CREATES NEW SPECIES
by Whit Gibbons
September 23, 2002
The beginning of the school year, coupled with recent evidence that
creationists still exist, leads me to repeat parts of a column from
the last century. My point in doing so is to emphasize that no one in
the 21st century should hesitate to educate people about the concept
The world is round not flat; it revolves around the sun and not vice
versa. Those are scientific facts. So is evolution. Understanding the
principles of evolution is critical to understanding a variety of environmental
and medical phenomena.
Like many other scientific concepts throughout history, evolution has
been challenged as heretical. Acceptance of evolution as a biological
fact took awhile: Charles Darwin published his book "On the Origin
of Species" a century and a half ago. But progress has been made.
The book has a five-star rating on amazon.com.
Evolution is as real as gravity. If you want overwhelming evidence supporting
evolutionary change in organisms, consider bacteria, which reside inside
each of us. Bacteria have discernibly evolved in the last half-century.
Remember penicillin, the wonder drug that extended millions of lives
during and after World War II? Penicillin was medicine's weapon of mass
destruction, stopping the pneumonia-causing streptococcus and other
nasty bacteria dead in their tracks.
But guess what? When penicillin began to wipe out the bacteria we used
to call "germs," the bacteria resorted to their secret weapon,
one so secret it took years before we were aware of it. The bacterial
arsenal--chromosomes and genes--was not the surprise. Scientists knew
about that. What medical science did not know was how the arsenal was
being deployed. That is, one in a billion or more bacteria had a gene
(or acquired one through a process too complex to discuss here) that
resulted in its being immune to penicillin.
Enter natural selection and evolution. A bacterium in someone's infected
body part survived a penicillin dose. A single bacterium does not cause
a problem, unless it reproduces. A surviving bacterium eventually becomes
two, which become four, and so forth and so on. Of course it may take
a few years for the bacteria to reach levels that could get a person's
attention by causing an illness. In fact, before the medical profession
was even aware of a change, the bacteria moved on to someone else's
body or wherever bacteria spend their time. The first report that a
strain of pneumonia-causing bacteria was resistant to penicillin appeared
Meanwhile, bacteria were surviving penicillin all over the world. But
all seemed quiet on both the Western and Eastern fronts because the
bacteria had not risen to their full power. Now they have, and the effectiveness
of penicillin has diminished. The important point is the process that
occurred to create these strains of penicillin-resistant bacteria--evolution.
The bacteria evolved. They changed. The streptococcus bacteria are not
the same anymore genetically. They have been created anew, through the
process of evolution.
Most educated people understand that the genetic makeup of every species
on earth constantly changes as individuals die and others are born,
and most of them understand that this is evolution. The controversy
between some religious beliefs and the process of evolution revolves
around what we humans were thousands or millions of years ago. The interpretation
of evolution in the context of human origins is the central problem
creationists have with the concept.
Whether we have changed genetically over the last few centuries in any
perceptible and significant way I cannot say, but what our ancestors
were doing and looked like in the misty past is intriguing to think
about. How can anyone not think it is intriguing? Why should anyone
feel threatened by scientists' examining the ancient origins of any
species, including humans? Discovering what we were like genetically
eons ago does not alter what we are today.
No one need be concerned about the study of evolution. We should, however,
become apprehensive when any group of nonscientists begins telling teachers
how to teach science. No good can come of that. Individuals who object
to teaching evolution on religious grounds should ponder this question:
Is your God powerful enough to have created a world in which organisms
evolve? Mine is.
you have an environmental question or comment, email