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Happy B-Day, Chuck
The science has evolved, but not the people

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
February 14, 2009

Gallup ran a poll this week, asking, “Do you, personally, believe in the theory of evolution, do you not believe in evolution, or don't you have an opinion either way?”

First off, it's an idiotic question. I saw the poll over on Think Progress (39% “believe” 25% did not “believe” and 36% had no opinion either way. One of the bloggers over there, nymed 5th Estate, wrote “This kind of question irks me no end. How about 'are you satisfied that evolution is the most satisfactory explanation thus far of the diversity of species?' Or… 'do you believe that the earth is 6,000 years old and that all dinosaurs were vegetarians and co-existed with humans and can you explain why the dinosaurs then disappeared and when?' Or how about, 'do you believe that airplanes are supported in flight by angels and that the engines are there just for show?”

Evolution isn't something you “believe” in. You can disbelieve if you want – the Constitution upholds the right of anyone to be an idiot in public – but “believing” in evolution is a bit like “believing” in the theory of gravity. Nobody knows what a unit of gravity is. We don't know how fast it moves, or indeed if it moves at all, if the speed of light applies to it, or of any way to block it. All we can do is observe it, describe it, and, based on those observations and descriptions, predict its behavior.

The fact of the matter is that we understand evolution a whole lot better than we understand gravity. And yet people who will look miffed and tell you, “of course there's gravity!” don't “believe in evolution.”

The Gallup poll, framed in a stupid parlance, brought predictable results. I prefer to think that the 36% who were described as having no opinion pulled their heads back, glared at the pollster, and said something like, “What sort of stupid question is that? You don't 'believe' in evolution!” I'm afraid, though, that a lot of them were Olive Oyls, intellectual bankrupts who looked at one group that discusses the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event, and its effect on present life, and another group that insists we call came from Fred Flintstone. They just split the difference, and think Fred Flintstone, a good Christian, survived the Cretaceous-Tertiary event.

A lot of people, including quite a few who “believe in” evolution, still think Darwin said we were descended from monkeys. Back quite a few years ago, I was debating a creationist on One Net who wrote, “I don't believe we're related to apes any more than a bible is related to a two-by-four.” I spent a few moments contemplating the nearly once-in-a-lifetime setup line, and then explained our relationship to apes, which is the same as a bible and a two-by-four; both of the two share a common ancestor.

Charles Darwin turned 200 this week, on the same day that Lincoln did. Both inadvertantly triggered massive change that caused western societies to evolve. Both are revered, not because their views are immediately relevant to today (Lincoln believed that slavery should be permitted in the states where it already existed; Darwin had never heard of chromosomes), but because their almost accidental presence at just the right moment in history sparked massive change and revolutionized western thought.

I had a fifth grade teacher, a Mrs. McCurdy, who told us that her grandfather had a powered flight in 1909 that went almost half a mile, dwarfing the accomplishment of the Wright Brothers in America. It was the first powered flight in the then-far-flung and mighty British Empire. The following year, he flew from Nova Scotia to Florida, an incredible achievement for the time. McCurdy's tragedy was that he did it AFTER the first flight at Kitty Hawk. Darwin wasn't the first to realize that species began, existed, died out, and other species sprung up to replace them. Lincoln wasn't the first to realize that the nation could not continue half slave and half free. Both just happened to be at the intellectual, political and emotional nexus, and were there to be part of history rather than on the outside peering in like the unremembered Mr. McCurdy. Well, not totally unremembered; he oversaw the Canadian aviation effort—no small thing—during World War II, and went on to become Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia.

At this juncture, Lincoln's legacy may be the stronger. Two hundred years after he was born and 146 after he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a Black Man is president of the United States. For Darwin, a full quarter of the population reject his theory, or a strange parody of it called “Darwinism”, in favor of incoherent and contradictory tales of humans being sculpted from dust by cosmic sky muffins. But then there was a report today that a Professor Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute had announced that they had a “first draft” mapping of the genome of Neanderthals.

Darwin didn't know what a gene was. Or a chromosome. Let alone a genome. He would have been stunned to learn that in the fairly recent past there had been a race of hominids who spoke, walked erect, used tools, fashioned jewelry, and had burial customs. Not human, but like us, and perhaps our equals. They may have had religions, and considered their inner voices and feeling to be their “soul”.

Darwin might have read Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein” but he still would be astonished at the possibility that one day humans might be able to resurrect their long lost cousins by recreating their genetic code and implanting it in an egg.

So in the end, Darwin's legacy, despite the whims of willful ignorance on the part of the public, remains as solid as ever.

The theory of evolution has evolved. One can only imagine the sense of awe and wonder Darwin would experience if presented with a modern high school biology text. He might have a resigned smile for the little outraged teacher in that high school who is angry that Adam and Eve isn't taught alongside the theory of evolution, leaving the poor kids to wonder how Fred Flintstone survived the Cretaceous-Tertiary event.

The duality of the universe is supposed to be good versus evil, and never ask why one mighty being might choose to be good and the other evil. But the duality in human nature is between reason and irrationality, between understanding that fire is a chemical process with heat and light as its by-products, and fire as a device to keep the evil spirits at bay. It existed in Darwin's day, and surely he knew of the persecution of Galileo for having the temerity to suggest that the perfect celestial spheres were, like the moon, marred by mountains and plains. Galileo, despite that persecution, took a surprisingly bright view of the ability of the human mind to grasp reason. At various times, he said, I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn't learn something from him.”; I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”; and All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.”

Darwin would have understood those statements; indeed, it's likely that he did.

But Galileo also said, “You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him discover it in himself.”

Humans need to evolve a bit more before we are ready to discover those things in ourselves presently blocked by abject superstition.

But Darwin has given us some signposts.

Happy Birthday.

Posted: February 18, 2009

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