She may not look a lot like us, but a new member of our family tree has been identified thanks to two University paleontologists. The new creature may fill in some of the blanks in our evolutionary history, once again igniting the debate between creationists and scientists. Though the scientific community is tentatively optimistic about these findings, many people still cannot accept research in evolution because it conflicts with their faith. But the discussion about evolution should not be one that pits science and religion at odds. Instead, it should recognize the separation of church and biology. Only then can an open-minded discussion of the origin of humanity be productive.
The potential ancestor in question is a small, lemur-like creature named Darwinius masillae. While the fossil remains of the creature, nicknamed Ida, were discovered in the ’80s, only recently have scientists like the University’s Philip Gingerich and B. Holly Smith examined the remains to classify them. Their preliminary findings show that Ida has features more similar to primates than would be expected of such a creature, suggesting that it may be a distant ancestor of apes and monkeys.
While Ida has been made into an evolutionary celebrity by the media, her characteristics open up new lines of research and inquiry into the roots of higher primate evolution. Transitional fossils like Ida have helped reinforce the theory of evolution by providing a more detailed picture of what led to today’s species. Similar discoveries have helped scientists bridge the gap between amphibian-like fish and fish-like amphibians. But despite these discoveries, those who disagree with evolution continue to resist the scientific consensus.
Even now, there is a push for the intelligent design assertion — a rebranding of creationism that insists there must an intelligent cause of humanity’s creation. Proponents still argue it as a legitimate science, even in the face of staggering amounts of fossil evidence to the contrary. Their arguments vary from a literal interpretation of the Christian Bible to simple assertions that any anomalous fossil discovery invalidates the entire collection of paleontological knowledge. But while it may be tempting to scoff at these arguments, simply ignoring or stonewalling those who believe in a creationism or intelligent design scenario only alienates them and closes off rational dialogue.
This past week, Don McLeroy — a controversial figure on the Texas Board of Education because of his firm belief in creationism in the strictest sense — was removed from his position as chairman after the Texas Senate failed to confirm his reappointment. According to him, the world was created about 6,000 years ago in the exact form that it exists today.
This kind of divisiveness over the place of evolution and intelligent design is where evolution discussions break down. Scientists want to argue based on scientific law, while intelligent design proponents want to argue based on religious doctrine. It’s an apples and oranges discussion that can never be resolved. Intelligent design can’t be taught in a science classroom just as evolution can’t be taught in a church. Certainly, every child growing up should have the opportunity to learn both — but in the proper setting, not in a forced debate in a classroom. People are smart enough to make their own inquiries.
How can we discuss evolution or the origin of all life when the discussion is so polarized? The real issue is in accepting each topic as its own domain. Evolution certainly isn’t a religion, nor should it be recognized as one. It has no theological footing. Similarly, intelligent design has no footing in science. It fails to offer any scientific evidence that would be acceptable in a biology class.
We should be free to continue the debate about each view’s merits and where there may be overlap, but that freedom shouldn’t prevent an education in science. In the same way, we should not be tempted to use scientific theories and fossil finds such as Ida to argue that a religion’s tenants are incorrect, especially when most religious texts’ meanings are perpetually under debate, even among theologians. With a more open mind, we can ask more questions about where religion and science can find common ground, rather than fighting to the death over which side is right.
Ben Caleca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.