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Evolution lesson is part of a science-based education

Published 9:06am Tuesday, May 20, 2014

My Point of View by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

This past April marked 50 years since the death of American biologist Rachel Carson. Thanks to her far-sighted documentation of the widespread harm to birds caused by DDT, Congress eventually banned the pesticide for agricultural use. Bird populations rebounded. Healthy eagles soar over Mississippi River bluff country today. My toddler points with delight to songbirds trilling on our trees.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson
Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Carson was primarily a marine biologist, and she referred to the sea as the “mother of life.” Carson and others theorized about the creature that made the first foray from ocean to land. In her book “The Sea Around Us,” she states: “It was not until Silurian time, some 350 million years ago, that the first pioneer of land life crept out on the shore.”

In 2004, paleontologist Neil Shubin discovered a fossil he named Tiktaalik, a fish that probably did exactly that — it appears to have crawled onto land in the Canadian Arctic about 375 million years ago. Shubin made his discovery using an understanding of where such fossils would generally be located and taking advantage of climate change that had melted away glaciers and exposed underlying rocks.

This breakthrough directly conflicts with many people’s religious beliefs, particularly those of Christian “creationists” who assert Earth was created by God less than 10,000 years ago. As discoveries like Tiktaalik fill gaps in the biological record in accordance with the theory of evolution rather than literal interpretation of Holy Scripture, creationists have responded by doubling down.

There are many relevant things about Christianity and its holy book, the Bible. For example, it teaches its followers how to persevere against all odds (Old Testament) and to treat people with compassion (New Testament). These are pragmatic and altruistic practices for a people’s survival.

The Bible shows its age, though, when explaining natural phenomena. The Judeo-Christian origin story, which dominated Western thought for centuries, is but one example of ancient people developing myths about how they came to be.

In contrast, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, based on evidence of natural selection, has proven its explanatory and predictive power in biological systems over and over again. It has been consistent with findings from fields like paleontology, geomorphology and genetics.

For many people, Darwin’s 1859 theory is a direct assault on God, even though science can neither prove nor disprove God’s existence. Science relies on observation and rigorous testing via the scientific method; religion rests on faith and things unseen.

As someone who grew up in a “modernist” Christian family that accepted Darwin’s theory, I think the main reason creationism has persisted despite mounting evidence supporting evolution is that institutional interests are at stake. If a church claims the Bible’s two accounts of creation are literally true (even though they somewhat contradict each other), it can’t give an inch of ground without losing credibility.

Thus, for nearly 100 years, creationists have shored up their territory by trying to prevent evolution from being taught in schools.

Last month, Minnesota’s 1st District Republicans nominated a candidate who suggests denying our students access to billions of years of awe-inspiring natural history in order to preserve “our values.”

It’s his personal choice if he wants to shelter his daughter from the facts of evolution, but he has no constitutional grounds to assert that public schools should cater to a religious sect (no matter how large) rather than teach the full scope of the fundamental biological process of natural selection.

Creationism is part of a larger dynamic of science denialism, and being anti-science — at least when it suits one’s interests — is often not benign, especially when Earth itself is at a tipping point. Scientists, sounding alarms as Rachel Carson once did, are predicting substantial climate changes ahead if we continue to pump greenhouse gases into our atmosphere at current rates.

I want my young children to have stable climates, dependable food supplies and a safe place to raise their children. We may only be able to slow the damage at this point, but we must do it with the full force of our problem-solving capacities.

We must persevere against all odds, and we must show compassion for all people on Earth, many of whom are facing much worse consequences for climate inaction than we are. Isn’t this compatible with Biblical teachings?

To insist, though, that God is in charge while turning a blind eye to human contributions to climate change is an abdication of personal responsibility. For believers, this perceived impunity lends itself to willful defilement of God’s creation.

Congress used to pass landmark measures when the weight of scientific evidence indicated a problem requiring legislative action. Now Congress is hogtied by too many members who dismiss science when it conflicts with their world views. We need less of this short-sightedness, not more.

 

Albert Lea resident Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.