Much more so than abortion, the issue of life's origins wedges itself between the scientifically literate elite and everyone else. No surprise. This is the Big Question, and it has implications for politics: what is humanity? What do we owe each other? From where do we derive our ethics? How do we solve irreconcilable value claims? As evidence for evolution grows, the number of Americans who accept a literal creationist account of human origins has shrunk. Most of these beliefs have been channeled into the "intelligent design" movement, which shares virtually everything with creationism except the name and the implication that macroevolution didn't happen naturally on at least some level. So -- think of public opinion along a line. Very roughly, between 15 and 25%, believe that evolution is a natural process and either know -- or doubt -- that God directed it, and about 75% are willing to acknowledge God's role. Of that 75%, half accept at least some parts of evolutionary theory. The other half is made up of Biblical creationists.
Palin accepts creationism's critique, which is that there is no way that species share a common lineage, or that humans descended from apes, or that terrestrial creatures descended from aquatic creatures.
"But your dad's a science teacher," Schmidt objected. "Yes." "Then you know that science proves evolution," added Schmidt. "Parts of evolution," I said. "But I believe that God created us and also that He can create an evolutionary process that allows species to change and adapt." Schmidt winced and raised his eyebrows. In the dim light, his sunglasses shifted atop his head. I had just dared to mention the C-word: creationism. But I felt I was on solid factual ground.
No, she is not. Evolution, the change over time of species by various unguided (but not always random) selection pressures, is as close to a fact of science as there is. It is as much of a historical fact as the Holocaust. There is plenty of debate within evolutionary science, but with each successive discovery, each new transitional fossil found, each advance in developmental embryology, the case for evolution grows more and more tight. Macroevolution, microevolution, the evolution of complex cellular structures -- there's a lot we don't know, but not a single scientific discovery in recent years can be deemed evidence against the theory of evolution.
Its acceptance in the years after Charles Darwin popularized the concept fundamentally established science as the foundational text of modernism. Most biological scientists don't believe in God. Those who do, like the new chair of the NIH, Francis S. Collins, are Christian Deists; they accept
that "progress" in evolution seems random, but they believe that, somewhere beneath the quarks, the God spark is slowly directing this complicated process - or that God created the laws of the universe in such a way so as to lay favorable conditions for evolution. But they don't reject the evidence.
Polling evolution is a political act, so it's hard to come up with sensible data. Pew tried
, and decided that the best available evidence suggests that about 13% of Americans understand what evolution is, believe that it happened, and it was not directed by God. That corresponds, roughly, to the pool of atheists. When "God" is not mentioned in evolution polls, the number of people who endorse a natural selection process doubles, suggesting that there is a still a stigma in affirming to a pollster that God did not do something -- or that "natural selection" leaves room for God in the gaps.
The American people are finicky about their creation/evolution debate. Even though a majority of Americans clearly believe at least a thin form of "intelligent design," about a majority staunchly opposes something called "creationism" -- even though it is, in the real world, indistinguishable from creationism in its animating principles and aims. What this means is that Americans accept the chronology of evolution without accepting the science of evolution. Disproving evolution to scientists would mean finding a rabbit fossil in the Burgess Shale. Disproving "intelligent design" to most Americans would mean disproving the existence of God. And Americans aren't willing to give up God. But they're not willing to ignore at least parts of the evidence. Sarah Palin -- she is.
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is a former contributing editor at The Atlantic