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Science

Is evolution in trouble?

According to a recent article in the Daily Beast by Dr. Karl Giberson, 2013 was a terrible year for evolution for several reasons:

“The year ended with the anti-evolution book Darwin’s Doubt as Amazon’s top seller in the “Paleontology” category. The state of Texas spent much of the year trying to keep the country’s most respected high school biology text out of its public schools. And leading anti-evolutionist and Creation Museum curator Ken Ham made his annual announcement that the “final nail” had been pounded into the coffin of poor Darwin’s beleaguered theory of evolution.
Americans entered 2013 more opposed to evolution than they have been for years, with an amazing 46 percent embracing the notion that “God created humans pretty much in their present form at one time in the last 10,000 years or so.” This number was up a full 6 percent from the prior poll taken in 2010. According to a December 2013 Pew poll, among white evangelical Protestants, a demographic that includes many Republican members of Congress and governors, almost 64 percent reject the idea that humans have evolved.”


I disagree with much of this line of reasoning. True, the Texas State Board of Education did try to keep textbooks teaching evolution out of high school classrooms, but as someone directly involved in the fight, I can attest that the result was a complete and unambiguous victory against the powerful anti-evolution, anti-science lobbyists (and SBOE members).

Ken Ham’s periodic hopeful announcements about “the final nail in evolution’s coffin” are not a sign that evolution is on the ropes (to further mix metaphors). They’re simply more of the same nonsense that he continually spews.  As mattusmaximus notes, Ham’s position is rather uncomfortable for the Intelligent Design community’s (particularly the Discovery Institute‘s)*  attempts to refute evolution based on “scientific” grounds. Ham constantly preaches that the only “evidence” against evolution isn’t based on science or logic, but rather the Bible. One can’t help but wonder how this will play out in his upcoming debate with Bill Nye on the topic “Is Creation A Viable Model of Origins?”, since he’s already effectively ceded the “evidence” component of the debate.

As for the Harris poll numbers, PZ Myers points out that according to this Pew poll, the number of Americans accepting the theory of evolution has increased last year to 60% (up from 50%); the first increase in decades. Depending on the accuracy of these poll numbers, (and whether it is a blip or a real trend), this may mean that we’re actually making some headway in improving public understanding of one of the fundamental scientific theories. That’s good news. The bad news is that there is a very real partisan divide between those who accept and those who reject evolution. While the GOP itself dismisses this trend as “politically insignificant”, I think it’s a serious matter of concern for the science community, and something we should consider addressing in 2014.

 

Dr. Giberson focuses the remainder of his piece on this problem, placing it within the context of his experiences as a professor teaching science at an evangelical college where, not surprisingly, he encountered a great deal of resistance from administrators. It’s an interesting read, and I sympathize with his frustrations, but I don’t think the fact that “the mass exodus of 20-somethings from evangelicalism” because of the perception that “Christianity was antagonistic to science” reveals a decline of evolution acceptance in society.

In fact, I see the opposite.  2013 saw no significant challenges to evolutionary theory. Rather, 2013 revealed that creationism is so discredited that when a prominent technology journalist outed herself as a creationist she had to furiously spin her arguments to maintain any credibility.

Virginia Heffernan responds to my critique of her piece with empty formalism.

Virginia Heffernan responds to my critique of her piece with empty formalism.

 

One only need review the extraordinary paleontological discoveries of 2013 to see that research in evolution is flourishing (Perhaps Dr. Heffernan should read some of these). This year, we learned that the skull of 7 million year old Sahelanthropus tchadensis supports its classification as one of the earliest human ancestors. We learned that Australopithecus sediba may not have been an ancestor of the lineage leading to Homo sapiens. We learned that hominins were using stone-tipped projectile points as early as 279,000 years ago. And from my own field (anthropological genetics), we learned that there once co-existed multiple species of hominins, including humans, Neandertals, Denisovans, and….something else (which appears to be a cousin group to Denisovans). And that’s just a sampling.

Taken together, these points would suggest that the answer to the question “Is evolution in trouble?” is emphatically no. Let’s see if this trend continues in 2014!

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*The Discovery Institute constantly tries to distance themselves from religious creationists, but their own internal documents reveal that their explicit motivation is to “replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

About Jennifer Raff

Scientist, martial artist, reader. In pursuit of the extraordinary.

Discussion

6 thoughts on “Is evolution in trouble?

  1. By all means, let us “teach the controversy”. I’m a traditionalist, so I believe that Ouranos and Gaia got together in an ocean-shaking lovefest to create the universe, not Osiris or Odin or Vishnu or Yahweh or God or Allah or other Johnny-come-lately modern fad creation myth. Of course, the Pastafarians say “Argh, matey, it were his Noodly appendage” that created us all. Sure, we could just stick with science, the method that explains how reality works and makes workable predictions, instead of saying God-did-it shut-up-don’t-think, but where’d the fun be in that? Science just makes modern medicine and technology possible, instead of religious wars. (Warning, slight possibility of snark.)

    Posted by Jerry A. | January 4, 2014, 2:46 pm
  2. I think it’s also important to remember that the poll numbers of American citizens on evolution are not some sort of truth-o-meter. There are plenty of other developed nations with better systems of education that would not show such numbers. Even if all of a sudden 90% people believed that humans have always existed in their present form, it would not make it a fact. It would simply reflect poorly on the U.S., our education system, and media.

    Posted by Swarn Gill | January 4, 2014, 4:44 pm
  3. After reading any given article about creationism vs evolution, I wonder what the perception is in other countries of the ongoing “debate”. Have you had any experience with this? Is this just another point of amusement for them?

    Posted by BTCarter | January 4, 2014, 4:52 pm
    • Seen from Denmark, the creationism vs evolution debate in the US is just utterly surreal and absurd. It simply doesn’t exist here. I visit the US regularly and love the diversity and great nature – but politically it is a really scary place. So: Amusing, yes – but scary.

      Posted by Anders | January 5, 2014, 6:02 am
  4. I have to say, this used to be “just another point of amusement”to me (from Europe),but living in Australia now where parts of the population seems to lap up even the absurdest ideas and ‘trends’ from the US via the internet to form pronto their own, corresponding ‘movement’ (anti-vaccination people seem another example..), I worry indeed about a certain regression in our own (worldwide) cultural evolution to go BACK to these and other disproven theories…

    Posted by suburp | January 5, 2014, 4:26 am

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