This is the first in an occasional series of articles we will run in this year that scientists have dubbed “The Year of Darwin.”
Here’s professor Sehoya Cotner’s “Five Cent Tour of Human Evolution” in summary: Fossils, DNA and other evidence add up to the unassailable conclusion that humans gradually emerged more than 100,000 years ago as part of the great ape family.
For many of the 200 students in Cotner’s University of Minnesota biology class her “tour” was the first serious exposure to the subject, even though evolutionary theory is a foundation for biology and many other courses they should have prepared to study in college.
“They didn’t allow evolution to be taught in my high school because of the controversial issues,” student Brandi Ziegler said after the class.
It is 150 years ago today since Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of the Species,” laying down a theory for understanding the intricacies of life on the planet. If Darwin could come back today and walk through laboratories and libraries in Minnesota alone, he surely would be amazed see the vast body of knowledge built upon that theory.
Still, evolution remains so culturally volatile that many high-school teachers shy away from it, leaving students with major gaps in their understanding of basic science, according to research by Cotner and professor Randy Moore, another U of M biologist who has written books about evolution.
Here are highlights from survey findings they reported in BioScience, a journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences:
• Minnesota law requires that academic standards — including the theory of evolution — be taught in the state’s public schools. Yet, most students entering college failed a test on the basic principles of evolutionary theory.
• Courts have held the teaching of creationism to be a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition on establishment of religion. Yet, roughly one in four students entering U of M biology classes said they had been taught creationism along with evolution in high school.
• Despite state law, many high-school teachers apparently avoided the controversial subject altogether. Nearly 10 percent of the students said they had been taught nothing about evolution or creationism.
• Even many students who had been introduced to evolution in high school said they had seen only a timid brush with the landmark theory. “We merely touched on it,” one student commented.
“We have done many surveys on this subject and the results are stunningly consistent,” Moore said.
The reasons some teachers are either unwilling or unprepared to deal with a basic academic standard define a cultural chasm that has divided Americans all the way back to the days of Darwin.
Maybe you are reading this article as one of the roughly 50 percent of Americans who accept Darwin’s theory. Maybe you are among the 40 percent who reject it, or the 10 percent who just don’t know.
On one point, we can agree. Our differences remain deep, much as they were 150 years ago when Thomas Huxley — known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his defense of evolutionary theory — was challenged to state whether he descended from an ape on his grandmother’s or his grandfather’s side. Huxley’s answer, in essence, was that he would rather have an ape for an ancestor than a fool.
In America today, the differences define not only educational gaps but also political fault lines on issues that excite deep passions across the land.
Here’s one example: After the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, Gil Gutknecht, a Republican who represented southeastern Minnesota in the U.S. House at the time, read into the Congressional Record [PDF] a letter suggesting that the violence erupted because “our school systems teach children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized (sic) out of some primordial soup of mud by teaching them that evolution is a fact.”
So intense is the opposition that Darwin has been blamed for causing pornography, murder, rape, atheism, UFOs and even the metric system, Moore said. Along with Mark Decker, another U of M biologist, Moore wrote the book “More Than Darwin: An Encyclopedia of the People and Places of the Evolution-Creation Controversy.”
The watershed moment in the controversy on this side of the Atlantic came in 1925 when John Scopes was found guilty of teaching human evolution in violation of Tennessee’s Butler Act, Moore and Decker note in their book.
The story of that notorious “monkey trial” is well known.
Not so well known is the influence exerted from the First Baptist Church in Minneapolis. The church’s charismatic pastor, William Bell Riley, had convinced the Tennessee Legislature to pass the Butler Act. And Riley successfully urged William Jennings Bryan, the prominent Democratic presidential candidate, to help prosecute Scopes, thereby thrusting the trial onto the national stage.
“For Riley, truth demanded militancy,” Moore and Decker said. “This was especially true for evolution, which Riley believed was immoral, destructive and atheistic.”
