Charles Darwin's groundbreaking "Origin of Species" is 150 years old this year.
As part of the celebration, Indiana University is offering its first "themester" on "Evolution, Diversity and Change.'' It's a cross-disciplinary approach, including lectures and the play "Inherit the Wind" about the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee.
Scientists have taken the occasion to lament the scientific ignorance of Americans. Surveys suggest that more than half the country believes in special creation by God, as opposed to Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.
There certainly is ignorance about science. Some of us did better in math, English and history than in chemistry or biology. It's easy then to miss the distinction between observable data and speculation and opinion.
Yet in the debate between evolution and creation, those on the Darwinian side of the discussion often make the same error that they see in their opponents. They observe nature and evolution within species, or adaptation. From there came Darwin's evolutionary hypothesis that humans evolved from the amoebas.
Many scientists contend that the theory has been proven, or rendered undeniable, by so much research. Yet there's a leap of faith involved in Darwinian theory.
Part of the problem is defining science, which is traditionally limited to observation and experimentation.
Bloomington Reformed Presbyterian Pastor Richard Holdeman also has a doctorate in cell biology and is a lecturer at Indiana University. He sometimes finds himself in the middle of this debate.
"Charles Darwin made careful observations and laid out an elegant theory explaining how biological organisms change over time," Holdeman said.
What troubles Holdeman is how some followers of Darwin have taken his work and turned it into a theological treatise about the origins and purpose of the universe. "Science by nature does not answer questions related to meaning and purpose in the universe." he said. "It is wrong to use science to justify what are essentially religious beliefs. The result is that many religious people are offended by and reject evolution because of its supposed religious implications rather than its scientific merits or lack thereof.
"In addition, some scientists have underplayed the significance of the unanswered questions relating to evolutionary theory. For example, where did the first cell come from? Thus there is a general mistrust of the scientific community among many people of faith."
The debate has become as much about philosophy and politics than science. Followers of Darwin have won many of the arguments at a political level, cloaking their philosophy under the banner of science.
The other side, however, isn't walking off the field.
Or, as Holdeman puts it, "As long as evolutionary theory is advocated in semi-religious terms, this debate is not going to go away."
Russell B. Pulliam, journalist, book author, associate editor and columnist at The Indianapolis Star, is a syndicated columnist, whose columns focus on topics ranging from politics to social issues to family life. He may be contacted at: email@example.com