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One Hundred Years without Darwin are Enough

by G. G. Simpson


K
uppose that the most fundamental and general principle of a science had been known for over a century and had long since become a main basis for understanding and research by scientists in that field. You would surely assume that the principle would be taken as a matter of course by everyone with even a nodding acquaintance with the science. It would obviously be taught everywhere as basic to the science at any level of education. If you think that about biology, however, you are wrong.

Evolution is such a principle in biology. Although almost everyone has heard of it, most Americans have only the scantest and most distorted idea of its real nature and significance. I know of no poll, but I suspect that a majority doubt, disbelieve, or violently oppose its clear truth without a hearing and on no basis more rational than prejudice, dogma, or superstition. Many school and not a few college teachers either share that irrationality or evade teaching the truth of evolution from other motives. That is a main reason why…only a minority of us have fully entered the world into which Darwin led us.

This irrational prejudice is a problem, and a very serious one, for our educational system and for the whole dream of developing the enlightened citizenry on which the ideal of democracy depends. It is not enough, then, simply to state, as I have, that everyone should enter the world into which Darwin led us. Some more personal and practical thought must be given to why everyone should enter it, why they have not, and what can be done about it. There are deep and tangled roots that cannot be followed in one short chapter, but I shall here attempt a superficial examination, at least, centered on the educational system where much of the impediment and the greater part of the hope are inherent.

Let me begin with some personal reminiscences. I want to talk especially about high schools. It still seems to me that primary schools are the places for simple routine, learning the indispensables of reading, writing, arithmetic, and association with one's peers in a disciplined situation. Colleges should be the places for the deepening of special intellectual interests, for their broader integration, and for the laying of a basis for some complex vocations. That leaves high schools as the places most appropriate for encountering special interests and for starting some intellectual orientation.

It is, I am sure, already evident from these remarks that I have never taught in a high school. Nevertheless I have had many contacts with such teaching in three different capacities and over a period of some forty-five years. First, of course, I was on the receiving end of high school education in one of the good public school systems (by the then standards) of the 1910s. I became fascinated by literature because I had teachers who were fascinated by it. I developed a dislike of history because I had teachers who thought events were things that occurred on dates and that the dates were what one should learn. After a bit of a struggle, I achieved a sound routine knowledge of mathematics at the intermediate levels. As for science, that was limited to one course called 'physics,' which, as far as my memory goes, consisted of measuring things (lengths, weights, times, temperatures) and making the measurements agree with the book. I learned, and later had to unlearn in order to become a scientist myself, that science is simply measurement and the answers are in print.

George G. Simpson
George G. Simpson 

Nothing I then learned had any bearing at all on the big and real questions. Who am I? What am I doing here? What is the world? What is my relationship to it? Not that I did or could specify those questions at that time. I only felt them as an unformulated dissatisfaction, a sense of fatal incomprehension of my own being. If any of my teachers dreamt of formulating such questions for me, they never dared to live their dream. I believe that all adolescents, the bright equally with the dull, go through such a phase of incoherent self-questioning and disorientation, and that they still rarely receive what help and truth could be given them. They usually simply bury the questions and try to forget them, or they settle for answers that are palpably false.

My next serious contact with intermediate education was some twenty years later when my children in their turn attended high schools in another good public school system. I found that some progress had been made, but not much. A few exceptional teachers did point out that what the student determined and checked for himself could be true even if it was not in the book. All the students now had some contact with the life sciences, but the level—or at least the emphasis—was on such questions as why you should brush your teeth and why you should not drink alcohol. High school biology did then have strong personal reference. It was student-oriented, but it was most decidedly not well calculated to orient the student.

Since my own children left high school, my contacts have been through talking to groups of teachers about my field of science, especially organic evolution. …

I have so far taken part in only a few of the recent national institutes and conferences for high school teachers. Those at which I have spoken have been truly enjoyable and have, I think, had a reasonable measure of success in the aims of bringing research and teaching into useful relationship. Nevertheless, each one has also brought out failures of communication and emphasized the difficulty of somehow getting through to the students what they should and, in a workable modern culture, must know. As revealed at this level of researcher-teacher contact, the most serious of these impediments are three:

1. The knowledge of some teachers cannot, by the means here provided, be brought up to date because the teacher does not have enough knowledge, even outdated knowledge, to begin with.

