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Darwin's 200th: Religion is no substitute for evolutionary science

By Gregory A. Clark

Published February 10, 2009 6:00 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
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Evolution is one of the fundamental unifying concepts of biology and medicine. It is regrettable that today, 200 years after the birth of Charles Darwin and 150 years after the publication of his The Origin of Species, there are still so many persons who would sacrifice the honest teaching of evolution on the altar of religion.

The notorious 2006 State Senate Bill 96, "Origins of Life," provides one well-known local example of such religiously motivated legislation. In the form initially passed by the Senate (before ultimately failing in the House), the bill mandated that multiple theories of human origins be taught.

But, as House sponsor James Ferrin later admitted when amending the bill, there are no alternative scientific theories regarding the origins of humans. The only legitimate scientific explanation is that we are descended from other species.

As Brigham Young University faculty member Daniel Fairbanks has written, "[d]enying the evidence of evolution, including human evolution, is honest only in ignorance." A legal mandate to teach otherwise is a legal mandate to deceive. Legislation cannot establish the origin of species any more than the infamous 1897 Indiana pi Bill could set the value of pi to equal exactly 3.2.

Similar but subtler pressures to distort the teaching of evolution can emerge even at Utah's public institutions of higher learning, including the University of Utah. Apparently fearful of annoying Utah legislators, one university dean reportedly advised one of his faculty members that students could be excused from lectures on potentially offensive topics, such as evolution.

Another dean wrote that, in teaching, evolution needs to be presented as a theory, noting that problems can be associated with teaching evolution as fact.

But evolution, like gravity, is a fact as well as a theory. Distorting the teaching of evolution to avoid conflicts with religious beliefs regarding human origins is like distorting the teaching of gravity to avoid conflict with the belief that gravity results from the beating of angels' wings, as U.S. Congressman (and physicist) Rush Holt has noted. And, as recent court cases have shown, such distortions are not only bad science, but also illegal.

I am a biologist, but not an evolutionary biologist. So why should all this matter to me, or to you?

It matters because faith-based attacks on evolution are ultimately attacks on the fundamental nature of science itself, attacks that go far beyond the particulars of evolution. Science is not simply a static collection of facts, but also a method for obtaining an empirical understanding of how the world works. To become life-long learners, students need to understand the scientific method itself, as well as the information it has revealed.

By definition, science does not attempt to explain the world by invoking the supernatural. Invoking the supernatural can explain anything, and hence explains nothing. Religious explanations of human origins by whatever name -- creationism, state Sen. Chris Buttars' "divine design", or "intelligent design" -- all fail as science, and should not be taught as such. Religion depends largely on faith; science, on empirical evidence.

Many devoutly religious persons find no conflict between evolution and their faith, and actively promote the accurate teaching of evolution. This is heartening, indeed. But whether or not such conflicts exist is not the central issue. Willful deletion or misrepresentation of legitimate findings simply because they might conflict with religious beliefs is fraudulent in teaching, just as in research. And that is a poor basis for the teaching of any subject.

Gregory A. Clark is an associate professor in the University of Utah Department of Bioengineering. The views expressed above are his own and do not represent the official position of the university.



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