is education for? One of many answers is that it allows the learner to acquire
a systematic view of the world. This is, coincidentally, one of the ways
that philosophers of science have characterized the aim of science; according
to this view, scientists seek to provide a unified theory that explains
how a diverse set of facts, which would otherwise seem unconnected, are
in fact to be expected, given a common theoretical framework. Just as Newton
showed how the planets and bodies on Earth move according to the same set
of general laws, so too do biologists aim to understand why human beings
share so much genetic material with other animals, and why it is that ancient
fossils so closely resemble animals living today in the same region.
The idea that unifies this diverse set of observations is of course evolution, the theory that all organisms share common ancestry and that natural selection is the primary mechanism of descent.
During the famous Scopes “Monkey” trial, held 80 years ago this summer, William Jennings Bryan, assistant to the prosecution, called Darwin’s theory “a dogma of darkness and death.” More recently, the school board of Dover, Pennsylvania objected to having a course on evolution taught in the classroom. Over time, Darwin’s theory has been pummeled right and left. It has been identified with moral relativism, laissez-faire capitalism, Marxism, and Nazi eugenics, among other schools of thought. Many in the religious community feel that Darwin has stolen God’s agency in nature and has thereby nullified morality and human dignity.
After a public lecture I attended last fall at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, an angry citizen exclaimed, “Without God, how can you believe in justice?” This seems to be Darwinism’s greatest perceived threat—that is, if we are mere animals, what are the grounds for moral obligation?
Yet belief in evolution has no such logical insinuations. Darwin’s claim that humans are evolved organisms has no direct implications for what we ought to do. Rather, it implies moral relativism or egoism only if coupled with naïve genetic determinism and extremely tendentious claims about our evolutionary environment. In other words, those who think that Darwinism requires human beings to reject moral accountability have appended views to the theory that are deeply confused at best. However, given the recent trial in Pennsylvania over the teaching of evolution in schools, it’s clear that evolution is still viewed with enough suspicion in some quarters to justify continued assault.
These concerns have in part motivated the resuscitation of a very old argument, now dressed up in new clothes and dubbed the Intelligent Design movement. ID proposes that life is simply too complex to have developed without the guiding hand of a “designer,” be it God, or something else, a line of reasoning offered almost 200 years ago by Rev. William Paley, author of Natural Theology. In its current incarnation, ID advocates have argued for inclusion of their “theories” in high school textbooks, have circulated petitions, and have launched media campaigns to promote the idea that Darwinism is no longer the only theoretical game in town.
Proponents of ID note how organisms have a complex makeup enabling them to be well-adapted to their environments. They argue that it’s simply not plausible for random physical forces to act upon lumps of matter and turn them into living things. Darwinism, they say, cannot account for this amazing complexity, and “randomness,” as an explanation, just doesn’t cut it.
Yet it’s mistaken to equate evolution with “randomness.”Rather, randomness occurs in the process of genetic variation. Some random variations either become dominant or disappear because of their adaptation (or lack of it) to the local environment.Thus the snow hare becomes white in winter not by chance but because adaptation gives it the greatest probability of surviving predation in the snow. Ancestral hares without that adaptation were more likely to be eaten, and consequently their genes weren’t passed on.
According to a recent New York Times article, more than 50 percent of Americans do not believe that humans share ancestors with other primates. This is a very sad failure of our educational system. Science has repeatedly shown that evolution is the most plausible explanation for our shared morphology, genetics, and behavior with other primates. But if over 50 percent of the population believes otherwise, should schools stop teaching evolution? Only if we want to set education back 100 years and halt the growth of knowledge.
—Anya Plutynski is an assistant professor in the Department
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