On Sunday, I visited the Royal Ontario Museum to take in a new exhibition, "Darwin: the Evolution Revolution." It is a very rewarding examination of the man's life and era — a great many of Charles Darwin's personal affects are present — centering on the discoveries he made during his extraordinary five-year circumnavigation of the globe. It is also the most verbose museum exhibition I have ever seen. By one estimate, the accompanying text runs to nearly 40,000 words, with several short films rounding it out. Late in the exhibition two matters of importance are brought to the fore. The first concerns the state of contemporary evolutionary science, and anyone not rushing for the gift shop cannot help but notice that even the most middling graduate student of biology today must know far more about evolution than Darwin, who did not fully understand heredity and who knew nothing of DNA, ever could have. The second, and by no means unrelated matter, concerns the alleged public "controversy" about evolution, which, the curators quickly and correctly note, is a controversy instigated by a religious minority outside the scientific community. Within the scientific community, the controversies concern the fine details of how evolution works, not whether or not it exists.
I say "religious minority" because, by now, most Christian denominations, including the biggest one, have confirmed a belief in theistic evolution, which is to say the view that faith and a belief in biological evolution are not always or necessarily incompatible. Indeed, there are influential and highly esteemed biologists who are people of faith, and some even attempt to prove the central metaphysical tenet of their faith from inferential evidence they believe to exist in the evolutionary record itself. I was therefore distressed to learn that the Darwin exhibit was very nearly not mounted here, in meek and mild Canada, because the ROM's usual list of corporate sponsors wouldn't back the exhibit for fear of stirring up controversy. But for donations from the Humanist Association of Canada and, significantly, The United Church Observer, the exhibit might not have been mounted at all.
Let us call this capitulation to a perceived threat from a minority within a religious minority what it is: cowardice. On matters concerning the scientific education of the public, no accommodation is possible with people who believe that the world is 6,000 years old. We should proceed from the assumption that what they think simply doesn't matter. If they choose to reject, without study, the mountains of evidence for evolution drawn from paleontology, comparative anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, population genetics and a dozen other fields and sub-fields, upon which stands the entirety of the modern life sciences, not to mention the evidence from physics, chemistry, and geology that conclusively proves that the earth is very old, and prefer instead to believe that everything that we need to know about the origins of species is contained in the first two pages of a bronze-age text (which, in an alarming number of cases, they also know nothing about) that is their business. But the moment they insist that our schools must give equal time to creationism in science class, it becomes everyone else's business, too. They cannot enter into the realm of public policy and claim their customary exemption from criticism on the grounds of faith. If they try, our first response to them should be to insist that they give equal time to evolution in Sunday school or else surrender their tax-exempt status.
Wandering about the newly renovated ROM (I was distressed, incidentally, by the grubby white walls and shoddy workmanship in parts of the newly unveiled "Crystal") I noted that nearly half of the place concerns evolution in one way or another. And yet, to my knowledge, the fossil exhibits and dinosaur galleries and bird dioramas generate no controversy. In my view this inability to perceive the interconnectedness of scientific theory is yet another example of how badly we fail to educate our youth. Show people — and I'll be generous and include corporate sponsors here — a 65 million year old dinosaur with feathers, and they won't bat an eye. Mention Darwin and they'll howl that if humans evolved from apes there shouldn't be apes walking around.
I'm not suggesting, however, that it's as simple as teaching more science - although undoubtedly more science needs to be taught. We all know that perversions of evolutionary theory have been put to monstrous uses, and on these grounds some people argue that evolution should not be taught and even — in defiance of all logic — that it does not exist. But this is no different from arguing that physics, chemistry, and mathematics should not be taught because they, too, have been put to monstrous uses. Rather, the discussion of moral and ethical philosophy should be an integral part of all realms of education, from gym class to civil-mechanical engineering. In my own field, where a soft (that is, unthinking) relativism is the flavour-of-the-month, this happens all too rarely.
Darwin's great triumph was not so much to propose the existence of evolution — others had hinted at that already — but to propose a mechanism by which it proceeds: natural selection. It is perhaps the greatest and most important of all scientific discoveries, for it points to the fundamental unity of all life. It is not just the apes with whom we share ancestors, but the birds and fish and trees and with every blade of grass and every living thing. And that discovery, that that happened here and perhaps nowhere else in the universe, is, in the broadest sense of the word, miraculous.