WHEN CHARLES DARWIN published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in November 1859, the book aroused huge controversy and in the process also became a best-seller. All forms of life had evolved from previously existing species, argued Darwin. Species evolved because naturally occurring variability made some individuals better suited to their environment; they therefore prospered while less favoured forms went extinct in the struggle for existence, a process Darwin termed "natural selection." By implication, humankind was no longer separate from beasts and had indeed evolved from apes. More importantly, natural selection proceeded by chance and did not require a beneficent Creator to oversee it. Inevitably, much of the opposition came from the Church. But by the time Darwin died in 1882, his theory of evolution had become so widely accepted that he was buried at Westminster Abbey, just a few feet from the grave of Isaac Newton.
The momentous discoveries that have revolutionised biology in the years since then only served to confirm the tenets of evolution. The common genetic code is evidence that all life on Earth shares a common ancestry. Indeed, the vast amount of genome sequence information that has become available for widely differing organisms is prompting scientists to look at what the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) might have been like. The hand of evolution is also clearly visible in that man shares genes (and associated chemical pathways) not just with apes, but even with bacteria. Scientists explore gene regulation in fruit flies, ageing in worms, and chemical activity in the brain of mice; they know their discoveries could unravel similar processes in humans. Of course, the evolutionary processes that created humankind might also be its undoing. Some scientists have remarked that the ends of chromosomes shorten as they are passed on from one generation to the next, and that this could lead to the weakening and possibly even extinction of the human race over thousands of generations.
Strangely, it is in the United States the hub for much of the world's frontline research in biology and its application in biotechnology that there has been sustained public resistance to evolution and specifically to the teaching of evolution in schools. The issue of whether it was constitutional to ban the teaching of evolution in schools surfaced during "The Monkey Trial" in 1925 when a high school biology teacher in Tennessee, John Scopes, faced charges of illegally teaching the theory of evolution. Despite acceptance of evolution among scientists, demands to limit the teaching of evolution in schools and allow `creationism' to be taught as well have continued to receive considerable public support in many parts of the United States. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that creationism was religion and therefore could not be taught in science classes, the anti-evolution movement countered with the notion of `intelligent design'. Proponents of this over-the-top doctrine use popular misconceptions about science in order to appear to attack evolution on scientific grounds. They argue that complex living systems could not have been created by natural laws and chance alone. It is a measure of their success that proposals to encourage the teaching of creationism and intelligent design have, according to a recent report in the journal Science, been advanced since 2001 in 37 of the 50 American States. But there is a larger issue too in this clash between science and religious obscurantism. At the Scopes trial, denouncing efforts to make the teaching of evolution a crime, America's most famous defence lawyer of the time, Clarence Darrow, thundered: "Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding." Unfortunately, that is still true today.
© Copyright 2000 - 2009 The Hindu