By FLORA CHURCH
Charles Darwin wrote, in the sixth edition of On the Origin of Species, that "great is the power of steady misrepresentation; but the history of science shows that fortunately this power does not endure." One-hundred fifty years later, however, his legacy is still being attacked by a steady stream of misrepresentation and fear-mongering. One of the latest examples of this tactic is John W. Whitehead's recent essay, "Devolving Darwin."
Mr. Whitehead is identified as an attorney and founder and president of the Rutherford Institute. A quick look at the institute's Web site indicates that it was founded to protect freedom of speech and other liberties. What Whitehead does not point out is that its purpose is to impose, by legal means, the far-right Christian beliefs of Whitehead and his supporters upon us all through our schools and our local, state, and federal governments.
His purpose in writing about Darwin's ideas is to discredit the teaching of evolutionary theory. This is clear in his introductory remarks that Darwin's theory dismissed the idea of an "intelligent creator" and that it "dislodged people from the traditional notion that they possessed an exalted position as a special creation of God." Like others before him, Whitehead seems to believe that evolutionary theory will displace religion in people's lives, and that, therefore, our children should not be exposed to it in our schools. Where Whitehead and others like him cannot succeed in removing evolutionary theory from science curricula, they seek to undermine its teaching by lobbying for laws to require the teaching of religious beliefs disguised as science (intelligent design or creationism) and to put warning labels on science textbooks.
It is an extraordinary notion that evolutionary theory can somehow destroy religion. Darwin's ideas have been in the public domain for 150 years. Yet, religion still thrives in our society--all religions, a fact that Mr. Whitehead seems unable to grasp as he attempts to impose his far-right Christian values upon our society. America, founded on the principle of freedom to worship as one chooses, embraces a multitude of mainstream Christian faiths today -- Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, and Catholic, to name a few. And Jews, Muslims, Old Order Amish, and Mormons are free to worship as they choose. Are the values of those who would outlaw the teaching of evolutionary theory so fragile, then, that mere exposure to this theory will cause their children to completely repudiate the religious values of their parents and church?
Whitehead's essay focuses on the notion that Darwinism is a danger to world order. He marshals horrific examples to support this view: Fascists, Nazis, and Communists, oh my! Darwin is no more to blame for the perversion of his ideas than God is for the atrocities committed in the name of religion--atrocities that sadly flourish today, as evident in 9/11. Whitehead concludes his essay with a stern call for teaching the truth of Darwinism in our schools--by exposing children to the ramifications of such beliefs.
Yes, do let us teach our children the ramifications of evolutionary theory. It is not a belief system. It is a scientific theory to explain how organisms change over time; evolution has been supported again and again by rigorous scientific investigations. And, as David P. Mindell notes in a recent article in Scientific American, the "understanding of evolution is fostering powerful technologies for health care, law enforcement, [and] ecology..."
The application of DNA analysis in criminal investigations and paternity cases, for example, is based on an understanding of how mutations have accumulated in DNA over eons of time, producing specific genetic markers that identify individuals and blood relatives. Accelerated evolution actually occurs in modern laboratories as medical scientists pursue research into how disease organisms mutate and change over time. This research results in improved vaccines and antibiotics. Every year, the flu vaccine is directed at a different flu virus. Why? Because flu viruses mutate so rapidly that one year's vaccine may not be effective against this year's flu strain.
Understanding genetic changes has led to new cancer therapies that target specific proteins to inhibit tumor growth and to the identification of genetic disease markers that allow susceptible individuals to modify their behavior, seek preventative treatment, or to delay or rule out child-bearing.
Ecologically, the development of genetic markers for animal species aids enforcement of laws designed to protect endangered animals, allowing officials to determine whether whales are being illegally harvested or wild tigers killed for folk medicines. An understanding of genetics may allow the use of specific microbes to monitor the health of our environment.
So, yes, by all means, teach the truth about evolutionary theory. It remains a powerful scientific advance, giving us a critical array of tools and techniques to combat disease, crime, and environmental damage. It holds the promise of future victories in our efforts to eliminate certain diseases, to render others less lethal, and to aid in the fight to leave this planet habitable for our children and for generations to come.
Church works in cultural resource management and has a PhD in anthropology from Ohio State University