On The Origin of Species
According to a 1991 opinion poll, a hundred million Americans believe that "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time during the last ten thousand years." A large majority saw no reason to oppose the teaching of creationism in schools. They followed in a long tradition. A text of 1923, Hell and the High Schools, claimed that "The Germans who poisoned the wells and springs of northern France and Belgium and fed little children poisoned candy were angels compared to the text-book writers and publishers who are poisoning the books used in our schools ... Next to the fall of Adam and Eve, Evolution and the teaching of Evolution in tax-supported schools is the greatest curse that ever fell upon this earth."
Fifty pieces of legislation tried to put a stop to the subject. All failed. Undeterred, Alabama called for a note to be pasted into textbooks: "This book may discuss evolution, a controversial theory some scientists give as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things, such as plants, animals and humans ... No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact." In 1999 the Kansas Board of Education voted to remove Evolution from the school curriculum and no doubt other states will try similar tricks.
Such intolerance is new. At the end of the last century few clerics opposed the idea of evolution. In spite of polemic against a "genealogical table which begins in the mud, has a monkey in the middle and an infidel at the tail" most were ready to accept a compromise between The Origin and the Bible. A Day of Creation might be millions of years long, or might represent six real days that marked the origin of a spiritual Man after the long ages it took all else to evolve. Real bigotry had to wait for modern times.
The creationist movement is part of a triumphal New Ignorance that rules in many places, the United States more than most. In fact, the majority of those determined to tell lies to children believe in Darwin's theory and understand how it works - without noticing. Evolution is embedded in the American consciousness for a simple and terrible reason. For the past two decades the nation has lived through an episode that has, with extraordinary speed, laid bare the argument of The Origin of Species. The organism involved was unknown in the nineteenth century, but is now familiar. It is the AIDS virus.
Creationists find it easy to accept the science of AIDS. Its arrival so close to the millennium and the Last Judgment is a useful illustration of God's wrath. Homosexuals, they claim, have declared war on nature, and nature has exacted an awful retribution. Fundamentalists admit the evolution of a virus as nature's revenge but will not concede that the same process acts upon life as a whole.
Even to anti-evolutionists, AIDS is proof of descent with modification because they can see it happening. Its agent has changed in its brief history and has adapted to overcome the many challenges with which it is faced. As death approaches, a patient may be the home of creatures-descendants of those that infected him-as different as are humans and apes. Every continent, with its own sexual habits, has its own exquisitely adjusted set of viruses; and AIDS has relatives in animals quite different from ourselves. Darwin would have been delighted to see the workings of his machine so starkly exposed.
Science makes patterns from ideas. If AIDS can evolve, so can anything else. The Origin uses freshwater bears and flying fish to make a case that applies to all forms of life. For its opponents, in contrast, what is true for viruses cannot be true of birds or fish, let alone a man. The existence of an animal as unlikely as a whale is, for them, proof that evolution does not work.
Excerpted from Darwin's Ghost by Steve Jones Copyright© 2000 by Steve Jones. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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