Sunday, September 04, 2011

A Litmus Test

A political litmus test involves asking a candidate a single question, the answer to which should determine whether or not the candidate deserves further consideration. Some have been proud to announce, for example, there is no litmus test for becoming a Supreme Court Justice, or for becoming President of the United States, or for other important positions with the power or authority to establish public policy. I suggest there is such a test, or certainly should be, and it is easy both to apply and to grade. This basic question is simply, “Do you believe in evolution?” If the answer is an unequivocal “no” he or she should be immediately eliminated from consideration. If the answer is something to the effect that it’s “merely a theory” that needs to be considered along with “creationism,” they should also be immediately eliminated.

For anyone in the 21st century to deny evolution is an admission of ignorance so profound they simply are not fit to hold a position of power or influence over public policy. Such individuals might well be described as “atavistic survivors” of a bygone time. By 1859 many distinguished scientists had acknowledged Boucher de Perthes claim that artifacts he had unearthed had to be older than previously acknowledged, these scientists had known for quite some time the growing evidence did not fit the prevailing view, but knowing what had happened to Copernicus, to Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Kepler and Newton for challenging scripture, were very cautious. When Sir Charles Lyell, one of the most famous geologists of the time, in 1863, after carefully considering the evidence, renounced his previous belief in the 6000 year old earth, the relative age of the earth, although not known precisely, was known to be at least probably millions of years older.

Darwin’s famous and revolutionary “Origin of Species” was also published at this time (1859). As we know this was slowly but inevitably accepted, breaking the belief in the immutability of species and establishing the concept of biological evolution, to go along with much older views of evolution (change over time) that had been characteristic of philosophy at least since the first century BCE. Although Darwin’s theory of evolution has been tinkered with and improved since its inception in light of newer discoveries like DNA, more precise and useful dating techniques, and so on, the fundamental idea of biological evolution is the backbone of evolutionary biology. Interestingly, the discovery of the antiquity of the human species was made independently of Darwin.

The famous Scopes “Monkey trial” occurred in 1925, and although Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution and fined $100, the gulf between religion and science was made clear. Although there are still those who apparently do not want to believe in science at all, especially when it comes to evolution, the theory of evolution has become widely accepted by virtually all educated people. While evolution as a theory is subject to change in its particulars, that biological changes have occurred in species, including humans is not really “just a theory,” but a fact every bit as true as gravity, the rotation of the earth around the sun, the sharing of our DNA with chimpanzees, and our individual existences on the planet earth. You can question the precise age of the earth, the precise measurements of fossil humans, the precise age of fossils, the presence or absence of certain species at different times, and so on, as students of evolution routinely do, but to question the actual fact of evolutionary change is simply absurd. Those who continue to deny evolution are so out of touch with reality, so ignorant of the history of the last couple of centuries, so divorced from science, and so dangerous to our future, they simply cannot be taken seriously or elected to positions of power to preside over our affairs, certainly not in the competitive climate on earth that prevails at the moment.

The United States is virtually the last bastion of Christian fundamentalism. These people are well organized, well-funded, and very near the levers of power in our nation. It is clear what they are attempting. If they succeed it will be a disaster of monumental proportions, will make us a laughingstock among the nations of the world, and will essentially return us to the nineteenth century. The separation of church and state is not a matter to be ignored or neglected. To give in to serious know-nothings is a risk we cannot afford.

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