The Phylogenetic Tree of Life
If there's one debate that causes more controversy than anything else in traditional America, it's evolution versus creation. Before Charles Darwin presented his hypothesis of evolution by natural selection when he published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the scientific community's view of the world and the origin of all biodiversity was that which has been presented in bible. But discoveries including the fossil record and advances in other scientific disciplines like geology led some skeptics like Darwin to question the simple explanation to the unknown origin of life and earth to some sort of creation. Even today more than 150 years after Darwin's theory was presented and mounds of evidence supporting it have been found, about 46% of the United States still believes that the most likely explanation to our origins is the Genesis story and that evolution is a fallacy. That's a pretty staggering percentage, considering how far scientific knowledge & research has gotten us in terms of technology, medicine, and biology. It also beckons us to question why so many people don't "believe" in Darwinian evolution. I'll get into the term "believe" in terms of evolution a little later and why it false to use that wording a little bit later. But first, let's dig into evolution a little bit.
The complexity and diversity we see in herpetofauna is only a fraction of how biodiverse our world is as a whole. When Darwin first visited the Galapagos islands, he was blown away at the tremendous diversity of species he saw from island to island, and how specialized each species was to its particular ecological niche. A group of finches caught his eye in particular. Noticing a wide variety of beak sizes and shapes, Darwin wondered what the chances were that such this highly adapted group of finch species on a single island came about by a single creation event. By studying the birds Darwin found that each species has exploited a particular ecological niche, it was the only way that such a vast diversity of finches could coexist without driving each other into extinction via competitive exclusion. He postulated that each species had evolved a particular beak morphology to suite a particular diet.
Later studies of the larger beaked species found that the beak size and depth varied throughout years of drought and higher precipitation. In years of severe drought, the beaks of the offspring showed a higher amount of larger beaks to help crack tougher, drier nuts. While in years of appropriate precipitation, offspring showed a higher amount of more moderately sized beaks. This idea and others that Darwin published in his book shook the foundations of scientific community and laid the framework to what we now know about evolution. So what is evolution, how do we define it? It can simply be explained as gradual change of organisms through time or descent with modification through natural selection. A vast amount of ecological pressures require species to adapt, survival of the fittest. Natural selection is the gradual, non-random process by which characteristics become either more or less common in a population as a function of differential reproduction of their bearers This ensures that those individuals with favorable traits are the ones whose genes get passed on to the next generation. Natural selection works at the individual level, but it's consequences affect species at the population level. This has lead to vast changes in species over time. The development of the geologic time scale and the idea of deep time has helped make the process of evolution more clear, it has taken millions of years for the extant species we see today to evolve to where they are now. Other advances, particularly in genetics, have helped scientists gain further insight into how species evolve both genetically and morphologically. Phylogenetic analyses using such concepts have helped reconstruct phylogenies and more accurately classify organisms within families in regards to their evolutionary history. Evolution is the fundamental concept in biology, and it relates to all other disciplines in science.
The best part about the scientific method is that is never seeks to prove a theory, but rather to disprove it. Mounds of evidence in support for evolution have been found in the past few hundred years and the theory has been tested again, and again, and again. It has been widely accepted by the scientific community and is close to a biological fact as we can get. Yet, almost half the population of United States considers it to be hogwash and favors creationism over evolution. How can this be? The problem is where religion interferes with education, particularly in public and private schools. I was raised in a Christian home and attended a private Lutheran school from K-8th grade. Throughout my time time there, I was taught over and over again how evolution wasn't true, that the earth was only a few thousand years old, and the teaching of evolution was an attempt to remove God from the picture. Though I won't bring my own religious beliefs into this, I will say that the things I was taught was a direct attempt to curb my thinking to the way someone else deemed to be correct. It not only curbed my curiosity about the natural world, but also limited my ability to think critically. It wasn't until I reached high school that I was exposed to evolution, and once I gained an understanding of the concept, it vastly increased my ability to understand complex relationships in the natural world and allowed me to think critically probably for the first time in my life. Sadly, many of these schools and some public schools continue to teach children these fallacies in an attempt to spread the idea of creationism. When I ask most people who don't accept the theory of evolution as to why they do so, their answer is usually that the bible says otherwise. When I ask them to explain the way they think evolution works, the answers I receive are usually more than amusing. My favorite reply from someone was that, "if evolution were true, why don't we see dogs turning into cats or vice versa today." This ignorance stems from our country's inability to teach evolution on a wide scale, and the fact that many states; particularly those ones which are conservative, who insist on teaching creationism or intelligent design alongside of evolution in science classes.
This map was published as a part of a study done by the U.S. Census Bureau on high school graduation rates on a county-by-county basis across the country. You'll notice that the deepest red counties; those with the lowest graduation rates, occur in much of the deep south and in states which are considered to be deeply conservative. It is in these states where there is a higher push for creationism to be taught alongside evolution in science classes. It also shows that it is in these parts of the country where the uneducated abound, and it is these people which are trying to influence educational policies regarding evolution. I'm not trying to question people's faith here, I'm simply trying to point out that uneducated people are trying to push an unscientific idea; creationism, to be taught on a wide scale to children. As we continue to deplete the world's resources, cause the extinction of wildlife species, and continue to influence climate change, future generations will need people who are well versed in scientific knowledge to help combat increasing environmental and biological challenges. Teaching creationism inhibits a child's ability to think critically, and can even curb their curiosity of the natural world. If life is static; things do not change over time, as is taught in creation, what is the point of studying the natural world at all?
This is not a failure to understand; it is a refusal to understand. No matter how much evidence continues to be amassed for evolutionary thought, many continue to dismiss the evidence for transitional species such as Archaeopteryx as hoaxes. People are so wrapped up in their religious beliefs and the literal translation of the bible, that they have become so narrow-minded to the point of retarding the minds of 46% of our country's population. Those words are strong, but it is a failure by parents and school systems to supply children with adequate and true scientific knowledge. Do I have a problem with religion? Absolutely not, as long as it does not harm other people either physically or intellectually. In this case, religious beliefs have been passed off as scientific and have made their way into a place where they don't belong. I once saw a bumper sticker that read, "Keep your theology off my biology." I can't think off a phrase that could be any more fitting. We have a magnificent brain, remember to use it.