The theory of evolution was controversial when it was first proposed in 1859, yet within 20 years virtually every working biologist had accepted evolution as the explanation for the diversity of life. The rate of acceptance was extraordinarily rapid, partly because Darwin had amassed an impressive body of evidence. The early controversies involved both scientific arguments against the theory and the arguments of religious leaders. It was the arguments of the biologists that were resolved after a short time, while the arguments of religious leaders have persisted to this day.
The theory of evolution replaced the predominant theory at the time that species had all been specially created within relatively recent history. Despite the prevalence of this theory, it was becoming increasingly clear to naturalists during the nineteenth century that it could no longer explain many observations of geology and the living world. The persuasiveness of the theory of evolution to these naturalists lay in its ability to explain these phenomena, and it continues to hold extraordinary explanatory power to this day. Its continued rejection by some religious leaders results from its replacement of special creation, a tenet of their religious belief. These leaders cannot accept the replacement of special creation by a mechanistic process that excludes the actions of a deity as an explanation for the diversity of life including the origins of the human species. It should be noted, however, that most of the major denominations in the United States have statements supporting the acceptance of evidence for evolution as compatible with their theologies.
The nature of the arguments against evolution by religious leaders has evolved over time. One current argument is that the theory is still controversial among biologists. This claim is simply not true. The number of working scientists who reject the theory of evolution, or question its validity and say so, is small. A Pew Research poll in 2009 found that 97 percent of the 2500 scientists polled believe species evolve. 1 The support for the theory is reflected in signed statements from many scientific societies such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which includes working scientists as members. Many of the scientists that reject or question the theory of evolution are non-biologists, such as engineers, physicians, and chemists. There are no experimental results or research programs that contradict the theory. There are no papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals that appear to refute the theory. The latter observation might be considered a consequence of suppression of dissent, but it must be remembered that scientists are skeptics and that there is a long history of published reports that challenged scientific orthodoxy in unpopular ways. Examples include the endosymbiotic theory of eukaryotic origins, the theory of group selection, the microbial cause of stomach ulcers, the asteroid- impact theory of the Cretaceous extinction, and the theory of plate tectonics. Research with evidence and ideas with scientific merit are considered by the scientific community. Research that does not meet these standards is rejected.
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