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Did Humans Descend from Monkeys?

Published in Welt und Wissen

Original Article (PDF) (German)

First there was the monkey. He sat on the left side of the picture, it was a happy chimpanzee, and to the right sat a brooding person. And between the monkey and the person was an arrow with the point aimed at the person, with a question mark over the arrow. This is how Caroline Crocker began her lecture in “Introduction to Biology” course 101 at the George Mason University, not far from the American capital in the state of Virginia. It didn’t take long until even the last student in the lecture hall had brought together the chimpanzee, person, arrow and the question mark into the only logical question: did man descend from an ape? “Yes, sure”, said the students, surprised about the dumb question.

That was the beginning of the lecture. By the end of the first hour the nice, secure world of the students was thoroughly messed up, since they had now learned something entirely new: no, wrong, humans did not descend from apes. Most of the students even found that convincing. The university administration quickly sent Caroline Crocker the pink sheet.

The topic here is called for some time now the “Evolution Debate”. It is played out in the USA. Lately there one can be for, but also against, evolution. How that is possible is difficult to understand. The story would be so much easier to tell, if Caroline Crocker did not exist. Without her one could discard the whole controversy as the latest episode of the American freak show: the Americans are nuts, that’s nothing new, there are all kinds of crazy people there, Christian fundamentalists for example, who believe in a physical Satan, others have at some time seen Elvis or John F. Kennedy, they are all sort of fat, dumb and Bible-believing, so who should be surprised that some still believe Eve was cut out of Adam’s rib?

With Caroline Crocker the story gets more complicated. She is neither fat nor dumb, she has a PhD in biology, has written books in pharmacology and taught at excellent universities. One cannot simply shrug her off as crazy, one must take her seriously, one must hear her out, one must think things through with her. That is unpleasant, strenuous and confusing.

“Professor Crocker,…” “You can just call me Caroline”, she said. “Caroline, you…” — Wait a moment, such close intimacy is unpleasant for me, especially in discussion with a woman, who eventually may turn out to be crazy. So, a third attempt: “Mrs. Crocker, you don’t believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution. Can you explain to me why not?” “Why believe?”, she replied without hesitation, “that is not an issue of belief. I am only interested in the scientific part of this debate.” Ok, then differently: “Ah, why do you deny the theory of evolution?” “I don’t deny anything at all” was the answer this time, “I only pose questions and point out certain problems with it.” “But”, I said, “There are no problems with the theory of evolution. It has been proven long ago and accepted by all authoritative scientists.”

“Is this something you understand?” It was an unpleasant discussion. Did Caroline Crocker really have something up her sleeve? Is there really doubt about the theory of evolution or is she only bluffing? But why should she do that? After all: for that which she wishes, she had ruined her scientific career. “Microevolution”, said Caroline finally. “Microevolution?” “Yes, that is a clear case: bacteria, which work on penicillin, the remaining population which survives, resistance which develops against penicillin. That is how microevolution works, no one doubts that.” Macroevolution, however, is only a speculative extrapolation under conditions of other forms of inquiry: “There is no proof that humans developed from animals. Speculations are sold to students as proof, the experimental gaps are closed with dogmatic fantasy.

The most spectacular word in this defence is the word “dogmatic”. Caroline Crocker has now turned the tables. She is not the dogmatic one, but those who hold Darwin’s theory of evolution as proven. Not those who believe in the biblical story of creation, but those who defend Darwin.

What should one think about all this? Can one take this seriously at all? Ask the Americans and you get a clear answer. 53 percent agree with the statement in the last Gallup poll, that “God created humans exactly as the Bible describes”. During the last ten years this number has risen around ten percent. Of all things, in the country which produces most Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, has the childish belief in the flowery details of the creation story found a basis like nowhere else in the world.

Caroline Crocker does not belong to the so-called creationists who stubbornly defend every embellishment in the biblical Genesis. She and her friends from the “Discovery Institute” in Washington fight for “Intelligent Design”, the view that humans are not an accident of nature, but must be the work of a creator. Whether he used six days does not matter to them. But whether he exists, instead of a molecular coincidence, that is not open to question. Stated in another way: the friends of the “Intelligent Design” have quasi won back the front line, which can no longer be contained, joined forces and now hold a fortress which should be defended at every price.

True, that is quite a martial image for a theological debate. But the protagonists themselves see their fight as a kind of decisive battle for values and world-view. “The dominant ideology of our times says that is nothing else but ‘natural’ forces and processes, and therefore every supernatural force must be excluded”, said Caroline Crocker. Fundamentally, for those defending the theory of evolution it is all about excluding God from awareness in the modern world. That is indeed a strange perception in a country, in which religion is present and accepted in society such as in no other western industrialized nation. However, that is the perception of many Americans: “Do you believe, that religious people in the USA are discriminated against?” asked the opinion researchers a few days ago. 48 percent said yes. Only two years ago only 36 percent had the feeling, that religious people were discriminated against in society.

The evolution debate as a battle of culture?

Bush’s America sees itself on the defensive, believes itself persecuted and misunderstood. Perhaps this is the best explanation for the mistakes and confusions of this strange fight, which has long occupied the judges, because the opponents of evolution attempt to rewrite the curricula for the schools and enforce “Intelligent Design” as an alternative to Darwin.

“In my months-long researches I have come ever more to the conclusion, that the defenders and critiques of Darwin are talking about different things”, said the essayist Shankar Vedantam, “one speak about the scientific facts, the others about emotions.” Alan Leshner, president of the scientific organisation AAAS, can also not discover any scientific controversy in this fight: “The impression is supposed to be given that there is here a difference in opinion between scientist, but in reality that theory of evolution is as firmly established as the law of gravity.” Leshner says about himself, that he believes in God and a creator. Why this belief should collide with the theory of evolution does not make sense to him.

However, Caroline Crocker’s former students see things very differently and are still thankful to their fired professor: “She has finally expressed what others didn’t dare say, but what I always thought”, said Mariama Lowe, “People have a soul, one can’t put them on the same level as animals. To believe in evolution would mean that death would be the last word”.

(Caption: Creation or development? In the USA currently judges must clear up whether it is permitted to say in biology classes that Homo Sapiens developed from the primates.)