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Darwin & The Return of Ignorance

I find it amazing that on the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, the battle is still being fought over whether or not his Theory of Evolution is mere fantasy. In a recent study, 51% of the British public said they doubted Evolution, with 40% saying that they specifically disagree with it. This is ironic when you consider that only 10-20% said that they attend church each week. In the United States it’s even more depressing, with 80-90% of the American public polled claiming to believe that some kind of intelligent design played a role in biology (again with the apparently contradictory number of 40-50% claiming to attend church regularly). What this says to me is that the number of those who profess to have doubts or outright disbelieve Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution extends far beyond the ranks of those one would consider to be religious.

Personally, I believe this disparity can be accounted for by realizing that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution has been politicized. Simply put, it’s not just religious people who are rejecting scientific evidence in favor of believing that the Great Eye In The Sky slapped some clay on the proverbial wheel and created us, our world and everything in it. If they’re right, I suppose we’re all fortunate that God is a tinkerer, and decided that on that particular week instead of going on vacation he finish that nagging project of creating the Universe and everything.

It’s amazing to me that in 2009 these battles are still being fought. One would think that 150 years of observable evidence since the publication of On The Origin of Species might carry some weight in certain circles. There’s certainly more observable evidence to support Evolution than to support the existence of God. But that’s not the issue, is it? Whenever you try to point out that there are mountains of literal scientific evidence to support the Theory of Evolution, some nitwit comes back at you with “For me it’s a matter of faith”. Which always makes me want to point out that if there’s a tiger eating holes in your ass, you can believe it’s a cuddly puppy all you want to, but it’s still going to be eating your ass.

This disturbing lack of intellectualism and disregard of scientific evidence comes from a culture in which most people don’t know the most basic of information, would have trouble finding major countries on a globe, and have no interest whatsoever in history or even current events (other than telivision programming). There’s a rise in ignorance that’s alarming. During the Middle Ages it was rare for the average person to have an education, and that was what made it possible for religious institutions to control almost every aspect of cultural life – people didn’t know any better, and had only their religious leaders to explain all things to them. This is what’s going on now in our modern cultures. The decline or lack of education coincides with an increase in religious dogma and practice. Quite simply, people who don’t know any better cling to religion and superstition.

The dangerous thing is that these people who so readily dismiss Darwin’s Theory of Evolution do so for religious reasons. They bring that same lack of discernment to every aspect of their lives, from politics to economic theory to social engineering. The debacle of the Bush Administration of the Neo-Conservatives is all the proof you need of that; their failures largely resulted in their embrace of this religious ideology, in which they essentially chose to believe what they wanted to believe, facts be damned. They decided that just as they can dismiss inconvenient ideas such as the Theory of Evolution because it didn’t fit in with their particular world-view, so too could they dismiss warnings that the Iraq War was going to be a mess, that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, that it was economically irresponsible to cut taxes and dramatically increase government spending at the same time, and that the planet is warming up at an alarming rate.

When your arrogance leads you to believe that your Faith allows you to reject anything in the world that you simply don’t want to believe, irregardless of the evidence, it’s a rather simple step to dismiss Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution. Then your religious belief is paramount, and you can dismiss literally anything that conflicts with your particular brand if ideology. Which is how relatively intelligent people can still go out and vote Republican, even as their homes are being foreclosed upon, their wages and benefits are being cut, and Republican tax cuts are making the owners of those companies these people work for even more wealthy.

I keep thinking about stem cell research, and how it poses the potential of wiping out disease and even stopping aging. The only thing that stands in the way of breath-taking scientific discoveries that might cure cure cancer, allow us to regenerate nerve tissue and even prolong human lives by hundreds of years, is the general ignorance of organized religion. The same religious ideology that stood in the way of Gallileo and Copernicus is raising its ugly head today, blocking the path of progress (again). But we shouldn’t be surprised. Hasn’t it always been religion that has held us back?

When I was young, I was naive enough to believe that every generation built upon the knowledge of the generation that preceded it. As such, I suspected, and hoped, that my generation might be the one that finally resolved problems such as racism, inequality and intolerance. It didn’t take long for me to realize that it was, at best, a Utopian dream. There are people in this world before whom you could place a cat, and they would insist that it was a dog and angrily protest that their opinion was just as valid as yours. There are people in the world who not only will not educate themselves, but will dismiss the very idea of education of intellectual curiosity. There are people whose religious indoctrination will conveniently allow them to dismiss anything that they please.

