The voice of the people reveals why
evolution remains controversial
There is no more contentious subject in science today than evolution. This fact was brought to light for me in the overwhelming response to my February column on evolution and “intelligent design” creationism. I typically receive about a dozen letters a month, but for this one no less than 134 were submitted (117 men, four women and 13 whose identity was not revealed). I found reading the critical letters mildly disconcerting until I hit on the idea that these are a form of data to be mined for additional information on what people believe and why. Conducting a content analysis of all 134 letters, I discovered patterns within the cacophonous chaos. First I read them quickly and then separated them into about two dozen one-line categories that summed up the reader’s main point. I next condensed these into six taxonomic classes and reread all the letters carefully, placing each into one or more of the six (for a total of 163).
Excerpts from the letters illustrate each taxon. Not surprisingly, only 7 percent agreed on the veracity of evolution (and the emptiness of creationism). Nearly double that number, 12 percent, argued that evolution is God’s method of creating life. For instance, one correspondent concurred “that evolution is right — but still I see God in the will and cunning intention in the genetic system of all living organisms and in the system and order present in the laws of nature. Seeing all the diversity in the methods of camouflage in animals and plants for an example, I know that there is a will behind it.”
The 16 percent that fell into the third taxon — critics of evolution — hauled out an old canard that every evolutionary biologist has heard: “I want to point out that evolution is only a theory.” And: “To my knowledge, evolution is just a theory that has never been put to the test successfully and is far from being conclusive.”
That evolution requires faith to believe (the fourth class, an opinion held by 17 percent of the writers) found many adherents, such as this one: “In his zeal to defend his faith in evolutionary theory, Shermer violates those standards.” Another echoed a refrain we hear often at Skeptic magazine about misplaced skepticism: “I applaud your skepticism when it comes to creationism and astrology and psychic phenomena, but how can you be so thickheaded when it comes to the glaring weaknesses of Darwinian evolution? Honestly, you come across as both a brainwashed apologist and a high school cheerleader for Darwinian evolution.”
The penultimate taxon (at 23 percent) held that intelligent design creationism must be true because life is simply too complex to be explained by evolution. For example: “ID theorists also see a variety of factors, constants and relationships in the construction of the universe that are so keenly well adjusted to the existence of matter and life that they find it impossible to deny the implication of intelligent purpose in those factors.”
Intriguingly, the greatest number of responses, 25 percent, fell into a noncommittal position in which the readers presented their own theories of evolution and creation: “Evolution is not a theory. It is an analytic approach. There are three elements of science: operation, observation and model. An observation is the result of applying an operation, and a model is chosen for its utility in explaining, predicting and controlling observations, balanced against the cost of using it.” And: “There is nothing that scientists have ever discovered, or could ever discover, that can prove or disprove the existence of God. Thus, there is no conflict between the Bible and science when each is kept in its proper place.”
In my experience, correspondents in this final classification are more intent on launching their own ideas into the cultural ether than responding to the column in question itself. With no subject is this as apparent as it is with evolution; it is here we confront the ultimate question of genesis and exodus: Where did we come from and where are we going? No matter how you answer that question, facing it with courage and intellectual honesty will bring you closer to the creation itself.