No monkey business

August 20, 1999

As Kansas bans Darwin from its curriculum, Jonathan Weiner argues that science and religion are on the same spiritual quest.

The Kansas board of education voted last Wednesday to strike evolution from the state's science curriculum. The decision saddens everyone who understands what children in Kansas classrooms will now miss. I am particularly sad and puzzled because I have spent the past decade looking over the shoulders of biologists who watch evolution happen.

In 1991 I travelled to the Galapagos Islands, also known as Darwin's Islands because the beaks of the finches and mockingbirds there helped lead Charles Darwin to his theory of evolution by natural selection. There,I visited field biologists who have spent their working lives observing and measuring tens of thousands of birds, generation after avian generation. These biologists see Darwin's process in action.

I have also visited laboratories where specialists in the science of molecular biology are studying the inner workings of the gene. If Darwin's theory was the great discovery of the 19th century, the gene was the great discovery of the 20th century. In the labs, I watched molecular biologists use fruit flies to isolate and dissect individual pieces of DNA and explore evolution from the inside out. Change one gene and you change a fruit fly's body plan, so that it has eight legs instead of six. Change another gene and you change the fly's instincts, so that it runs away from the light instead of going towards it.

In the Galapagos, you can see that evolution by natural selection does sculpt the beaks of the birds, just as Darwin argued - only the changes happen fast enough for us mortals to watch. And in the laboratories, which may become in the next century our new Galapagos, you can begin to see how it all happens at the level of the genes; how the smallest of mutations can lead to evolutionary changes.

These have been some of the greatest lessons of my life. I will never forget the moment when one of Darwin's mockingbirds landed on my spiral notebook and perched there - as innocently as a bird in the Garden of Eden - to watch my pencil make squiggles on the page. In the labs, innumerable mutant fruit flies also landed on my notebook, which was a less glamorous experience. But out in the field or inside the lab, I felt that I was standing in the middle of something extraordinary. I had come as close as I could get to the process that Darwin discovered at the heart of all of life on earth.

Kansas sits precisely in the geographic middle of the continental United States. It is a pity that the centre of our country will now turn out students whose view of life will be so off-centre. It is not just that evolution is the unifying principle of biology and that all well-educated students need to know about it by the time they reach college. And it is not just that evolution is happening all the time, literally under our noses.

Every time a hospital runs into a staph or strep infection that resists antibiotics, it is confronting evolution in action. Every time a farmer sprays pyrethroids and cotton moths go right on eating his cotton, that farmer is confronting evolution in action too.

A biologist told me once: "These people are trying to ban the teaching of evolution while their own cotton crops are failing because of evolution. How can you be a creationist farmer any more?"

Pesticide resistance is Darwin's revenge, you might say, except that Darwin was too mild and good-natured to feel anything but sympathy for a farmer.

These are good, pragmatic reasons why Kansans should teach their children about evolution. But the reasons they should not miss the view are not only intellectual but also spiritual, and this is what I find most troubling about the state board's decision.

Darwin's process is a tremendous challenge to the system of anyone who tries to take it in. This is a view of life that challenges the mind, the heart and the soul. We need everyone engaged with scripture and with science if we are going to see life whole, and somehow take in all of this view, not leaving anything important out.

We are all perpetual students. Darwin's theory is not finished; scientists who know it best feel that they are perpetually at a beginning. Our spiritual journey is not finished; those who travel that road most seriously also feel this sense of perpetual beginning. And every line of life around us is constantly studying and improving itself in order to survive. Anyone who pretends to have all the answers is short-changing students. They should be exposed to the questions and to the whole range of our best answers; they should all have a chance to go as close to the middle of the mystery as they can get. It was in that spirit that when I finished my book about Darwin's Islands, I put on the frontispiece a quotation from the "Book of Job":

And where is the place of understanding?

It is hid from the eyes of all

living

And concealed from the birds of the air.

Jonathan Weiner is author of The Beak of the Finch, which won a Pulitzer prize in 1995.

What are the risks of not teaching evolution in schools?

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