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The E Word 

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Just imagine that, for every question you presented to someone in power, they answered with the words, “We don’t really know. It’s a mystery.” Now imagine if you or your child asked a question about the origin of the human species in a science class, only to have a learned instructor tell you, “We don’t really know. It’s a mystery.” Would anyone dare call that education?


To explain, or attempt to explain, how the world works is one of the most brilliant features of the human mind. Yet here we are in the 21st century, with a whole new crew of people trying to shut the human mind, along with some of its best questions and best explanations, down. In case you missed the creationists’ first opening salvo with the 1925 Scopes Trial, or the 1998 anti-evolution book Darwin’s Black Box, this time around it’s called “Intelligent Design.” Names may change, but the lame nature of creationist explanations still stinks on ice. They want “evolution disclaimer” stickers on textbooks. They want public-school teachers to know there could well be trouble if their kids are ever taught that all life evolved from common ancestors. They deride evolution as “just a theory,” without understanding the true meaning of the scientific term.


This week is an appropriate time to reconsider where the debate over Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution stands, even if the debate among scientists ended long ago. Today, the overwhelming majority of scientists accept Darwin’s explanations about the origins of life. “Nothing in biology makes sense, except in light of evolution,” said the Russian biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky. Still, according to the National Science Foundation, 47 percent of Americans don’t buy it.


Last week marked the death of Harvard evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, who amassed volumes of evidence in support of Darwin’s theory, and especially for the theory that isolated populations are the origin of novel species. “Please tell me what is wrong with Darwinism,” Mayr used to tell skeptics. “I can’t see anything wrong with Darwinism.”


Those among the “Intelligent Design” movement, such as Pennsylvania’s Dover School Board, which succeeded recently in requiring that creationism be taught alongside Darwin, don’t care about the gaping problems of their explanations, which are far more complex and harder to swallow than evolution. “Intelligent designers,” as they’re called, can’t explain how their “designer” creates new species. “We don’t know,” a director of the Intelligent Design-oriented Discovery Institute’s Center for Science recently told Newsweek. “It’s a mystery.” And some people call talk like that “education.”


These same people would have countless American students’ heads wrapped in a similar veil of know-nothingness. Why ask questions about the origins of life? Indeed, let’s demolish the whole foundation of scientific discovery—questions—and leave the mind blank. Somewhere, for some unknown reason, some “designer” executed the whole scenario. But if God is indeed in charge, please let us know why we aren’t all optimally adapted to our environments.


It’s much more reliable to search for answers amid the evidence of hereditary variation among living organisms. For example, the 99 percent of genetic material humans share with chimpanzees. If Darwin could again come to life during his birthday, Feb. 12, he’d be amazed that it’s taken this long for American education to evolve.

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