, , ,

I have a not-so-secret fondness for a subject that ordinary Americans tend to avoid talking about in public. This is not because they fear getting arrested or anything (although it’s happened) but because doing so too often results in an argument. One of the nastier results of the so-called culture wars is that what used to be a perfectly manageable list of topics best avoided in casual company – God and politics – has ballooned into an encyclopedia-sized catalog of unmentionables, mainly because one group (I’m not naming any names) decided to conflate the two original items on that list, after which all hell, so to speak, broke out. These days you can’t use the noun “choice” without somebody calling you names and threatening to pitch a drink in your face. And pity the fool who mentions Parkinson’s Disease at a cocktail party.

My not-so-secret fondness – actually fondness is too mild a term, but it falls short of flat-out obsession – may rank among the dorkier ones out there. Yet despite this, it’s also one of the most currently inflammatory: evolution.

It’s not the sort of subject you want to bring up on a first date or, say, in the dentist’s chair, attitudes being what they are these days. But this is not new. Darwin put off publishing “On the Origin of Species” for 20 years because he knew that once he did, what followed would be the cultural equivalent of a giant record needle scratch sound effect. And he was right. And that sound was followed by the din of all Christian humanity screaming at the top of their lungs.

Curiously, almost exactly 150 years later, theyʼre still screaming. Why this is, is a mystery to me. In 1859, you could understand the reaction. Here he was, overturning thousands of years of institutionalized belief and dogmatic conditioning. He was lucky not to have been burned alive, as he most certainly would have been just a few hundred years earlier. Galileo, who pulled pretty much the same surprise on this gang in 1610 with his notion that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system, was forced by Inquisition thugs to take it all back, and even then he barely escaped with lifelong house arrest instead of the stake.

It took the Catholic church 382 years to grudgingly acknowledge that maybe Galileo had had a point (this was 23 years after the first moon landing). So maybe it’s not too surprising that so many Christians are still resisting Darwin’s genius. If the past is any measure, they’ll be throwing fits about evolution for another 233 years before finally coming around.

In the meantime, appalling numbers of people continue to pretend that the cornerstone of modern biology and the fundamental explanation for the staggering diversity of all past and present life on earth is nothing more than a conspiracy cooked up by scientists designed to separate people from their religion. Polls show that more than of Americans believe the world, mankind, and all creation came into being in a divine puff of smoke a few thousand years ago, and that none of the creatures in it, particularly us, have changed one iota since that moment. They attribute the entire fossil record to Noah’s flood, wave away radiometric dating as too complex to make sense, and explain vestigial limbs in whales as God’s idea of fooling around.

Many of them are convinced that in order to acknowledge the incontrovertible physical evidence of evolution in the fossil record and in the DNA of all creatures (and it is incontrovertible), you also have to become a card-carrying atheist. But that’s just plain silly. Many of the the world’s most intelligent, eloquent spokesmen for evolution have mused on how the wonder of Darwin’s revelation, in its sublime beauty and elegance, makes them more likely to believe in a Creator, not less. And I ask you: how much more amazing is a God who set into motion such a remarkable process than one who merely snapped his fingers and called it a day? Even the Catholic church, that paragon of scientific enlightenment, recently noted for the record that as far as it’s concerned, Genesis and evolution are as compatible as milk and cookies.

The genius of evolution by natural selection lies not just in its simplicity but in its simple plausibility. It’s not difficult to grasp, at least not in its fundamentals. And when you do understand it, it makes perfect, beautiful, exquisite sense.

Yet deniers persist, even flourish. Ideology turns out to be much stronger than scientific evidence, at least when that evidence is twisted, suppressed, ignored, unseen, or willfully misinterpreted, as it is every day by people who feel their own ideologies are threatened by the fact of evolution. Part of the problem is that, the Pope’s copasetic attitude notwithstanding, lots of the more fundamentalist brand of Christians feel that learning anything at all about evolution would be like having dinner with the Devil. As far as they’re concerned, the less they know the better. As a result, there’s a frightening gulf of ignorance among people about just what evolution is and how it works.

Also, there’s the inconvenient issue of the Bible having its own version of how things got kicked off, a version literalists tend to take, well, literally. If the Bible contradicts an overwhelming body of evidence and the world’s entire scientific community, to them that can only mean the scientists are either all wrong or all lying.

“Evolution is only a theory,” they like to say say. Well, sure, but in scientific terms so is Relativity. E = MC2 = “theory.” That’s the way science works. Scientists are always open to the idea of somebody finding hard evidence that changes the whole ballgame, so they’re unwilling ever to sound too positive about anything. But you don’t hear Christians questioning the scientific validity of what will happen if a nuclear bomb is dropped on their head. That’s only because the Bible is strangely silent on the subjects of Relativity and quantum physics. If Genesis had suggested the sun was made of the fiery flatulence of heavenly angels, you can bet that today we’d be arguing over whether to teach astronomy in public schools. “Nuclear fusion is only a theory,” they’d say.

So I’m gratified beyond words when I see people standing up publicly for reason, common sense, and the willingness to actually use the mental faculties that we’ve been endowed with. One of my favorite of these people is Olivia Judson, the author, journalist, and evolutionary biologist who’s been writing a weekly column for The New York Times since January called The Wild Side.

