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The evolution of enlightenment

In modest increments, more Americans have embraced the truth of evolution through natural selection over the past several decades.

A Gallup poll in January 1982 showed that 9% of Americans concluded humans evolved with no assistance from an intelligent agent. The survey also reported that 38% of Americans thought humans evolved with guidance from a supreme being while 44% professed that humans were created by a higher power as they now appear; 9% had no opinion on the matter.

Given the overwhelming scientific evidence that all living creatures descended from a common ancestor with modifications over millions of years, these numbers have been troubling. The good news is that the polls have improved — albeit very slowly (much like the evolutionary process itself).

Earlier this year, Gallup released the results of this same poll conducted in June. It shows that 22% of Americans now assert that humans evolved with no assistance from any deity. In addition, 33% claim that humans have evolved with guidance from a supreme being and 40% cling to the thoroughly debunked notion that humans haven’t changed since we first appeared on the Earth; 5% say they have no views to share on this question.

While the empirical analysis of natural phenomena is still deeply enmeshed with a superstitious mentality, these statistics are headed in the right direction. It will take even more years for reason to eventually overcome this stubborn adherence to fantasy. But the trend toward a realistic view of our world is encouraging.

Nov. 24 marked the 160th anniversary of the publication of “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin. It caused a global revolution and eventually became the foundation of all life sciences.

Darwin was not the first individual to recognize that evolution drove the development of living beings over long periods of time. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin presented early ideas about evolution in his two-volume book “Zoonomia; or, The Laws of Organic Life” (1794). Charles Darwin bolstered his grandfather’s research by developing the notion of natural selection.

Alfred Russel Wallace, one of Darwin’s contemporaries, also wrote about evolution through natural selection. But Darwin’s work would come to dominate the public imagination and achieve the historic recognition it deserves.

But it hasn’t been all warm fuzzies for Darwin’s conceptual breakthrough. His book stirred the wrath of religious leaders — they knew it would further diminish belief in the supernatural.

And 160 years later, the fervor directed against the truths that Darwin brought to light remains strong. Ancient myths continue to be favored over scientific discoveries, even when these legends are shown to be falsehoods.

The tide, however, seems to be turning.

On Oct. 17, the Pew Research Center posted a story titled “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace” on its website. It chronicles the steady erosion of religious affiliation.

“The religious landscape of the United States continues to change at a rapid clip. In Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65 percent­ of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade,” the article reported. “Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’ now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.”

Perhaps there is some correlation between the decreased interest in organized religion and the increased acceptance of evolutionary science. Jerry A. Coyne, a retired biologist at the University of Chicago, wrote the 2009 book “Why Evolution is True”; he maintains a blog of the same name.

His 2015 book “Faith vs Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible” directly challenges the practice of accommodationism. Many scientists try to tiptoe around the uncomfortable reality that empirical research has shown religious ideology to be wrong time and again throughout history.

Stephen Jay Gould, the renowned paleontologist and ardent supporter of evolutionary education, promoted what he called non-overlapping magisteria. Religion and science examine different aspects of life, and they do not impede on one another. This was Gould’s way of diffusing the conflict between the two.

Coyne, however, does not share his colleagues’ desire to keep the peace with theists. The scientific method is the only acceptable way to understand our world and the universe. Biblical stories make for compelling literature, but they don’t provide an accurate picture of our history as a species.

I agree with Coyne that our knowledge of natural phenomena can only be enhanced with concrete evidence resulting from in-depth investigation and ongoing testing. And if religious declarations run contrary to conclusions based upon rigorous experimentation, they should be discarded. Reality doesn’t offer the option of “alternative facts.”

Darwin’s work was a huge leap forward in our grasp of how life on Earth has advanced. Little by little, more Americans are recognizing the beautiful logic of evolutionary science. Let’s take this historic moment to recommit ourselves to the kind of intellectual pursuits he exemplified.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times.