This week On the Origin of Species the masterpiece by Charles Darwin was voted the most influential academic book in history.The biology bombshell edged out works by notable authors such as William Shakespeare and Stephen Hawking just to name a few.Darwin’s famous book stirred up controversy virtually from the moment it was published due to its implications for religion and the origin of human beings.
Despite the controversy,the theory of evolution by natural selection has been validated time and time again and is the bedrock of modern biology and medicine.The question I would like to pose is why this fundamental principle of science is so problematic to so many, and why the vociferous and almost rabid opposition?.From its initial proposition by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the mid 19th century,this groundbreaking scientific theory has elicited the most venomous opposition unlike any other scientific theory in human history,but why?.
For almost 2000 years christianity has held sway in significant parts of the world with the story of Adam and Eve being touted as the explanation for the origins of humanity.What biological evolution has essentially done is to make a mockery of the Abrahamic creation myth ,therefore inciting the wrath of those who deem this story to be inerrant and true.
The challenges were not long in coming,all of a sudden one scientific theory amongst many became the focus of so much vitriol, and the first of many legal challenges began with The Scopes Trial in 1925 and culminated in Kitzmiller V.Dover in 2005.What is interesting about these cases is the gradual changes in the way those I like to affectionately refer to as “The Santa Claus Brigade” have chosen to present their objections.
The goalpost shifted from an outright objection to evolution to an argument to teach creationism as on opposing theory, and the latest strategy by some is novel in that the claim is now that evolution is true but their sky genie initiated the process and this should be taught as another opposing theory to evolution.This is indicative of the ground religion has to give in the face of overwhelming evidence ,but what is palpably clear is that they continue to find newer and more imaginative ways to obstruct inquiry in order to continue to teach fables as true.
The Dover school board backed by “The Discovery Institute” a religious think tank attempted to sneak creationism into a science classroom disguised as Intelligent Design, ,it was shot down in flames in 2005 with a cross-section of expert witnesses called upon by the plaintiffs.A re-enactment of the trial by PBS can be seen below.
Suffice it to say that the presiding judge was scathing in his ruling against intelligent design.He ruled that it is creationism and is not science.He also ruled that members of the Dover school board lied under oath to hide their religious motivations.This pivotal case revealed the lengths some would go to in order to obstruct any science that threatens their religious worldview.
In the meantime,the evidence for biological evolution keeps piling up.Through the discovery of Dna and Genetics we now know about our kinship with all life on earth.We now know we are more closely related genetically to chimpanzees and bonobos so much so that we retain a fusion of 2 ancestral primate chromosomes located on human chromosome number 2.
We now know that we once shared our planet with other branches of the homo genus and we interbred with them and the remnants of these dalliances reside in our genome. We have discovered that our ancestors mated with Neanderthals and left their imprint in some modern humans. We know another archaic hominin known as Denisovans left their genetic fingerprint in Australian Aborigines, East Asians and Melanesians. We have managed to identify an EPAS1 gene inherited by Tibetans from Denisovans that confers an advantage for living at High Altitudes as well genetic variants for keratin filaments derived from Neanderthals inherited by at least 80% of Eurasians. The discovery of a plethora of fossils in Africa continues unabated. The Iwo Eleru skull discovered in Ondo state in Nigeria in 1965 displays a mosaic of modern and archaic anatomical features and suggests that the emergence of modern humans is more complex than we ever imagined.
The story of modern humans reveals a veritable thicket that involves numerous hominin species mingling with each other,but for reasons unknown we are the only ones left.It is now generally accepted that modern humans arose in Africa but strangely being an African myself ,I find that an uncomfortable majority of Africans foam at the mouth at the very suggestion of what should be a profound discovery.I find the notion that we are all so closely knit incredibly humbling and almost poetic in its simplicity.The problem with evolution is that it is counter intuitive and shatters the illusion of comfort we have woven around ourselves.
Nevertheless,this is a reason to celebrate the part we all play in this fascinating tapestry of life.
Some are not so lucky.