If you haven’t already, it’s time to face the facts: evolution happened. Or rather, it’s still happening—humanity has been aware for hundreds of years now that our species and all others evolved from older, more primitive ancestors. Granted, evolution has not historically benefitted from a wealth of scientific evidence, but with the advent of modern scientific tools such as DNA sequencing, along with an ever increasing catalogue of ancient fossils, we can safely conclude the direction in which all the evidence points. Since the time of Charles Darwin, who himself admitted that his hypothesis lacked sufficient empirical verification, the evidence for evolution has become so overwhelmingly conclusive that the scientific community now almost unanimously regards it as a fact of nature.
Despite this, however, there still exists an astonishing and unwarranted controversy surrounding the education of evolution, particularly in certain areas of the United States, which leads to a significant number of people finishing school or university having fallen frustratingly short of scientific literacy. Many institutions and individuals, including politicians and teachers, hold a steadfast belief that evolution by means of Darwinian natural selection should not be taught in the biology classroom, and despite how easy and enjoyable such a belief is to satirise and ridicule, I think we’re in need of a more earnest approach when it comes to debunking the worryingly absurd arguments that such people are regularly vocalising.
“Just a theory”?
One of the most appalling of misunderstandings I regularly encounter, and the first I wish to briefly debunk, is the prominent idea that “evolution is merely a theory”. The emphasis here is usually not on the word “theory”, but rather the word “merely”, as if use of the word “theory” implies a sense of uncertainty or illegitimacy. On the contrary, a scientific theory is not some kind of trivial guesswork, rather it is the result of the continuous and rigorous testing of a hypothesis, which is formulated to “explain a group of facts or phenomena in the natural world and repeatedly confirmed through experiment or observation” (www.dictionary.com). In fact, labelling a scientific idea as a “theory” is about as complimentary as it gets. So when deniers decide to throw out this genius proposition that evolution is “only a theory”, an appropriate response could be “well . . . yes. But gravity is also only a theory, and I don’t see you throwing yourself out of any windows and attempting to fly because of it.”
A System Of Belief
With that cleared up, I’d like to address another argument that can lead to quite contentious debate. Read the following statement and assess to what extent you agree with its premise:
Science is just as much of a belief system as any other religion, and so it’s only fair that evolution should be taught alongside creationism in schools.
I should hope that you can immediately recognise the problem with such an assertion, however if you find yourself somewhat in agreement, I must make something crystal clear: The scientific method is not a religious belief system. Why? Well, the crucial difference between religiosity and science is that one worldview adapts in light of evidence, whereas the other adapts evidence in light of contradictions with its pre-existing notions. Science embraces that which challenges its ideas and recognises its ignorance. Religion ignores that which challenges its ideas and breeds ignorance. The underlying difference here is incidentally that which makes the scientific community to me so respectable and trustworthy; its ability and willingness to change its mind about everything.
A Matter Of Pride?
So why is it that the simple ideas of natural selection, speciation and common ancestry attract such high levels of hostility? What is it about being cousins with monkeys and chimpanzees that so damages one’s pride? I think there are two explanations:
- Evolution is incompatible with creationism.
- Common ancestry removes our traditional sense of animalistic individuality.
As for the first point, clearly the theory of evolution and the account of creation given in the book of Genesis are incompatible. Not only does the history of evolved life require a time frame significantly larger than that which is implied by scripture, but also nature is riddled with all kinds of phenomena which not only can’t be explained by intelligent design, but can only be explained by evolution. Take, for example, vestigial traits. These interesting organs and structures are features which no longer serve the purpose which they did at some point in an organism’s ancestral past. Not only are these oddities present in a boundless variety of life on Earth, but they are also remarkably common. An example with which you will surely be familiar is the experience of goose bumps, which occur in animals in response to coldness or shock because animals with thick hair can simultaneously insulate themselves and appear physically more imposing when it stands on end, which helps them to survive. Humans, however, are no longer hairy enough to be able to utilise this trick (you can still see it in action if you ever scare your cat, though), so goosebumps have become an entirely useless trait, and I find it to be a rather unconvincing hypothesis that God designed humans with a host of needless features that happen to perfectly correspond with results you would expect to see from natural selection, and which serve no purpose whatsoever other than to confuse evolutionary biologists.
Regarding point number two, there seems to be a reluctance to accept that humanity is but a cog in the clockwork of biology, because at face value this can be interpreted as somewhat of a depressing reality. This needn’t be the case, though! Yes, it does appear that humans are not quite as special and unique amongst the animal kingdom as we once liked to believe, but if you ask me, understanding our true place as a species within the vastness of nature is an incredibly humbling experience. You, I, and all 7 billion human beings on this planet are related not only to each other, but to every bird, tree, whale, flower, spider and lion that also inhabits this rock of ours. How anybody could see this as an distressing realisation is a complete mystery to me.
The declaration of germ theory, quantum theory, gravitational theory, and atomic theory as scientific facts is seldom met with any kind of antagonism, and certainly never with anything quite as extreme as that which so routinely and bitterly challenges evolutionary theory. Whatever the reason, be it religious or not, the hostility towards such a fundamental scientific principle can’t go on. Evolution is not only vitally important to understanding our own selves, the history of earthly life, the nature of antibiotic resistance and more, it is also exceptionally fascinating, and no child or adult should ever be deprived of learning of its wonders. If you ask me, in a world so infected with malice and greed, so occupied with egomania and separation, so divided by politics, religion and class, we are in desperate need of something to remind us that we are all, in essence, one.