|Monday, October 4, 1999||
Volume 65, Issue 30
Nandagiri on Houston
|Creationism isn't very evolutionary
David Warmflash, M.D.
It is distressing that the authors of the recent letters to the editor on evolution fall into two general categories. One category, represented by the "creationists" or "anti-evolutionists," includes those who neither like nor understand evolution.
The other category, represented by the "pro-evolutionists," include those who like evolution but understand it only a little.
In fairness to those authors, who may wish for their letters to be interpreted as expressions of impartiality, it is possible that a third category should be included for those who have no opinion on the subject and do not understand it.
Tragically, it is probably we, the scientific community, who are partially to blame for our failure to adequately educate the public on current research issues.
As just one example, several research scientists in this laboratory have observed that many students have not heard of Archaea and that some do not even know what a ribosome is.
While it would be impossible to explain evolution in the scope of a short column, I would like, at least, to correct some of the misconceptions and incorrect terminology that has been used in the letters.
First of all, evolution is both fact and theory. In science, it is not a bad thing to be a theory. In many cases, a strong theory in science translates into what would qualify as a fact. Like evolution, gravity is also a theory but most people believe in it anyway.
Based on the usage of the word "theory" among the general public, evolution is a fact. It really happens. Creationism, on the other hand, is not a theory. It is either an hypothesis (a weak, overturned hypothesis) or, more likely, a religious belief.
Contrary to a common misconception expressed by one of the authors, there is no real debate among scientists over whether or not evolution occurs, but rather about how it occurs. Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection has become stronger, not weaker, during the last 150 years.
This is due not only to an accumulation of fossil and molecular evidence, but also to an appreciation of the sophistication of evolutionary processes.
We now know that in addition to natural selection, there are other factors, unknown to Darwin, such as mutation, genetic drift, gene flow and recombination, all of which interact in a highly complex manner.
Generally, a creationist would be less interested in whether the origin of humanity or perhaps an obscure insect species in the Amazon had been influenced more by natural selection or by the founder effect, than in the opportunity to tell the world, out of context, that scientists were in disagreement over evolution.
As far as the reference to what one author considers a "blow to (evolutionary) theory" and the analogy of the 57 Chevy versus the complexity of human life; all of these issues have been adequately addressed, albeit, in the language of chemistry, molecular biology and mathematics.
Evolution is, indeed, quite believable to anyone who makes the effort to understand it. While such an understanding may require some effort, it appears more likely that creationists would prefer not to understand.
But if we are to continue to advance our comprehension of ourselves and our origins, we may, in return, need to give up many of the comforting beliefs of our ancestors and be prepared for the more exciting, though more difficult, quest that is based on a view of nature as it is, not as we may wish it to be.
Warmflash, an astrobiology research associate at the department of biology and biochemistry,
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.