The evolution of enlightenment

Jerry Moore

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 percent of Americans concluded humans evolved with no assistance from an intelligent agent. The survey also reported that 38 percent of Americans thought humans evolved with guidance from a supreme being while 44 percent professed that humans were created by a higher power as they now appear; 9 percent 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 percent of Americans now assert that humans evolved with no assistance from any deity. In addition, 33 percent claim that humans have evolved with guidance from a supreme being and 40 percent cling to the thoroughly debunked notion that humans haven’t changed since we first appeared on the Earth; 5 percent 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.

Today marks 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 percent, up from 17 percent 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. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to jmoore@wdt.net.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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(12) comments

Holmes

Just another anti-Christian article by the media. Hmm, seems like they always appear particularly this time of year...

hermit thrush

what is anti-christian about the piece?

Nice_Commenter

Please don't interfere with his imagined feelings of persecution. They think Trump is Christian, which is so clueless it is totally adorable!

rdsouth

Suppose you were color blind at an independence day celebration and suddenly everyone around you started shouting about the colorful fireworks. Wouldn't you feel compelled to pick that time to explain to them that color isn't real, just the brain's way of interpreting wavelengths of light? Of course it is. There there.

Holmes -- the real one

Ah -- the "fake Holmes" opinion strikes again! Looks like the jumping off point this time was the header. That word 'evolution' is a big trigger for a lot of people. Worse yet, it is sometimes used in a general way to mean progressing from a simpler thing to something that is more complex -- and that has an inherent trigger too since that word 'progress' (no doubt evocative of 'progressive') comes into play.

I'm guessing that even entertaining (i.e. letting it sit down on your mental couch) a notion like evolution must seem to be "anti-Christian" for some people since there is nothing to be found in the piece that opposes Christianity or Jesus, for that matter. But then, it is likely that today's opinion was gleaned from just reading the header and stopping there.

Oh well, this reminds me of when I was young and my mother took us kids to a Goldwater rally. I remember 2 things vividly about this experience. 1) They had ginger ale in cans that said "Goldwater" right on the can. 2) On the way home, my mother sought to navigate the drive such that she made no left turns the whole way.

Holmes -- the real one

Cans of Gold Water (The Right Drink for the Conservative Taste):

https://thumbs.worthpoint.com/zoom/images1/1/1217/04/gold-water-goldwater-soda-beer-six_1_392d799cbc6ea46878d46a2f82f24fef.jpg

Nice_Commenter

It might be the "War on Christmas"! We should feel sorry for the victims who have to hear "happy holidays" during this time of year. It is very triggering to hear "happy holidays", so much that Republicans call it "The War on Christmas." Some Christians say "happy holidays" just because there are multiple Christian holidays this time of year, so insensitive! Good Christians learn from Bill O'Reilly.

zeitgeist

Explain how you understand your commitment to evolutionary science and your participation in the upcoming choral performance of Handel's Messiah. Also, might the performance act to foster the public's propensity for "alternative facts"?

mjdmsw

Art (music) is informed by thoughts, feelings, beliefs and experience. I am a evolutionist and an atheist. I love Bach's St. Matthew Passion, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and Handel's Messiah. They are wonderful human creations. The inspiration or motivation of the composer matters not at all.

zeitgeist

I, too, am an evolutionist and an atheist. I understand art (music) and inspiration or motivation to be inextricably linked. Without the latter, the former would not be. Inspiration or motivation, then, matters, arguably more than the human creation itself. I am attending the upcoming performance of Handel's Messiah. Through what lens might I experience the performance so as not to dismiss its inspiration or motivation?

mjdmsw

No I will argue that the creation matters only. The inspiration, maybe, can be inferred but in any case does not matter. How you are moved by art and music is important.

rdsouth

There's an emergent intelligence in the universe, and it efficiently tweaks chance events throughout space and time so as to promote the growth of what can only be called "order." Order magnifies these lazy interventions, the way machines magnify human action. Organized, intelligent beings equipped with technology constitute such order, so this universal mind has been promoting our growth all along. It cares about us as a species, not as individuals, and its light touch remains something to be explained. I suspect that Its limitation is also Its source: Its dynamic comes about as a result of a teleological but also very evolution like process in the unseen explosive expansion of the array of alternate universes. Rooted in fundamentally necessary infinitude itself, It is compelled by Its own urge to create all possible worlds, and constrained in interventions because what affects one world affects other worlds chaotically. Its intent and our benefit coincide, so we should support Its aim of promoting a thriving and growing humanity, while realizing that it is morally consequentialistic, not really constrained by any rule whatsoever other than the mandate to get the best possible ultimate and total results. We cannot calculate these outcomes, but we can guess and best serve our individual selves (with regard to Its effects) by acquiring the character and positioning most likely to make us able and prone to take action on Its behalf.

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