Penned with Zen: Darwin would be proud

By Benjamin Kramer
On February 7, 2014

In 1925, a high school teacher in Tennessee was taken to trial and found guilty for violating the Butler Act. His court case was publically staged to garner national attention as lawyers debated his innocence. The verdict was guilty, the teacher was fined $100, but the verdict got overturned on a technicality. 

This case was the Scopes Monkey Trial, and it is a famous discussion about the merits of teaching and accepting evolution versus creationism, whether humanity's existence is explained by hard science or by the Bible. That same argument was effectively reenacted this week between William "Bill" Nye and Ken Ham - the former a scientist, educator and television host, the latter a creationist and an Evangelist - as they debated on national television which reigned supreme, respectively, the theory of evolution or creationism.

At this point I would like to remind readers that the theory of evolution comes from the work of English naturalist Charles Darwin. His work, however widely accepted, is still considered theory and not fact. A scientific theory is a set of verified facts, and Darwin's work consists of just observational evidence; it's not a laboratory experiment with overwhelming results that we can currently repeat. On the other hand, if there are any of God's children that want to cry foul on Darwin being biased against religion, I would like to point out that the man was raised a Christian and never once claimed to be an atheist.

This column is not going to be about which theory is more correct than the other. This may sound odd, considering that you as readers - the vast majority of whom are college-aged, educated young adults and professors - probably believe Darwin's thought that humanity evolved from another species as the truth. Gallup Polls, however, say that about half of the people in this country believe in evolution, and the other half say God had a significant hand in guiding humanity. The percentages change across certain demographics: age, level of education, political and religious beliefs. Overall, only 39 percent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution, 25 percent do not, and 37 percent have no opinion either way. 

For nearly three hours, the two discussed their points back and forth through timed responses to preselected questions. Nye, for the most part, gave arguments that, while scientifically valid, sounded desperate appealing to the Kentuckian creationism-leaning audience and more than confusing to the average citizen. Ham's discussions points were for the most part gracious, polished and categorically incorrect as he denied factual evidence that debunked his stance. We cannot, for the most part, determine if there was a clear winner of the debate. Online polls are self-selected and most likely flooded by one side or the other. This is not a court case that could go before the Supreme Court. Neither side has an irrefutable research result to properly back up its claims. I highly doubt anyone watching the debate had enough of an open mind to switch his or her viewpoint on the conclusion of the debate.

So what was the point of the debate? Similar to the Scopes trial, Nye and Ham got to sensationalize the issue on the national stage. It's not as if one or the other revealed some unknown facet of science or religion. Or, rather neither side shared knowledge previously unknown. For anyone on one side or the other, it might have been surprising to hear the issue might not be as clear-cut as thought. You can think of the Scopes trial and Ham-Nye debate as robust dialogues concerning how we, as a society, accept what we think as fact. It takes a keen mind to understand what Nye and Ham were saying, but more importantly, it takes an open mind to understand how each stance can be considered valid.

We are all students here at UNH; we are, effectively, training as professional academics. Our knowledge can be highly specialized, but the critical thinking and its subsequent application form the vital cornerstone of all of our disciplines. There is no point to blind acceptance of knowledge and the refusal to seriously examine it. That is what the Ham-Nye debate does a spectacular job of showcasing, and what we as a society should be encouraging: critical thought.

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