me kind of take stock of the theory, and I started to become skeptical after that,” he says.

After meeting up with some like- minded people—people, mostly, from outside of the sciences—Behe was inspired to write his book. It was received well in the anti-evolution community. Darwin’s Black Box was not well received in the scientific community, however. Biologists from across the spectrum picked it apart, argument by argument. (See for yourself: Google “Behe evolution,” and you will find page after page of examples, with the tone of the reply essays ranging from calm and reasonable to, as one article is described, “scathing.”)

Behe took this in stride, however, and remains unpersuaded: “Yeah, well, c’est la vie. My attitude is, well, until I see a response to my argument that I find persuasive on a scientific level, I don’t care if they throw brickbats at me.”

“None of the responses I’ve read,” he adds, “and there have been a lot, have persuaded me that my ideas are incorrect. I soldier on.”

Asked about his current work, he says “I’m working on things kind of related to intelligent design.

“One question I want to ask is, how difficult it would be to develop a new protein-protein binding site? And so I’ve been trying to do a theoretical model of that, and recently had a paper published in Protein Science on that topic.”

The purpose? “My interest is what is Darwinian evolution likely to be able to do, and what does it look like it would be too difficult for it to do.”

Behe is trying to draw a line between evolution and intelligent design: “If you’re like me, if you think there is such a thing as design . . . but you don’t think everything in biology is design, as I don’t, then [the question is] where is a reasonable place to draw a line?”

Behe is a fellow of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute (“which means they put my name on their letterhead”). This think tank spends, according to the Washington Post, “more than $1 million a year for research, polls and media pieces supporting intelligent design.” Their board of directors, at least as listed on their Web site, is packed with corporate lawyers (many who made the big bucks at Microsoft), business tycoons and a couple of ex-functionaries from the Reagan and Ford administrations. Granted, Discovery has a wider range of interests than just intelligent design—its transportation proposal for the Seattle area is pure Buck Rogers meets Bill Gates—but the board is noticeably short on scientists.

If there are a few scientists who doubt evolution, it’s useful to point out that there are more than a few theologians who support the theory.

The last program of the Chapel + Cultural Center’s Lenten Speaker Series—the program that started with contrasting slides—fell on the last Wednesday before Holy Week started this year. The C+CC is the center of Roman Catholic life on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and this particular lecture series is designed to help that particular community (and the community at large, too, “regardless of religious affiliation”) to focus on various aspects of spirituality and Christianity in the six weeks before Easter.

This final speaker, Georgetown University professor of theology John F. Haught, addressed God After Darwin—an interesting subject for a program four days before Palm Sunday. It’s even more unusual considering that Haught’s ideas, which fit into a long tradition of Roman Catholic thought, have no problem reconciling God and evolution.

After the comic example of Michelangelo’s God and the proto-weasel, Haught went on to describe other theologically troubling examples of what seems like evolution’s offhand cruelties. He showed a picture of a crocodile munching on a snake—a typical Animal Planet-style, survival-of-the-fittest visual money shot—and asked “Where is divine care?” He pointed out that, in developing the theories on evolution and the origin of species, Darwin lost his Christian faith.

And yet, building on the ideas of the early 20th century geologist-priest Pierre Teihard de Chadin, Haught built a case for evolution as “an expression of providence.” Evolution, he argued, with its gradual increase in organized complexity (and corresponding development of consciousness) leads to greater, not less, freedom.

“We know,” he said, “in a way our ancestors could not, that we live in an unfinished universe.” Why, he asked, would a creator make an unfinished universe? Because (answering his own question) there is no real alternative to an unfinished universe. A perfect creation is, he argued, theoretically inconceivable, because with no freedom there is no future.

Interestingly, Haught seems somewhat sympathetic to Behe, if only for the withering reaction Behe’s concepts provoked: “The scorn with which some scientists have greeted Behe’s rather guileless proposal is itself an interesting object of study.” Haught, however, has little sympathy for the ideas themselves, as he writes in his latest book, God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution:

“What strikes the theologian after reading Behe’s book is that if Darwinian theory is wanting in the full explanation of life, then so also is the notion of ‘intelligent design.’ ‘Intelligent design’ smoothly passes over the disorderly, undirected aspects of evolution that are also part of the life-process.”

Haught was even more pointed in his lecture. Intelligent design, he argues, has the effect of frontloading “the hand of providence.” To Haught, the concept of design as used by Behe and colleagues is too finite, and “a rather lifeless concept.”

The Catholic theologian sees something more promising in evolution: a “universe seeded with promise, rather than design.”

Of course, it’s possible to reconcile religion and evolution only when the religious tradition in question is not exclusively text-based. To those for whom the Bible is the literal, received word of God, it’s much harder for evolution to be anything but a kind of heresy.

And when Haught has given lectures on God and evolution in the South, he said, he’s been told by audience members that he isn’t really a Christian.

And for some of those adherents to text-based religions, taking on evolution is just the first item on a much bigger agenda. Take Kansas, for example. An effort is being made there to revamp teaching standards with regard to evolution. As Wichita-based Southern Baptist minister Terry Fox helpfully explained to the Washington Post, most citizens “don’t think we come from monkeys.”

But Fox didn’t stop there. “If you believe God created that baby, it makes it a whole lot harder to get rid of that baby,” Fox told the Post. “If you can cause enough doubt on evolution, liberalism will die.”

There are 19 states considering evolution-related legislation or regulation. As Jason Cryan says, “It can happen here.”

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