by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
November 26, 2009
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- One hundred and fifty years ago this week, the age of modern science began.
On Nov. 24, 1859, Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" was published. Even though there are still some Americans arguing about its contents, there is little debate that Darwin's book helped launch a revolution of scientific inquiry that continues to this day.
Darwin's theory of the evolution of organisms was not entirely new. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle offered glimpses of it and more modern philosophers, from Bacon on, added to the understanding that plants and animals did not just magically appear fully formed on the Earth, but changed and developed over eons.
However, it was Darwin who seized upon the idea, inspired by Thomas Robert Malthus' theories on overpopulation, that "favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones would be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of a new species."
According to Darwin's theory of natural selection, those organisms that were better able to adapt to their environments were more likely to survive and reproduce than those that had trouble or could not adapt. These favorable variations are then transmitted to successive generations. Variables such as food, predators, disease and climate change makes the numbers of a species go up or down. And, ultimately, every species' fate is interconnected with that of every other species.
Darwin's theory of natural selection held that the origin and diversification of species results from the gradual accumulation of these individual modifications. This is the key element of his theory of evolution.
This idea has never been accepted by fundamentalist Christians, who believe that God created the world in seven days and everything was ready to go from the beginning. Science proves that this is clearly untrue, yet creationism (or intelligent design, as its supporters now call it) is still treated seriously in the United States as a competing idea of how the world was made.
"Evolution is not an idea. It's a fact," said James McCarthy, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science earlier this year. Citing the recent emergence of drug-resistant microbes and pesticide-resistant insects, McCarthy said that "it's impossible to deny evolution."
Yet, according to a Gallup poll taken this year, just 40 percent of Americans say they believe in the theory of evolution. Other surveys done in recent years find that about 30 percent of Americans believe in the literal truth of the Bible and about 45 percent believe God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so.
It would be easy to blame the religious beliefs of Americans for this widespread skepticism, since no other country in the developed world thinks this way. But it's safer to say the bigger problem is the American public's low level of scientific literacy. More than two-thirds of Americans are unable to identify DNA as the key to inherited traits. Nine out of 10 Americans do not understand what radiation is or its effects on the human body. One in five Americans thinks the sun revolves around the Earth.
We cannot compete in a modern global economy if we, as a nation, are still arguing about evolutionary theory - something that is considered settled science by the rest of the developed world. One wonders how a nation which thinks of itself as a world leader in education, science and technology could have this many people ignorant of basic scientific concepts.
Unfortunately, the reason why goes right back to the lack of national curriculum standards in our schools and the unwillingness of too many school boards around the country to stand up for the right of students to be well-educated by modern scientific, secular standards. When we allow religious dogma to trump science, we do our students a disservice and risk putting our nation even further behind our global peers.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For extra added thrills, read his ongoing daily blog on The Harvard Classics at http://hclassics15.blogspot.com.