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Here is where you find the 'mountains'

November 19, 2006|by Allan Powell

A local resident complains that I have frequently made the claim that "there are mountains of evidence" in support of evolution. He then asks for just one valid proof that is not refutable. My experience has been that those who are dead set against certain ideas will never accept even the most trustworthy evidence of an idea they viscerally oppose. This response, therefore, is directed primarily to those who wish to be informed about evolution.

For those who are knowledgeable about modern science, its philosophical underpinnings, its methods of establishing what claims are acceptable and what claims are unacceptable, evolution is surely on solid ground. So it is with confidence that I may again write, "there are mountains of evidence" to support the basic propositions put forward by Darwin.

Over the years, I have purchased a fine collection of literature bearing on the subject of evolution and try to keep up with what the best minds report regarding this topic. The same is true with Einstein's theory of relativity. Because of the sheer mass of information it is not possible to adequately present the evidence in a letter to the editor. In most science texts, the proof is presented under several categories commonly recognized by the scientific community.

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The fossil record, comparative embryology, comparative anatomy, geographical distribution of species and, more recently, molecular biology alone are enough to make a sizeable volume. If these are still unacceptable to those who have a profound distaste for Darwin's claims, one more proof will not make a difference.

For those who wish to be informed about evolution, the following four books will give an adequate description of the basic state of affairs. The three authors are gifted minds and well qualified writers. Two books are from and early period of systematic research and two are very recent publications. "The Origin of Species" and "The Descent of Man" are by Charles Darwin. The first applies evolutionary theory to the animal kingdom, but excludes homo sapiens. The second applies the same methods and principles to humans. By reading these books one can grasp the scope of Darwin's studies and admire the power of his intellect.

The two recent books, "What Evolution Is," by Ernst Mayr and "The Ancestor's Tale," by Richard Dawkins are excellent in the coverage of the categories of proof mentioned above and in showing the sequential process of evolution. These two authors are intellectual giants in their field of expertise.

A word is in order about the epistemological - that is to say theory of knowledge - differences involved in this clash of ideas between creationists and evolutionists. Science is grounded on the method of observation, experimentation and verification. It is the only self-correcting method for gathering reliable knowledge. On the other side are purely authoritarian claims of special revelations of divine, inerrant truth which, nonetheless, are fragmented into hundreds of incompatible and conflicting sectarian differences.

Propositions that are defined, redefined and variously defined will hardly qualify as "really absolute" and surely will not carry the force of "real" absolutes.

In the long run, there can be no real contest between the scientific method and the fractured absolutist dogmas that can neither be confirmed nor disconfirmed. Blind faith may trump mountains of evidence for the true believer, but it is ill equipped to compete with the openness and rigor of science.

In several respects, the situation today in the United States is similar to the situation in England when the British Association for the Advancement of Science met on June 27, 1860 to debate Darwin's ideas. The highlight of the meeting pitted Bishop Samuel Wilberforce against a certified genius, Thomas Huxley. Wilberforce chortled to friends that his real desire was to "smash Darwin."

During the debate, the Bishop looked at Huxley with a demeaning smile and asked, "Mr. Huxley, I beg to know, was it through your grandfather or your grandmother that you claimed to have descended from a monkey?" Huxley then made his now-famous reply.

"I assert that a man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather. If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would rather be a man, a man who, not content with a success in his own sphere of activity, plunged into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance only to obscure them by aimless rhetoric and distract the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice."

All the huffing and puffing by uninformed and misinformed religious zealots will come to naught before "the mountains of evidence" accumulating in support of Darwin's basic claim viz. that mutation and natural selection are the major factors in evolutionary change. The "mountains of evidence" will not disappear because fundamentalist believers shut their eyes.

Allan Powell is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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