The Evolutionary War

(excerpts from Sunshine:The Magazine of South Florida. March 9,1997)

To most scientists, the idea of evolution is as solid as the law of gravity. Geologists have determined, through sophisticated means of dating rocks and fossils, that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Dozens of ice ages have occurred over a period of 2 billion years, with the most recent glaciers receding about 20,000 years ago. Our earliest human precursors, found in Africa in the 1970ís, are nearly 4 million years old. These principles are so well established that to doubt them would be tantamount to declaring that the Earth is flat. Yet millions of Americans believe that they are hogwash.

This past October, Pope John Paul II decreed that the Catholic Church would no longer oppose evolution, but in conservative and fundamentalist Christian circles creationism has become ever more entrenched. A nationwide poll in 1995 revealed that 47 percent of the American public did not believe in evolution. It is an issue that simply cannot be resolved.

Tom DeRosa is a Miami science teacher at Westminster Academy. Once an evolutionist and agnostic, he now hosts a weekly radio show promoting the biblical creation story (The Genesis Connection, Fridays at 9 p.m. on WAFG-FM). DeRosa and the creationists believe that every word in the Bible is literally true. They believe that God created the world in six daysó144 hours, no more an no less Ė that Eve was made from Adamís rib, that an angry God flooded the world to destroy its evil ways and that the only creatures to survive were on Noahís ark. They believe the Earth is only 10,000 years old, rather than billions of years. There werenít dozens of ice ages but only one. Geological layers did not slowly build up over millions of years but were the result of sudden catastrophes, such as volcanoes and, especially, Noahís flood. Most of all creationists believe that life on Earth did not evolve according to the Darwinian model but was divinely created in its present form.

These beliefs have sometimes had the force of law. In 1925, John T. Scopes challenged the state of Tennessee to allow him to teach evolution. In his famous trial, his attorney, Clarence Darrow, made a monkey out of his courtroom opponent,

William Jennings Bryan, but Scopes was found guilty and the law remained in effect until 1967.

 

The Supreme Court overturned all ban against teaching of evolution in 1968, ruling that religious views could not enter the schoolhouse. In 1981 Louisiana passed a law mandating equal time for evolution and "creation science," but it was promptly struck down by the high court.

Still the biblical view of creation isnít about to disappear. Evolution became an issue in the Florida governorís race in 1990 when Republican candidate Bob Martinez campaigned for creationism to be taught alongside evolution in public schools. ( A poll that year found that 56 percent of Floridians agreed with Martinez.) Edward J. Petuch, a professor of geology at Florida Atlantic University, is incredulous:

"I thought this stuff had gone out 50 or 100 years ago. Evolution just means Ďchange through time.í It doesnít mean Ďanti-Godí or "Jesus is dead.í Everything evolves. Why is this term so horrible?"

What is threatened, however, is the literal interpretation of the Bibleís stories. For example:

According to DeRosa, "The Creationist movement began with the idea of the flood." He points out that hundreds of cultures around the world have flood stories as part of their creation myths. "All these legends affirm that there was a vessel of safety, that here was destruction by water, and that the human seed was saved. When you have world wide flood legends, you have to come to the conclusion that thereís got to be something there. You canít dismiss this."

According to DeRosa, the Old Testament states that God was dismayed by the evil ways of man and destroyed the world in order to remake it. He told Noah of an impending flood and gave him 120 years of warning (Noah lived to be 950 years old.) Noahís task was to collect one male and one female of "every living thing of all flesh" (Genesis 6:14). Creationists estimate that the ark could hold 125, 000 animals the size of sheep.

There are, however, more than 1.5 million species of animals on Earth. Petuch wonders how Noah could travel all over the world, even if he had 120 years, and collect wallabies, emus and tree kangaroos from Australia, flightless birds from New Zealand, Kodiak bears from Alaska, giant Pandas from isolated regions of China, monkeys from Madagascar, tortoises from the Galapagos, as well as every snake, insect, crab and bird distinctive to each island chain in the world. "Noah had to take the ark out of the water and carry it up rivers into the mountains," Petuch says. "Then, afterward, poor old Noah had to go back and dump these animals on every island."

According to Petuch there are thousands of creation myths, each one equally valid. He believes that if creationism is to be taught, it should include the creation myths of American Indians, Shinto Buddhists, Tibetan Lamaists, Hindus, ancient Greeks and other cultures. "Itís all based on belief. Creationism is a branch of religion."

Although creationists concede that evolution did take place amongst the same species, they deny that one species can evolve into another. They call this "variation in kind." It occurred in England when white moths eventually turned black as air pollution darkened the trees that were their habitat, and it also occurred when the beaks of different Galapagos island finches adapted to different shapes, depending on whether they ate seeds, insects, or cactus. But the creationists contend that the bird is still a bird. An ape cannot turn into a human. As for the discovery of Lucy, the remarkable 9 million year old Australopithecus skeleton who walked on two legs, DeRosa remains unimpressed. "I believe that was an extinct ape."

The largest bone of contention remains still to be discussed. Current scientific theories suggest that evolution proceeds not by an ordained pattern but through a series of chance occurrences. The creationists believe that the universe has an orderly design, but Petuch, speaking for science, believes that "God is not ordered at all. God works through chaos in our universe. Thatís the new way that science is going." In his mind DeRosa is out of touch with new scientific thinking.

In recent years, science has explored the concept of chaos theory to examine the effect of irregularities in everything from planetary orbits to the puff of wind beneath a butterflyís wing. DeRosa sees this as irrational because its key mechanism is luck. "Theyíve come to the conclusion that for life to exist, it would have to take a tornado going through a junkyard and assembling a 747." . . . "To me, chance is the antithesis of science. Chaos theory will lead to chaos."

Perhaps the question should be asked, does the belief in evolution inevitably lead to a denial of God? According to DeRosa, "Karl Marx saw Darwinís ideas as a denial of God." Marx sent Darwin an early copy of Das Kapital, asking him to write an introduction. Darwin politely refused. Stalin also used the theory of evolution to perpetuate communist belief. Hitler endorsed the idea of the survival of the fittest. "Darwinism leads not only to Hitler," contends DeRosa, "but once you exclude the basic ideas of God, you deny that thereís anybody to be accountable to."

Petuch is offended by this. "I donít like this us-versus-them mentality.

Scientists are brave, dedicated, hard-working people who are trying to figure out the workings of the universe. We are studying the past, present, and future to create a better world."

AT the end of this long debate what do we have?

DeRosa: "I really think itís a philosophy versus a philosophy. Evolution is not repeatable, itís not observable, itís not testable. . . I used to think that a belief in the Bible was counter-intelligent, now, itís set me free. Everything is connected, and itís connected to one source, the Word of God. God doesnít have accidents."

Petuch: "Geologists canít just look at a column of rocks in the Grand Canyon or at myths of creation. We look at the whole picture of the Earth, the universe. Youíve got to have curiosity. Thatís what makes us a human being--that reaching, exploring. Thatís the beauty of it. Thatís the grandeur of Godóif there is a God, and you choose to believe it."