Bird Beaks, Bible Belt Biology, and Bigfoot

By Alton Higgins

On February 12, 2009, the world observes the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. By any accounting, Darwin must be included with the most influential thinkers in the history of science. The young naturalist’s five-year voyage on HMS Beagle gave him an extraordinary opportunity to examine rich fossil beds and explore the diversity of life on many distant shores. Upon his return to England, Darwin spent the next forty-plus years contemplating his observations and writing books on a variety of subjects, including a four-volume set based on his eight-year study of the natural history and classification of barnacles, sessile marine crustaceans living in shallow water. In 1859 he published his landmark work, often abbreviated as On the Origin of Species. Contrary to popular opinion, the seminal premise presented in his book was not the concept or theory of evolution; the idea of descent with modification had been discussed for centuries. Darwin proposed a process, natural selection, by which populations might change. It continues to represent a central tenet of biology.

As almost any schoolchild can relate, variation in the beaks of Darwin’s finches, birds living on the Galápagos Islands, is one of the most prominently portrayed examples illustrating the influence of natural selection. Interestingly, at the time of his visit to the islands, Darwin was not overly concerned with the birds, which were largely collected by his servant, and comprehended little evolutionary significance to their characteristics until they had been studied by ornithologist John Gould. Gould’s opinions regarding the number of species collected and their relatedness surprised Darwin and played an important part in the formulation of his ideas regarding species change and differentiation and, by 1839, the full development of his concept of natural selection.

Initially, the publication of Darwin’s views regarding the role of natural selection in evolutionary change received only modest support from the scientific community, although this response is seldom acknowledged in contemporary assessments. Indeed, as noted by Harvard evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr in his introduction to a facsimile edition of On the Origin of Species, more papers were published in opposition to Darwin’s ideas in the first fifty years following its appearance than in support of it.

Although little appreciated now, Darwin’s work represented a radical departure from the approach and methods traditionally used by scientists. For example, his arguments were placed entirely outside the purview of the opinions of philosophers. According to Mayr, this was almost unthinkable, if not unforgivable, stating, “No other work advertised to the world the emancipation of science from philosophy as blatantly as did Darwin’s Origin.” In addition, Darwin used a model-making strategy, revolutionary for its time but commonly employed today, whereby experiments are used to test the validity of concepts or hypotheses. Even without his ideas regarding natural selection, these two achievements alone represent significant contributions to the advancement of science.

Textbooks and popular treatments often portray the church as rising up in opposition to Darwin’s Origin of Species and his (perceived) attack on faith. Mayr notes that, through much of the nineteenth century, evolutionary concepts actually appealed most strongly to laymen. Darwin’s target audience was his scientific peers, not the church. Mayr insists that Darwin went to great lengths to avoid offending people of faith. Indeed, as documented in his book The Post Darwinian Controversies (1981), author James R. Moore states that many of Darwin’s strongest supporters and most attentive correspondents, those “who most readily accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection,” were Protestant ministers and Christian laymen, men who would today characterize themselves as conservatives, evangelicals, and even fundamentalists (Aulie, 1982). In some ways Darwin’s ideas regarding the equality of all the human races, as presented in his book The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, mirrored the monogenesis beliefs of Christian abolitionists, standing in stark contrast to the theories of mainstream anthropologists and other influential scientists of the day, who considered some races inferior and argued for the separate creation as distinct species of the races of mankind.

Still, one cannot deny that some religionists objected strongly to Darwin’s writings. Mayr concluded that “nearly all the denunciations of Darwin’s ideas on natural selection were based on an incomplete knowledge of the Origin and on misunderstanding,” but concern or outright rejection of evolutionary concepts grew to be widespread among laymen in the twentieth century. On the other hand, with the integration of Mendelian genetics into Darwin’s take on evolutionary change, acceptance by scientists of this “synthesis” became pervasive and was seen as a way to unify the branches of biology and anthropology, in addition to other fields of science.

In the U.S. the focus of these disparate viewpoints came to rest in the public school arena. Laws and/or standards were adopted in some states that served to limit the teaching of naturalistic evolution. Other states, including Texas, adopted more generalized policies encouraging discussion of various perspectives regarding scientific theories as well as their problems and weaknesses. Many opponents viewed such policies as encouraging faith-based perspectives. In response, legal and scientific organizations fought back with increasing success to eliminate any kind of religious reference or activity in the public schools, based primarily on the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.

In January 2009 the Texas State Board of Education met to review science standards, a process undertaken every ten years. The National Center for Science Education, an institution dedicated to “defending the teaching of evolution in public schools,” spearheaded the effort to eliminate the “strengths and weaknesses” clause from the current standards. NCSE executive director Dr. Eugenie Scott argued that requiring students to critique the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories would lead to the adoption of “textbooks that contain pseudoscience and inaccuracies,” causing Texas students to suffer as a result. The recommended wording under consideration states, “The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing.”

The new recommended wording certainly appears to retain the ability of students to examine possible weaknesses of theories, including naturalistic evolution, as they “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations.” The greater concern is the apparent attitude of proponents for change that seems to imply that it is not possible for theories or “scientific explanations” to have problems. For example, Kevin Fisher, a past president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas, said the “strengths and weaknesses” language is “an attempt to bring false weaknesses into the classroom.” David M. Hillis, a University of Texas biology professor added, “Every single thing they are representing as a weakness is a misrepresentation of science … These are science skeptics. These are people with religious and political agendas.”

