Science in Mind

Happy birthday, Charles Darwin!

 REUTERS/Tal Cohen
REUTERS/Tal CohenA detail of British artist John Collier's 1883 painting of Charles Darwin is displayed as part of an exhibition in Darwin's former home, Down House, in Kent, southern England February 12, 2009.

Happy 204th birthday, Charles Darwin!

The father of evolution could not have known that his birthday would become a kind of scientific holiday. Local institutions are celebrating Darwin Day: the Arnold Arboretum is featuring a rotating set of Darwin’s writings about trees on its web page, and the Harvard Museum of Natural History is hosting a talk tonight on bees, butterflies, and bacteria .

Darwin’s theory of evolution is a tenet of modern science. Species arose from one another in a branching tree of life through the process of natural selection, in which individuals with adaptive traits are more likely to survive and reproduce. Over the years, attacks on Darwin’s theory of evolution have arisen, stirring a public controversy that has gained widespread attention. But even as the controversy has raged, with parents objecting to textbooks that don’t include alternative theories with roots in religion, scientists have remained firm: students should be taught only what the evidence supports, and that is evolution.

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In Massachusetts, a biotech and science capital of the world with leading universities, we have been mostly insulated from this debate; public acceptance of evolution in New England is the highest in the United States, at 59 percent, according to a new study by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. But the study, published by the journal New England Science Public: Series Evolution suggests that even here, attitudes toward science and evolution have room to grow.

Paz-y-Miño-C surveyed faculty at New England colleges and universities, educators who train teachers, and college students from public, private, and religious institutions. They were asked about their views about evolution and alternative explanations, science, and their religion.

The results were in some cases striking: a quarter of the faculty, half of those who trained teachers, and a third of college students did not know that humans are apes, related to chimpanzees. A third of the faculty, two-thirds of people who train teachers, and three-quarters of college students didn’t understand evolution. Instead, they thought that giraffe’s necks got longer because a giraffe acquired a longer neck during its lifetime and passed down the trait, a discredited theory known as Lamarckian evolution.

The researchers found that acceptance of evolution decreased the more religious people were, and that biology students were more likely to accept it than non-majors. A heartening finding was that education seems to work: among biology majors, acceptance of evolution was greater among seniors than freshmen. But 1 in every 10 non-majors—and a surprising 1 in every 15 biology majors—reported they were creationists, believing that the world was created by God, as is described in the Bible.

Who knows whether Darwin could have anticipated his own idea’s struggle for survival. In the study, Paz-y-Miño-C and his co-author, Avelina Espinosa of Roger Williams University, conclude: “Long-term harmonious coexistence between science/evolution and creationism—and all its forms—is illusory. Societies will struggle indefinitely with this incompatibility, therefore the interaction between science/evolution and religiosity is destined to fluctuate historically between intense and moderate antagonism.”

Perhaps this birthday telegram, written from the Naples Zoological Station to Darwin in 1874, expresses best what most people wish for his influential idea: “Midst the struggle for existence, many happy returns of birthday wishes for you.”

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