Today is the birthday of Charles Darwin – cool! He is by far one of the most influential scientists of the last few hundred years. His initial hypotheses (along with Alfred R. Wallace’s) regarding the evolution of species have been borne out by thousands and thousands of contemporary experiments and evidences. Evolution is today a fundamental theory of biology, articulating the twin forces of randomness and natural selection in the development of species.
Nonetheless a Gallup poll released today reveals the sorry state of science education in the U.S., revealing that less than half of US adults ‘believe in’ evolution. Here’s a chart from the recently published poll:
[graphic from http://www.gallup.com
This poll might be astonishing if you believed it – but it could be that there’s an awfully idiotic problem with the poll. If you’re like me, given the poll’s strange wording and scientifically illiterate questions, then you would be in the category of adults who don’t believe in evolution but who also are not fundamentalist religious nutcases who deny the facts and pretend the Earth is only 6,000 years old.
Here’s the problem: evolution isn’t a set of beliefs. Evolution isn’t based on believing anything. It doesn’t ask you to be a believer. It isn’t borne of faith, mystery, or mysticism. It is not supernatural, nor metaphysical, nor does it require superstition, nor myth nor good old story. In contrast to mere belief, it is instead a course of investigation, explanation, reasoning, and logic that is open to changes in the evidence and presentations of new evidence. It is not something to be believed. As a scientific theory, evolution helps us predict more information and shows much of why life grows in the patterns and symmetries that it exhibits. Unlike belief, as science the theory of evolution is also open to refutation and debate. Evolution links together observation and reasoning by evidence not by belief.
So, of course we don’t ‘believe in’ evolution, whether as Gallup asks, ‘personally’ or impersonally. That lack of belief doesn’t mean one cannot understand evolution, use its explanatory prowess, or rely on the information that it presents.
In honor of Charles Darwin’s hypotheses and proposals, I offer you this gem of writing, from HL Mencken during his observations of the Scopes Monkey Trial:
The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.
True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge. Did Darrow, in the course of his dreadful bombardment of Bryan, drop a few shells, incidentally, into measurably cleaner camps? Then let the garrisons of those camps look to their defenses. They are free to shoot back. But they can’t disarm their enemy.
[HL Mencken, 'Aftermath' The Baltimore Evening Sun (Sept. 14, 1925)]