As I walked home from the football game on Saturday, preachers were out in full force denouncing the theory of evolution. That’s because today is the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Charles Darwin’s famous text on evolution, “The Origin of Species.” To celebrate, I’d like to talk about a “Special Introduction” by a man named Roy Comfort who seems to think Darwin is a very serious problem.
Roy Comfort is a creationist made famous by his appearance with actor-turned-Christian-evangelist Kirk Cameron, an appearance in which he explained God’s direct hand in all things. His segment is now immortalized in a YouTube video, which describes bananas as “atheists’ worst nightmare.” He argued that bananas, which are easy to open, change colors to show ripeness and fit in his hand well, demonstrating the truth of God’s direct hand on our lives. He’s partly right: The banana is an example of intelligent design — but we were the designers.
I hate to break it to Roy, but the natural banana is full of seeds that are tiny, hard to open and generally disgusting. Selective breeding of bananas has led growers to use a tree that can make delicious Cavendish bananas. The trees all have identical genetics and are reproduced asexually, which essentially makes them clones. In fact, the choice by farmers to make such an extreme case of a monoculture renders them vulnerable from an evolutionary standpoint: These bananas have low disease resistance. As a result, much of your banana money goes into stopgap measures to keep banana trees from dying out by natural selection.
But when Comfort isn’t claiming God’s mysterious way is evident in potassium-rich fruits, he’s publishing copies of “The Origin of Species” that come with a special introduction. His introduction is respectful for about 10 pages before it goes into page after page of incomplete accusations and cherry-picked pot shots directed at evolution. The introduction goes on to advance the most ridiculous of arguments: that Hitler was Darwin’s “famous student.” For an added bonus, the publication also features some reasons why the Christian God is better than your God or lack thereof.
Dozens of these publications were passed around on campus last week to promote criticism of evolution. While the theological debate is still raging, I’m surprised that after 150 years of advancement in the theory of evolution — which has included arguments, counterarguments, additional evidence, new complexities such as the discovery of DNA and overwhelming support of accredited scientists — some continue to deny the existence of evolution. Money that could have gone to more noble pursuits is spent to distribute books that make (at best) incomplete and (at worst) childish arguments about the origin of species.
Mr. Comfort preaches about purported dilemmas surrounding evolution, and his nuggets of thought-provoking insight include asking why evolution is not always a logical, directed process. This question comes from a misunderstanding of how natural selection works. One feature that was irrelevant before and might be in any number of creatures suddenly becomes helpful to survival, it has a better chance of propagating — this is natural selection in its most basic form.
He goes on to talk about the mistakes made over time in evolutionary science. Examples such as the fake fossil known as Piltdown Man and cases of mistaken identities for specimens have caused controversy. But finding some evidence false cannot discredit science on its own. Theories are only dismantled when there is freestanding evidence to the contrary — for example — evidence that favorable mutations don’t propagate among species.
If we applied the logic of Comfort and his ilk to all sciences at institutions like the University, we would have to “teach the controversy” regarding General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Oh, that USB drive you used? It might use Quantum Mechanics to erase data on it, but some evidence used to bolster the theory has since been disproven, so there might instead be gnomes that burn your information on a nanoscale when you click delete.
If you did happen to get a copy of this edition of “The Origin of Species,” I’m not asking you to burn it or to hide it. Freedom of speech is important, and if you’ve taken biology or history, you’ll recognize that the introduction is hilarious. But look at the arguments, and then read for yourself about the debate on evolution. As students and as future leaders and teachers, we should be able to recognize the merits of scientific theory in science, and keep theories based on religious texts firmly in the realm of theology. In the 150 years since Darwin’s book, we’ve come a long way toward describing just how clever and complex all of creation really is. Let’s celebrate this theory of life instead of trying to argue whether the book of Genesis in the Bible has more scientific merit than “The Origin of Species.”
Ben Caleca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.