A “Change the World” analysis for Six Books that Changed the World (Prof. Rob Martello)
When Charles Darwin published Origin of the Species in 1859, he anticipated backlash from the religious community. His theories were at direct odds with religious teachings of creationism, the belief that humans were created by a higher power. His contemporaries had learned to jive with religion of the era, with the church even funding research demonstrating the glory of God’s design. Plate tectonics did not directly contradict specific religious teachings. Origin presented an entirely different ideological barrier.
Darwin’s primary argument was “descent with modification”: species and subspecies formed and diverged over long periods of time due to selective pressures placed on them by their environments resulting in evolution. As far as Darwin was concerned, humans had evolved in exactly the same manner. There were several problems with this theory that hindered its adoption. First, evolution stood in direct opposition to literal interpretation of the bible. In the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, God directly creates the world and creates man. A literal interpretation of Genesis is known as Creationism, and was the dominant belief in the western world in 1859. Opposing the religious majority proved difficult for Darwin and he was met with religious rebuke. Second, the theory of evolution implied that humans were simply a descended species no different from other animals, creating a psychological barrier to acceptance. As Stephen Jay Gould points out in The Human Difference, humans have a “continuing psychological need to see ourselves as separate and superior.” This psychological barrier might explain why Darwin was met with such criticism from the scientific community as well, spurning his work for being deductive. Darwin’s other works, which utilized a similar evidence based construction, were never as hotly contested. Finally, Darwin’s theory suggested that the universe operated in a cutthroat manner without divine intervention that rewarded good and punished evil. The idea that the world was random and violent created an existential barrier that was difficult to overcome, and many were not willing to accept this as the way of the world.
You might ask yourself: Do Darwin’s contemporaries’ reactions to Origin of the Species have any importance today? The answer is yes, because a large number of people still believe in Creationism despite the majority of world religions declaring that the Theory of Evolution and their religion can coexist. A 2014 Gallup poll found that 42% of Americans believe “God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago”.
Why is acceptance of evolution important? The Theory of Evolution combined with Mendelian genetics—together known as Neo-Darwinism—is perhaps the central tenet of biology. It is important for the general public to understand these concepts for a multitude of reasons ranging from public health and the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria to sociology and race relations in the United States.
How has creationism persisted in the United States? This question is a political and legal quagmire that has persisted for more than six decades and is due to the Young Earth Creationist movement.
Young Earth Creationists believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old. The most conservative of Young Earth Creationists are also Flat Earthers, genuinely believing that the earth is flat and rejecting modern science. Henry Morris is the founder of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and “arguably the most influential creationist of the late twentieth century” (Scott, Antievolution and Creationism in the United States). Morris, along with John C. Whitcomb, published The Genesis Flood in 1963 which attempted to form a scientific argument for a literal interpretation of Genesis. While it was rejected outright by the scientific community, it was read by hundreds of thousands of people (Gordin, The PseudoScience Wars). The ICR was responsible for drafting bills at the state level for “equal time” representation of evolution and creationism in public school biology; these bills ultimately made their way into law in the early 1980s in Arkansas and Louisiana. By 1982 the Arkansas law had been declared unconstitutional but the Louisiana law bounced its way around the court system until 1987, when the “equal time” approach was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The serious consideration given to these theories and laws sowed the misinformation deep and is still dogmatically followed to this day. The most recent approach from Young Earth Creationists on the legal stage is to force evolution to be taught as a “theory,” leveraging the day-to-day interpretation of the word against the scientific term. A scientific theory is a system of ideas supported with data, analysis, and peer review. A day-to-day theory is one used to explain the world around us, independent of serious outside verification. This misinformation campaign has persisted to this day in states such as Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, and Wisconsin among others (Scott).
The great irony of continued American belief in Creationist theory is that by the numbers, the percentage of people still believing young earth creationism is greater than the percentage of people belonging to religions that preach a literal interpretation of Genesis (Matsumura, What Do Christians Really Believe about Evolution?). The four largest denominations of Christianity in the U.S., along with several others, have all formally acknowledged the validity of evolution and its importance in the classroom, stating that an unfair treatment of the subject in biology class undermines a student’s education in the sciences.
As engineers and scientists at Olin, almost all of us accept the Theory of Evolution independent of our religious beliefs. We are able to do this without much internal conflict. Outside of our community though, there are many people who still believe in Creationism. Given evolution’s biological importance not only to medical advances, but also public health, it is important that we make an effort to change people’s stance on the matter. We can do this without compromising religious belief and improving the knowledge of the general public.