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Evolution: not just a 'theory'

On the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, professors at Southern Oregon University will devote the week to emphasizing that evolution is more than a theory — it's hard science.

"It's theory and it's fact. You can say it's 'just a theory' like the theory that the earth goes around the sun," says biology professor Charles Weldon, lead speaker of Darwin Week. "In science, a theory is not speculation. It's supported by mountains of evidence. It's one of the best supported theories in science."

A century and a half after publication of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species," some 44 percent of Americans still believe in the Biblical account of creation by God in seven days, according to a Gallup poll.

Weldon calls that "shocking."

"Evolution is rejected in large numbers in only two places in the world, America and Turkey," said Weldon, in an interview. "Creation science and intelligent design are not science at all. They should be taught, though, to educate students about the difference between science and pseudo-science."

Weldon will speak at 3 p.m. Monday in the Meese Room at Hannon Library on what the theory of evolution actually says and the evidence supporting it.

As any scientific theory must be, evolution is testable and able to make predictions, such as when science was able to predict, a few years ago, where and in what type of strata fossils would be found linking the evolution of fish into amphibians. They were soon found in the predicted strata in Hudson's Bay, Canada, he said.

Evolution remains controversial, Weldon notes, because "Darwin took away the special status of humans as beings created in the image of God and superior to animals. He showed we're animals, though rather unusual animals. It was a major upset to people and still bothers a lot of people, mostly among fundamentalists of Christianity and Islam."

Darwin's discoveries have had a huge and continuing impact, not just on biology but on philosophy and modern thought, "as we adapt to ourselves as purely biological beings," says SOU philosophy professor Prakash Chenjeri, who will address the forum at 3 p.m. Friday in Room 118 of the Science Building.

"People draw moral conclusions from the theory of evolution. I'm going to challenge that, because evolution is not a theory of ethics," says Chenjeri. "I don't take a stand on the intelligent design controversy, but I do have the position that it's an anthropocentric view and, based on the evidence, does not seem to follow logically (from the theory of evolution)." Acceptance of evolution grew greatly after World War II, but Chenjeri says it remains much contested in the U.S., perhaps because of this country's tradition of free speech.

Biology professor Karen Stone says she will talk about advances in molecular biology, gene sequencing and other areas Darwin didn't know about, and how they can create "great leaps" in adaptation. She will speak at 3 p.m. Tuesday in the Meese Room.

A panel of professors — Mark Shibley, sociology; Craig Stillwell, University Seminar; John Sollinger, biology; and Mark Krause, psychology — will speak at 3 p.m. Thursday in room 171 of the Science Building.

A NOVA documentary, "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial," which details the evolution controversy in Dover, Pa., will be shown at 3 p.m. Wednesday in the SOU Art Building.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Naturalist Charles Darwin, who in 1859 wrote the book, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life,” is honored at SOU this week.