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Is Evolution Fit to Survive?: Setting the Stage   

DR. ROBIN BERNHOFT

In the past several years the evolution debate has assumed new life, with states like Pennsylvania attempting to mandate that every child, as a requirement for graduation, pass competency tests which would demonstrate his knowledge and acceptance of evolution as the only mechanism by which life originated and grew on this planet.

Other states, like Kansas and Oklahoma, attempted to adopt a more reasoned approach.

The Kansas State Board of Education removed evolution questions from the state 's assessment test, saying that how districts handled the subject was an issue of local control They did not disallow the teaching of evolution, they opened the issue up to allow teachers and students the academic freedom to explore divergent points of view on the origins of life, if they desired to do so.

The media response was nothing short of hysteria. The State Board primary election in Kansas that year became a national election, with candidates spending over $90,000 to get elected to a volunteer position. The pro-Darwin candidates won, in what is sure to be hailed as a victory for science.

Oklahoma has said that all textbooks should carry a disclaimer that evolution is in fact a theory and is very controversial.

This simple statement has also met with a storm of criticism.

It's almost a desperate attempt to keep any other information from reaching students, or to keep them from hearing anything other than Darwin 's theory of evolution in classrooms. Parents across the country were outraged at this high-handed example of bureaucratic arrogance and began looking for information to begin to make sure that their children get Science in the name of Science.

This series has been developed to give parents and teachers access to that information. We will be examining the scientific merits, or lack thereof, in Darwin 's Theory, using the scientific method. To accomplish our task, we 're going to be joined by Dr. Robin Bernhoft.

Dr. Bernhoft, welcome.

Thank you, Peg.

Why don't you start by giving us your credentials?

I am by training both a surgeon and a historian. I began my academic career at Harvard, where I studied British history, and graduated with Honors. I then attended Medical School, graduating from Washington University in St Louis, near the top of my class. I did my surgical residency at the University of California, San Francisco, a research fellowship at the San Francisco Veteran's Hospital, and a fellowship in liver and pancreatic surgery at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital, in London, England. I am a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, have published 22 scientific papers on topics relating to experimental high blood pressure, liver physiology, and other aspects of medicine and surgery. I have written chapters for books on medical ethics, and various articles for the medical and popular press.

During my scientific training, I always took the truthfulness of Darwinian evolution for granted like most scientists do but as I have been researching recent developments in biology over the past few months, I am beginning to see that there is as much to be said against evolution as in favor of it.

Charles Darwin
(1809-1882)
 


To begin this discussion, how about if we start by your telling us, Dr. Bernhoft, who was Charles Darwin ?

Charles Darwin was an English naturalist who was born in 1809 and died in 1882. He wrote two books which are among the most influential ever written: The Origin of Species, in 1859 in which he laid out the theory of evolution which bears his name; and the Descent of Man, in 1879 in which he applied his theory to the development of humanity.

Now, this theory that is so important where exactly did it come from?

That's an interesting story. Darwin's career did not exactly get off to a blazing start. His early life sounds something from a Monte python skit: his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, and his father, Robert Darwin, were among the most wealthy and famous physicians and scientists in England. His maternal uncle, Josiah Wedgewood, was one of England's most famous industrialists the head of the Wedgwood pottery family.

And Charles' family had high hopes for him. But at age 16, when he went to medical school, he dropped out because he found he couldn't stand the sight of blood, and he nearly fainted upon witnessing his first operation.

So he tried law school, and flunked out. His family then sent him to Cambridge to study divinity, but he had no more aptitude for being a clergyman than he had had for medicine. He hated the classics, was unable to understand mathematics, and confessed to a friend that he remained, "stuck fast in the mud at the bottom, and there I shall remain."

Charles surprised himself and his family by actually graduating, and spent the first summer after Cambridge "geologizing" around the English countryside.

In the fall of 1831, he was offered a position as ship's naturalist on the British naval vessel HMS Beagle, and spent the next five years sailing around the world, observing flora and fauna.

