Out of all the scientific ideas, evolution is the most hotly debated among the non-scientific public. Indeed, everybody has an opinion on the theory ranging from dogmatic acceptance to denial and vilification. How evolution ended up as such a highly debated topic is a fascinating question, and one that is important in our day. As scientific literacy becomes increasingly important, we must ask ourselves why a good part of the United States population outright rejects the bedrock of modern biology. To analyze this phenomenon, it is helpful to use middle-aged conservative voters as an example. Although evolution does not have an inherent political side to it, modern politicians (especially those running for President) have made it a political issue, and those skeptical about evolution tend to fall into the conservative camp. For these voters, evolution becomes unintelligible due to a mistrust of the scientific community, religious dogmatism and a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific process.
First, it is important to ask why our middle-aged conservative voters (from now on abbreviated at MCV) are distrustful of the scientific community. The problem emerges from a perceived conflict between religion and science that is traced back to the Galilean affair in the 17th century. Since the tenants of most Christian and Western religions center around faith in an unseen and unknowable God, the basic ideas of science come in conflict with the conception of diety and how the universe works. By definition, the scientist is trying to describe the world through natural law. The problem is that a scientist appears to replace theological ideas with logical natural laws. Both fields are attempting to describe the reality of the universe, and when they seem to contradict, MCVs (who are overwhelmingly Christian) are apt to choose the religious side. When this happens, the MCV feels that a scientist is directly attacking their world view.
Religious dogmatism also plays a huge role in the MCV denial of evolution. Why this causes a problem comes back to the idea that religion and science both attempt to describe reality. The only difference between them is the fundamental assumptions and commitments that a theologian or scientist commits to. For a Christian MCV since the Bible describes how the creation of the universe and they believe it came unimpeded from a perfect God, any scientific argument that contradicts the Biblical account is flawed.
In these assumptions a MCV is wrong. Science does not attempt to attack anybody’s world view, rather it seeks to tell a cohesive story of how the world ended up like it is. In that story there is always a place for God according to a scientist’s beliefs, but the place for God is rearranged. New scientific beliefs are always seen in contradiction with religion, but when Christian scientists are the ones proposing quantum mechanics and the Big Bang theory, it is obvious that God and science are not inherently contradictory.
Even though both accounts tell different stories about creation, they are both describing the same thing. Most importantly, the story that scientists and theologians tell do not inherently discuss the other’s field. Instead, it is people who bring their own prejudice and dogmatism into a debate which leaves neither side satisfied.
The biggest reason that evolution will be unintelligible for a MCV is a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific process. Often times, MCVs will use the idea that evolution is “just a theory” or site a shred of contradictory evidence as proof that evolution is false.
Science does not work that way. It is the anomalies in science that move it forward. The fact that scientists can discover new evidence about evolution bring it more into focus, but do not prove it wrong. Like any paradigm, evolution allows scientists to do “normal science” within its confines. Discovering new ideas and working with them does not overthrow evolution as long as evolution is able to account for the discoveries. As a whole, that is what has happened. Even though biologists have never found the missing link between human and their simian ancestors does not mean that evolution is wrong because evolution allows the biologist to do his work within the paradigm. If the paradigm did not allow further discussion or experimentation on the subject, then we would throw it out. But since normal science is possible within the evolution paradigm, there is no need.
When it comes down to the facts, evolution follows the standard set of characteristics that define science. Evolution is natural, it describes the world without having to appeal to a supernatural being and describes the world in a way that is used for predictions and reproduction of experiments. It is simple in its concepts and exists in harmony with other scientific principles. Most importantly it allows for the prospect of improvement. The MCV might deny climate change because it is not perfect, has holes and is still being worked on. To that, a biologist should respond that is proof that evolution is good science. Good science never purports to have all the answers. It opens up avenues for improvement and streamlines the pursuit of human knowledge. Science is flexible, it is improvable and as it improves it continues to describe the world in more profound ways. Evolution has opened up realms of human scientific pursuit that were otherwise impossible, and for that evolution stands as the foundation of modern biological thought.