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  Number 330 | Enero 2009
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International

Darwin’s 200th Anniversary: There’s So Much More to Learn

This year the world celebrates the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his theory of evolution in The Origin of Species. Here in Nicaragua, we’re celebrating the eminent natural scientist who taught us “the trick of life” by recalling the central issues he showed us and lamenting the many we still need to understand and embrace.

Jorge A. Huete Pérez

The theory of evolution as conceived by Charles Darwin 150 years ago explains “natural selection” as the mechanism that brings about the transformation of one species into another and establishes relationships and a common origin for all forms of life.

Even though scientific progress—particularly of molecular biology—is providing us more and more information to back up Darwin’s theory, and even though the scientific community considers it the main paradigm for the natural sciences, it is not universally accepted. The resurgence of the anti-evolutionary movement, crystallized in the “intelligent design” theory, and the anti-science wave now in vogue are endangering an understanding of the evolution of life on earth.

Doubts and rejection in Nicaragua

Every generation has produced particularly lucid individuals who have deciphered mysteries of the universe and for whom we currently have great appreciation, among them Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton or Gregor Mendel. We must remember, however, that no matter how prestigious they are considered to be today, many of those geniuses faced scorn and humiliation from their contemporaries.

Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity earned him ridicule and marginalization. Charles Darwin was also the object of satire and mockery when he concluded that man and monkeys were related. However, while the relationship between matter and energy established by Einstein in his famous formula E=mc2 is now accepted even by those who don’t understand it, Darwin’s theory of evolution is still the object of doubts and rejection.

This is no less true in Nicaragua, where it is explained partly by the low rates of quality formal educational, and even more by the very high rates of a traditional religiosity promoted by institutional hierarchies that never dialogue with science.

Natural selection is the key to life

The Origen of Species was first published in London in 1859 and the 1,250 copies of the first edition were sold in just one day. In it, 50-year-old English naturalist Charles Darwin brought together observations from over two decades of work on the evolution of all forms of life.

The heart of his theory of evolution explains that all forms of life—existing or extinct—have a common origin and that while new species emerge randomly, they establish themselves according to their capacity to adapt and survive in a determined atmosphere.

Due to food scarcity in the environment, the populations of any species are in confrontation with each other, and only part of each species or in the most drastic case only some species will be able to survive. Fleeting random anomalies aside, the individuals that manage to survive—or are “favored,” to use Darwin’s own terminology—show slight morphological and behavioral variations that give them an edge over the rest.

Darwin called this evolutionary mechanism “natural selection.” According to him, any “useful” variation of an organism gets conserved and passed down to the next generations. Darwin further proposed that, in addition to the external factor (climate, food, etc.), other important factors related to the actual nature of the individual must play a part in the appearance of different variations of a species. In short, although genetics had not been developed in his time, he argued that the nature of the organism itself plays a preponderant role in producing the particular form adopted by each variation.

Unfortunate timing prevented Darwin from being able to demonstrate that theory based on the laws of inheritance, which were only correctly formulated much later. Genetics as a new scientific discipline did not emerge until the beginning of the 20th century, based on the rediscovery of experiments with peas done in Darwin’s time by the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), but ignored until 20 years after Darwin’s death. Had he had access to this information, his observations could have achieved greater theoretical solidity during his own lifetime. A similar thing is happening again now, with molecular genetics providing the best and clearest evidence of evolution.

In 1871, Darwin published The Descent of Man, which included human beings in the single process of the evolution of life. Darwin stated that the ancestor of human beings was an animal similar to a monkey, thus causing an impassioned religious controversy that has yet to die away.

Pigeon breeders offered the first clue

Two apparently ingenuous observations laid the foundations for Darwin’s theory of evolution. The first was a study of the experience routinely employed by farmers and agricultural workers to domesticate and improve animals and crops. Darwin concluded that the inheritance of many physical and behavioral characteristics could be controlled. He believed a great deal of this “artificial selection” by human beings could be used to learn about the other “natural” selection that takes place in nature.

Darwin used the consistency between artificial selection and natural selection to explain the origin of new species and varieties of existing species. But there was one difference: while animal breeders determine what animals are produced and which to mix according to the desired characteristics, in nature it is the best adapted that survive and reproduce. Nature is much more prolific and creative than the artificial route. In nature the passing of the inheritance from one generation to another is only done by those individuals whose characteristics allow them to survive the adverse difficulties in their environment, such as bad climate and the presence of predators.

