Evolution in thought

Charles Darwin’s birthday should have been more publicized to remind the public of evolution’s importance

Though many people were probably unaware, yesterday marked Charles Darwin’s birthday. Darwin, as hopefully everyone knows, solidified the theory of evolution with his explanation of descent with modification, the process by which adaptive changes take place. Darwin’s theory has seen a disturbing amount of opposition in the United States, and it is not surprising that many Americans do not fully understand the workings or importance of evolution. To that end, Darwin’s birthday should have received more coverage, so that evolution could be more properly recognized for its importance.

Celebrating Darwin’s birthday would be yet another way to get people discussing evolution more thoroughly. The numbers regarding Americans’ belief in evolution are staggering. Some 46 percent of Americans believed in intelligent design in 2012. Only 15 percent are of the opinion that humans evolved without an intervening source of assistance. These figures strongly clash with the opinions of the worldwide scientific community, where evolution is almost universally held to be fact.

In an affluent and technologically advanced nation like the U.S., one would hope the scientific community would have more influence. We are a society that demands proof and rational justification in nearly any other discipline involving argument. Our leaders’ political theories must be backed up by reasonable opinions if they are to be seriously considered — or such is the hope. Similarly, sufficient evidence must be administered in court before one can be convicted of a crime. The process of evolution is tangible and accessible to anyone. If the overwhelming scientific consensus is that evolution is fact, it makes little sense that evolution still draws such vigorous opposition. Even within the field of science, phenomena with much less supporting evidence are never questioned. Scientists are still unsure as to why gravity exists. Nevertheless, there is never debate among the public surrounding possible causes of gravity. Why, then, does evolution continue to be so adamantly rejected by nearly half the nation when its evidence is so apparent?

One factor is that the U.S. is the most religious industrialized nation in the world Much of the disbelief in evolution is no doubt because evolution concerns the origins and development of life — two topics that are normally the domain of theological teachings and scriptures. As a result, people feel more at liberty to dispute ideas supported by huge amounts of scientific data. Despite having heard of evolution, many people view it as an inferior alternative to their religious beliefs. Choosing to disregard evolution in favor of scripture is unfortunate.

Another reason people reject evolution is because the public is not as cognizant as it should be of such a basic scientific theory. Education reform can help in that area. Mandating the teaching of evolution in middle and high school science classes could go a long way toward increasing the percentage of the population that has a good understanding of how the process works. Though some teachers would allow their personal beliefs to bias the way in which they teach evolution, other teachers would instruct their classes properly. If more students were able to grasp evolution’s major concepts, it would help increase national scientific literacy.

Indeed, a knowledge of evolution could garner support for other contentious scientific topics. Take, for instance, global warming. Climate change is another area in which many Americans have disregarded evidence. But if one understands evolution, one can more competently see why the evidence for global warming is so compelling. Species have adapted to life in particular temperature zones over thousands or millions of years, and there is already data showing that many organisms are being affected by even small temperature changes. Birds, for instance, are changing their migration patterns, which are highly based on temperature. Additionally, the distributions of many plants and animals are moving farther toward the poles to avoid unwanted warmer climates. If one recognizes that species inhabit specific niches as a result of evolution, one can affirm that global warming is already affecting the biosphere whether or not people want to admit it. Knowledge of evolution, therefore, should become more widespread, not just as a way to explain how species came to be but also as a way to show people how easily species can be destroyed.

Darwin’s birthday does not necessarily deserve a federal holiday like those awarded to George Washington or Martin Luther King, Jr. But it should have garnered more publicity. Evolution is one of the most interesting aspects of all natural science. It is unfortunate that everyone in this country has the ability to learn about evolution, yet so few truly appreciate its own distinctive grandeur.

Alex Yahanda is a senior associate editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at a.yahanda@cavalierdaily.com.

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