I, like I assume most of you, have found it impossible to debate the merits of evolution with deniers. No amount of evidence or logical arguments have any impact.
So, I've hit on a new strategy that seems to be working a little better. Rather than argue the evidence for evolution and against Creationism or Intelligent Design, I just point out that the theory of evolution is extremely "useful." And while the theory might not get them into heaven it is making their life here on earth much better.
It all started with my last seminar in last semester's Theories of Social Change class. Follow me below the curved orange lines.
In my last “Theories of Social Change” class, I asked the students, “How has evolution impacted your life?” To a student, their response was that evolution had had no impact. After I reviewed ways the theory has impacted their lives, as I will for you below, one student commented, “I thought evolution was just about monkeys.”
Many were raised in fundamentalist homes and churched by ministers who deny and harshly attack the theory of evolution as a “Monkey Theory.” But evolution is more than monkeys turning into humans. Evolution is about your health, the food you eat, and who should be imprisoned and who should go free. The theory of evolution is useful and makes our lives here on earth better.
The most obvious benefits are in the medical “miracles.” Everyone recognizes we inherit skin color, height, blood types, shape of ears and noses. We also inherit broken genes that plague families with deadly diseases like Tay-Sachs, breast cancer, sickle cell anemia, and Fanconi anemia.
Treatments and cures for these and others diseases rely on understanding how evolution works. Evolution based therapies have been used to treat or cure leukemia, AIDS, Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), sickle cell anemia, and SCID, known as Bubble Boy Syndrome.
An important component of medical research is our ability to test treatments on other species before trying them on humans. Humans benefit when the therapies don’t work or are actually harmful. Species we test on are not so fortunate. One and five million monkeys were sacrificed to create polio vaccines. Thousands of chimpanzees and millions of rats and mice have been used for testing. Other species used for testing and creating new drugs include cats, dogs, birds, cattle, pigs, and sheep, to name but a few.
We can use other species for testing because we have many genes in common. While we look different, all mammals have similar organs - lungs, hearts, kidneys, stomachs, and even brains that work in similar ways. We move oxygen from our lungs to our blood then to individual cells similarly. We even have similar emotions so we test drugs for mental disorders on mice before administering them to humans.
Evolutionary theory is also protects us from illness and death by infectious agents like viruses and bacteria. Scientists track flu viruses as they spread about the planet, information used to manufacture the most effective annual flu vaccines. Vaccines to protect us from AIDS and other deadly diseases are based on evolutionary theory.
In no way do I want to discourage anyone from praying for the sick. Prayer can comfort both the ill and those who love and care for them. But the reality is that neither Creationism nor Intelligent Design theory are useful for producing new drug therapies.
Long before evolutionary theory, humans were actively involved in the domestication of plants and animals. Seeds from the larger and tastier fruits, vegetables, and grains were selected, planted, and nurtured. Sheep, goats, cattle, chickens, pigeons, dogs, and cats fell under the intelligent design of humans. God might have dropped Moses some manna from heaven, but it was human intervention that dramatically increased food production.
Today, evolution based genetic tools are applied to agriculture. Rice, an important food for much of the world lacks vitamin A. Using evolutionary theory, a gene that produces vitamin A was inserted in a rice strain to create Golden Rice. This new rice offers hope to the 500,000 children who the World Health Organization estimates go blind each year due to vitamin A deficiencies. Similar work has produced crops with natural insecticides, reducing the need for potentially harmful chemicals.
It was been over 160 years since the gulls of Great Salt Lake saved Mormon crops from crickets. Today we rely on evolutionary theory to protects our foods from external threats like molds, bacteria, and insects.
Our ability of feed a rapidly growing population of 7 billion people depends on genetic engineering and evolutionary theory.
Larry Birkhead was awarded custody of Anna Nicole Smith’s child. After Ms. Smith died, three men claimed to be the baby’s father. The court used DNA analysis, rather than Solomon’s sword, to determine Mr. Birkhead was the father.
On a more serious note, the Innocence Project has freed over 250 prisoners. Many who had spent decades in prison for crimes they never committed. A large number had even “confessed” to these crimes. Justice was not limited to freeing the innocent. In 40% of the cases, the DNA resulted in identifying the actual felon.
DNA testing is critical tool for criminal investigations. Courts rely on this evidence to arrive at fair and just verdicts. Today Britain and the U.S. maintain DNA data banks of criminals numbering 4.5 million and 7 million respectively. DNA had proven to be far more reliable tool than finger prints, eye witness accounts, or even confessions.
DNA criminal analysis goes beyond separating the guilty from the innocent. Sometimes it is about finding closure for families of victims. Badly mutilated or decomposed bodies can be impossible to identify. But in the crime of our lifetime, DNA from bone fragments identified victims in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center towers.
Genealogy is a favorite hobby for many with thousands of websites devoted to tracing one’s ancestors has evolved beyond notes in Bibles, newspaper notices, and hospital record. Companies offer DNA tests to identify where your ancestors originated.
For some, it is more than a hobby. Spencer Wells, a geneticist and anthropologist, uses DNA to track ancient human migration patterns. Others used DNA to prove Native American heritage. Descents of Sally Hemings used DNA to support their claim her children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson.
If I'm in a really contentious spirit, I point out that the Bible has two lines of descent from David to Jesus. If we had DNA samples of all the named men in those lines would would know which, if either Bible version, is correct.
Throw them a rope
Depending on the situation, you can always assure your audience that they can believe in their God and acknowledge the importance of evolutionary theory. Jane Goodall, who taught us so much about the life of chimpanzees, is both a devote Christian and evolutionist, something she wrote about in her book, Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey.
Francis Collins, the scientist who headed the Human Genome Project, does not see his beliefs in evolution and god as incompatible and has written books for the general public on both. In The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine, Collins explains how evolutionary theory is conquering diseases and making us healthier. In The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, he explains his personal belief in God. Many other top scientists also believe in evolutionary theory, while practicing their religious faith and believing in God.
If I remember correctly (note to self: look this up), the Catholic Church endorsed the sun centered solar system as useful for calculating the date Easter falls on. But they endorsed the earth centered universe as real. Look what happened. Only 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. now say in the General Social Survey that the sun circles the earth.