Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sometimes Evolution Happens Quickly

Sometimes Evolution Happens Quickly

I’ve been discussing evolution one way or another for over thirty years. Back then I believed that evolution was a satanic tool for dragging our faith away from God. Yes, I too have been a “Young-earth creationist.” I believed in something that was then called “Creation Science,” but now is dumbed-down to “Intelligent Design,” which basically states that life on earth is so complex that there HAD to be some kind of omniscient being involved in its development. Now, we could spend a lot of time asking why, if that is true, didn’t this being do a better job of designing things like weight-bearing joints, and why there are genetic diseases that kill babies, or (in my view, even worse) auto-immune illnesses in which a person’s own body attacks it, causing illness and death. Doesn’t seem very intelligent to me-but that is not the point today.

The definition of the word “evolution” is change over time, to put it quite simply. Humans have used it to create domestic plants and animals that work according to our desires for thousands of years. That is why water dogs have webbed feet, and Labrador retrievers have water resistant coats, but terriers (their names come from the Latin “terra,” or earth) don’t always care for the water. Now, some would say that this is a sign of “intelligent design,” since humans directed it. But, again, since this type of design has often led to unintended consequences, and harm to the breed or plant, I would say it calls into question, once again, the “intelligent” behind “intelligent design.” But the fact that change over time occurs is without question.
In 1994 Jonathan Weiner published a book called The Beak of the Finch, in which he told the story of two biologists, Peter and Rosemary Grant, who spent twenty-years demonstrating that evolution could occur in closed ecosystems within a few generations. They went to the Galapagos Islands, made famous by Charles Darwin, and observed that the shape of the beaks of birds changed in such a short amount of time based on the scarcity or abundance of particular food sources. These biologists basically put to rest the argument that is often used by creationists that “believing in evolution is also based on faith because none of us were there to see it happening.” We can see it happening right before our eyes. Just this week, in the New York Times “Science Times,” on July 25, an article by Carl Zimmer was published in which we wrote about four biologists who are among a growing group of scientists doing research on “urban evolution,” or showing how urban sprawl is forcing organisms, including rodents and other animals to adapt to  new environments right before our eyes. Other organisms that are evolving right before our eyes are bacteria and microbes, which have spent the last century developing resistance to our insecticides, antibiotics, and other environmental chemicals. There are now bacteria that invade our bodies, and we can’t fight them because they have evolved the ability to absorb our medicines and anti-bacterial wipes and washes. We are not keeping up with them by developing resistance to them because we are not allowing our immune systems to work at fighting them.

All of that being said, there are several states, mostly southern, mostly “red,” that are currently-STILL trying to get intelligent design printed in their science text books. My state, Texas, is one of them. This battle has been going on for nearly a century. The Scopes Monkey Trial, which was fictionalized and immortalized in the 1960 movie “Inherit the Wind.” The trial itself took place in 1925, and some people still will not let this go away, despite the fact that nearly every new discovery supports the fact that all life on earth shares a common ancestor…the basic fact that is at the center of the entirety of our biological lives. Part of this comes from a level of human arrogance, supported by some religious texts, which claim that man is a “higher” form of creation, and is “above” and has dominion over earth and all other life forms. I could go on and on about all the harm we’ve done to earth in the name of this belief, but I won’t. Hopefully any thinking people who might read this will figure out what I mean.

On December 20, 2005, U.S. District Judge John Jones struck a blow to those who wish to teach intelligent design as science. Suit was filed over a school district in Dover, Pennsylvania, where teachers were being forced to give a statement to classes before teaching evolution saying that there were alternative theories to evolution, and that evolution is not “proven” science. After hearing arguments from both sides, Judge Jones decided that intelligent design is not science, and that it violates the constitutional separation of church and state. But the battle goes on. The arguments on both sides of this trial were presented on PBS on November 13, 2007 in Nova, Intelligent Design on Trial.

But wait!!! Barbara Cargill, a (gasp!) biology teacher, and conservative head of the Texas State Board of Education agreed to compromise and not push to have intelligent design added to text books printed in Texas, and purchased by school boards of the entire country. According to reports in Austin news sources, Ms. Cargill gave up the fight because it “looked like they would lose,” and didn’t have enough votes to push their anti-evolution agenda. Well for once, I would love to see some other states follow Texas’ lead. 

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