By Christopher S. Kovel, M.A.
Today’s society is built and shaped by technology and scientific discovery but, surprisingly, pervading scientific denial lingers. Irrational skepticism and flat-out denial of uncontroversial theories is not just a rebuke of the facts of science and an insult to toiling scientists in their respective fields, but should also be seen as a moral dereliction, capable of great harm if not remedied.
According to recent Gallup polls, two scientific theories in particular – evolution and anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change – struggle to gain widespread national acceptance. In 2014, 42% of Americans said they believe that God created humans in their present form (i.e. evolution never occurred). In the same poll, another 31% said they accept that humans evolved, but under God’s supervision and direction (commonly referred to as intelligent design). Only 19% said they believe the current scientific explanation of the origins of humans—that we evolved like every other organism on earth, through a natural process following biological principles.
The poll results on climate change acceptance are better, but remain troubling. Again in 2014, Gallup reported that 40% of Americans said the rise in global temperature is due to natural causes independent of human activities.
Moralizing climate change denial is straightforward. Current human behavior could irrevocably destroy the biosphere in ways that would bring about an age of extinction not seen since the Cretaceous period. Many heads of state and public commentators have called climate change prevention the moral issue of our generation. If, in the face of constant harbingers, humanity continues abusing the environment, our children’s children would be right to hold us morally accountable.
Achieving widespread acceptance that our industrialized lifestyle is the direct cause of climate change is the first of the many steps needed to enact policy and social change necessary to prevent global catastrophe. But for one to fully understand why humans are disrupting the natural order of this planet, one first must understand and accept another notoriously refuted scientific theory: evolution. How evolutionary theory can act as a priming agent for climate science acceptance is not immediately clear; but, I believe, worth consideration.
Fully understanding the damage humans are doing to our environment requires the avowal that humans are just one part of a bigger, broader whole. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould said that the theory of evolution has caused the anthropic story to transition from “created in God’s image to rule a young world of stable entities made for our delectation” to “a fortuitous twig, budding but yesterday on an ancient and copious bush of ever changing, interrelated forms.”
No other ideological revolution in the history of science, in my view, has ever so strongly or directly impacted our concept of our place within the natural order of life on this planet. This is why I believe the convictions that people hold regarding evolution’s truth influences their beliefs about climate change and exposes the relationship between these two theories as conditional.
Less than 80,000 years ago homo sapiens lived in small groups localized on the African savannah. Based on the fossil record, as little as 10,000 humans lived at this time. Using their unique cognitive abilities, our ancestors were able to created systems that controlled nature for survival purposes. These novel systems and technologies allowed a few small groups of people to conquer the globe, multiply at an expediential rate, and develop more specialized and sophisticated technologies to harness Mother Nature in ways never before tried. These technologies bestowed numerous benefits to our forbearers but, also, began disrupting nature’s balance in ways they never could have conceived.
We are not the chosen beings of this planet, but came to be where we stand today by a random strike of evolutionary luck. We are a small, nubile twig on a towering tree that has been spinning in the universe for time unfathomable. Without accepting this history as fact, I fear that our myopic behavior will continue unrestrained and future generations will remain in great peril.
Christopher S. Kovel, GSAS 2014, is a graduate of the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education M.A. in Ethics & Society. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his website https://thegeneraljournal.wordpress.com.