Evolving the truth


The debate between Evolution and Creationism in the classroom rages on. David Osborn discusses why it needs to be put to bed

Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond educated, informed scientific doubt; it is a fact beyond doubt. With more evidence than there is for the Holocaust, evolution is at least as robust as the Atomic Theory or Germ Theory.

Evolution holds that all life evolved from simpler life, in a series of non-random steps which took place over millions of generations. Intelligent Design, also known as Creationism, is the claim that life is too complex to have arisen naturally, and therefore must have had an intelligent (and presumably more complex) designer, i.e. God.

Despite the evidence, many people don’t accept evolution to be true, and quite a number reject it outright. The reasons for this are twofold: one is a total lack of understanding of the concepts involved, and the other is the deliberate ignorance of science because it clashes with religion. Those who reject it outright are sure that it is false because their religion requires it to be so, and they see the teaching of evolution as an assault on their religion (it is noteworthy that educated religious leaders accept evolution, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Pope).

But why are Creationists dangerous? Surely scientists can just get on and do science, and ignore those who don’t understand it and choose to disregard it? Sadly not. Creationists are highly influential, conspicuously well-funded, and growing in number. These are people who are hostile to science by their nature; they believe that everything they need to know was given to them by God in their holy books. They have powerful elected officials (even Prime Ministers and Presidents such as Tony Blair and George Bush) fighting for their cause.

To make things worse, the leaders of the ID movement are also prolific liars – people who deliberately misrepresent evolution to make it seem less plausible than it is, and who have ultimately manufactured the myth that there is actually a serious debate raging. They are dangerous because they are trying and succeeding to legislate for religion against science, using tax money. In some US states, biology textbooks must have stickers saying that evolution is “only a theory”, or that it is an unproven hypothesis – both misrepresentations so severe that they are essentially lies. In Britain, the government gives support to religious schools which teach that science is wrong if it contradicts the bible.

Being fundamentally opposed to science, Creationism perpetuates itself by teaching people to fear and mistrust science, to avoid exposing themselves to the writings of scientists, and to value their own personal opinions and beliefs over conclusions arrived at by diligent research and supported by empirical evidence. Academic freedom and scientific integrity are at risk in the face of Creationism. Science holds authority because it is the proven way of discovering how the world works, but this authority is being undermined by people who claim they already know how the world works, whose way is sacred and God-given. Anything opposing their view is wrong and even dangerous to their faith.

This view is spreading, and Turkey is no longer the only democracy in the world to have a majority reject the grand unifying principle of biology. Some polls show that 47 per cent of Americans reject evolution. It is also no longer a mainly American phenomenon: in Britain, a majority now feel Creationism and evolution should be given equal time, and over a quarter believe Creationism to be the literal truth. Among the Muslim world, acceptance of evolution is very low.

In fact in most educated countries, Creationism is gaining ground. This is not because it has merit. It is simply two things: fear on the part of people in authority of offending religious sensibilities; and ignorance about science, because admittedly, science can be hard to grasp, or even to believe, because it is so magical.

Now more than ever, human civilisation is dependent on understanding science and technology. Issues like climate change and alternative energy, genetic manipulation and cloning, stem cell and other medical research, environmental destruction and species extinction are all complex matters, and we as a people cannot hope to make the right decisions if we do not possess an understanding of the science involved. Without such an understanding, there is no way to separate facts from hype, spin, and fiction.

What is to be done? Simple: every person should pick up a book and learn about evolution, and the scientific community must unite and confront this mortal enemy. Evolution is true, and it must be taught that it is true, why it is true, and why Creationism isn’t. The alternative is to watch as more and more people know less and less about science, until eventually, in the words of Carl Sagan, this combustible mixture of ignorance and power blows up in our faces. In this modern world science is power: power over nature, power over ourselves and our destinies, power over the fate of our entire species, and even over life and death. We must not allow it to be overcome by this threat.