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Richard Cohen

Backward Evolution

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; Page A21

Behold the giant Galapagos tortoise! It weighs several hundred pounds, lives God-only-knows how long and on the day a couple of weeks ago when I was on the Galapagos Islands, could not be beholden at all. The tortoise we wanted to see, Lonesome George, so-called because he is apparently the last of his subspecies, was in hiding. In a sense, that's appropriate, because almost half of the United States cannot see any of the Galapagos for what they are: the home office of evolution. This is where Charles Darwin got his bright idea.

The archipelago, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, is where birds and reptiles have evolved in almost total isolation; species that exist there can be found nowhere else. Darwin, visiting the Galapagos in 1835, was stunned by what he saw and evolved a theory to explain it all: natural selection. More recently, a pair of Princeton University scientists examined the finches on just one of the islands and noted how their beaks evolved to suit climatic conditions. A book by Jonathan Weiner about their findings, "The Beak of the Finch," won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. It is now clear that in some cases evolution moves with surprising speed.

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It is odd to amble around the Galapagos and see the handiwork of evolution yet at the same time bear in mind that many Americans do not accept evolution at all. It is belittled as a mere "theory," which is a misunderstanding of the scientific term, and even in some places where it is grudgingly accepted, it is supposed to share the curriculum with creationism, as if that is an alternative theory. It is, of course, just a fancy term for the creation according to Genesis, a matter of religious belief and not scientific theory or fact. It can have its place, but not in the science curriculum.

The fight over evolution is an odd and sad one. There is nothing about Darwinian theory that cannot be ascribed to God -- Darwin himself referred to "the Creator" in his "The Origin of Species" -- and back when I was in college and studying evolution, my teacher began the semester by saying, behold the world of God or behold something else: It is entirely up to you. Yet, 19 states are considering proposals that would require schools to question evolution, which are nothing less than proposals to inject religion into the curriculum. But why stop there? Why not introduce such skepticism into astronomy and have the sun revolve around the earth or have the earth stand still? These are questions that Clarence Darrow put to William Jennings Bryan at the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. Amazingly, they still linger.

They do so not just because, as Darwin himself conceded, there are holes in the theory of evolution but because of an evolving political weakness in which intellectual honesty counts for less and less. Thus, you have political leaders from George Bush on down refusing to say whether they put any stock in evolution or believe, as apparently they think they should, that it is an affront to and assault on religion. Back in 1999 Bush was asked whether he was "a creationist," and he responded by not responding: "I believe children ought to be exposed to different theories about how the world started." In other words, it's all the same: evolution, creationism and maybe something else from another religious tradition. This proves you can go to Yale University and learn nothing -- not about evolution, mind you, but about intellectual integrity.

The assault on evolution -- some Imax theaters, mostly in the South, will not show a film that makes brief references to evolution -- is an assault not just on science but on thinking and truth and skepticism. Proponents of creationism demand that you stop thinking and instead accept religious dogma. Galileo, who fought this fight, put it this way: "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect, has intended us to forgo their use."

"There is a grandeur in this view of life," Darwin wrote about his theory. The line is quoted by Ian McEwan in his new novel, "Saturday." He has his protagonist, Henry Perowne, repeat the phrase and mull it into a virtual religious doctrine. "What better creation myth?" he thinks. "An unimaginable sweep of time," he goes on, his mind hurrying through eons of change until more recent times when human beings appear with "morality, love, art, cities -- and the unprecedented bonus of this story happening to be demonstrably true."

Behold it.

cohenr@washpost.com


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