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Monday, June 16, 2008

How long to accept a theory perceived to be at odds with Christian belief

Some excerpts from Mindell, David P., The Evolving World: Evolution in Everyday Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. Mindell compares the acceptance (or not) of evolutionary theory with that for two other scientific developments:

This chapter has traced the history of three initially unpopular discoveries. These are: the fact that the earth orbits the sun, the fact that many diseases arise naturally from microbial life forms, and the fact of common ancestry for all organisms. All three of these discoveries presented essential challenges to orthodox thinking and traditional institutions at the time of their formulation. Heliocentrism removed the earth from the center of the universe and contradicted the Bible. The germ theory of disease origins removed a category of direct punishment or reward from the diminishing arsenal of divine power, . . . , p. 48. The original scientific formulation for heliocentrism may be dated to about 1510, the time at which Copernicus' De revolutionibus was written, though it was not published until 1543. Acceptance among scientists may be placed roughly after the death of Galileo in 1642, and acceptance by the primary community resisting the idea may be estimated, in the extreme, as 1835, when Galileo's Dialogues was removed from the "Index of Prohibited Books," published by Catholic authorities. This gives an estimate of 325 years for acceptance by its most reluctant audience. (50) Mindell estimates that it took about 340 years for the acceptance of germ theory, which came with the work of Robert Koch.

By this reasonable though admittedly subjective accounting, acceptance for evolution has not taken any longer than for heliocentrism or germ theory. The ship of cultural change, though slow to change course on evolution, appears no slower in changing than for other discoveries of similarly high social impact. (51-2)

Mindell does not say that this proves that evolution will finally be comfortably accepted by all:

Is evolution different from other discoveries at odds with religious traditions? Arguably, yes, evolution is different in the immediacy of its perceived threat. It is perceived as a direct threat to the role of God in the material origins of humans. And explanation of human origins, whether for our species or for each individual, is about a personal as it gets. (305)

Thanks for reading.

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