By Jeremy Fejfar, November 29, 2009
In recent years, polls of the American population showed that 21 percent of people didn’t know that the Earth revolved around the sun, 30 percent believe we are being visited by space aliens and 48 percent believe that humans and dinosaurs coexisted.
Some of these statistics aren’t too far out of line with what we see in some other countries. However, there is at least one area of science where the U.S. population’s knowledge comes in close to last. Second to last to be precise. That is the supposedly controversial topic of evolution.
A 2004 Gallup poll revealed that 45 percent of Americans believe humans were created in their current form by a god within the past 10,000 years. Only
51 percent of those polled believe humans evolved from “lower” animals. A similar poll of 32 other countries showed that the only country with a lower acceptance of evolution was Turkey. The top spots on the list were held by Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and France, where over 80 percent of adults accepted evolution, and Japan where
78 percent of adults did. Perhaps not coincidentally, these countries’ students consistently score much higher than us on math and science tests.
It is discouraging that we live in a country with such power and influence but also a profound collective ignorance of basic science and how the world works. As the great science popularizer Carl Sagan put it in his renowned book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark: “We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”
This year has been called by some “Darwin Year,” as the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth was on Feb. 12, and his paradigm-changing book “On the Origin of Species” was published 150 years ago on
Nov. 24. This year, two books were published in an attempt to make evolution more accessible to the general population: Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True and Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.
And in January, we can look forward to the release of the movie “Creation,” starring Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin and Jennifer Connelly as his wife, Emma. This film captures the struggle to find a balance between Darwin’s revolutionary theory and Emma’s religious faith, and how the death of their young daughter affected their passionate marriage. Despite rave reviews, this film almost did not obtain a U.S. distributor because of our international reputation for our incomprehension of Darwin’s prodigious theory.
It should be known that there is absolutely no debate among scientists as to the truth of evolution. According to one figure, the theory of evolution by natural selection is accepted by more than 99 percent of scientists. Convergent lines of evidence have been steadily accumulating in many independent fields of study, and all of it supports the theory of evolution. A wide array of disciplines affirm evolution: biology, paleontology, biogeography, embryology, genetics, anatomy and physiology, for instance.
If Darwin’s theory was incorrect, it should be incredibly easy to disprove. When asked what it would take to destroy his confidence in evolution, J.B.S. Haldane famously responded “fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.” His succinct answer made it clear that any major deviation from the proposed tree of life would deal a mortal blow to Darwin’s theory. He could have just as easily said “Human remains (or those of any modern mammal or bird) in the same fossil layer as a T-rex.” The fact that nothing even remotely like this has been discovered should give pause to even the staunchest critics of evolution.
Genetics, something unknown to Darwin, should really have put the final nail in the coffin of creationism years ago. Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and author of “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,” said, “Evolution by descent from a common ancestor is clearly true. If there was any lingering doubt about the evidence from the fossil record, the study of DNA provides the strongest possible proof of our relatedness to all other living things.”
Even without a single fossil, evidence found in every cell of our bodies lays out the road map of evolution. One can look from the broken Vitamin C gene that we share with all other great apes to the fusion of our chromosome 2 from ape chromosome 12 and 13, to the evidence left by inherited endogenous retroviruses between our species, to codon matching, etc. The amount of evidence telling us that we share a common ancestor with all other life is overwhelming. I encourage anyone interested in learning more about why evolution is a fact to check out the two books just mentioned.
I can already hear the response: “It’s just a theory.” It is unfortunate that the term “theory” has been so muddled by popular usage that it has deflated what it is for something to be a scientific theory. Heliocentric theory, the germ theory of disease, the theory of gravitation … no one would would describe these scientific advances as “just,” and so it is also with the theory of evolution.
One can only hope that we can begin to become competitive again internationally in the fields of science. However, it is no longer a question of maintaining any sort of once-held superiority; it is a matter of catching up to the rest of the world as it leaves us behind. Unfortunately, understanding of evolution is just one example among many of our deficiencies in scientific knowledge.