This guest post comes to us from a colleague and friend, Dr Michael Wolfe. Enjoy!
The simultaneous celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the births of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin today offers a special opportunity to reflect on the state of our democracy and the status of science in our society. That these two iconic figures were born on the exact same day is, of course, a coincidence. And yet, as often happens in life, a chance confluence of events can help us see connections that we might otherwise miss.
Today we lionize Lincoln as perhaps our greatest President, and his eloquent expression of our democratic ideals is embedded in our national psyche. In stark contrast, if Darwin’s concepts were to be put up for a democratic vote of confidence in American society today, we would likely find, as polls have shown, that nearly half do not believe in evolution. State boards of education still battle over its teaching, and the controversy over evolution is too often one of the driving factors in parents deciding not to enroll their children in public schools.
Why the resistance to Darwin and evolution? A major part of the problem is that science is viewed as essentially materialistic: it informs us about what nature is and how it works, but it cannot tell us why we are here and what we should value. Despite these limitations, scientific advances have allowed us remarkable control over our environment, so that we are not so much at the mercy of the elements and disease as our ancestors were. And science has provided us with perspective about where humanity fits in space and time.
Darwin’s gift was to provide us with this much needed perspective. The world’s species have been evolving over a very long period of time and share common ancestry. We are literally related to all other forms of life on the planet. And we know this now because it is clearly written in the code of our genes, important confirming evidence about which Darwin had no clue.
Since the publication of On the Origin of the Species, 150 years of research has confirmed and extended Darwin’s concepts of descent with modification and natural selection to the point where there is no valid scientific debate over the matter. Indeed, as has been said, nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution. And evolutionary biology has been an essential factor in the advance of modern molecular medicine. As a biomedical researcher, I can attest that we routinely use the genetic relationship between humans and other organisms (including yeast, worms, flies and mice) to discover important processes involved in human health and disease. Not only is evolution true, it is practical; we need the insight it offers to understand and treat illness.
Democracy needs to evolve to the point where our representatives cannot vote on matters of scientific truth, just as a majority should not be able to vote to deny the rights of a minority. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and through this executive order, set the stage for the total abolition of slavery in this country. In the same way, national standards for science education should be established so that state and municipal boards of education cannot work to deny the truth of evolution and cause distraction and confusion by having scientifically inaccurate and indefensible alternatives taught in the science classroom and espoused in science textbooks.
Lincoln saved our union from dissolution and opened our minds to the equality of man. Darwin unified biology and opened our minds to the origin of man. Today we should proudly celebrate both men and their legacies. And let’s recommit ourselves, as President Obama said in his inaugural address, to “restoring science to its rightful place”.
Michael Wolfe is Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School.