As Darwin would learn from farmers and breeders, no animal in a species is exactly the same as another. This simple observation would lead him to deduce that all individuals in a population would have different characteristics that express variations. In Darwin’s vocabulary the term “population” has a particular meaning, describing the community of individuals from the same species and same areas that are capable of mating. This concept is fundamental for evolutionists, in that the unit of evolution, the object of the evolutionary action, is the population, not the individual.

Natural selection in a population implies a process with two essential steps. The first is the production of unlimited variation through the reproduction of an individual, including fertilization. And the second is the survival of the most apt individuals (selection by elimination). While the first step is a random occurrence, the second is determined by the characteristics each individual presents.

Galapagos Islands finches
offered the second clue

The way native species are distributed in different parts of the world was the second basic consideration that Darwin used to support his theory. Using biogeography, which studies the geographical distribution of species and its causes, Darwin observed that highly similar species generally live very close to one another, concluding that they must be related.

When Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands, now part of Ecuador, aboard the HMS Beagle survey ship, he observed the distribution of the finches there. He found that the different species of finch on each island had different beaks. A comparison of the finches from the different islands was key to Darwin’s noting the relationship between variations and geography.

This theory has been backed up more recently by the experimental demonstration that external alterations cause these little birds to experience evolutionary changes in just 25 or 30 generations. The form of their beaks changes depending on the availability of food.

Also on the voyage of the Beagle, which lasted four years (1831-1835), Darwin found fossils of giant species that had already disappeared in Argentina—a memory of past life related to the different strata of soil, the earth’s memory. These findings also led Darwin to the concept of evolution. The recording of life in the earth would be reflected in the fossil forms of different eras and periods, including the Precambrian era, when the first life forms appeared around 3.6 billion years ago. While the fossil recording shows sharp discontinuities, which appeared to argue against his idea that a new species emerged from an ancestral one, Darwin proposed that, considering the global profile of fossil recording, a general pattern could be distinguished regarding the variation and complexity of life.

It’s not a theory, but a fact
with “mountains of evidence”

After Darwin a significant number of evolutionist scientists—unfortunately Nicaragua has very few—have helped strengthen the theory of evolution with data and new conceptions. This is what is known as evolutionary synthesis, referring to the union of ideas from different disciplines.

Evolutionary synthesis embraces the advances of modern genetics and provides better evidence to confirm Darwin’s observations and predictions, as well as placing Darwinism above all other evolutionist theories. Based on essentialism and cosmic teleology, orthogenesis is one such theory opposed to Darwinism, proposing the linear progress of evolution directed by a “driving force.”

Inexhaustible contributions from science, including findings from different branches of knowledge, now strengthen the Darwinist explanation of evolution. Ecological biogeography and modern taxonomy provide us with a common origin and a hierarchical order of relationships among species. The homology established by anatomical and embryological comparisons explains the evolutionary relationships of species, while biochemistry and comparative molecular biology point to the relationship among different species and precisely demonstrate the evolutionary distance among them.

The greatest Darwinists include Theodosius Dobzhansky, Francisco Ayala, Edward O. Wilson and Ernst Mayr. Alluding to the theory of evolution, the latter explains in his book What Evolution Is (2001) that it is not a theory nor an idea, but rather reality, a fact, “the name of a process in nature the occurrence of which can be documented by mountains of evidence that nobody has been able to refute.” He concludes that it is wrong to continue referring to it simply as a “theory.”

Speciation is an ongoing, endless process

Before Charles Darwin, species were considered fixed units with no continuity. With evolutionary synthesis, the argument of variation and selection acquired greater force. A consistent framework was produced for the substantial processes of evolution and the key precepts of “speciation,” the process through which species are formed. In the ongoing evolution of life, species are temporary stages on the way to other new ones. Darwin understood variation as the cornerstone of the production of new species and diversity as a sub-product of evolution.

Certain adaptations in an ancestral or “mother” species give rise to “child” species that cannot interbreed with examples of the species they came from. This variety of existing species is what is commonly called “biodiversity,” or biological diversity. In-depth studying of such vast biological diversity has not only offered more clues regarding evolution and the organization of life, but has also allowed us to comprehend the diversity beyond the taxonomical level of species, understanding it on the level of genetics and ecosystems.