2. Some teachers are quite willing to listen (they are being paid to, after all), but they are not at all willing to learn. As regards my subject, evolution, a significant minority of them simply do not believe a word of it and automatically close their minds when the subject is named.

3. In a large minority of instances—indeed it may not be a minority—the teachers themselves accept what is reasonably presented to them but still do not expect to incorporate it into their teaching because of the attitudes and power of school officials, school boards, parents, and tax-appropriating bodies. …

Most teachers must suffer to some degree from one, two, or all three of these impediments, but usually not to a degree that precludes improvement. The institutes also turn up a heartening number of teachers who are surprised but receptive when they learn that research biologists and whole scholarly communities take evolution as an established fact, the fundamental fact of life, and who then are eager to learn more. An antievolutionary community cannot be directly affected by that contact, but a change in attitude can be initiated and the vicious circle finally broken if such a teacher able to pass on something of this aspect of biology to new generations of students. That is by no means easy, however, nor is success assured even to the most convinced, determined, and tactful teacher.

The pressures of some communities happen to be particularly strong in the field of organic evolution. They are, however, by no means confined to evolution or to other biological questions, which include those of race. One has only to think of history, economics, and literature for other examples. How many high school students in Texas are told that some historians consider the defense of the Alamo a tactical blunder in the midst of a morally indefensible war? How many high school students anywhere in America are taught specifically that free enterprise has some grave drawbacks and socialism some great advantages? Or that Lady Chatterley's Lover is literature and why?

It is, however, pressures against the teaching of evolution that most concern me here, not only because that happens to be my own field, but also because I consider it the most important thing that needs to be taught at intermediate school levels. We are all familiar with the Scopes trial, if only from being reminded by the stage and movie success, Inherit the Wind. Many people seem to consider it as a quaint and amusing bit of ancient history that occurred in one isolated backwoods community. The fact is today that there are innumerable towns and whole cities that are just as opposed as Dayton, Tennessee, was to the teaching of evolution. And they are more successful in preventing it. I believe that most people misunderstand the serious issue in the Scopes case and, indeed, that it was misunderstood by most of the protagonists in the trial. There was a state law against teaching evolution in the public schools. Scopes broke that law, and the jury found him guilty. That was the only legal issue before that court, and it was correctly settled. That the verdict was upset on a technicality, that Scopes was not retried, and that the law is still on the books but has never been enforced and never had its constitutionality tested are all facts but beside the point.

What was actually argued in court, by prosecution and defense alike, was not the guilt or innocence of the defendant but the truth or falsity of evolution. There was, indeed, a social issue that transcended the rather trivial legal one. But certainly that really fundamental social issue was neither Scopes's guilt nor the truth of evolution. It was the competence of a legislature to enact and of a court to enforce the prohibition of teaching a theory that, whether true or not, was sustained by a large number of respectable scientists certainly competent in the pertinent field. By submitting the question of the truth of evolution to the court and jury, the defense equally with the prosecution compromised the whole situation and lost the one essential point. The point would have been the same if the law had made the teaching of evolution obligatory and Scopes had refused to teach it. Legislatures, judges, and juries cannot decide the correctness of a scientific theory or of the results of any scientific investigation. That can only be decided by further research in the self-correcting style of science. Furthermore, education will be stultified if properly qualified teachers are not free to teach what they believe to be true either from their own competence or on acceptable authority in the relevant field of research. That situation is also self-correcting. Any teacher who taught that the earth is flat would quite properly be discharged (not jailed!) for incompetence (not for breaking a law). Where there is evident unresolved conflict of authority, the teacher should of course explain that situation and may quite properly state his own position on either side.

