The ups and downs of evolution

Vol. 7 No. 13
January 18, 2006
Science Matters
by David Suzuki
The ups and downs of evolution
2005 wasn’t an easy year for evolution, but it was a good one. In the
United States, legislation to promote the teaching of “intelligent design”
in schools as an alternative to evolution was introduced in more than a
dozen states. But the end of the year brought court victories for
evolutionists and evolutionary research was heralded as the “breakthrough
of the year” by the journal Science.


Wait, didn’t Darwin make that breakthrough well over a century ago?
Certainly, but we must never forget that most of our understanding of
biology stems from this original discovery. As geneticist Theodosius
Dobzhansky once said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light
of evolution.”
That light shone brightly in 2005. In the fall, researchers published the
DNA sequence of the entire chimpanzee genome, enabling scientists to
compare the genetic structure of humans to our closest living relatives.
This research will not only help us understand human evolution, but could
provide important clues as to why humans are so much more susceptible than
chimpanzees are to problems like heart disease, AIDS and malaria.
Other research in 2005 focused on the evolutionary development of different
species and how species split into two. From birds like the European
blackcap, to fish like the stickleback, and insects like the fruit fly,
researchers gained new insights into how evolution works and what causes
species to stay together or become something new.
One key insight has been the increased understanding of the importance of
“noncoding” DNA in speciation. This DNA does not contain instructions
needed to make proteins and had no known function, so it was often labeled
“junk.” But we now know that the biggest genetic differences between
chimpanzees and humans are found in noncoding DNA, and research into fruit
flies has found that physical traits unique to certain fruit fly species
can be produced in others by selectively swapping noncoding DNA.
Evolutionary research is thus vital to understanding our world. That’s why
scientists across the U.S. were thrilled in December when a federal judge
prevented the teaching of intelligent design in Dover, Pennsylvania biology
classes. The judge reasoned that the theory, which claims a “higher force”
than evolution is responsible for the creation and development of complex
organisms, is nothing more than poorly disguised creationism.
In spite of the court victory, it was a challenging year for science
education in the United States. As Donald Kennedy, editor of Science,
recently wrote: “The rising tide of evangelical Christianity and its
alliance with a conservative political movement seemed to foreshadow a
national suspicion of science or a deep confusion about what science is or
isn’t.”
Other criticisms were even more direct. A report by the Thomas B. Fordham
Foundation in Washington D.C., for example, warned, “Science education in
America is under attack.” The report gave failing grades for science
education in 15 states, including Alabama, where biology textbooks are
adorned with stickers that proclaim evolution is a “controversial” theory.
Discussing intelligent design is certainly appropriate at a university
level. In fact, one study published this fall in Bioscience found that
university students exposed to arguments for both evolution and for
intelligent design were actually more likely to favour evolution than those
taught evolution alone. In other words, when it comes to advanced
education, addressing belief systems rather than ignoring them could be an
important teaching tool.
However, it’s completely inappropriate to introduce religion into science
studies at a younger age when capacity for critical thought has yet to
develop. Canadians should be thankful that our country is by and large free
of such debates. But the fact that it again reared its head so close to
home means we have to be even more vigilant in ensuring that politics and
religion do not cloud our teaching of science. Because when that happens,
it’s students who lose the most.
Join the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org
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