New Castle News

June 4, 2012

Mitchel Olszak: Resistance to science still runs strong

Mitchel Olszak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — The debate over evolution is coming to an end.

That’s the conclusion of Richard Leakey, the scientist and researcher who has spent a lifetime in search of the fossils that trace the development of early man in Africa.

Speaking recently in New York, Leakey told The Associated Press that he anticipates new scientific advances and discoveries will end many of the disputes we see today, including battles over the question of evolution.

Leakey, whose family has spent generations in Kenya looking for evidence of the so-called “missing link” between modern man and his more ape-like ancestors, is an obvious believer in evolution.

And so am I. But when I read about Leakey’s prediction that the evolution debate is almost over, my thought was: What’s this guy smoking?

Opposition to evolution isn’t fact based; instead, it’s belief based. And much of it is belief that’s resistant to any challenge.

While many established religions officially accept the realities of evolution, there continues to be the powerful view that evolution challenges the existence of God. And therefore, evolution — in the eyes of many believers — is nonsense.

Yet it takes considerable imagination to explain away the fossil and genetic evidence in support of evolution.

Although a spirited debate continues in the scientific community over the processes of evolution and what drives them, the fundamental concept is valid: Species on this planet, including human beings, evolved from other forms of life. And further discoveries since the time of Charles Darwin only serve to reinforce his original observations.

While the science of evolution is Leakey’s main professional concern, it turns out his desire to win the larger debate has a purpose beyond the academic. What he’s really worried about is the survival of humanity and the danger posed by a widespread refusal to accept scientific fact.

What one does — or does not — believe about evolution alters nothing on the ground. Evolution occurs regardless of what we think about it. But in other key areas, Leakey sees hostility to science as a hazard.

Among these concerns is climate change. If human activity is altering the world’s climate and setting the stage for environmental disaster, then disbelief has real consequences.

Many scientists see a strong link between climate change and evolution. Species presumably evolve in an effort to adapt to an altered environment. The fossil record indicates this doesn’t always work. Just ask the dinosaurs.

Like evolution, there is scientific evidence to support global warming. But also just like evolution, there is uncertainty over the processes. Scientists dispute the extent to which it’s attributable to humans and how dramatic any changes will be.

Yet the global warming debate differs from the one regarding evolution in one key area: Climate change is mainly about what may happen in the future; evolution looks at what already has occurred.

If human industrialization is raising the planet’s temperature, and doing so to a dangerous and persistent degree, that’s something we all ought to be worried about.

Yet two challenges remain: Science must find a way to document whether or not that’s true. And if it is, the rest of us need to be prepared to accept it.