The diversity of species is generated by an ongoing and interminable process that is happening all the time and in all species, albeit at different speeds and faced with different factors. One factor might be the presence of geographical barriers, which lead to allopatric speciation. Sympatric speciation, on the other hand, implies new species forming from an original one with no geographical barrier. Since Darwin’s times, this kind of evolution has been the subject of impassioned academic debates.

Studying Darwin’s theory in
Apoyo Crater Lake and Lake Cocibolca

Apoyo, a volcanic crater lake in the Nicaraguan department of Masaya, is an ideal ecosystem for sympatric speciation. Being young—formed only 20 million years ago—Apoyo provides an extraordinarily valuable natural observatory for the study of biological resources.

Axel Mayer, one of the most respected of today’s evolutionists, has studied different species of fish in different lakes of Africa and Central America for decades. In February 2006, he published an article together with Marta Barluenga, Kai N. Stölting, Walter Salzburger and Moritz Muschick in the prestigious journal Nature on “Sympatric speciation in Nicaraguan crater lake cichlid fish,” stating that “a new elongated limnetic species (Amphilophus zaliosus) evolved in Lake Apoyo from the ancestral species (A. citrinellus) within less than approximately 10,000 years.” Trying to do a more in-depth study of these process and of the variety of cichlid fish species, a highly successful family of boney fish in evolutionary term, the Central American University’s Molecular Biology Center is currently doing research studies in collaboration with two experts in this area: Mattias Geiger of the Ludwig Maximilian University in Germany and Jeffrey McCrary, a researcher at the Nicaraguan nongovernmental organization FUNDECI-GAIA.

Another strikingly unique characteristic of Nicaragua’s ecosystems is the presence of freshwater sharks in Lake Cocibolca (also known as Lake Nicaragua). Although always mentioned, these exotic sharks have not been studied very much and the scientific information on their reproductive behavior and diversity is limited. Because so little is known, a controversy has been stirred up over whether they live exclusively in the lake or migrate from the Caribbean Sea, as happens with sharks that move between the Indian Ocean and Africa’s Zambezi River. Some preliminary studies appear to be arguing this latter hypothesis. Regardless of the truth, there’s still a need to use molecular methods to decipher the number of existing species, as well as their reproduction and behavior. One thing is for sure, Lake Cocibolca, connected to the Caribbean Sea by the Río San Juan, is a valuable resource for studies on evolution

We’re 98% similar to chimpanzees

The evolutionist conception that all forms of life on the planet result from the inheritance left by an ancestor common to all is also valid for primates, including the human species. Darwin clearly suggested a relationship between the human species (Homo sapiens) and primates, and even predicted that a common ancestor would be found in Africa, given the location in that continent of the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and the gorilla (Gorilla gorilla).

Acceptance of the human being as a primate would have to be recognized as a revolutionary advance in the understanding of our position in nature. But is this true in Nicaragua, or do people rail against this crucial discovery in the country’s classrooms, textbooks, churches and congregations?

The great resemblance between humans and primates started being investigated in the 18th century. Today, scientific embryological, biochemical and genetic progress have demonstrated that Darwin’s proposition was in fact right with respect to the close similarity between the human species and primates. While genetics and genomics—a science that examines a species’ total genetic information—investigate the similarities and differences, it has to be recognized that working out the complexity involved in human specializations such as language and intellect present titanic challenges.

Even before the genomic era, certain researchers had calculated the genetic proximity between humans and chimpanzees to be 98%. Having deciphered both the human genome (2003) and the chimpanzee genome (2005), it has been possible to compare both species, revealing an extraordinary likeness. However, the percentage of similarity can vary according to the level considered.

On the molecular level, the percentage varies depending on which molecule is studied (enzyme, protein or DNA sequence). It is estimated, for example, that the two genomes are comparable in 96% of their regions, as new sequences (insertions) or missing ones (deletions) have occurred in one or the other over the 6 million years that have passed since the human and the chimpanzee separated from their common ancestor. However, within comparable regions the similarity can vary between 97% and 99%.

In addition to confirming the evolutionary relation between humans and primates, and with other species, as Darwin understood it, the study of how close the differences are on the molecular level should help us shed a brighter light on our singular human condition.

