The Extinction of the Evolution Debate

Written on February 28, 2009 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen

This year marks the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth and, as good fortune would have it, the  sesquicentennial of the publication of his landmark and groundbreaking work The Origin of Species. To celebrate the occasion, a number of books on Darwin and his theories of evolution and the process of natural selection have been or will be published. And with them, the debate surrounding evolution has been heating up again.

Or has it?

At first glance it would seem yes; the first salvos have been launched. Richard Dawkins, the tireless former Oxford Don, biologist, author, wordsmith (he coined the term 'meme') and ubiquitous Darwin advocate, wrote a lengthy piece several weeks ago for the Times Literary Supplement reviewing the work of fellow Darwin apologist, Jerry Coyne, Biology Professor at the University of Chicago, entitled simply "Why Evolution is True." Professor Dawkins has his own book on this topic coming out later this year, so stumping the need for more books on Darwin in his TLS article is (as he freely admits) somewhat self-serving.

Why, one may ask, this need? Dawkins has a ready answer.

“Why bother? (writes Dawkins) Nobody takes creationism seriously, nowadays”….The melancholy facts are these. Polls in both Britain and the United States show a majority wanting “intelligent design” to be taught in science classes. In Britain, according to MORI, only 69 per cent want evolution to be taught at all. In America, more than 40 per cent believe that “life on Earth has existed in its present form since the beginning of time” (Pew) and that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so” (Gallup). … In October 2008, a group of about sixty American science teachers met to compare notes … at Emory University in Atlanta. … One teacher reported that students “burst into tears” when told they would be studying evolution. Another teacher described how students repeatedly screamed, “No!” when he began talking about evolution in class. Such experiences are common throughout the United States, but also, I am loath to admit, in Britain. … So, let nobody have the gall to deny that Coyne’s book is necessary."

Uh oh, I feel some gall building up. Now, I am a fan of Dr. Dawkins. I liked his book "The Blind Watchmaker" and have enjoyed watching his spirited and articulate public disquisitions defending evolutionary theory. But to extrapolate from what two – two – science teachers reported at a cluck-cluck session in Atlanta (which probably means they came from the bible-belt) to suggest that such experiences are common throughout the United States and Britain is, frankly, ridiculous. Based on that flimsy evidence, I am happy to deny that Professor Coyne's book is necessary. It is not only unnecessary, it is likely to be irrelevant.

Why? Here's my bold prediction. Almost everyone who buys Dr. Coyne's book will likely already agree with him. Preaching to the choir is doubtless fun. But necessary? I don't think so. Drs. Coyne, Dawkins et al would likely remark that even if their books remain wholly uncontaminated by disbelieving readers, they are nonetheless important in advancing the overall debate. But frankly, I doubt that too. And the reason is this: there's no debate to have.

Professor Dawkins sets up a straw man argument by citing polls that suggest wavering public opinion on teaching evolution in public schools and doubts about its veracity, such as this Harris Poll that found "almost two-thirds of U.S. adults (64%) agree with the basic tenet of creationism, that "human beings were created directly by God."

Ok, fair enough. But this is the country that gave the world eight years of George Bush. And a regular feature of world television is to enjoy the humour wrought by the extraordinary ignorance bred by US insulation such as this one from Australia, or Canada, or even from the US itself. Even with those astonishing demonstrations of supine ignorance, it is a major stretch to suggest that an angry, creationist-driven US citizenry is demanding that school curricula be changed to prevent children from learning all about the evils of Darwinism.

Indeed, in 2005 the Discovery Institute – a sham "thinktank" that exists, inexplicably, to promote creationism and have Darwin removed from the science classroom – managed to convince what I imagine were the mostly harmless rubes on the Kansas State Education Board (which is, inexplicably, an elected body) to foist something called "Intelligent Design" on their children. Intelligent Design, or ID as the uncognoscenti of the movement familiarly call it, is just standard-issue biblical literalism wrapped up in a few pseudo-scientific rags. Sadly, the so-called religious conservatives, aka zealots, on the Education Board actually approved this ludicrous change, thus giving everyone another reason to laugh at Kansas and making the state a byword for backwardness.

