Is Darwin Film "Creation" Too Controversial for American Audiences?
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On the heels of a February 2009 Gallup poll showing that only 39% of Americans believe the theory of evolution, a new British film about Darwin has had difficulty finding US distributors, apparently because the topic was deemed too controversial for American audiences.
It's a remarkably low degree of support, even in a nation that flirted with the idea of vice-president Sarah Palin. After all, America has often been seen as an innovator, at the forefront of technological and scientific change.
Perhaps America's distrust of a major scientific theory could be dismissed as part of the country's quirky charm, with no real consequences because the story of creation has little to do with our practical, day-to-day lives. As long as that 39% of disbelievers are making our microchips and producing swine flu vaccine, who cares?
But sadly, such mistrust of science is not limited to the story of creation, but extends to stem cell research, climate change and cloning. The Gallup poll did not capture a scientific debate. It captured another front in the same culture war that is blocking a cap on carbon emissions.
Political and religious opponents of scientific theories try to win not by way of careful comparisons of each side's ideas, a method that would require a great deal of study and knowledge, but by muddying the debate and demonising opponents. It's a tactic utilised to great effect in the US by sceptics of global warming. The faithful can sleep easy knowing that there's a little evidence over here for our side and a little over there for the other side.
As a result, who needs to do any serious thinking or change behaviours? Frankly, what people believe in the comfort of their own homes is not much cause for national concern, even if those ideas are irrational. But if those attitudes are warming our oceans and forestalling medical breakthroughs, it becomes everyone's problem.
To be sure, evolution and climate change are merely theories. But so are relativity and quantum mechanics – ideas that led to the creation of the modern computer and satellites. The search is on for a grand unified theory of physics, which may one day put Albert Einstein in his place. But in the meantime, do we pretend to know better about gravity?
There is indeed a debate over certain aspects of evolution, but the geological and biological evidence is sufficient to reach a consensus about the general principles for the overwhelming majority of scientists who study the issue. Until scientists come up with a better explanation for the origins of life as we understand it, it is the prevailing view in our institutions of higher learning.
One might look at this approach and say: How is such fidelity to science different from a literal, unquestioning reading of the gospel? It's about the same, except science can change over time as we gather new evidence. If scientists are wrong, there are mechanisms to correct those mistakes. But the creationist view comes from an eternal source which, for it to mean anything, cannot change over time. It is far more dangerous to trust our unchanging traditions in forming our scientific beliefs than the scientific method.
And so in its endless pursuit of winning the culture wars, America finds itself "exceptional" once again on the world stage, captured by Gallup in an unflattering pose. Our nation's professed greatness, ravaged by a deep recession, has received yet another wound by way of its reactionary attitude toward science.
It may be that this is merely a phase, which we will pass through like so many others. But if we do not change our ways and embrace science, we will let our desire to protect our own mythologies undermine our national interests on a wide range of pressing social and political issues.