In my short history of studying the conservative movement (as an active participant, I might add), the right’s resistance to evolution has caused me more headaches than any other issue. In Lexington I listened to a local libertarian radio host by the name of Matt Walsh, whose blog is worth a read if you haven’t yet come across it. Yet of evolution, he writes “Evolution — atheistic, nihilistic, materialistic, mindless evolution — must be taught as fact, without other ideas presented to compete with the theory.”
Of course, to anyone who has ever had a semester of biology, one must ask “What other ideas?” The insistence that teachers “teach the controversy” is a uniquely conservative demand. But having done some research on the topic, it is worth pointing out that George Will, one of the right’s most influential intellectuals, once wrote a scathing critique of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent in a Louisiana Creationism case back in 1987. Scalia, though a little less caustic, sounded similar to Walsh and wrote that Louisiana students had a right to hear the “scientific evidence” that supposedly refutes evolution. I urge you to read the column in its entirety, for in it Will makes a number of important points:
- Creationists focus their debate solely on the observations that appear to impugn evolutionary theory.
- Creationists emphasize the origins of life, whereas evolution explains observed changes in species over time.
- Creationists misuse the term “theory” to mean something “less than fact.” (Note that theories of gravity, electromagnetic theory, kinetic-molecular theory and others are not similarly called into question.)
- The basic mechanism of evolution is universally accepted by scientists. The “controversy” to which creationists refer are the lesser details of the theory about which biologists themselves have not yet reached a consensus. (For example, debates currently exist about methods of taxonomy, allopatric vs. sympatric speciation, and so on.)
Stephen Jay Gould, the famous Harvard Scientist, wrote his own critique of Justice Scalia’s dissent in a similar essay. Gould wrote in support of Will’s statement that “creation science is an oxymoron” because creation science is “an untestable set of dogmatic proposals,” which is, ironically, the same crime creationists charge to evolutionary theorists. Creationists, according to Gould, suffer the delusion that scientists are competing with the Book of Genesis to explain the ultimate origins of life on Earth. Science, however, does not make any such ultimate claims.
For example, Newtonian physics describes why planets orbit the sun and why, given certain variables, we can mathematically deduce the role of gravity on a golf ball in flight. Evolutionary theory explains why we can breed, through artificial selection, different types of dogs with different attributes (some for hunting, others for Paris Hilton to keep in a purse.) Elsewhere—on the origin of gravity and life—scientists are largely silent. And in fact those questions are probably better off left to philosophers and theologians.
However, I can see where creationists are bothered by science, particularly when it comes to the subject of human evolution. At first glance, the notion that humans descended from primates would appear to kill the central characters of Christianity, Adam and Eve. But does it really? Given a close reading, the Book of Genesis actually implies that Adam and Eve were not the only humans to have existed. Consider Gen. 4:16-17 of the NIV: “Cain then left the Lord’s presence and settled in the land of Nod, East of Eden. Cain had relations with his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch.” (My italics.) Who was Cain’s wife if Cain was a son of the first humans?
Interestingly, my version of the Bible puts an asterisk next to Nod, which translates to “Land of the Nomads.” Clearly, the Bible allows for the existence of other peoples and geographic areas. I am by no means a Biblical Scholar, but I don’t see why the following revision to the Christian origins of life should be incompatible with current evangelical beliefs: Adam, Eve, and their family were God’s creation of the first civilized people—that is, like Gilgamesh in a land of Enkidus or Odysseus among the Laestrygonians—who would, in time, people the world with their descendants who were more amendable to the later teachings of Jesus than the brutes of yore.
It turns out I’m in good company when it comes to my defense of evolution. In addition to Stephen Jay Gould and George Will, Pope Benedict has almost exactly the same thing to say. Back in 2007, then-Pope Benedict dismissed the conflict between evolutionary theory and creationism as an “absurdity.” The full quote reads:
“This clash is an absurdity because on one hand there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such”
“…above all it does not answer the great philosophical question, ‘Where does everything come from?’”
Conservatives like Matt Walsh and Justice Scalia are free to disagree with a former Pope if they so choose. They’re both intelligent men who can and will think for themselves, but I think they miss the mark when it comes to evolution and the alternate theories they suggest. Moreover, a resistance to evolution obliges one to explain the richness of fossil record. And I am insufficiently religious to believe Satan put the fossils there in order to lead anthropologists to the gates of hell. I also refuse to believe that evolution and religion are mutually exclusive, and hopefully I have presented a good enough case. So, to any of my church going readers, tell me–are you convinced, or have I merely tried to square a circle?