Darwin left his mark
on the whole of science

Every matter of importance in the natural sciences has an unavoidable connection to Darwin’s concept of evolution. The impact of Darwinism is not just limited to a chapter of modern biology; it has left its mark in all of the modern spheres of the natural sciences. The Darwinist understanding of nature is part of the basic framework of molecular biology and modern genetics.

Any experiment or application of the natural sciences is unthinkable without an evolutionist conception. There are countless examples, including the successful transfer through genetic engineering of a narcissus plant gene into a rice one to increase the levels of vitamin A in the grain, which could not have been conceived without admitting a biological unity—on the level of genes and proteins—among all living organisms, be they microbes, plants, animals… or us.

Both the evidence of bacterial resistance to antibiotics due to different mechanisms of environmental pressure and the resistance to agrochemicals of certain arthropods that are damaging to agriculture not only irrefutably demonstrate diverse evolutionary mechanisms, but also serve as the basis for designing better medicines and biological applications that are medically and ecologically relevant.

The modern study of molecular biology has perfected the theory of evolution by deciphering two processes that apparently work in opposing directions. The first is the tendency towards genetic change, expressed in mutations and re-combinations, while the second is the tendency towards the conservation of the species, illustrated through mechanisms for repairing genetic material. The understanding and exploitation of these two processes have led us to unsuspected possibilities of modern biotechnology, a new and booming discipline in which different areas of knowledge converge.

Darwin was a genius of the 19th century
and one of the great philosophers of all times

In the same way that Einstein is considered the genius of the 20th century, Darwin should be considered the main scientific figure of the 19th century. Countless sciences have adopted Darwinism for their approach to and vision of human beings and nature. Darwin’s influence is visible in sociology, psychology, psychiatry and anthropology.

Darwin’s impact on philosophy is an area that awakens a great deal of interest. According to Mayr, Darwin’s greatest contribution was to have founded evolutionary biology based on philosophy rather than on the essentialism and creationism dominant in his era. According to the Darwinist concept, the variation observed in each new generation of a living organism is at the same time both the cause and the driving force behind the natural selection of species. Prestigious English philosopher Michael Ruse considers Darwin one of the greatest philosophers of all times and explains that Darwin’s thinking must be analyzed for its implications for certain important philosophical questions, such as the theory of knowledge (epistemology) and the theory of morals (ethics).

Commenting on the appearance of The Origin of Species, Alfred Wallace, considered the co-discoverer of natural selection, fervently talked about Darwin in the following terms: “Mr. Darwin has given the world a new science, and his name should, in my opinion, stand above that of every philosopher of ancient or modern times.”

Francisco Ayala, who promoted evolutionary synthesis, says that “the import of Darwin’s achievement is that it completed the Copernican revolution initiated three centuries earlier, and thereby radically changed our conception of the universe and the place of humanity in it... by drawing out for biology the notion of nature as a lawful system of matter in motion.” Ayala also says that while the importance of the Copernican revolution was that it allowed us to understand material reality with universal theories, Darwin added something to Copernicus in that since then both organic and inorganic reality can be explained through science.

Despite such merited lauding, Darwin’s work has also been the object of criticism and rejection due to its implications regarding our understanding of the world and human beings. Even though the permanent mark Darwin has left on modern thinking cannot be denied and his legacy is accepted by most scientists, his revelations are simply unacceptable from an anthropocentric and religious fundamentalist perspective.

Evolution: Paradigm or dogma?

Despite the extraordinary advances in the sciences since the appearance of The Origin of Species, Darwin’s ideas on how evolution occurs by means of natural selection are still the fundamental basis for understanding this phenomenon. Although progress is still being made in the detailed comprehension of the processes and mechanisms involved, specifically through molecular genetics, the scientific debate no longer centers on questioning whether or not evolution occurs.

Because he didn’t know about hereditary laws, Darwin couldn’t propose a mechanism for the transmission of new characteristics. The later emergence of genetics would provide the molecular underpinnings needed to explain the transmission and omission of characteristics transferred from generation to generation, as well as the mechanisms by which variations arise.

All scientific progress has confirmed the biological unity of all species and the variation and generation of diversity in the planet’s history. Some defenders of Darwin have therefore assumed an extremist and rigid position, viewing the idea of evolution as the main dogma of biology. Given that science eschews dogmas, however, the most correct position would be to think of evolution as a well established scientific fact, but one that could always be put to the test in light of each new finding.