One of the great things about Olivia is that she’s not preachy or didactic; her columns are usually about the wonder and the majesty and, yes, sometimes the mystery of the evolutionary process, from its business at the very bottom of biological systems, at the level of DNA, to its operation at the top, at the level of hungry crocodiles, intestinal parasites, blind salamanders and serenading humpback whales. But yesterday’s column was an exception, and a welcome one. In it, she argues for the critical importance of teaching evolution in schools, for having the courage to pit 3.8 billion years of irrefutable evidence against blind ideology and see which one emerges victorious. I’m pasting it below so you can read it (and please, for all our sakes, do) without clicking all the way over the The New York Times’ website. I hope they don’t mind.

My hometown friend Ida Becker is traveling the globe on a personal mission right now. She’s asking people everywhere she goes to tell her one thing they believe with all their heart. “With no criteria or requirements for participation,” she asks, beyond simply stating “something that particular person believes to be true.”

Ida’s a long way away at the moment, in Thailand, and she’s not likely to be in Vietnam for several more months. But I’ve thought about her challenge for a long time. And I’ve often thought that if I were asked to choose one thing that I believe in with my entire body, heart, and mind, it would be that evolution by natural selection is the single most marvelous, transcendent, influential, beautiful, paradigm-changing, life-affirming idea ever conceived by a human being. Bigger than fire, bigger than the wheel, bigger than sliced bread, Darwin’s revolutionary epiphany lifted humanity to an entirely new plane of intellectual and spiritual existence and, at long last, told us where we had come from. Evolution is the best and most important thought ever thought.

Yet as Judson and many others have observed, the field of evolutionary biology has made astonishing progress since that first light went on 149 years ago. In the intervening years, thousands of people have refined, elaborated upon, and transformed that most excellent of thoughts into an entire new realm of scientific inquiry. The understanding of evolution today has about as much in common with Charles Darwin’s original idea as an F-18 fighter jet has with the Wright brothers’ first flying machine.

Incidentally, you might ask where God fits into all this. The answer is, anywhere you like. Not least of the wonderful things about evolution is that it doesn’t require God – but it doesn’t preclude Him, either. And that’s fine with me.


Optimism in Evolution


Published: August 12, 2008


When the dog days of summer come to an end, one thing we can be sure of is that the school year that follows will see more fights over the teaching of evolution and whether intelligent design, or even Biblical accounts of creation, have a place in America’s science classrooms.

In these arguments, evolution is treated as an abstract subject that deals with the age of the earth or how fish first flopped onto land. It’s discussed as though it were an optional, quaint and largely irrelevant part of biology. And a common consequence of the arguments is that evolution gets dropped from the curriculum entirely.

This is a travesty.

It is also dangerous.

Evolution should be taught – indeed, it should be central to beginning biology classes – for at least three reasons.

First, it provides a powerful framework for investigating the world we live in. Without evolution, biology is merely a collection of disconnected facts, a set of descriptions. The astonishing variety of nature, from the tree shrew that guzzles vast quantities of alcohol every night to the lichens that grow in the Antarctic wastes, cannot be probed and understood. Add evolution – and it becomes possible to make inferences and predictions and (sometimes) to do experiments to test those predictions. All of a sudden patterns emerge everywhere, and apparently trivial details become interesting.

The second reason for teaching evolution is that the subject is immediately relevant here and now. The impact we are having on the planet is causing other organisms to evolve – and fast. And I’m not talking just about the obvious examples: widespread resistance to pesticides among insects; the evolution of drug resistance in the agents of disease, from malaria to tuberculosis; the possibility that, say, the virus that causes bird flu will evolve into a form that spreads easily from person to person. The impact we are having is much broader.

For instance, we are causing animals to evolve just by hunting them. The North Atlantic cod fishery has caused the evolution of cod that mature smaller and younger than they did 40 years ago. Fishing for grayling in Norwegian lakes has caused a similar pattern in these fish. Human trophy hunting for bighorn rams has caused the population to evolve into one of smaller-horn rams. (All of which, incidentally, is in line with evolutionary predictions.)

Conversely, hunting animals to extinction may cause evolution in their former prey species. Experiments on guppies have shown that, without predators, these fish evolve more brightly colored scales, mature later, bunch together in shoals less and lose their ability to suddenly swim away from something. Such changes can happen in fewer than five generations. If you then reintroduce some predators, the population typically goes extinct.

Thus, a failure to consider the evolution of other species may result in a failure of our efforts to preserve them. And, perhaps, to preserve ourselves from diseases, pests and food shortages. In short, evolution is far from being a remote and abstract subject. A failure to teach it may leave us unprepared for the challenges ahead.

The third reason to teach evolution is more philosophical. It concerns the development of an attitude toward evidence. In his book, “The Republican War on Science,” the journalist Chris Mooney argues persuasively that a contempt for scientific evidence – or indeed, evidence of any kind – has permeated the Bush administration’s policies, from climate change to sex education, from drilling for oil to the war in Iraq. A dismissal of evolution is an integral part of this general attitude.

Moreover, since the science classroom is where a contempt for evidence is often first encountered, it is also arguably where it first begins to be cultivated. A society where ideology is a substitute for evidence can go badly awry. (This is not to suggest that science is never distorted by the ideological left; it sometimes is, and the results are no better.)

But for me, the most important thing about studying evolution is something less tangible. It’s that the endeavor contains a profound optimism. It means that when we encounter something in nature that is complicated or mysterious, such as the flagellum of a bacteria or the light made by a firefly, we don’t have to shrug our shoulders in bewilderment.

Instead, we can ask how it got to be that way. And if at first it seems so complicated that the evolutionary steps are hard to work out, we have an invitation to imagine, to play, to experiment and explore. To my mind, this only enhances the wonder.

Olivia Judson, a contributing columnist for The Times, writes The Wild Side at nytimes.com/opinion.