Kansans, as it turned out, were sensitive to the issue. They may not know much (they're not alone – cf. the clips I linked to above), but they don't enjoy being laughed at. As a result, happily most of the board members who voted to approve the teaching of ID were defeated in the next election. You can read about the sorry spectacle in this absurdly long Wikipedia article. I found this tidbit from the article amusing.

"Connie Morris, a conservative [aka zealot] from St. Francis in the northwest corner of the state, pointed to the "liberal media" for the loss [of her seat], noting that "liberal opportunists" do not mind "slandering people and harming their families and their reputation and their business and their communities and their state … It's a shame, and I feel bad for them when they face God on Judgment Day."

Quake heathens!

Now, it is true that the usual suspects are still braying their anti-Darwin, anti-evolution message. I found one after a quick google search, released just today! "Confronting Evolution's Racists Roots," an in-depth report by someone named Paul Strand, who is billed as the senior Washington correspondent for CBN – a seemingly harmless acronym that stands for Christian Broadcasting Network, major objective news source as that is. So let's confront away, CBN-style.

First up, we have someone named Dr. John West who tells us that Darwin was a "virulent racist." Dr. John Who? Hmm, seems Dr. West obtained a degree in government from Claremont Graduate University and is a "senior fellow at the Discovery Institute," the same flimflam-spewing doctrinaires that got the Kansas zealots hot and bothered about all the monkey-business being taught in science class. The learned doctor was also "formerly the chairman of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University," according to his online bio at Amazon.com, where you can also buy his modestly-titled tract "Darwin Day In America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science." (Oh that rascally, dehumanising Science!)

According to Seattle Pacific University's website, "at a time when the legacy of the secularized modern university is under scrutiny [meaning, presumably, that these institutions are what most university-bound students choose to attend], Seattle Pacific provides more than 3,800 students with a high-quality, comprehensive education grounded on the gospel of Jesus Christ." That may be true, but frankly I have doubts about a university that thinks putting Geography and Political Science into the same department is a good idea. But maybe that academic instruction is part of the Gospel according to John that I've just forgotten.

Anyway, the point is that no serious-minded viewer would think that Dr. West, with his PhD in government from Claremont Graduate University as well as his background heading up a Geo-Poli-sci faculty, is qualified to descant upon Darwin, or for that matter any scientific topic, in any way. So I would characterise the CBN report as follows: insanely-unqualified hacks, armed with half-baked academic credentials, trash talk Darwin to superstitious viewers who have convinced themselves that hating Darwin really hard will get them into Heaven.

This (mutatis mutandis) basically frames the debate that Professor Dawkins thinks we are having. Frankly, it is beneath his dignity. What does the rest of the world care if a few Bible-crazed Americans want to limit their children's future by teaching them junk in school in a few bible-belt backwaters? And, as the Kansas sideshow demonstrated, even in the "Darwin is evil" heartland, the ID agenda remains bilious for most.

This "debate," I suspect, is mostly about money. Many people have at this point made lucrative careers out of promoting or disparaging evolution. It sells books, fills auditoriums, gets you on TV. The leading proponents on each side of this false debate would become a lot poorer were it to be acknowledged for the real sham that it is. This stuff is mere empty polemics and it sells, if only in America, where the false debate rages on fuelled largely by their own efforts. Hey, it's a living. But I grow more concerned when serious-minded scholars of the calibre of Richard Dawkins or Jerry Coyne continue to subscribe to the tenets of this nonsense. The laughable claims of self-serving pseudo-academic poseurs at Fundamentalist Christian-affiliated "Institutes" do not consitute a debate. It's a circus side-act and not a very good one. When the Biology Department of Harvard University decides to chuck out evolution in favour of a biblcally-inspired curriculum, then I'll get worried. Absent that, I think we can safely declare this debate extinct.


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