George Claassen

Theory of evolution 'strong'

2005-07-01 10:14

"The theory of evolution has never been stronger." A more emphatic endorsement of probably the most important discovery, now 146 years old, by scientists, you won't easily find.

Uttered by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic, after completion of the World Summit on Evolution that ended two weeks ago on the Galápagos island of San Christóbal, this statement summarises the standing of Charles Darwin's theory among the world's scientists today - despite the unsuccessful, misleading and often dishonest efforts to discredit evolution by Intelligent Design (ID) propagators.

Attended by 210 of the world's leading evolutionary biologists, this Woodstock of Evolution, as Shermer describes the conference in eSkeptic, the regular email newsletter of the Skeptics Society (, has again emphasised that true science is not distracted by side-shows put on by charlatans disguising themselves in strange cloaks such as Intelligent Design "science" or Creation "science".

Referring to the open and incisive debate that took place among the scientists at the conference, Shermer emphasises a point which is often misinterpreted by critics of evolution and which is used by creationists to describe it as "only a theory, not a fact".

"Herein lies science's greatest strength: not only the ability to withstand such buffeting, but to actually grow from it.

"Creationists and other outsiders contend that science is a cosy and insular club in which meetings are held to enforce agreement with the party line, to circle the wagons against any and all would-be challengers, and to achieve consensus on the most contentious issues.

"This conclusion is so wrong that it cannot have been made by anyone who has ever attended a scientific conference. The World Summit on Evolution, like most scientific conferences, revealed a science rich in history and tradition, data and theory, as well as controversy and debate. From this I conclude that the theory of evolution has never been stronger," writes Shermer.

The Beagle

He points out the symbolic value that the conference was held at the very location where the Beagle, the ship on which Darwin travelled around the globe between 1831 and 1836 to gather the data for his theory of evolution, first dropped anchor in the Galápagos.

It was on the Galápagos islands, about 960km west of Ecuador, that Darwin made important observations about the process of speciation among the various species of finches inhabiting the islands.

Back at Down House in Kent, the Galápagos observations played an important role in his discovery and formulation of natural selection's role in the origin of species.

It would lead to the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, more than two decades after the voyage on the Beagle had ended. It was, and still is, probably the most important book written in the history of mankind, advancing human knowledge from the Dark Ages of creation mythology, beliefs in witches and other figments of the imagination to a new vision of the origins and development of life.

A professor in natural sciences at the University of Stellenbosch recently told me The Origin of Species is the most famous unread book in the world.

What is more frightening, is that it is also the most unread book by students studying the natural sciences. It is like a Christian theologian or a student of Islam not having read the Bible or Koran respectively.

The Origin of Species should be compulsory reading for everyone because it will help to break down the myths about creation many people still steadfastly cling to.

That students choosing a career in the natural and health sciences are not exposed to it, reflects something seriously wrong with higher learning.

And it will do students in the human and social sciences the world of good to include it among their readings of Plato, Aristotle, Lorca, Shakespeare, Joyce, Chomsky, Woolf, Goethe and others.

Knowledge not including what Darwin really said, and interpreted through the filters of ID and other pseudoscientists, is incomplete, superficial and vacuous.

  • George Claassen is science editor of Die Burger and teaches science journalism at the graduate school of journalism of the University of Stellenbosch. His book, Geloof, Bygeloof en Ander Wensdenkery - Hoe Vals Hoop en Vrees Mense Mislei (Faith, Superstition and Other Wishful Thoughts - How False Hope and Fear Mislead) will appear shortly at Protea Boekhuis.

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