I am a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology. You can reach me by email, firstname.lastname@example.org or on my cell phone: 570-350-8018.
The piece below is a response to Elizabeth
Vaughn’s opinion piece “Darwin stuck in 19th Century”, which you ran on 12 November.
I note your stated limit of 150 words. I would like to point out, however, that Ms. Vaughn’s piece is over 1600 words. The topic of evolution is not a minor issue, and cannot be presented on a postage stamp, especially to a university audience. I think a rebuttle should be accorded equal space to the original piece.
RESPONSE TO ‘DARWIN STUCK IN THE 19TH CENTURY’
One could spend a lot of time and effort crafting a detailed technical response to Elizabeth Vaughn’s opinion piece on the obsolescence of Darwin’s theory of evolution (“Darwin Stuck in the 19th Century”, The Temple News, 12 November 2004). Such a response might present a sample of the overwhelming amount of evidence that has accumulated over the last century and a half to support the reality of biological evolution. One could point out that Darwin’s original theory has been tremendously expanded and amplified by the addition of corollaries such as the extensive understanding we now have of genetics, which was unknown in his time. These and other elements have been combined to form the Synthetic Theory of Evolution, without which none of modern biology or paleontology makes any sense. Or, one could describe how the fact of evolution is directly impacting our own lives through the appearance of new viral strains and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which threaten to break out in mass epidemics because we cannot keep up with the speed at which these organisms adapt to our attempts to control them (for an up to date assessment of Darwinism see the article in the November issue of National Geographic). Perhaps someone will present this kind of rebuttal to Ms. Vaughn, but ultimately such an attempt is beside the point.
Ms. Vaughn’s piece is yet another instance of growing attempts to inject religion into science. It relies heavily on advocates of so-called Intelligent Design, a religiously derived viewpoint which proposes that living things are simply too complex to be the products of evolution and must, therefore, be the result of an outside intelligence. The exact nature of this intelligence is purposely kept vague, but clearly is a thinly veiled reference to some form of supreme being. Intelligent Design is simply another name for Creationism (see the article by Kathy Boccella in the 21 November issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer for a current example of the Creationist crusade). Intelligent Design has virtually no support among reputable biological scientists, but rather is driven by forces outside of science. It is in the latter area that we must look to understand the origin of the proposition that Darwinism is obsolete.
The growth of religious attacks on evolution is part of a larger trend in our society, prompted by increasing cultural insecurity. The position of the United States in the world is going through a fundamental change. The post-World War II situation in which the US was the predominant power in the world is giving way to one in which there are other major players, such as China and the European Union. The ability of the US to set the rules and control the agenda in international economics and politics is weakening significantly. These developments have major consequences domestically. People’s economic situations are much less secure than they used to be. Concurrently, the confidence that American social and religious values are superior to all others is being shaken. The assurance that the American ‘way of life’ is stable and unassailable is being threatened by peoples in other parts of the world who resist, at times violently, the American view of the way things should be.
Anthropologists have observed in a number of cultures around the world a pattern of response to the kind of insecurity Americans are now experiencing. When people feel that their view of themselves and their position in the world is being fundamentally threatened, a frequent reaction is to withdraw from the challenge of facing the world as it really is, and instead to look back to ‘the good old days’. This often involves rejecting ways of thinking that could possibly undermine the culture’s own traditional world view in favor of what is perceived as a return to fundamental values and behaviors, in the hope that if only people will once again follow the ‘old ways’ things will go back to the former ‘golden age’.
In my opinion, the growth of religious fundamentalism in this country is another example of the pattern described above. People are afraid that the comfortable, insular world in which they grew up is coming apart. So, many seek to cling ever more strongly to those beliefs which they feel give meaning to their lives and place them in control of their futures. Things that are seen as contrary to those beliefs are viewed as dangerous, indeed inherently evil, and must be eliminated in order to ensure that the good beliefs prevail.
Many people, and probably most religious fundamentalists in our society, see the theory of evolution, which opens for inquiry the position of human beings in the universe, as being opposed to their view of life as a divinely inspired and unchanging creation. No amount of rational debate or review of evidence will change this essential dichotomy. Our understanding of ‘the facts’ exists only within our own world view. For those whose perspective is rooted in immutable truths, the bits and pieces of fossils or patterns of variation observable in contemporary organisms will have a completely different significance from that which such evidence holds for people who see the world as the result of ongoing evolution.
Evolution and Creationism are not equivalent theories. The former is based in science, the latter in belief. Once belief is allowed to dictate what is acceptable in science, we are hurled back to the time when the Church persecuted Galileo for proposing that the earth revolves around the sun. Would Ms. Vaughn accept that the “Evolution Story of Creation” be given equal time in churches? I think not. Nor should it be. The separation of belief and science, however imperfect at times, has served our society well. Attempts to breach that barrier, along with the parallel one between church and state, if successful, will have severely negative consequences. It’s a slippery slope, one onto which the Creationists want to give us a shove.
Philip A. Perazio, M.A.
Department of Anthropology