This is why, in 2009, we’re still wrangling over Darwin. In spite of 150 years of observable evidence that supports Darwin’s theories, there are still many people in this world who are ignorant enough to believe that “my theory is just as good as his theory.” Their very ignorance leads them to misunderstand what a scientific theory actually is. They seem to assume that Charles Darwin was just some guy who was sitting around in a bar one weekend, having a pint with his buddies, when, in a drunken stupor, he decided “Hey, I have a theory…” These people don’t grasp that a scientific theory is a claim based on a body of evidence. It’s not just something that someone thought up, so therefore it’s not as simple as declaring that your own theories are as valid as Darwin’s. If that were so, you’d have to allow people to dismiss the theory of God, and allow equal time to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

You can’t bring religion into the scientific arena and then pick and choose which ideas to include in the debate. In the scientific arena, all ideas are equally considered and rise or fall on their own merits. While people are trying to bring God and religion into scientific discourse, I think they’re opening themselves up for heartbreak. After all, if you want to apply the scientific method to religion, there is a lot more evidence to support Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution that there is to support the existence of God. Of course, that’s not what these people have in mind at all. What they hope to do is inject religion into the scientific process. Which is very dangerous. If your religion gets into your science, it’s awfully easy to reach that point where you encounter the apparently unexplainable, and simply say “Then a miracle happens.”

I believe history repeats itself. After the Victorian era, in which intellectualism and scientific discourse became highly prized, the 20th Century was kicked off by rising religious extremism. This resulted in the misguided Prohibition movement as well as the infamous Scopes Trial (in which Darwin’s theories were essentially put to the test). The Scopes Trial came about because of the Butler Act, which made it unlawful, in any state-funded educational establishment in Tennessee, “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” After the passage of the Butler Act, the American Civil Liberties Union financed a test case, where a high school teacher named John Scopes intentionally violated the Act. Scopes was charged on May 5, 1925 with teaching evolution from a chapter in a textbook which showed ideas developed from those set out in Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species.

We all know that outcome of that case. From Wikipedia;

“The immediate effects of the trial are evident in the high school biology texts used in the second half of the 1920’s and the early 1930’s. Of the most widely used textbooks, there is only one which lists evolution in the index and in the wake of the trial, under the pressures of fundamentalist groups, the entry is countered with biblical quotations.  The fundamentalist’s target slowly veered off of evolution in the mid 1930’s, focusing their attention on the evils of alcohol, Judaism and Popery. As the anti-evolutionist movement died out, biology textbooks began to include the lost evolutionary theory of Darwin.  This also corresponds to the emerging demand that science textbooks be written by scientists rather than educators or education specialists.”

I include this quote from Wikipedia to make a point. Remove the specifics that this quote addresses something that happened in the 1920’s, and you find that the issues which surrounded the Scopes Trial are very much alive today. This could be a news article that I found on Google. There are still religious extremists who hope to deny the immense body of scientific evidence which supports Darwin’s theories. There are still misguided moralists who hope to shove their particular brand of ideology down everyone’s throats. Religion is still standing in the way of science.

On the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, I’m finally realizing that there’s no such thing as resolving issues once and for all. These are battle that we will have to fight over and over. Perhaps for all eternity. What we have to decide is if Science is going to be allowed to survive, or if we’re going to allow religious ideology to trump the natural human quest for knowledge. Are we again going to allow the Church to browbeat us into a dark age of superstition, intolerance and intellectual stagnation?

I, for one, am not looking forward to the return of ignorance. I hope, for all of our sakes, that the human race will again rise above this peculiar need to prostrate ourselves before shadows, and that Science will continue to lead us into the light. If I consider anything on this day that some of us are considering Charles Darwin and, for whatever our particular reasons, observing his birthday, it’s that the battle against ignorance is eternal. We can’t assume that the unwashed, uneducated barbarians have been defeated. They’re still alive and well, and they’re still trying to tear down the gates.

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12 years ago

Your comment about “a drunken stupor” is spot on. Darwin was flunking out of college. He was going on a trip with friends and needed to write a paper to try and pull out his grades. He did indeed write it during a “drunken stupor”. This he freely admitted and had quite a few laughs with his buddies over afterward. Be it true or not, it was written in a drunken stupor.

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