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Published: Saturday, 5/10/2008

Bring evolution debate into 21st century

BY TOM MEGEATH

IT HAS been 83 years since John Scopes was charged with violation of Tennessee state law for teaching evolution to high school students.

Now the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed claims the roles have been reversed and that academics are losing their jobs for promoting intelligent design, the hypothesis that life is too complex to be solely the result of evolution. The Blade gave front-page status to this movie and its claim that such advocates are being punished for questioning evolution; however, both the movie and article fail to investigate the stories behind the claims.

Such investigation should be central to any work of journalism and is warranted by a number of media reports and Internet sites disputing the claims of the movie. For example, the narrator Ben Stein states biologist Richard Sternberg was fired by the Smithsonian Institution, but fails to mention Mr. Sternberg was never a paid employee. The two tenured professors interviewed in the movie for their controversial advocacy of intelligent design were never in danger of losing their jobs, demonstrating that tenure does ensure academic freedom. In fact, the film presents only one case in which an assistant professor and intelligent design advocate was denied tenure; however, a clear connection between the denial of tenure and intelligent design was not demonstrated in the movie or The Blade article.

Expelled quickly loses interest in claims of firings and dismissals and moves on to a larger goal: to link the theory of evolution to atheism, fascism, eugenics, the Holocaust, and, interestingly, the music of John Lennon.

In a controversial move, Ben Stein interviewed under false pretenses prominent atheists who are proponents of evolutionary biology; the resulting edited interviews are clearly manipulated to serve the movie's premise. And the movie ignores prominent biologists who find no conflict between their acceptance of evolution and their Christian belief, notably Kenneth Miller, an evolutionary biologist and devout Catholic who testified against intelligent design in the Dover evolution trial, and Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian who led the human genome project.

The most troubling aspect of the movie is its linkage of the theory of evolution to the Holocaust. To establish this connection, Expelled purposely confuses evolutionary theory, a scientific theory used to understand the diversity and relationship of life on Earth, with social ideologies such as Social Darwinism and Eugenics.

The film's intellectual dishonesty is plainly apparent when narrator Ben Stein recites a carefully edited excerpt from Darwin's Descent of Man: "With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed."

In trying to forge a link between Darwin and the Holocaust, Mr. Stein neglects to quote Darwin's following sentences: "The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature." Whether it was imbued by evolution or a creator, Darwin recognized the transcendent value of the human conscience.

Why is this important? Just as the physical theories of motion, electromagnetism, and quantum mechanics led to the technologies that transformed society in the 20th century, modern biology will enable technologies that will transform human society in the 21st century.

Through a growing understanding of the detailed workings of cells and genes, humankind is developing an increasingly sophisticated ability to manipulate organisms, from microbes to people. This should lead to revolutionary medical treatments and an increased quality of life, but there are also moral and societal implications that cannot be ignored. For our country to have an enlightened discourse on this requires a public educated in biology, including the theory of evolution, which is one of its pillars.

Unless we move the debate over evolution and the teaching of biology from the 19th century to the 21st century, we as a nation will sail into this uncharted territory with our eyes shut.

Tom Megeath is an assistant professor of astronomy and physics at the University of Toledo.



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