Darwin’s ideas, like those of other great thinkers and scientists, helped untangle one of the great mysteries of the world we live in. To primitive humans, the world was guided by indecipherable superior forces, both benevolent and malevolent. While that magical world, propped up by superstitions, is still the referent in the culture of most Nicaraguans and in fact most of the planet’s inhabitants, it cannot be denied that the world began to be somewhat more penetrable and comprehensible with Darwin.

Evolution vs. Creationism
and Intelligent Design

Like all great ideas, the theory of evolution was received with skepticism in the small scientific world of Darwin’s era. The opposition came not only from intellectuals, but also from religious leaders of various denominations. The resistance to the concept of evolution presented by Darwin is explained by the dominant philosophical ideas of his time, among them “creationism,” which attributes the origin of the universe and of man to the act of creation. Although creationism preceded Darwin, a literal reading of the first book of the Bible following the publication of The Origin of Species transformed creationism into an obstinate militancy against evolutionist theory.

“Intelligent design” is a more recent version of creationism. Opposing natural evolution, the promoters of intelligent design propose the existence of supernatural forces, of an “intelligent” creator—they don’t use the word God—to explain the creation of the universe, the Earth and the whole natural world.

What is new about this position is that it attempts to give religious beliefs an apparently scientific structure that can take on Darwinism in its own range of action. But for any theory to have a scientific character, it must be provable or falsifiable, and it is well known that religious beliefs cannot be proven or verified. When confronted with some phenomenon that science has been unable to decipher, this theory falls into the non-scientific by resorting to the argument of divine participation, which is beyond the reach of humans and non-verifiable.

While dozens of scientists—believers among them—have masterfully refuted each of the postulates of the intelligent design doctrine point by point, it is obligatory to reflect on what’s wrong with wanting to adjust a belief to a scientific framework and on the consequences of attacking evolution—in the process annulling the application of science and scientific method as a valid way to learn about the natural world.

Darwinism isn’t conceived as belief. No scientific thinking is a belief. It’s something that must be understood and, having reviewed the body of knowledge that argues both for and against it, must be accepted or rejected. Nor is it a question of advocating against any religious belief or pitting scientific explanations against religious ones. It is rather about insisting that the scientific sphere cannot be confused or mixed with the religious one.

Bush doesn’t accept Darwin

Denial of the phenomenon of evolution by the intelligent design creationists coincides with an anti-science campaign that has been growing in the industrialized countries. Intelligent design wouldn’t cause much concern to the scientific community if it were simply contemplated as a doctrine. The problem and the debate arise when it is proposed as an alternative to the evolutionary conception of nature. It is seeking not only to implant a religious belief but also to do away with scientific knowledge, replacing it with a superstitious vision of a world that operates based on divine interventions and miracles, a vision that always has negative political and social consequences.

A dangerous edge to this tendency is the interest in introducing religious doctrines dressed as science into the educational sphere. In their desire to challenge the teaching of the process of evolution, creationists advocate introducing the “theory” of intelligent design into the academic curriculum, arguing that a democratic society should teach an equally “scientific” alternative to evolution. In other words, flying in the face of the separation between church and state, they are attempting to introduce a religious doctrine into secular schools under the guise of an alternative “theory.”

In the United States, where the debate has been most resonant and an attempt has been made to incorporate this doctrine in more than 20 states, the initiative even made it to the Supreme Court, where it was rejected. President George W. Bush came out in favor of that doctrine and of introducing it into the schools. Politicians of his same stripe think the world was created just 4,000 years ago and that at the time of the creation human beings lived alongside dinosaurs in paradise. The charm of this idea, dripping with ingenuousness, becomes a serious worry given that it is sustained by fallacies mounted in somewhat sophisticated systems.

Some environmentalists
are also against science

Given the amassed evidence in favor of natural selection as responsible for the Earth’s evolutionary history, rejecting it is shows not only the most profound ignorance but also a retrograde subjection to obscurantist ideological prejudices.

Concerned about the environmental damage to our planet caused by human beings and upset by the poor use of scientific-technical development for military and other destructive purposes, different organizations and their activists are opposing any further scientific advances. Some have even come to question the validity of science as an activity for comprehending the world we live in.

