It has been over 150 years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The Catholic Church endorses evolution and so does every other major branch of Christianity; every competent biologist relies on its theoretical framework; its common-sense mechanism and logical consequences are thoroughly documented. Why are we still fighting over evolution?
"We" is too strong a word. In fact only a handful of people are attacking evolutionpeople whose argument is that the Bible is actually a science book. For them the Word is most importantthe Word from the Book, from God himself through the preacher's voice to the worshiper's ear. They dislike the word "species," preferring God's terminology: "Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds."
Thus creationists in Clayton County (Georgia) once had a sticker put in every biology text (since removed). "This textbook," it began, "may discuss evolution, a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants, animals and humans." That one sentence has three gross errors, or lies if you prefer:
- "controversial": Evolutionary theory is not controversial among scientists; it is a bedrock element of biology.
- "some scientists": Evolution is universally accepted by biologists as the basic engine of speciation.
- "origin of living things": Evolution explains how species arise from earlier species, not how life itself arose.
The Bible's view of biology, if you accept it as a science book, is very different from the biologist's. In the book of Genesis God presented every "living creature" to Adam, who then gave them names. These were freshly created, ideal plants and animals, as perfect and archetypal as Adam himselfnone of them with navels.
In this world-view the idea, the word, the ideal Logos is primary. The variation we find in the world today is a sign of decay from that original perfectionnoise in the signal. The different types of citrus, say, or the similar species of camels, are considered variants of a single original "kind." From this generality comes no further insight. Ask why the panda uses a highly modified wrist bone as a "thumb," and the creationist's response is a shrug.
Contrast that sterile approach with the way Darwin opened his book: "When on board HMS 'Beagle,' as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species . . ."
Darwin, like natural scientists at all times, began with the facts of the Earth, its rocks and its life forms. That evidence shows that every living thing is a distinct individual, and a species is just a name for the ensemble of individuals. This is a bedrock principle of paleontology as well. A fossil species is designated for convenience by a particular "type specimen" in a particular drawer in a particular collection.
That looks like what Adam did, in a way. However, the type is not an ideal but a label: just as essential to a fossil species is the degree of variation around the type. Noise IS a signal. At the center of geology (and all natural sciences) is the primacy of the actual rock, the Lithosbecause the world is not Eden, and it presents us today, as it did Darwin, with real creatures. And instead of stopping fruitlessly with a list of "kinds," we can erect a tantalizing structure of genetic relationship that connects all life into one family tree.
For a good entry to the pleasures and puzzles of evolution, that is, science as it's really practiced, visit my Evolution category. For much more depth see the About Atheism Guide site (I must disclaim that evolution has nothing logical to do with atheism). Or survey the frontiers of Darwinism in the writings of people like Carl Zimmer, Brian Switek, William Calvin or the late Stephen Jay Gould. These and many more writers give life to Darwin's exclamation that with evolution, "how far more interesting, I speak from experience, will the study of natural history become!"
To arm yourself for political battles with Logos believerspeople who feel a few vague words about Adam outweigh the work of two centuries of geologists and biologistsbookmark the National Center for Science Education. NCSE works to counter the misunderstandings, distortions and nonsense that result when creationists attempt to take science education out of the hands of scientists. Please consider supporting them. The Biblical view of the universe is a beautiful and interesting thing, but when creationists confuse it with science and attack scientific knowledge, they threaten the basis of our very civilization.
PS: Finally a theologian has echoed what I believe. In the MayAugust 2003 NCSE Reports, Prof. John Haught of Georgetown University says that creationism debases the Bible: "Theologically, 'intelligent design' trivializes both science and the scriptures by bringing in God at the level of science. . . . The proponents of 'intelligent design' seem unable to separate evolution from evolutionary materialism. They throw the baby out with the bathwater, discarding good science and at the same time turning God into a tinkerer rather than a creator."