In his new play The De Chardin Project, playwright Adam Seybold has the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Father Teilard De Chardin describe his witnessing of a terrible natural event whereby he arose from his cabin aboard a steamer on route to China to find a fire raging along the shoreline. With the furiosité of a freight train and having consumed the entire upper canopy of forest, the inferno chases a lone monkey through the underbrush, who is desperate to outrun this force of nature, lest it consume him as well.
De Chardin, who later discovered and subsequently lost Peiking Man a.k.a. Homo erectus, with Canadian Davidson Black, was chased out of France by the papacy, due to his modern re-interpretation of the biblical origin of human kind as seen through the eyes of an evolutionary scientist. This occurred in the early 1930s, by which time the modern theory of evolution had been well established as a cornerstone of biology, but which continues to today to be inflammatory in fundamentalist circles.
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This week we celebrate Darwin's birthday and the publishing of the "Great Book" as it is known in biology, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. It was the pivotal date in the modern study of the history of life on the planet and since then multiple lines of evidence have been established that all point to evolution through natural selection as the frame in which we place the biological sciences. Unfortunately, while the Vatican has accepted the theory of evolution, many of the charismatic faiths have not, and in the rookery of modern creationism, the United States, there continue to be assaults on the ability of education to keep out erroneous questioning of evolution at the middle and high school levels. Attempts to introduce what is now called "intelligent design" into the science classroom are active in many states in the U.S.
According to the National Centre for Science Education, there are currently eight bills in six different U.S. states attempting to sneak one past the establishment clause in the U.S. constitution that prohibits state-sponsored religion and get creationism in the classroom. There have been many attempts over the past decades, and each round sees an increasing sophistication; from the original bald claims of young earth creationism, to a pseudo-scientific intelligent design trying to leave the Abrahamic God out of it, and culminating with the "academic freedom" bent of current legislation. In the state of Tennessee last year, the "monkey bill" was passed that allows the teaching of creationism in state schools. One can hope that a challenge similar to the Kitzmiller vs Dover suit will emerge and strike down this bill, but it will be a long fight.
We do not have as overt a challenge to established science in Canada classrooms currently, although the Alberta Education Act amendments last year, spearheaded by the small but vocal religious home-school lobby, may be a start. This poll by Angus Reid in 2008 showed that 20 per cent of Canadians believe that man was created by God in the last 10,000 years, which is a very worrying statistic, and there is a movement with the goal to get creationist ideas into the classroom under the guise of religious freedom. The Canadian Creation Information Portal lists several creationist museums in Alberta, Ontario, and Manitoba dedicated to the biblical interpretation of our origins, as well as links to creationist organizations in six provinces.
Evolution is true, and there is little that is scientific about creation science. While creationists use the "god of the gaps" to fill in those places where we have no answers with the supernatural, evolution remains one of the most successful models of the development of life on earth, and those gaps continue to close as we attain new information through experiment and deduction.
Father De Chardin saw this too, and he did not try to mold his science around an unchanging religious doctrine. Instead, like a scientist, he changed his ideas about the universe and his religion to fit the facts before him. This week we celebrate the exquisite theory of evolution, borne of a human desire to know the universe, and we thank Charles Darwin for pushing us away out of the darkness and helping us to see its true face.