Riley led antievolution rallies around the country. In Minnesota, he drew 2,600 people to Minneapolis’ State Theater and another 9,000 to the Hippodrome on the state fairgrounds where Bryan declared that “evolution is a menace to civilization,” says an article [PDF] by Ferenc Szasz on file at the Minnesota Historical Society.
“I say to you scientists, you professors, you evolutionists, that I have a right to demand to what bird or beast or reptile you pay your respects on fathers’ day,” Bryan told Minnesota crowds, which included hundreds of university students.
But schools always have been the front line for this cultural war. And Riley lost the battle to bar evolution from Minnesota classrooms. The Legislature rejected his proposed ban in 1927.
The Scopes trial settled little in a legal sense because John Scopes’ conviction was set aside on a technicality.
Its cultural impact endures, though, as “a very real historical hangover,” said U of M professor Mark Borrello, a science historian.
Darwin’s theory steered clear of the supernatural, the realm of religion, focusing instead on the material world. The same could be said about Newton’s mechanics or Galileo’s physics, once denounced as heretical for showing that the Earth is not the center of the universe.
But the Scopes trial placed Darwin in the crosshairs of people who see morals and beliefs threatened by purely material explanations of their world. Fair or not, Darwin became uniquely culpable for the fact that the wonders of the natural world increasingly could be explained with no mention of god.
“The message that Darwinism somehow undermines morality and represents all of the ills of modern culture was established in the 1920s,” Borrello said. “And, particularly in the United States, we have been unable to shed that notion.”
Classrooms as battlegrounds
So the battle rages through school districts across the country, intensifying in recent decades as antievolution forces pushed for teaching creationism and intelligent design. States from Wisconsin to Florida, Pennsylvania to New Mexico have grappled with the issue recently, according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.
In a Minnesota case, Rodney LeVake, a biology teacher at Faribault High School, was reassigned after his colleagues observed that he was not teaching evolution in keeping with the school’s curriculum requirements. LeVake told school officials he did not regard evolution as a viable scientific concept and he would teach students the “difficulties and inconsistencies of the theory without turning my class into a religious one,” according to court documents.
With help from Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, LeVake sued the school district, contending that his reassignment violated his constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of religion. He lost the case in the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal in 2002.
From Eden to the swamp
If anything in today’s controversy would surprise Darwin, it would be the consistency of the opposition, the sameness of the arguments across the decades.
The first edition of Darwin’s book sold out quickly and drew stabbing criticism, which “gave him great pain,” said Dame Gillian Beer, a professor of English literature at Cambridge University who has written extensively about Darwinist thought in Victorian England. (Quotes here are from her lecture in April at a session of the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship.)
While Darwin drew eager support, much of England was repulsed by the notion that “human beings were not exiles from the Garden of Eden but instead descended from denizens of the swamp,” Beer said.
Humans never were the center of Darwin’s great family of life. That in itself was and is an affront to those who see themselves as the crown of creation — not just another creature in a vast web of competition and extinction, managing to survive along with so many beetles and cabbages, birds and hippos.
“Hidden in the metaphor of the great family is the fact that we are part, promiscuously, of a family that embraces every living organism,” Beer said. “That is not a very privileged place.”
Cartoons of the day depicted Darwin’s bearded head atop an ape body, and accused him of promoting everything from atheism to bestiality.
The book went through six editions in Darwin’s lifetime and he revised it in response to critics, even to the point of stripping away references to nature as “she” in order to show he never meant to personify his theory.
Still, critics take it personally even today.
Other side of the cultural chasm
Now let’s turn 180 degrees and look at the other side of our cultural chasm, where scientists have made huge strides in understanding evolution.
“It’s really phenomenal, what we know and the evidence we have that is consistent with Darwin’s theory,” said Borrello, the science historian.
Take an example as immediate and personal as worries about this year’s flu bugs.
The vaccine that could save you from flu-induced misery — or even save your life — depends on understanding evolution.
