Frank Brown, U of U geology professor and dean of the College of Mines & Earth Sciences presents “Time and Life on Earth,” on Thursday, Feb. 12, at 7:30 p.m. in the U’s Olpin Union (200 S. Central Campus Dr.), following a 6 p.m. public reception. The talk, hosted by the Humanists of Utah (HumanistsOfUtah.org), marks the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin—the man who brought scientific rigor to the notion of evolution through natural selection.
In a nutshell, what’s the crux of the evolution debate?
I think there is confusion because of failure to distinguish between the fact of evolution and the mechanism by which evolution occurs. There is no question that life has evolved and continues to evolve. The basic mechanisms are also understood, but there is debate over the relative importance of particular mechanisms, rates, etc.
What do you believe?
Evidence for the relatedness of living organisms comes from many sources—biogeography, genetics, fossils, embryology, anatomy, vestigial organs, etc. As science works by interpreting evidence, and because the evidence is so overwhelming from so many different aspects, the fact of evolution should be regarded as proven.
Surveys show that only 26 percent of Americans believe that life evolved solely through natural selection. A majority (64 percent in a 2005 Pew poll) support teaching creationism alongside evolution in the classroom. Do these results concern you?
Of course these results concern me, because failure of the American public to understand the fundamental way in which living forms are historically related puts the nation at a disadvantage. To name a few fields, biology, medicine and agriculture would be seriously impaired without the deep understanding that evolution provides.
Are you able to reconcile your geological knowledge of the Earth’s timeline with the biblical account?
I have no difficulty with this whatsoever. The Bible was not written as a science text, and aside from some astute observations that were recorded (e.g., lateral motion on faults by Herod), it has nothing to do with science. Scientists can choose to be religious or not; many famous ones were, some were not.
Where has the mantra of “survival of the fittest” got us as a society?
In complex social creatures such as humans, we may weigh whether short-term personal gain is the best strategy. It may be that in the long term, we look after ourselves best by also looking out for the interests of others.