Although one should share their concern about environmental deterioration and can even agree that the accelerated techno-consumer path we are going down is leading to individualism and dehumanization, a return to pre-scientific thinking is not acceptable. Scientific knowledge and its appropriate application should be socialized and considered an effective way to deal with environmental problems. Before continuing to pillage the planet, the scarcity of food could be resolved through the appropriate use of bio¬diversity—which is of course the product of evolution. With modern science, nearly 50,000 wildlife plant species—some in danger of extinction—could provide an alternative and inexhaustible food supply.

We can still save the
planet and ourselves

Today, with the planet going through another period of massive extinction, caused largely by human activity that is destroying the habitat of millions of species, scientific consensus remains optimistic, continuing to think there is still time to save biodiversity and humanity. It also believes that human beings will be unable to assume their responsibility for the damage caused to the planet without admitting their intrinsic relationship to the global ecosystem.

The scientific community is currently making an encouraging effort in that direction. In an emotional essay titled “Creation,” Darwinist biologist Edward Wilson, who formulated the concept of biodiversity, makes a beautiful call to save the planet, inviting scientists and Christians to tear down prejudices and build values that help save the biodiversity. If the two most powerful forces of humanity—science and religion—are put to work to save creation, Wilson believes that politicians and society will follow us, and the problem could be resolved in the coming decades.

Whatever understanding it has about its origin and that of the universe, the human species bears the responsibility for and has the possibility of saving the planet and humanity.

Evolution isn’t studied in Nicaragua

In countries with defective teaching of the sciences, such as Nicaragua, evolution as a law of the natural world is unknown. Nicaraguan biology majors receive little more than passing instruction in this field, while those in other majors, including medicine, don’t even learn general biology.

In the curriculum of the various university disciplines, everyone should be introduced to evolutionary theory, but that isn’t the case. It’s fair to say that the vast majority of Nicaraguan professionals in different careers don’t know enough about it to be able to discuss it with any propriety. The fact that the formation of professionals ignores the essence of evolutionist theory is an unacceptable shame 150 years after its formulation and should be corrected immediately.

At the very least, the teaching of evolutionist biology would allow young biologists to be trained in a simple and agreeable way about the basic principles of doing science Darwin-style: establishing correlations among different pieces of factual evidence—obtained through observation—as the basis for formulating general theories. After all, it is through the observation of phenomena that the central ideas are captured.

We in Nicaragua are
prisoners of pseudo-science

Given our educational backwardness, particularly in the teaching of the sciences, Nicaragua is easy prey to superstition disguised as science.

Consider the following example. In February 2006 several foreigners—Germans and South Africans—gave talks in Nicaragua promoting the use of vitamins to counteract the kind of malnutrition so frequent in poor communities. So far so good. What no one would have expected is that they would promote the vitamins they came to give out to those attending the talks as an effective cure for any type of cancer and even AIDS. HIV, said one of the “specialists,” is another invention of US imperialism, adding that the real cause of AIDS is malnutrition, which can be cured with an abundance of vitamins. Pushing to get in line for their free sample of the miracle vitamins, the participants—Ministry of Health doctors—had no time to request data and other grounds for the claims.

Supreme charlatanism
with official backing

Another case that reflects our vulnerability with respect to scientific education was the announcement, reported in September of last year in the [now defunct] government weekly newspaper, El 19, that a Nicaraguan “researcher” living in Costa Rica had “discovered” that Nicaragua is the universal cradle of civilization. Covering a conference in which the researcher presented her “findings” at the Nicaraguan government’s Institute of Culture, the El 19 reporter quoted her as underscoring that “the primordial fact of finding the cradle of the ancient civilizations, the mother city, with its mother tongues, the mother genome and the origin of American man in Nicaragua more than 50,000 years ago, is of prime importance for Nicaragua and for the world.”

Rather than comment on such extravagant folly, I will stick to the words of this supposed researcher, described by the journalist as a philosopher and anthropologist: “Through evidence of a linguistic, historical, archeological origin, and even genetically, this Macro-Theory concretely and explicitly clears up Nicaragua’s relationship to the other peoples of the world as the original mother of them all. In other words, Nicaragua as the cradle of the ancient and millennial civilizations, which gave our humanity cultural, social and historical knowledge.”

In passing, the researcher took it upon herself to invalidate Darwin’s theory, although paradoxically her thesis has something in common with that theory in recognizing a single origin for all human populations. At the end of her presentation, according to the journalist, the researcher “profoundly thanked the government for its support.”