Laws against teaching evolution are still nominally in effect over wide areas of the United States, but there has been no recent effort to enforce them. The prohibition is nevertheless now being applied far more effectively than by law and through agencies that are equally incompetent. They are incompetent in the usual sense of lacking the special knowledge necessary for rational judgment of the issue. They are also incompetent in a sense analogous to the technical concept of competence in law, that is, the competence of a court as having or lacking jurisdiction in a given case. The agencies now effectively prohibiting the teaching of evolution in many schools should have no jurisdiction over such a question. The competent agencies to decide on the subject matter of a science are the scientists and the science teachers.

Anti-intellectual control of science education by incompetent agencies is hardest to reach when it reflects the asininity of a local majority. 'I won't have my child taught that stuff!' Such control may, however, be exercised by both vociferous minorities and individuals in key positions. There are also instances where community opinion is that evolution (or whatever the subject may be) is probably all right, but it is controversial, so we had better play safe and omit it from the curriculum.

At least one of the recent conferences of biological teachers had a formal discussion of this problem. (It has probably been discussed informally at all the institutes and conferences.) One suggestion was, of course, simply to sidestep, to omit anything about evolution one way or the other. Textbooks and the fact that teachers may have no voice in their selection make this easy. Some biology texts do omit evolution. Most of them relegate evolution to a single section, preferably in the back of the book, which need not be assigned. (There is little danger that students will read it anyway!) That also illustrates an indirect sort of censorship that can deny material to schools and students that would otherwise be receptive to it. If one community rejects the teaching of evolution and another does not demand it, some textbooks, at least, will aim for the least common denominator, and the chances are that neither community will get a book that treats the subject adequately if at all.

That solution, although probably the commonest one, is considered by many teachers to be dishonest. It cannot be intellectually honest to undertake to teach a subject but to omit its most important principle. It would, nowadays, be like teaching physics but leaving out atoms. (My high school physics teacher managed that, but that was long ago and far away.)

There was also mention of the possibility of teaching evolution but stopping short of man and making no mention of human evolutionary origins. This, too, can hardly be considered honest; and, in any event, it tends to cancel out the advantages of teaching evolution at all. It is neither necessary nor advisable to focus discussion of evolution primarily on man, but the main reason why teaching evolution is important lies in its implications for mankind. To omit even a glimpse of that connection would be not only to shortchange but also to mislead the student.

A third suggestion, apparently one that many teachers have already been acting on, is to teach about evolution but to leave out the dirty word. Call it 'development' or 'animal history' or the like. I gather that this has worked for some teachers, but it seems a transparent trick that is bound to be exposed sooner or later. It must cut down the coverage, too, for surely you cannot talk very much about 'development' without letting the cat out of the bag and revealing that you mean evolution. I wonder, too, whether such teachers (and textbooks) are not being unnecessarily timid. Is it not possible that a system that will stand for teaching 'development' will also stand for calling it by its right name?

Still another proposed, and actually used, solution is to present both sides of the case. Teach evolution under its own name as something that certain authorities believe. Also teach that certain other authorities do not believe it, and let the student decide for himself (or ignore the whole thing). This was hailed by some teachers at the institute as the most 'honest' compromise on the problem, but I am afraid I cannot agree. It is less honest—because the student is less able to judge from data in his own hands—than teaching that some people say the earth is flat and some say it is round. It would be honest only if the teacher pointed out that the authorities who 'believe' in evolution ('believe' is a misleading word here, too) are, almost to a man, those who have actually studied the subject in a scientific way and that those who do not believe in it are, almost to a man, obviously ignorant of the scientific evidence and swayed by wholly nonscientific considerations. That is not a compromise that would suit an antievolutionary school board. It might occasionally work in a controlling community that was open-minded about science but subject to some sniping from antievolutionary minorities.

