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Darwin Sesquicentennial

2009 - a Year of Anniversaries

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Charles Darwin published his revolutionary work in 1859 and it is more controversial today than when it appeared. Surveys show that the theory of Evolution is not well understood and there are many erroneous assumptions about what it says and does not say.

Darwin demonstrated that the origination of species could be entirely explained by descent with modification and that a host of facts were inconsistent with the belief in spontaneous creations according to environmental circumstances or divine interventions.

A survey of 32 European countries, plus the US and Japan has revealed that only Turkey is less willing than the US to accept evolution as fact. Religious fundamentalism, bitter partisan politics and poor science education have all contributed to this denial of evolution in the US, says Jon Miller of Michigan State University in East Lansing, who conducted the survey with his colleagues. "The US is the only country in which [the teaching of evolution] has been politicized," he says. "Republicans have clearly adopted this as one of their wedge issues. In most of the world, this is a non-issue."

Miller's report makes for grim reading for adherents of evolutionary theory. Even though the average American has more years of education than when Miller began his surveys 20 years ago, the percentage of people in the country who accept the idea of evolution has declined from 45 in 1985 to 40 in 2005 (Science, vol 313, pg. 765). That's despite a series of widely publicized advances in genetics, including genetic sequencing, which shows strong overlap of the human genome with those of chimpanzees and mice. "We don't seem to be going in the right direction," Miller says.

There is some cause for hope. Team member Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, finds solace in the finding that the percentage of adults overtly rejecting evolution has dropped from 48 to 39 in the same time. Meanwhile the fraction of Americans unsure about evolution has soared, from 7 per cent in 1985 to 21 per cent last year. "That is a group of people that can be reached," says Scott.

An understanding of what the theory is all about is fundamental to all biological science, especially epidemiology and genetics. It can also be applied to economics and business.

How is evolution perceived in Muslim countries?

The Koran itself does not provide a single clear-cut verse that contradicts evolution. Evolution is included in schools in many Islamic countries, so it is already in the textbooks. They're not fighting that battle. There is no separation of church and state, or mosque and state as we call it, so it is taught in a religious environment. [Most teaching] presents evolution pretty much as an established scientific theory.

Salman Hameed teaches astronomy and religious studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He has lectured in Pakistan on reconciling evolution with Islam.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.
Charles Darwin


Controversy in the United States

The main opposition to evolution comes from fundamentalist Christians, who are much more abundant in the US than in Europe. While Catholics, European Protestants and so-called mainstream US Protestants consider the biblical account of creation as a metaphor, fundamentalists take the Bible literally, leading them to believe that the Earth and humans were created only 6,000 years ago. Logically speaking, if you believe in a 6,000 or 10,000 year-old Earth, then you have to reject evolution. It took over 3 billion years just for multiple celled organisms to develop.

Ironically, the separation of church and state laid down in the US constitution contributes to the tension. In Catholic schools, both evolution and the strict biblical version of human beginnings can be taught. A court ban on teaching creationism in public schools, however, means pupils can only be taught evolution, which angers fundamentalists, and triggers local battles over evolution.

These battles can take place because the US lacks a national curriculum of the sort common in European countries. However, the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind act institutes standards for science teaching, and the battles of what they should be has now spread to the state level.


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