Sorry, Charlie

February 12th being the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne has written a substantial essay on the status of science and religion in American culture 150 years after the publication of On The Origin Of Species, and on just how compatible the two really are. His answer: not so much.

Coyne’s essay begins:

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 — the same day as Abraham Lincoln — and published his magnum opus, On the Origin of Species, fifty years later. Every half century, then, a Darwin Year comes around: an occasion to honor his theory of evolution by natural selection, which is surely the most important concept in biology, and perhaps the most revolutionary scientific idea in history. 2009 is such a year, and we biologists are preparing to fan out across the land, giving talks and attending a multitude of DarwinFests. The melancholy part is that we will be speaking more to other scientists than to the American public. For in this country, Darwin is a man of low repute. The ideas that made Darwin’s theory so revolutionary are precisely the ones that repel much of religious America, for they imply that, far from having a divinely scripted role in the drama of life, our species is the accidental and contingent result of a purely natural process.

And so the culture wars continue between science and religion. On one side we have a scientific establishment and a court system determined to let children learn evolution rather than religious mythology, and on the other side the many Americans who passionately resist those efforts. It is a depressing fact that while 74 percent of Americans believe that angels exist, only 25 percent accept that we evolved from apelike ancestors. Just one in eight of us think that evolution should be taught in the biology classroom without including a creationist alternative. Among thirty-four Western countries surveyed for the acceptance of evolution, the United States ranked a dismal thirty-third, just above Turkey. Throughout our country, school boards are trying to water down the teaching of evolution or sneak creationism in beside it. And the opponents of Darwinism are not limited to snake-handlers from the Bible Belt; they include some people you know. As Karl Giberson notes in Saving Darwin, “Most people in America have a neighbor who thinks the Earth is ten thousand years old.”

I haven’t had a chance to read all of the essay myself yet, so will hold off on commenting until I have. Meanwhile, you can find it here, and a collection of responses from the community here.

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  1. bob koepp says

    OK, I’m not a bible thumper, and I certainly don’t hold Darwin in “low repute.” But I don’t think the idea of evolution by natural selection is the “most important concept in biology.” If (perish the thought…) natural selection was shown to be a relatively minor factor in the evolution of life, it would have virtually no impact on what we know about functional biology. Coyne apparently is too close to the “darwin wars” to be objective about such things.

    Posted February 6, 2009 at 11:05 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Well, even the noted Christian biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

    Coyne is, after all, a working biologist; if he says, as most biologists seem to think, that evolution by natural selection is the “most important concept in biology”, it might not be that he is too close to the “Darwin wars”, but that most laypeople are too far from them.

    Posted February 6, 2009 at 11:52 am | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Dobzhansky was hardly a “neutral voice”, and his much quoted claim, while effective rhetoric, can’t stand the heat of critical scrutiny. As I pointed out, virtually all of functional biology “makes sense” without requiring any reference whatever to the matter of origins. Just consider such concepts as ‘cell,’ ’tissue,’ ‘organ.’ And most working biologists haven’t given much thought to the conceptual structure of biology…

    Posted February 6, 2009 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    OK, OK… I suppose it is a little hyperbolic to say that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Obviously, breathing “makes sense”, and walking, and so on.

    Dobzhansky’s point is more about the big picture, of course: the distribution of species, the re-use of parts, the interlocking relationships between species, and all the rest of the holistic aspects of biology.

    Readers can see Dobzhansky’s original essay for themselves here.

    Posted February 6, 2009 at 10:45 pm | Permalink