“We use evolutionary models to predict which strains of the virus will be the most virulent next year, and those are the ones that we vaccinate against,” Borrello said. “It is an important piece of scientific understanding of the world around us.”
That is not to say debates about Darwin’s theory have been settled on this side of the cultural chasm. Darwinian evolution continues to generate big questions, big ideas and big battles among scientists.
The process of extinction prompts one fascinating fight. According to Darwin, extinction is not only natural but also common.
So how far should we go to save a species of whales, old-growth trees or polar bears? Scientists disagree, thanks to Darwin.
“The mass extinction 65 million years ago that ended the age of the dinosaurs was not a good thing for the dinosaurs, but it turned out to be a fine thing for the mammals,” Borrello said. “So we grapple with the loss of species and diversity.”
Even so, Darwin’s footprint is so big today that it extends far beyond biology and ecology.
“It’s so vast it’s ridiculous,” Borrello said. “Economists are using evolutionary and ecological theory to try to understand economics better because it looks like rational-choice theory has been problematic. … Evolutionary psychology is a big field.”
Tree of life
Biology remains home base for the studies, though. There are far too many in Minnesota alone to cover in one MinnPost article, one book or even one Google search.
So let’s see what we can learn about this Darwinian elephant by examining one of its toes — just one in the profusion of projects built on evolutionary theory.
In Minnesota’s fields and forests, researchers scout mushrooms on decaying wood and take samples of them to a laboratory in St. Paul for analysis.
The results go into a global database called the Tree of Life Web Project, where biologists from around the world are assembling exhaustive information on every living thing from — yes, fungi — to head lice to mistletoe.
Darwin sailed to the Galapagos Islands to study the intricate relationships in nature’s abundance. Modern-day biologists can tap out a few keystrokes on their computers and find a depth of detail beyond his dreams.
The more they find, though, the more there is to learn. The story of the lowly mushrooms tells why.
In Darwin’s era, scientists considered mushrooms and other fungi to be plants. Building on his theory in the 1860s, scientists cataloged the known forms and traced their lineage. But that avenue led to questions no one could answer until the 1990s, when biologists deploying new DNA tools made a remarkable discovery: Fungi are animals.
Now, scientists have sequenced the genomes of more than 70 species of fungi. And guess what? They’ve also learned there are at least 700,000 more species to analyze. In other words, their work has just begun.
Further, they’ve learned that many fungal secrets are hidden not in DNA alone but also in levels such as microscopic walls between cells. That’s where the Minnesota team is focused. Researchers are examining questions like why the same genes can lead different fungi to take on different structures.
“All of this is driven by evolutionary theory and the ability to find the relationships and then to understand where things fit into a big picture,” said U of M professor David McLaughlin, who leads the research as curator of fungi for the Bell Museum of Natural History.
More than academic curiosity drives the research. The studies have practical applications for medicine, the environment and agriculture.
Fungi are among the worst pests that plague farm fields in Minnesota and around the world. When a fungal plant disease crops up in the future, scientists should be able to analyze its DNA and turn to its family tree for known close relatives.
“If you know how to control its closest relatives, you get a better understanding of how to control this new disease,” McLaughlin said.
Powerful tool, not panacea
Step back from the fungi and contemplate the entire tree of life. From branch tips to roots, it is filling in at a remarkable rate as scientists sequence DNA of the various species, something that has been possible for only a decade.
“It’s not a theoretical thing,” Borrello said. “You are checking the change at the molecular level so you know what’s going on, evolutionarily speaking. … That alone would blow Darwin’s mind.”
But, like Darwin, new pioneers on evolution’s frontiers are the first to caution that the theory does not explain everything we value in life.
“I don’t think evolutionary theory tells us what it means to be a good human being,” Borrello said. “It is not going to solve all of the world’s problems.”
Still, like that metaphorical tree, Darwin’s theory has grown over the years as the pillar of the biological sciences. Hence the great debate about teaching it to students.
Sharon Schmickle covers science, international affairs, Greater Minnesota and other topics.