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Obfuscating Biological Evolution


Elie A. Shneour

Volume 29.6, November / December 2005

On May 5, 1925, biology teacher John T. Scopes was arrested in Tennessee for the crime of teaching Darwin’s “theory of evolution.” Although the word evolution dates back in the English language to 1647 in another connotation, it does not appear even once in naturalist Charles Darwin’s (1809—1882) landmark publication, On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, which he published in 1859. The book primarily reports and brilliantly analyses Darwin’s meticulous observations of finch-beak variety in the Galapagos archipelago compared to those birds on the adjacent South American mainland.

In his momentous conclusions, Darwin does not breathe a single word to assert that humans are descended from monkeys, although he proposes a still wrongly misconstrued idea of common descent. Darwin’s immense and provocative contribution to biology was about natural selection and not about how new species come to be. Natural selection is only one of several mechanisms by which evolution takes place. Individual organisms do not evolve; populations do.

How new species arise was not worked out until well into the twentieth century, primarily by geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900—1975) and biologist Ernst Mayr (1904—2005). It is Dobzhansky who famously said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” By that time, the theory of evolution was firmly established through one confirming discovery after another, in every single biological discipline from anthropology, through molecular biology and paleontology (filling in the “missing” intermediate forms of life, for example), to zoology.

There is always a wealth of creative arguments among scientists about technical details to be resolved, but the basic framework of evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology. It is as solidly based as the heliocentric theory of our planetary universe, because there exists no meaningful falsifiable evidence to contradict it. If the theory of evolution turns out to be wrong, a very unlikely proposition, it could only be replaced by another and better scientific theory—not by spurious special pleadings for which no scientific evidence exists.

Opposition is not limited to biological evolution. There are still people at the Flat Earth Society, for example, who seriously insist on religious grounds that the world is flat and that Earth is the center of the universe.

Misunderstanding of biological evolution is widespread. Evolution, for example, is not synonymous with progress. Populations can and do retrogress. Evolution has nothing directly to do with the issue of the origins of life. That is an altogether different subject. Human beings did not “descend” from apes, but the two creatures do share a common ancestor. In the simplest terms, evolution is about changes taking place in populations of living organisms as a function of time and environment.

It is difficult to understand why this subject, authoritatively studied for over 150 years, elicits so much mindless controversy. The mainly religious hostility to the theory of evolution is as fierce today as was the opposition to Copernicus and Galileo’s heliocentric theory (that the sun and not Earth is at the center of our planetary system) centuries ago. The Roman Catholic Church finally accepted the heliocentric theory late in the last century, some 350 tortuous years after it was promulgated.

The attempt to inculcate “creation science” in Louisiana public schools was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court as religious dogma rather than science, in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard in 1986. So now, the creationists have brazenly come back with a renewed stab at teaching “creation science” under the guise of Intelligent Design as part of the science curriculum. The idea of Intelligent Design is that living organisms in general and human beings in particular are so complex that they could not possibly have emerged by way of a purposeless, clueless, mechanical route. But this is exactly what actually has been happening in real life, and the mechanisms for this astonishing process are already understood in extraordinary detail. Science is certainly one of the most ethical of all human endeavors, as it emerges from a profound respect for the marvelous world that scientists are continuously discovering anew.

Elie A. Shneour

Elie A. Shneour, a neurochemist and biophysicist, is president and research director of Biosystems Research Institute in La Jolla, California, and a longtime Committee for Skeptical Inquiry fellow. He has served on many national and international science advisory bodies and is a member of the American Chemical Society, the American Society of Biological Chemists, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the International Society for Neurochemistry, Sigma Xi, and several other scientific organizations.