The evolution of the great Darwin debate

Kristopher A. Fortin

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Professor Jeffrey F. Thomas showed slides of the anatomy of a bat wing, a dolphin’s dorsal, mole’s claw, and a man’s hand during his lecture on homogeneity between species.

‘That’s a digger,’ he says as he showed the mole claw, and then he points to the human hand, ‘and that’s a doorknob opener.’

The kicker, Thomas explains, is there was a common ancestor in the past that links the four species. The similarity can be seen in traits of bone structures.

Charles Darwin’s 150-year-old theory of evolution and his discussion of natural selection, as explained in his book ‘The Origin of Species,’ have contributed monumentally to science. However, his ideas have often divided people.

This week, CSUN focuses on Darwin’s accomplishments, featuring lectures and events to celebrate his 200th birthday and the publication of his groundbreaking text.

CSUN faculty members Rick Talbott, Randal Cummings, Jim Hogue, and Martin Cohen will speak on the panel, called ‘Evolution, Science, and Religion.’

While the evolution of monkeys, apes, or birds has taken over millions of years, the politics of the United States is moving through a rapid evolution, spurred on by the Obama administration.

The battle between science and religion is rooted in the classroom and on the steps of Capitol Hill. A Pennsylvania court ruled in December 2005 against intelligent design being taught in schools in the Dover Area School District. Former President George W. Bush vetoed a bill giving federal funding to human embryonic stem cell research based on moral grounds, because human embryos are destroyed as a result.

Obama’s platform on stem cell research during his campaign said he wanted to rescind Bush’s withholding of federal funds on cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001.

The contentious issue intelligent design, or the idea that an omnipresent figure created the world by design, conflicts with the theory of evolution, which states that the process of adaptation occurs through natural selection.

A new chapter opened in this debate with the election of Obama.

‘We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders . . .’ Obama said at his inauguration last month.

Obama has made statements about science playing a larger role in the United States leading up to his election. Obama appointed Steven Chu, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, to secretary of energy. The Governor’s Global Climate Summit in California showed a video of Obama detailing how he will curb greenhouse gas emissions and fund innovation to prevent global warming.

With his proactive approach to reestablishing the importance of science in society, he has signaled a change.

While it might appear that Obama has a pragmatic approach to religion, he does take his faith seriously.

In fact, Obama said Thursday that he would expand faith-based initiative programs access to government aid to support religious groups that do community work.

‘Obama is no less serious about religion than Bush was,’ said religious studies professor Rick Talbott.

‘Over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people’s lives — in the lives of the American people — and I think it’s time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy,’ said Obama in a 2006 speech.

Obama seems to welcome debate on controversial issues, such as the place religion and science has in people’s lives.

The difference, Talbott said, is the way Bush and Obama understand what is written in the Bible. ‘There is a religious paradigm shift,’ Talbott added.

From the same speech Obama delivered in 2006, he highlighted his personal understanding of the issue.

‘For some time now, there has been plenty of talk among pundits and pollsters that the political divide in this country has fallen sharply along religious lines. Indeed, the single biggest ‘gap’ in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, or those who reside in so-called Red States and those who reside in Blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don’t,’ said Obama

‘There is a willingness for this administration to be more malleable and able to be accepting of more scientific research,’ Talbott said.

Many in the Jewish community find a balance between an acceptance of religion and science. Matthew Stern, a senior at CSUN, and an Orthodox Jew involved in three student Jewish organizations, said there are many examples of science playing a role in the Bible.
For instance, insight into the Big Bang theory, which says that the universe was formed in an instantaneous moment.

‘If you have a lot of knowledge . . . both (science and religion) will lead you to the same thing,’ Stern said.

As open as he is to religion and science co-existing, Stern said he still hasn’t made up his mind when it comes to evolution. He doesn’t believe events happen by natural selection like evolution argues, but that intelligent design played a part.

Religions have often been reluctant to accept scientific observations like the one described in evolutionary biology or biological anthropology classes. They have also fought against policy that implements stem cell research.

Regardless of Obama’s scientific agenda, Talbott thinks religion will still have a place in society.

‘It’s OK to have science to kill people, but not have science to stave off childhood diseases?’ said Thomas, remarking on President Bush’s former policies.

When students in Thomas’ evolutionary biology class were asked how many were religious, 17 of 40 raised their hands.

Jessica Phillips, a student in the class, said she was surprised at how many religious students were in the class.

Thomas said he hasn’t encountered anyone who was affronted by Darwin’s theory for a long time.

‘I know some are threatened, but by the misconceptions of the theory, not what it actually says. The theory has been marginalized,’ added Thomas.