While acknowledging for the sake of argument the possibility that misguided skeptics have attempted to undermine education in Texas, one should not presume to suggest that the scientific enterprise is perfect. There are weaknesses in some, probably most, scientific explanations. Although practitioners in all fields of knowledge may tend toward intellectual imperialism, scientific knowledge should never be confused with truth. Scientists pursue truth, but explanations for observations should always be seen as tentative. Little pleases a scientist more than disproving some aspect of the work of another scientist.

Science is a process. Charles Darwin is acknowledged as a great scientist, but not all of his ideas stood the test of time, or more importantly, stood up to testing. Pangenesis, his proposal for a hereditary mechanism and part of his effort to describe population variation, was an erroneous explanation. Darwin’s theory was discarded while Gregor Mendel’s superior model for variation and inheritance was eventually accepted. Teachers do their students a service when they encourage critical analysis of theories and illustrate how paradigms shift or are discarded over time in the wake of new discoveries. Even natural selection, the dependable old saw of evolutionary processes, has shown some explanatory weaknesses.

Recently, for example, researchers at Uppsala University suggested that a nonadaptive process (i.e., unrelated to natural selection) “has made a significant contribution to human evolution.” Many human genes appear to have evolved rapidly; the “process increases the rate at which certain mutations spread through a population.” Matthew Webster, one of the authors, concluded, “The research not only increases our understanding of human evolution, but also suggests that many techniques used by evolutionary biologists to detect selection may be flawed.” Would proponents of the Texas proposed standards object to this portrayal of the weakness or insufficiency of natural selection as an explanatory process in human evolution?

Clearly, controversy can stimulate scholarship, so long as it is partnered with a genuine openness to the unforeseen. Eugenie Scott, of the aforementioned National Center for Science Education, recently propounded on the subject of Bigfoot and Other Wild Men of the Forest. One portion of her talk concerned the question, “Could Bigfoot Live in Texas?” Some of her comments may relate to a perspective regarding the primacy of scientific knowledge.

For example, at one point in her Texas-related comments, Scott said, “If you’re going to look scientifically at bigfoot” the first question you want to ask is, ‘How do these observations fit with everything else we know from science?’” While this may sound logical, it hearkens back to the conflict Darwin encountered in emancipating the scientific process from previously stated opinions of philosophers. Certainly scientists should be familiar with the applicable research of their fields, but if they deliberately discredit observations that run counter to prevailing wisdom, progress would never take place.

Near the conclusion of her presentation, Clark made another interesting comment: “And like I say, either bigfoot exists, or we have to throw out an awful lot of our knowledge of natural history.” It seems reasonable to infer that what she meant to imply was that, if the sasquatch or bigfoot exists, scientists would have to rewrite much of what is currently understood regarding natural history. However, taken as presented in the context of an either/or choice, such dichotomies have little applicability in scientific discourse, whether they come from scientists or young Earth creationists. Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, writing in Wonderful Life, argued that such choices should be avoided and indicated that, “More fruitful perspectives often require that we step off the line to a site outside the dichotomy.” Just because one is presented with two options does not mean that either of the options is correct or that no other options exist.

Fortunately, scientists don’t have to choose between “Either the sasquatch exists and we have to throw out what we know about natural history, or the sasquatch doesn’t exist and we are safe in our preconceptions” (as we might rephrase Scott’s dichotomy). In spite of the efforts of the media or some skeptics to disparage or sensationalize the subject, at its root the sasquatch phenomenon simply appears to be derived from the presence of a rare and reclusive bipedal primate. The ecological and biological and anthropological sciences will continue to flourish when and if the sasquatch is ever documented.

In the meantime, the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy will continue to pursue its mission and documentation efforts. Part of that mission includes education. TBRC speakers have been privileged to give presentations in a variety of settings, including universities and public schools. Students benefit when they are exposed to and participate in the free exchange of knowledge and ideas. Educators should be granted academic freedom and trusted to act responsibly in pursuing goals of scholarship. The TBRC welcomes the opportunity to continue to play a small part in that process.

Without question, science plays an important role in society. Many historians maintain that modern science is a product of the Protestant Reformation. In the spirit of the reformers, modern science is shaped and driven by controversy and the questioning of standing precepts. As exemplified by Charles Darwin and his Christian correspondents, science, as a way of knowing, should not be seen as a threat to faith, properly understood. Science education should embrace this legacy and encourage students, in as many ways as possible, to pursue wonder, curiosity, discovery, and the exploration of the unknown. It is an exciting enterprise.

Sources:

Aulie, Richard P. (1982). The Post-Darwinian Controversies: An Extended Book Review Essay (Pt. 1). Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation. March, 24-29.

Gould, Stephen Jay. (1989). Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. W. W. Norton and Co.

Mayr, Ernst. (1964). In: Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species: A Facsimile of the First Edition with an Introduction by Ernst Mayr. Atheneum reprint (Harvard University Press).

Moore, James R. (1981). The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900. Cambridge University Press.

Natural selection is not alone in driving evolution.

What’s next for Texas science standards?

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