There is an irony hidden in this story: the ship's captain, James Fitzroy, wanted a naturalist along partly to have educated company on an otherwise long and lonesome voyage, but also because he wanted the naturalist to collect data which would prove the truth of the Biblical account of creation.

Fitzroy got more than he bargained for.

Darwin observed, and collected specimens in the Canary Islands, the Cape Verde Islands, and along the east coast of Brazil.

When he got to the wide open grasslands of Argentina, Darwin was suddenly struck by the fact that there weren't any rabbits in what looked like perfect rabbit country . Why not? Shouldn't there be rabbits?

There were rodents with long ears which acted a bit like rabbits. But Patagonian hares were not the same as rabbits. They were more like guinea pigs, and other South American rodents. Why should that be? Could hares and guinea pigs be related?

South America has rheas, which are kind of like ostriches. But they are also very different from ostriches. Why should that be?

Darwin dug up bones of giant armadillos and giant ground sloths, similar to living armadillos and sloths, but much bigger. Could the giant bones be related to the living animals?

Darwin went to the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles west of Ecuador. The Galapagos islands are barren and volcanic, but the animals and plants were more like those of South America than they were like those of similar islands off the coast of Africa. Why should that be?

Darwin had taken a copy of Charles Lyell's new book, Principles of Geology, which argued that the earth was much older than people thought. Darwin began to wonder if creatures could change, given enough time.

To answer his questions, he developed a theory of evolution, which as you said, bears his name. What exactly does that theory say?

Darwin's theory of evolution tries to account for the differences between creatures: It says that small changes can occur which can be passed from one generation to the next. Changes for the worse die out, but changes for the better which means changes that favor adaptation to the environment changes for the better allow more offspring of that type to survive. Over a long time, these small changes gradually add up, and new species are formed.

Is that what is taught today?

Pretty much, with some qualifications. Darwin didn't know about genetics, since Mendel wasn't published until after Darwin's death, and genetics make a big difference here. Darwin didn't have any idea how changes could be passed from one generation to the next. Today, it is believed that changes between species result from changes in genetics.

Is this theory sometimes called Random Selection, meaning the changes were random?

Random, or natural selection. The idea is that any random genetic change which produces an advantage in terms of food-gathering, defense, or reproductive success will be selected by the environment.

Darwin's theory met with a storm of controversy, with people saying that it violated religious beliefs. Why?

Darwin's theory suggests that life could originate and develop along the lines that it has developed, culminating in us, without ever involving God in any way. This was an enormous threat to faith, and had a huge impact in Victorian England. Matthew Amold wrote a poem entitled "Dover Beach", bemoaning the fact that Darwin's theory had destroyed his faith in God.

And millions of others lost their faith in the same way.

The theory also caused Darwin a lot of personal pain.

Darwin is sometimes depicted as a God-hating monster, but he was not. He had trained to be an Anglican clergyman. His wife was devout, and remained so throughout her life. She wrote a famous letter to Darwin protesting against the religious implications of his work, and the chasm which had grown between them at the level of faith they had once shared a vibrant Christian faith, but Darwin's faith had died. He regretted it bitterly. His memoirs read, "How often I have cried over that letter." In the United States, evolution was legally banned from public schools in many states. That ban was challenged in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee by a teacher named John Scopes. The court case is probably one of the most famous in American history, being the subject for the Broadway play, Inherit the Wind, and blockbuster movies of the same name. The facts of the case are not well-known, but explode the myth that has been bunt around the reality of what happened in July of 1925.

The story begins in the early spring, when the ACLU sent press releases to every newspaper in Tennessee offering legal support for anyone who would challenge the Tennessee ban on evolution. An engineer in Dayton read the article and called a meeting with the head of the County School Board and the school superintendent. They decided that it would be good publicity for Dayton to be the town where the trial happened. So they called John Scopes and persuaded him to become the test teacher.

Scopes was at first reluctant, pointing out that the state approved textbook included a reference to evolution, so every teacher using that book was actually breaking the law. But in the end, he was persuaded, and the fellow who called the meeting, a Mr. Rappelyea, wired the ACLU and filed the complaint against Scopes. In fact, reports from the time indicate that everyone knew it was not a serious charge right from the beginning.

