DARWIN DAY 2016

By George B. Kauffman

Last month our nation celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, while the entire world celebrated the birthday of Charles Darwin, who is ranked alongside our greatest scientists—Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein. Both emancipators share the same birthday, February 12, 1809. With his theory of evolution, Darwin liberated the human mind, while Lincoln liberated millions of human beings by helping to end slavery.

International Darwin Day (darwinday.org), a global celebration of the advancement of human knowledge and the achievements of science and reason, reminds us to improve our world through education and reasoned discourse and to reject today’s opposition to scientific knowledge and inquiry, the religious, superstitious, and mythological traditions that often feed such opposition, and the politicization and undermining of science by ideologues and zealots.

Darwin’s methodical approach to understanding our place in the world laid a foundation for our modern scientific model, which has made possible countless scientific discoveries and advancements since then.

Anti-Intellectualism, which dismisses the importance of intellect, reason, and the pursuit of arts and sciences in favor of entertainment, ignorance, and self-obsession, is rampant in American society, but it is not new. Alexis de Tocqueville was shocked by the “universal conformity” that he found in the United States: “I know no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America.” Democracy in America (1835, 1840).

According to Richard Hofstadter, in his 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life (1963), “The case against the intellect is founded on a set of fictional and wholly abstract antagonisms. Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness… It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism… Once the validity of those antagonisms is accepted then the case for the intellect… is lost.”

In Johnny Reb’s words, “The United States is primarily a nation of delusional dunces, crackpots and cranks – willfully ignorant idiots and proud of it.”.

This trend appears in schools where students who openly show their intelligence are often bullied and made fun of for being “nerds” or “geeks.” The role of universities has changed in our modern age. Once intended for the exploration and advancement of knowledge, today their focus is to train people for jobs.

Darwin’s principles of natural selection are still challenged in America today. According to the National Research Council, “many teachers are under considerable pressure from policy makers, school administrators, parents, and students to downplay or eliminate the teaching of evolution.” Only 28 percent of high school science teachers consistently follow the NRC guidelines on teaching evolution.

A 2014 Gallup Poll showed that 42 percent of Americans believe that humans were created by God in their present form 10,000 years ago, a view rejecting evolution, a concept accepted worldwide.

Although Theodosius Dobzhansky stated, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” a 2013 poll shows that only 43% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats believe in it.

While politicians cherry pick statements and take them out of context to “prove” their predetermined desiderata, scientists try to find shortcomings in the data of their colleagues to arrive at better explanations. Science is always changing. Politicians cite such differences and changes as “proof” that scientists disagree with each other and that science cannot be trusted, unlike scripture and other immutable “truths.”

Although scientists may differ in details about climate change, none of them disputes its reality. Would you believe these “elite” (a term that the right uses with derision to accentuate its purported identification with the “common people”) authorities or eminent climatologists like Donald Trump or Representative Jim Imhofe (R-Oklahoma)?

Why do politicians spout and repeat these obvious lies? They work! But won’t these lies be discovered by the American people, in their infinite wisdom? Politicians cleverly depend on the inability of most people to concentrate on an issue for more than a nanosecond until the next scandale du jour replaces it. Rather than perform their own analysis and investigation of issues from the many sources of information that are readily available, these “ditto heads” rely on simple sound bites provided by Rush Limbaugh, the most listened to radio talk host in America and others of his ilk. Although I wasn’t surprised that CNN chief Jeff Zucker stated that Fox News is a propaganda front for the Republican Party, I was dismayed to learn that it has been number one in total day and primetime for 47 consecutive quarters and 141 consecutive months with Bill O’Reilly as the reigning champ of the network.

Evolution, not religion, is the source of morality. Arguments over evolution have little to do with science. While creationists rehash fossil gaps, ignoring abundant new fossil evidence supporting Darwin’s theory, genetics has roared on by, furnishing us with a detailed phylogenetic wheel of life. Science has demonstrated that genes can move from species to species and have observed natural selection at work and the dawn of new species.

The widespread fear is that belief in evolution will cause morality to collapse, based on the belief that morality comes from God via religion. However, each religion includes unique laws that outsiders find baffling or repugnant. If religion were the vehicle that delivers morality, then atheists, the disaffiliated, and those who have never heard of God’s laws should show comparatively inferior moral behavior. They don’t.

Countries with the lowest murder rates — Sweden, Japan, Britain, the Czech Republic, etc. include those with the lowest religiosity rates. Murder rates in medieval Europe, when religion was universal, were ten times modern rates. Our states with the highest religiosity rates also tend to have the highest murder rates.

Morality is the effect of evolution. How could this have evolved in a world of survival of the fittest? A misconception is that evolution is strictly “nature red in tooth and claw.” Competition pulses at the heart of evolution, but alongside it is cooperation, which is everywhere, especially in social species like our own.

Religious morality is frozen in time. If morals came down the mountain with Moses or through an angel’s pen, progress makes no sense. That’s precisely the stand that ISIS and Christian Reconstructionists take.

Rejecting that stand doesn’t require one to be an atheist. Evolved morals are consistent with theistic evolution — a position held by about one-third of Americans. However, acknowledging the evolutionary origins of morality will help us revive the concept of moral progress.

What can we do?

Reach out to our fellow citizens and enlighten them about the true state of affairs. While my current health doesn’t permit me to march or demonstrate as many of you do, I take time from my scientific publishing to write for Community Alliance. You should do likewise. Scientific aptitude is the key to global competitiveness, yet students in 22 countries posted better results in science than the United States, including Vietnam, Canada, and Poland. Hey, I thought we were Number One in everything! What are religious schools teaching our students in science? Catch this unbelievable story.

Use the social media that science has given us (Facebook, Twitter, Thunderclap, etc.). With a click or two you can sign and forward dozens of worthy petitions without stirring from your computer. I do it daily. Some work, some don’t, but at least you’re doing your part in the fight. Never give up!

*****

George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, as well as numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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