“He’s a great science teacher, but he doesn’t believe in evolution.”

by Valerie Tarico

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. – Charles Darwin

Last week, as I was driving a carload of middle-schoolers to a movie, the kids started talking about their teachers. I couldn’t help overhearing, “ . . . He’s a great science teacher, but he doesn’t believe in evolution.” Two days later, a friend reported that her 15-year-old daughter had just returned from at a junior government retreat. “They argued the pros and cons of teaching intelligent design in schools, and she said there were some very compelling arguments on the pro side.” When I repeated the story at the dinner table later, my own daughter mentioned a school mate who feels conflicted about his biology curriculum because his family doesn’t believe in evolution.

Charles Darwin published his world-changing work, On the Origin of Species, 150 years ago this week. What he proposed was breathtakingly simple. It can be reduced to three parts: variability, heritability, and differential survival. Variability means simply that creatures are different from each other, even within a species. Heritability means that those differences are in part handed down from parent to child. Differential survival means that not all of us live to produce the same number of offspring, and that those who have more offspring are better represented in future generations. Once you concede these three points, evolution becomes inevitable.

Even so, for 150 straight years, fearful Abrahamic literalists have been trying to deny the facts about natural selection or at least to keep them away from young minds. Reality threatens their belief that the earth was created in six days and then re-created in an ancient flood (young earth creationism), or their belief that it evolved but was tweaked regularly according to some divine blueprint (intelligent design). More to the point, reality threatens their belief that we -- stinky, mean, bipedal-primates-with-bad-backs who love and hate and make cool stuff and then destroy it -- are the pinnacle of creation and center of the universe.

Generations of scientists have subjected Darwin’s theory to tests that weren’t possible back in 1859. These include computerized reassembly of fossils, radio carbon dating, core samples of geological layers, DNA sequencing, even laboratory experiments that create distinct bacterial species out of a single ancestor. Mountains of evidence have confirmed that, with some adjustments, Darwin was right. Today our understanding of natural selection provides the foundation for the life sciences – genetics, biology, biotechnology, medicine, animal husbandry, and more.

And yet unbelievably, some religionists still labor to create the illusion of confusion. Unfortunately, this forces them to cast aspersions on the whole scientific enterprise. They love the fruits of science in the form of mammography and cell phones and airplanes. But they reject the obligations of the scientific method, which say that before making truth claims you must ask the questions that could show you wrong. And they are deeply suspicious of scientists themselves. (Why would scientists keep getting the answers so wrong unless they were deliberately trying to undermine faith?) Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we labor to deceive ourselves.Reality threatens their belief that we -- stinky, mean, bipedal-primates-with-bad-backs who love and hate and make cool stuff and then destroy it -- are the pinnacle of creation

If nothing else, creationist efforts to undermine science and science education should teach us something about our species, about our impressive capacity for delusion. Given enough motivation and community support, we humans seem to have an almost boundless ability to cling to a story regardless of the evidence. Without religion, there would be no such thing as a good science teacher who “doesn’t believe in evolution.” But given the right ideological filter, this paradoxical teacher becomes perfectly possible.

We all are prone to “confirmation bias” which is a tendency to seek information in support of what we already believe, disregarding any contradictions. Religious orthodoxy over the centuries has refined confirmation bias into an art form called “apologetics.” Apologists start with a set of handed down conclusions and then reason backwards from there, drawing in logic and evidence only as these support their foregone conclusion.

These people, in my mind, worship an idol with clay feet. They don’t worship a Power that is actually great enough to create the intricacies of the natural world, but rather a golden calf called the inerrant Bible or the inerrant Koran. (Call it bibliolatry—text worship. In an age of widespread literacy and printing presses, what better golden calf than a literally perfect book?) They don’t trust that all truth is God’s truth, and that nature really does have something to say about her creator. They minimize the fallibility of our ancestors who wrote and assembled our sacred texts and church leaders who interpret them. Consequently, they don’t see that they have made a god in the image of man.

When it comes to Darwin’s theory, some of the most sophisticated apologists in the country are housed in a Seattle institution called the Discovery Institute. They use the language of science to undermine the work of science. That may be why, in one of the most secular parts of the country, we can find teachers who think that disbelief in evolution is somehow compatible with the obligations of the scientific process.

The creationists will be shown to be on the wrong side of history, but in the meantime, they have the power to do serious harm. In the service of their idol, they undermine the cutting edge education and research that have let us attain our current cultural/technological nexus. In doing so they also undermine our ability to innovate and solve the great challenges we now face: climate change, population pressures, weapons of mass destruction, and resource depletion.

When Darwin first noticed evolution, it flew in the face of everything he, as a Christian, had been raised to believe. It flew in the face of his theological training. It flew in the face of his beloved wife Emma’s devout faith. And so, working almost alone, he spent twenty painstaking years assembling logic and evidence before he finally went public with his suspicions. Through all that time, he had the integrity to follow the evidence where it might lead and ultimately the courage to challenge the apologists. Those of us who care about the future of our species cannot afford to do any less.

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