The prosecution was represented by the State Attorney General, and by a man named William Jennings Bryan. Mr. Bryan was very well known. He had run for President three times, and was also a very well-known religious figure. He called the trial a "Duel to the Death" between evolution and Christianity. He had prepared what he considered to be his most important speech to be delivered at the end of the trial, as his summation. He was prepared to let the defense present any evidence, so he would have an opportunity to give his speech.

Mr. Scopes was represented by attorneys from the ACLU, including a man named Clarence Darrow. Mr. Darrow was quoted as saying that he was participating because of his personal animosity for William Jennings Bryan. In fact, this was Mr. Darrow's ONLY recorded pro bono case. oMr. Darrow's plan was to put evolution on trial. He had lined up 15 expert witnesses. He did not plan to put Mr. Scopes on the stand. Mr. Scopes was, in fact, innocent of the charges in his indictment the indictment named the date on which he had allegedly taught evolution to students. But Mr. Scopes had been absent from school that day, so he could not possibly have committed the charge for which he was standing trial.

Mr. Darrow, however, had no interest in an acquittal for his client. He, and the ACLU, needed a guilty verdict to force the case into appeals so the Supreme Court could rule on evolution. Mr. Scopes was just the excuse for their political agenda.

Mr. Bryan was also not interested in the fact that Mr. Scopes could NOT have committed the particular crime of which he was accused. If that fact came to light, the case would be dismissed immediately, and Mr. Bryan would have no opportunity to deliver his speech.

The presiding Judge however, had other ideas. He disallowed all the experts, ruling that this case was just about whether or not Mr. Scopes had broken the law in Tennessee, so only evidence about the particular offense before the court was admissible.

So the trial that is known as the vindication for evolution did not, in fact, include ANY evidence about evolution at all.

Mr. Darrow called Mr. Bryan to the stand, where he used Mr. Bryan's own arrogance to publicly humiliate him. He then called for an immediate directed verdict, effectively preventing Mr. Bryan from giving his speech. (An immediate directed verdict means that the judge stops the trial and sends the jury out with instructions on what verdict they should deliver.) The jury returned with a guilty verdict in 8 minutes. The Judge fined Mr. Scopes $100, and the trial ended abruptly.

The case went to appeal, where the Tennessee Supreme Court threw out the verdict- on a technicality. Only a jury can levy a fine of more than $50. So Mr. Darrow and the ACLU couldn't continue the appeals process and no court ever ruled on evolution.

What's interesting now is that everything BUT evolution is banned from public education.

When questioned, school officials say, "This is done in the name of science because we need separation of church and state. Creationism is religious and therefore it cannot be taught in a public school classroom."

So let's use the yardstick of science to examine Darwin's theory.

See: What is Science and How Open are Scientists to New Ideas?

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Robin Bernhoft. "Is Evolution Fit to Survive?: Setting the Stage." From Is Evolution Fit to Survive?(National Parents Commission, 2001): 21-26.

To order Is Evolution Fit to Survive? please call (1-877-852-2595) or e-mail address (info@nationalparents.org) for more information. The National Parents Commission is at 206 1/2 Habicht St., Johnstown, PA 15906.

Peg Luksik co-hosts the radio program Welcome Home with Dr. Bernhoft.

THE AUTHOR

Dr. Robin Bernhoft, M.D. graduated from Harvard College with a degree in British History before going on study medicine at Washington University, St Louis. He did a residency in General Surgery at the University of California, San Francisco, and a fellowship in liver and pancreatic surgery at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, London, England. In 1991 he was asked to lead medical opposition to the initiative which would have legalized euthanasia in Washington state. His campaign was successful. The following year, he helped craft another come-from-behind victory over a euthanasia initiative in California.

Dr. Berhoft is the author, with Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J. and Camille DeBlasi, of Healing the Culture (Ignatius Press, 2000). He is currently Chairman of the National Parents Commission, a Catholic educational apostolate and co-host of National Parents' syndicated Catholic radio show "Welcome Home." Dr. Bernhoft is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright 2001 National Parents Commission

 

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