The opposition to teaching evolution is, of course, almost always given a religious reason. That may usually be its real basis, but I think it is often a mask, perhaps unconscious, for underlying anti-intellectualism or anti-scientism. Oddly enough, it is quite common to oppose teaching evolution on ostensibly religious grounds even in sects that do not in fact officially oppose or prohibit such teaching. Thus, many Catholic parochial schools are anti-evolutionary, but evolution is acceptable under Roman Catholic dogma and is taught in a straightforward way in many Catholic colleges. The whole situation is complicated by the fact that the dogma in some sects really is explicitly and violently antievolutionary and that some of these sects are highly evangelical, not only in religion but also in education. Some antievolutionary sectarian colleges specialize in science education, even in what there passes for biology.

If a sect does officially insist that its structure of belief demands that evolution be false, then no compromise is possible. An honest and competent biology teacher can only conclude that the sect's beliefs are wrong and that its religion is a false one. It is not the teacher's duty to point this out unnecessarily, but it is certainly his duty not to compromise the point. Fortunately, the great majority of religious people in America belong to sects that are more flexible on this point, even though the tendency of the average parishioner may be antievolutionary. Here a perfectly honest compromise, or rather a tolerant understanding, is possible. Evolution, per se, is not antireligious any more than the roundness of the earth is antireligious, although it was once held to be so. There are many religious and, in various sects, even highly orthodox evolutionists. There are also atheistic evolutionists, but so are there atheistic bankers, who nevertheless keep honest accounts. The lack of necessity for conflict between evolution and religion is something that can and, when the subject arises, should be pointed out by teachers. The most extreme and bigoted opponents cannot be placated, but there is plenty of common ground for reasonable people on this question.

There are, to be sure, many high schools where evolution is taught without opposition from students or community and even with their enthusiastic support. There are also textbooks that include evolution under its right name and as an established biological fact. Nevertheless, it is certainly true that innumerable students still leave high school without ever having heard of evolution, or having heard of it only in such a way as to leave them unimpressed or antagonistic. Since intermediate education is the proper level for encountering this subject and is for great numbers of people the only place where they are likely to learn anything valid about it, this means that an awareness of evolution is lacking or rejected in large segments of the adult population. Yet for over a century now, evolution has been known to be one of the great and central concepts of science and one fundamental for human orientation in the modern world. There is no other concept of comparable importance and scope that has been so slow in permeating education and in obtaining general popular acceptance.

That is what made H. J. Muller, on the centenary of the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species, exclaim angrily that 'One hundred years without Darwin are enough!' (I have pilfered that remark as the title of this chapter; I think Muller will forgive my theft in a good cause.)

Here, if not before, someone will want to ask, 'Why make so much fuss about evolution? It is only one of a thousand things that might be taught in high school. Students can't learn them all. Naturally, you emphasize it because it is your specialty. A specialist in mathematics doubtless wants everyone to be taught calculus, but it isn't really necessary or even useful for all high school students to know calculus or evolution.'

Part of the answer arises from personal reminiscence, again, for which further indulgence is asked. I do not think that evolution is supremely important because it is my specialty. On the contrary, it is my specialty because I think it is supremely important. I entered college with the intention of studying literature and becoming a writer, perhaps a poet. (Remember that my really enthusiastic high school teachers taught English.) I was required to take some laboratory science, and I elected geology, partly because of some previous interest in minerals and partly because Geology 1 was reputed to be a quick and easy way to work off the requirement. Actually, it turned out to be tough because a new professor (who did not last long in that college) demanded an amount of work that most of the students found excessive. But he was another enthusiast, and he imparted to me the thrill of learning things. Here I saw that it was possible to accumulate solid knowledge about the universe, new not only to me but to everybody, and to supply satisfactions that, for me, literary endeavor could not. I switched my major to geology. Slowly I came to feel that although minerals are fascinating, what is really important is life. That made paleontology, the living aspect of geology, my subject in graduate school. Starting then and increasing through the subsequent professional years, a sharpening sense of values showed me that if life is the most important thing about our world, the most important thing about life is its evolution. Thus, by consciously seeking what is most meaningful, I moved from poetry to mineralogy to paleontology to evolution. The transition would have been simpler if I had started with biology, or perhaps even with, say, chemistry; but I think the search would have wound up in the same place.

