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Happy Birthday, Darwin

Today's post is from Claire Hope Cummings, an environmental lawyer, journalist, and author of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds.

Book Cover for Uncertain Peril, links to Beacon Press page for bookCharles Robert Darwin was born 200 years ago today. Thomas Jefferson was in the White House and life was slower and much quieter. The sounds of the natural world could still be heard in daily life.

Now we live with the constant hum of engines and the ringing and beeping of electronics. We may have advanced technologically, but have we progressed in our ideas about the role of science in society? What would Darwin think if he knew the same old arguments over science and religion were still raging?

Over the last few decades, in the United States especially, religious conservatives have successfully denied the fact of evolution and forced science classes in public schools to teach it as a theory and offer creationism as the alternative.

A study by Jon Miller of Michigan State University surveyed 32 European countries and found that "the U.S. is the only country in which [the teaching of evolution] has been politicized." Miller began examining American ideas on evolution in 1985. At that time, only 45 percent of Americans accepted the basic idea of evolution. By 2005, that number had declined to 40 percent. (You can read about the study in this New Scientist article. The original article is available by subscription only here.)

Miller says that religious fundamentalism, poor science education in our schools, and partisan politics have resulted in more Americans denying evolution than ever. Just last month, the Texas Board of Education, the largest and most influential textbook purchaser in the nation, finally dropped its 20 year mandate that science teachers include a critique of evolution in their curriculum. Still, 7 of the 15 seats on the board are held by conservatives who vow to keep pushing their agenda.

Darwin, of course, would recognize this old argument. But he would probably see it as it is, a false dichotomy. His writing gave due respect to both nature and his religious beliefs. He might be surprised that so many of us now, especially those of us who think we have accomplished so much in taming the natural world, still think we need to choose.

Earlier this week, when I read that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced they had approved a drug produced by a goat genetically engineered with a human gene, I thought I saw a connection with the issues raised by faith and reason. One of the most important moral questions of our time, lurking behind these new technologies is: can we go on playing god and creating new forms of life, or are there ethical and even scientific constraints?

As part of my ongoing search for answers, I went on a pilgrimage of sorts, exploring Darwin's life and work. I began by visiting his grave in Westminster Abbey. But that cold grey marble slab, set in the floor of a 1000 year old English church, felt more ironic than inspiring, given the role of churches in the suppression of science.

I wanted to visit his home in Kent, not far from London, and maybe peek into the greenhouses where he experimented with orchids and amble along his famous "Sandwalk"-- the paths he constructed in his garden where he could get some exercise while continuing his thinking. Unfortunately, Down House, as it is called, was closed for the winter.

Darwin's reconstructed study, his desk, papers, and specimens had been moved to London's Natural History Museum for a remarkable exhibit on his life and work, so I spent an afternoon there. The genius of this exhibit is that instead of just telling the story of Darwin's five year journey on H.M.S. Beagle and his productive life since, the Museum went beyond biography to explain the development of Darwin's thinking. It covered many decades, before and after he published his most famous work, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. And, like Darwin, the exhibit gave credit to other scientists who were thinking along the same lines at the time, putting Darwin's singular achievements into context.

The exhibit was full of surprises. The most dramatic was the first display in the entrance area, which was kept almost completely dark. A single spot light illuminated a small glass case. Inside, on a purple velvet pillow, were two bird carcasses lying side by side. Were these the famous "Darwin finches"— the iconic birds credited with giving Darwin evidence of natural selection? No. They were mockingbirds. It turns out that it was not finches, but mockingbirds that were the original source of Darwin's inspiration.

Even more fascinating was one of the small notebooks Darwin used, opened to show an extraordinary page. On it Darwin had drawn a simple sketch, often described (some say erroneously) as an evolutionary "tree." It looks like several stick figure hands, with branching extensions coming off a single line. This was the first rendering of his ideas about the relationships of life forms.

Even more revealing are the two words written in tiny handwriting just above the drawing, where Darwin wrote, "I think." Right there, on one small piece of paper, was Darwin's brilliance, and, more importantly, his modesty.

Darwin was a methodical and patient scientist. He was simply doing what any good naturalist does, carefully observing and gathering evidence, while trying not to let preconceptions cloud the conclusions. The fact that decades of collecting and experimentation led to a revolutionary idea seems less important than the painstaking process itself.

Throughout his writings, Darwin carefully builds evidence that demonstrates the interconnectedness of life. In the very last paragraph of Origin of Species he wrote, "It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us." He went on to praise both the "grandeur" of life and the work of "the Creator," never apologizing for loving both.

He was able to see what others missed partly, I believe, because he knew what he didn't know. Darwin was using science for its real purpose— as a way of asking questions. He was not looking for ways to invent something he could patent or to prove a preconceived notion. How then does the denial of evolution, accompanied by the idea that God made human beings as superior to all other species, entitled to dominate nature, blind us? I believe it is a fundamental and dangerous error, and a sign of social immaturity, indicating that indeed, we have not progressed.

Rachel Carson thought about this, too, of course. She said, "We haven't become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man's attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. Now, I truly believe, that we in this generation, must come to terms with nature, and I think we're challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves."

You may also be interested in this Beacon Broadside post from Claire Hope Cummings about the threat of large-scale drought. If you'd like to read more about Darwin's birthday, check out these posts at Panda's Thumb, the Dating Jesus blog, and the National Center for Science Education. Also check out the Darwin Day website and this slideshow from the Darwin exhibit, where you can see many of the items referenced in this post.

You can read more about Claire Hope Cummings at her website. Uncertain Peril is forthcoming in paperback.