Evolution, like capital punishment or gun control, is one of those dirty issues that tends to polarize people. The very word “evolution” conjures up images of apes turning into men and atheists with hidden agendas. Creationism, like wise, brings up ideas of book burnings and backwoods fundamentalists. Both lead toward opposite ends of the perceived spectrum; you’re either totally in one camp or the other. No middle ground exists. Any consenting towards the other side is seen as “giving in” and letting them get their collective “foot in the door”. Soon, it is reasoned, we’ll all be godless pagans or a theocratic dictatorship.
Reality, I’ve always found, lies somewhere in the gray middle. Not all scientific theories are comforting, but then again science never promises such. Perhaps life on Earth really is a random fluctuation of an infinite norm and there is no frame of reference in which we can ask the really big questions such as “why are we here?” though I doubt science in of itself can ever prove or disprove that. It is also true that there is a definite spiritual component to mankind that we can never truly deny. A universe of simple hydrogen atoms didn’t have to become this complex. Perhaps there is an afterlife; I would prefer not knowing. Kind of like the American Indian belief in the “great unknown”. I haven’t seen any secular reason to believe that any particular religious franchise has a corner market on things.
This polarization can also have disastrous consequences. Denying knowledge accumulated by scientists is causing America to lose its competitive edge. Its as if there are gaps in our knowledge, areas posted “do not enter” in our intellects. In the early 20th century, the Soviet Union sought to sensor Mendelian genetics because it did not fall in line with communist credo of material dialecticism. The result; the Soviet Union severely began to lag behind the world in crop production. America now faces the same challenge; if we don’t come to grips with the issues posed by evolution and stem cell research, other countries will (or will have had?) passed us by. The future may not belong to he who has the bullets and bombs, but the information and knowledge.
So, what does all this have to do with astronomy? Evolution dovetails with the topic of the big bang and cosmology, which in turn fall at odds with biblical literalism; some do not find comfort in a universe more than 6,000 years old. Evolution and astronomy also tie in to exo(or astro) biology, itself an emergent science. It we do discover aliens, be they microbes or demi-gods, it will surely trigger an instant re-write of both evolution and creation. Thus far, we have a biosphere of exactly one to draw conclusions from.
But who is to say that evolution isn’t just a tool that a creator uses and operates by? Who is to say the conflicts in time-lines aren’t metaphorical? As science gains ever more knowledge, a “God of the gaps” emerges. Granted, the circular logic used in most religious dogmas guarantee that they’ll never be conclusively proven or disproven. “Proof denies faith,” becomes the battle cry, and causes many a scientist to turn from public discourse on the topic. Carl Sagan noted that it’s hard to verify the “dragon in the garage” hypothesis if every time you devise a test to detect him, a reason it will fail is discovered.
A “proof” of creationism reared its head recently that I’d like to illustrate. The rare Parrot Orchid of Thailand has the uncanny appearance of, well, a miniature parrot! How one might ask, could such a thing occur if no creator was evoked?
First, remember that evolution is basically the function of two forces; death and time. Lets say that millions of years ago (flowering plants appeared right after the Jurassic Era), an orchid emerged via random mutation that vaguely had the markings of a parrot. Now most mutations are detrimental, and only very occasionally does one emerge that is beneficial. But in this case, the markings prove attractive to a key pollinator; the jungle parrot. The genetic message is clear; the more you look like a parrot, the more likely you are to pollinate and spread your own genes. Orchids that do not attract pollinators leave no offspring. Eventually, a genetic arms race ensues; orchids are slowly shaped via occasional beneficial mutations to look more attractive to parrots.
Of course, flowers are not men; the issue of apes evolving into modern man is a bit more sensitive. To be sure, modern day chimps are not our ancestors; species that gave way to homo sapiens are long gone. In any event, most people confuse Darwin’s Origin of Species with a later work, the Ascent of Man. Darwin, far from having an “Atheist’s agenda” was actually an Anglican minister. Sometimes the truth hurts, although I fail to see that evolution, understood properly, cheapens life or makes reality any more bleak. If anything, I see only the sweet preciousness of the small sliver of time and space we now occupy.