Evolving opinions

Coincident with Charles Darwin’s bicentennial last Thursday,The Guardian announced that ‘half of Britons do not believe in evolution’.

However, far from the creationist revival this implies, it appears the problem instead lies in confusion. Only 25% of Britons thought that evolution was ‘definitely true’, compared to a further 25% who believed evolution was ‘probably’ true. Over a quarter were generally unsure, mixing evolution, intelligent design and creationism together. So, why are the public so seemingly perplexed?

As the prominent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould put it, ‘evolution is a fact and a theory’. On the one hand we have the observed changes in populations of organisms due to inherited traits from one generation to the next—a known and observed fact; on the other hand, we have modern ‘evolutionary synthesis’, a theory which brings together several ideas from different biological specialties to form a coherent account of evolution.

Yet, modern evolutionary synthesis continues to be developed and though the bulk of theory is generally well-accepted by scientists, cutting-edge evolutionary research (such as the continued dispute over Richard Dawkins’ ‘selfish’ genes) is a hothouse of constant scrutiny—just like the forefront of any field of science.

Furthermore, there are many gaps remaining in modern evolutionary theory, not least as concerns the origin of life. However, just because the finer points of an extremely complex and extensive theory are debatable or even as-yet-undiscovered, there is absolutely no reason for extending this to a disbelief in the basic tenets of evolution—these are no less than categorical fact.

Evidently the dual understanding of evolution can cause confusion when people are questioned on their evolutionary beliefs, especially if they are aware of the controversial nature of some fragments of modern evolutionary theory. The distinction between fact and theory is also misleadingly blurred by the anti-evolution lobby. It’s no wonder Britons don’t know what to think. Yet, the question remains: how can we combat this evolutionary ignorance?

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Hundred of projects across Britain this week are hoping to raise awareness of Darwin’s achievements and the science behind his theory of evolution.

Oxford is joining in the festivities with a number of educational events and a prominent debate on evolution between Dawkins and Lord Harries of Pentregarth, ex-Bishop of Oxford. The debate mirrors the famous dispute in 1860 between Thomas Huxley (otherwise known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’) and Samuel Wilberforce, then Bishop of Oxford.

Nevertheless, much of Oxford’s general public still seem unaware of Darwin’s bicentennial and are none the wiser about his theory of evolution. Outside of schools and child-orientated events (which are admirably prevalent), Oxford’s programme seems to exclude much of the wider public. Debates and lectures have restricted numbers and many events haven’t been publicised well. Those who do know what’s going on will most likely already hold an interest in evolution.

In Cambridge, Darwin’s home city, 10 m high images of Darwin’s ‘tree-of-life’ and caricatures of him sat upon a Galapogas tortoise were projected on the white façade of the Senate House building. Crowds formed and people were compelled to take notice, raising far more interest and discussion among the general public than any of Oxford’s events.

Bold statements should be made across the country to reach out to as many people as possible. Only when people’s attention is grabbed will a dialogue be created which can enthuse the public with the profound and exciting ideas of Darwin.

And so I urge you, spread the word: Darwin’s evolution is a fact, but more than that, it is utterly fascinating—and the more people who know that the better.