We get waylaid by many charlatans

One single question is enough to unmask this fraud: “What’s the evidence?” One would naturally expect the presentation of archeological remains of ancient civilizations, linguistic documentations of different Nicaraguan tribes and their peers around the world, genomic sequences from biological remains found in the supposed sites of extinct civilizations... in short, proof of such revelatory discoveries.

There is no such proof. To date, one of the older pieces of evidence in Nicaragua, found in Kukra Hill on the Caribbean coast 650 kilometers from Managua, dates back barely 2,000 years. The Acahualinca footprints, on the banks of Lake Xolotlán, in Managua, considered among the oldest evidence of American civilizations, are estimated to be just 6,000 years old, although it has been recently suggested they may be from a more recent period.

When for purposes of this article I asked Ermengol Gassiot, from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, who is well versed in Nicaraguan archeology, about the supposed Macro-Theory, he responded that it “contradicts the knowledge assumed as valid by scientific archeology and offers no rigorous data that permits any suggestion of the reliability of what is mentioned in the text.” For his part, Michael Ruggeri, a US archeologist, argues that the evidence, which allegedly goes back 50,000 years, should be documented with site references so the statements could be verified and examined by experts. No such evidence has been offered. Nor is there any allusion to this researcher’s works in the literature or any scientific article by any archeologist with her name.

All this should alert us to the pitfalls of pseudo-science, whether it promises a cure for all ills, the glorification of our ancestral origins or even the purity of our race. They are sad evidence that Nicaraguan science is so fragile it can’t compete even with astrology.

They want us to go back the Middle Ages

The attack against science can be ideological as well as religious. An ideological aim can be perceived in both of the above-mentioned falsifications. In the first, AIDS is presented as an imperialist invention, while in the second the pride and dignity of the nation is glorified, associating the discoveries of a presumed ethnic originality with the efforts of a government.

Why get upset about such things? How much damage can this folkloric pseudo-science cause? Apart from the number of deaths that could result from trying to treat AIDS with vitamins, perhaps the greatest damage would be to the future generations, taken back to another medieval time, guided by oracles, and the fantasies and fictions of their leaders.

The setting up of a fanatic and intolerant political model in Nicaragua—which is now one of the few countries that for political-religious reasons prohibits even therapeutic abortion—would appear to be the most fertile terrain for superstition and pseudo-science. It also presupposes the latent danger of an educational regression, both on the issue of evolution—in which being related to monkeys could seem singularly repugnant to a race that is the “cradle of all civilization”—and in the sciences in general.

Although the motion to implant “intelligent design” in the school curriculum has not yet been presented formally in Nicaragua, as in other countries, the current conditions make the possibilities of this happening increasingly likely. A return to the 19th century, before the necessary church-state separation took place, seems to be a project rather than simple intention. Although it was thought that this separation could not be reversed, there is now a visible scheme to use religious beliefs, Christian or otherwise, as a “mechanism of symbolic-religious domination,” to quote Nicaraguan political scientist Andrés Pérez Baltodano. It would thus not be extemporaneous to assume that our leaders could seize on the introduction of “intelligent design” into the schools, vigorously denying evolution in the name of a new religion-ideology.

This makes it indispensable and urgent not only to consolidate the scientific mission but also to ensure a better education in the sciences from primary school upwards, so that the population in general, not just the scientists, can have sufficient elements in their general culture to make rational and sensible decisions based on their own spirituality.

Darwin’s brilliant example

Science teaches us to discover the correlation between different pieces of evidence and to unravel the mysteries of the world and question both routine and conventional beliefs. In addition, the critical scientific mission demands freedom of thought, and consequently needs an environment of tolerance as an indispensable requirement for creativity.

In his search for truth and aware of the obstacles and opposition, Darwin knew how to confront the myths and prejudices of his time from an ethical position. He will always be an example to the new generations of Homo sapiens.

Today, 150 years after the publication of The Origin of Species and 200 years after Darwin’s birth, his legacy—beyond his brilliant gift to knowledge—should be universally recognized as one of the greatest and best contributions by a scientist to the understanding of human nature. We should also recognize and celebrate it in Nicaragua.

Jorge A. Huete Pérez, a molecular biologist, is the director of the Molecular Biology Center of Managua’s Central American University (UCA).

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Zapatistas Organize the First Global Festival of Dignified Rage

Internacional
Darwin’s 200th Anniversary: There’s So Much More to Learn
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