All eyes on evolution

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I can’t trust them to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, so that you readers here can have a good idea of the kind of stuff I was writing about in college, and also so I will no longer be dependent on The Diamondback’s web archive for access to my work in perpetuity. Here is the first of my opinion columns, All eyes on evolution, originally published March 7, 2006.


A month ago, I attended the panel discussion “Beyond the Monkey Trial: Scientific Progress and Societal Debate” in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on the topic of evolution. It was held before a partial re-enactment of the Scopes monkey trial put on by the theatre department. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t feel bad, because I was one of the youngest people there. The majority of the audience looked like they might have attended the original Scopes trial. But I digress.

To my great astonishment, especially given the name of the discussion, the panel, composed of four university biology professors, was completely ignorant of the evolution-creationism controversy. They had no concept of how widespread the debate is and weren’t prepared at all to respond to any challenges. After they gave their brief presentations, a creationist in the audience asked a few questions and actually held his own. This is not to say creationism is somehow on par with evolution; in fact, it’s far from it. It’s just that these biologists are so engrossed in their one small area of research that they can’t stand up for science in general.

The creationist made one of those standard, thoroughly refuted arguments creationists nevertheless still want to use: How did the eye evolve? What use is half an eye?

The answer, of course, is that nature has a wide range of eye functionalities, from light-sensitive cell patches on nematodes to the exquisite eyes of a squid. The evolution of the eye has been thoroughly documented both through fossil evidence and by observing living creatures. The human eye is far from perfect, by the way. Light-sensitive cells are located behind blood vessels and other obscuring cells. The optic nerve plunges through the retina, creating a blind spot in the process. Both of these are problems squid don’t have. Yet the best response the biologist was able to come up with was something about eyeglasses.

There is a fundamental disconnect between the scientific community and the community at large. In science, there is no controversy over evolution; it’s simply a fact, backed up by millions upon millions of evidences from experiments and fossils. But scientists would be wise to pay attention to the rising trend of anti-science among the public and stop living in a naive world so they can focus all of their efforts on research. Pennsylvania and Kansas, among others, have recently made the news for their legislative attacks on science. If nothing else, scientists should pay more attention to the public discourse because they risk losing their funding if they don’t. Just ask stem cell researchers and climatologists.

Everyone who considers himself a rationalist should take just a few hours out of his life to learn the responses to the most common attacks on science. Scientists would also do well to hone their rhetoric; although they may be geniuses in their field of study, they will regularly be beaten in verbal debates by the likes of Kent Hovind, a man with a phony doctorate who goes from church to church lecturing how the Earth is only 6,000 years old and evolution is responsible for every societal ill. And the American public needs to realize scientific truth is established not in verbal debates but through experimentation and the scientific method. Hovind, for instance, couldn’t experiment his way out of a wet paper bag. It’s a shame science must be politicized, but if that’s the only defense left against the increasing wave of fundamentalist attacks on science, then so be it.

One of the best places for people interested in the defense of science is www.talkorigins.org. It’s a great resource of scientific responses to common anti-science arguments and it includes many references to scientific literature. I urge anyone who’s interested in this issue to at least take a look. And for the rest of you, please keep what I’ve said in mind. Creationism pushers may outnumber real scientists in the popular media, such as Fox News, but that’s only because the scientists are too busy toiling away in their laboratories toward the next big breakthrough that will improve humanity forever.

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