The theory of evolution by natural selection is the foundational principle of Biology. It is the field’s explanation for the great diversity of life, and it is among the most brilliant and well-established scientific theories currently extant. Charles Darwin first postulated his evolutionary ideas in the 1859 “On the Origin of Species,” and since its publication, the predictive and explanatory power of his ideas has proven to be almost uniquely eloquent. With the advent of humanity’s understanding of genetics, the structure of DNA, and a fuller picture of the fossil record, every piece of evidence that has surfaced in the last 152 years on the nature of life on Earth has corroborated and expanded Darwin’s work and ideas.
Of course, the legacy of evolution has been touched by vigorous debate throughout its lifetime, as has any scientific theory worth its salt. Though evolution has met and defeated all of the challenges it has faced thus far, it continues to find itself in the heart of a controversy that is much more personal and political than scientific. Certain religious literalists attack the theory because it flatly contradicts the creation myths that are put down in the holy texts of the world’s major religions. They claim that evolution inspired Hitler to initiate the Holocaust or that evolution and intelligent design “theories” should be given equal time in the classroom. Both of these ideas are nonsense.
Eugenics and so-called “social Darwinism” have nothing to do with evolution, the evolutionary synthesis, or the ideas and work of Charles Darwin. In fact, evolutionary theory can just as easily be seen as a reason to avoid eugenics as a justification thereof, as the very basis of evolution is that presence of genetic diversity is the most important factor in ensuring the survival of a group.
The presence of intelligent design in the science classroom is an equally absurd idea. In terms of evidence or the scientific criteria of adequacy, it is abundantly clear that intelligent design deserves no more time in the modern science classroom than do alchemy or astrology. It is an explanation of the origins of life which is, simply put, based in the gibbering of Bronze Age desert illiterates whose ideas happened to catch fire some 1,500 years ago. In no way can this ideology be seen to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with evolution, at least not considering the body of evidence amassed throughout the 20th century.
In spite of the stupid controversy, however, the legacy of evolutionary theory stretches far beyond our academic understanding of our origins and about the changing nature of life. Evolutionary algorithms are used in engineering to “evolve” technologies which are far better than any human or computer can design. Our ability to vaccinate and fight virulent disease is almost entirely based in our knowledge of evolution. Indeed, evolution and its implications touch almost every aspect of modern life. It is one of the fundamental and foundational ideas of human understanding, kin to the revelations that the Earth is spherical and that gravity is a fundamental natural force.