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Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful: Why Darwin Is Still Right

ISSUE:  Spring 2006
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
—Charles Darwin, the concluding sentence of Origin of Species

When Judge John E. Jones III handed down his definitive ruling on the “intelligent design” lawsuit in Dover, Pennsylvania, most people in the scientific community heaved a sigh of relief. They had found, unexpectedly, a judge with enough smarts to see through the theory that many scientists have taken to calling “creationism in a cheap tuxedo.” But, while our schools may be temporarily insulated from the encroachment of the pulpit into the biology lab, I couldn’t help wondering if this was really cause for celebration.

Yes, I’m disturbed by those Gallup polls showing that more Americans believe in angels than evolution, and I agree that education is the only solution. And yet, it seems to have done little to sway the debate so far. For nearly one hundred and fifty years, ever since Darwin first published The Origin of Species in England, the argument has boiled down to a facile binary between believing in a white-bearded man in the sky or believing that your great-grandfather was a monkey. The characterization of each, of course, is absurd. And therein lies the seductive appeal of “intelligent design theory” (IDT). It offers the tantalizing prospect of a middle way, the chance that one could have the ability to reason scientifically and still be afforded enough leeway to acknowledge the possibility of the transcendent. There’s just one problem. IDT isn’t science. So those Gallup polls may be disturbing but not half as disturbing as hearing smart, well-educated people struggle to refute it—and this is what keeps me from celebrating the Dover decision too much.

In recent months, I’ve heard people say that Darwin was the first to propose evolution (he certainly was not), grope for the right words to explain how his theory of evolution works (two words: “natural selection”), and struggle to allow for a way in which that all-important mechanism may be partially influenced by a higher power (there’s simply no evidence to suggest it is). How much of a legitimate victory can we claim, if even the supporters of evolutionary theory are woefully ill-educated or misinformed on the topic?

Worse still, many people who presumably are educated on the subject have chosen to sidestep the issue, rather than engage in this intellectual heavy-lifting. In a profile by A. O. Scott in the New York Times Magazine, for example, Vendela Vida, co-editor of the indy magazine The Believer, was quoted as saying, “We don’t just . . . start thinking about Darwinism just because George Bush happened to say something about it,” then offered up that a future issue would instead “have David Sedaris talking mostly about monkeys.” I’ve read Vida’s work, which is well-written, and talked with her on a few occasions, and she veritably exudes intelligence—so maybe the blame for this unfortunate pairing of statements belongs to the reporter. Nevertheless, it highlights a shocking dismissal by intellectuals of the potential damage that could be wrought by a few vigorous, well-organized religious conservatives.

First, George W. Bush didn’t just happen to say something about IDT. He endorsed teaching it in our schools. He cloaked it in the language of free and open discourse—saying that it should be taught “so people can understand what the debate is about”—but that’s clearly a smoke screen. This isn’t about weighing competing theories; it’s about ignoring the facts. We don’t teach flat-earth theory in geology classes or teach that the earth is the center of the universe in astronomy; we shouldn’t be teaching creationism or IDT in the biology classroom either. But disregarding Bush’s statement as some off-handed remark seriously underestimates the importance of the message he is sending. This was an official endorsement—and it has helped drive this controversy and win new supporters for IDT. Like it or not, the presidency remains a bully pulpit, and such comments cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.

Second, reading David Sedaris on monkeys may be a pleasant diversion, but it doesn’t solve the problem—and this is what worries me most. We can’t afford to smile knowingly and skirt this issue. Just as importantly, we can’t take evolution on faith. Winning this argument requires knowing the facts. Not unsupported assertions, on either side, but facts. If we don’t know the basic narrative of Darwin’s life and work, then we leave our schools vulnerable. If we don’t know what advances have been made since then or how the scientific community continues to test and update Darwin’s theory, then we have brought IDT one step closer to the classroom. If we don’t bother to study the tenets of IDT, to scrutinize them and understand their flaws, then we can expect our children and grandchildren to be studying them as fact.

So, the long portfolio that begins this issue is quite simple. We have sought out the leading experts to address this topic in full. Esteemed science writer David Quammen writes about how Darwin came to write The Origin of Species and analyzes the original text. Niles Eldredge, curator of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History and the living heir to Darwin, explains how he came to make one of the twentieth century’s most important adjustments to Darwin’s theory and discusses the deep respect he feels for Darwin as a thinker. Michael Ruse, who has spent more than twenty-five years debunking creationism and fighting to keep it out of our classrooms, explains the origins and flaws of IDT.

Last but not least, we present two short pieces by practicing scientists who examine two very specific problems: Thomas Eisner examines the scales on the wings of butterflies and moths, and Robert M. Sapolsky discusses the olfactory abilities of humans compared to other primates. Many people scoff when they learn that scientists are engaged in the study of such minutiae. But Eisner and Sapolsky show not only how much there is to be learned from such study, but also how much wonder lies in the incredible diversity and durability of life on our planet.

There is no need to view evolution as cold and heartless. To imagine life as an endlessly branching series of alternatives selected not by chance but by the chance elements of their moment, is not an expression of chaos or insignificance. It is a celebration of our matchless individuality, a recognition that nature’s rich variety not only makes each of us splendidly unique, but also that that singularity may allow us collectively to endure.

This knowledge, to me, seems a gift. There is grandeur in this view of life.


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