So I reached an answer to the suggestion that calculus and evolution are just two of many subjects and that no one can or should study every subject. Evolution is more important in an absolute sense, and it is important to everyone. Calculus, just as one example, is an excellent tool, indispensable in some quite specialized pursuits, quite irrelevant in others, and with no particular bearing on the human condition. It is evolution that can provide answers, so far as answers can be reached rationally and from objective evidence, to some of those big and universal questions I mentioned earlier. One has only to state some of the firm evolutionary generalizations and principles to establish their absolute importance and their necessary inclusion in a proper education for everyone.

1. Man is a recent and, up to now, in some real sense the highest product of a natural process that has been going on for billions of years.

2. Man owes all his characteristics to their gradual and very slow accumulation because they worked better, because they promoted most successful reproduction and continuance, through all the varying circumstances in which our ancestors existed.

3. The mechanisms and principles of that accumulation are now largely known and are probably entirely knowable in terms of the immanent physical laws of the universe. The source of those immanent laws themselves is quite unknown and probably unknowable to science; here religion may honorably enter the picture.

4. Knowledge of those mechanisms and principles makes it possible, within determinable limits, for man to influence for the better the further evolution not only of other organisms, but also of himself.

5. All living things are truly physically related in just the same ways as parents and children and brothers and sisters are related, although in greatly different degrees. In the enormously intricate and yet comprehensible pattern of life, man occupies a place unique to him but a place that is within that pattern and a part of it. Man belongs in and to nature just as much as any other kind of organism, and he is akin to all the others.

6. As a result of that kinship, man shares a great deal with all other organisms, most, of course, with his nearest relatives (in broadening degree the apes, the primates, the mammals, the vertebrates), but much with living things as remote as trees or bacteria. We can learn much about ourselves in terms of processes in other species, much about them in terms of processes in ourselves.

7. Man's special capacities, his awareness, his perceptual functions, his readability, his ability for symbolization and socialization, are all biological adaptations developed by evolution under the stress and guidance of natural selection. It is quite proper to speak of values in this process, and the values are inherent in the course and outcome of evolution. A working coordination between mental life and the outer world, a grasp on reality in the deepest sense, is one of the values required by and produced by our evolutionary history.

8. Our special abilities operate properly, which is to say in accordance with their natural functions in the evolution of our particular species, only if they are used rationally and responsibly. Rationality and responsibility are made possible and necessary by the evolutionary intensification of awareness and of flexibility of reactions.

9. Mankind is a kind, biologically a single species, united within itself and separate, as of now (although of course united through ancestral lines), from all other species. Like the members of any species, men vary. No two men are quite alike, and whole groups visibly differ, as the subspecies of widespread species always do. The resemblances among all men are vastly, incomparably greater than any differences. The more obvious differences arose, for the most part if not altogether, among early men as adaptations to particular situations and are biologically almost entirely irrelevant in modern civilization. There are no biologically superior or inferior races.

I could extend the list almost indefinitely, but I think that I have made my point, which is simply that evolution has fundamental human significance for everyone. Of course, I realize that such grand generalizations, presented just so, would be incomprehensible, incredible, or virtually meaningless for most high school students. Nevertheless, the implications are there, and some, at least, of them will eventually be glimpsed by anyone who acquires even a modest grasp of evolutionary facts and principles.

As to how to convey that modest grasp, I am no pedagogue, and I fall back on the disclaimer implied in my three forms of nonprofessional relationships with high school teaching. Of course, I do have some ideas on this score. (Teachers are like artists in that practically everyone feels competent to advise them without bothering to learn their profession!) Evolution underlies every aspect of biology and is one form of explanation for every biological fact, from protein synthesis to, say, zoogeography. As each topic is taken up, from the very first one—whatever that may be in the particular approach used—it can be shown to involve relationships best understood as results of evolution. Followed through, one topic after another, that builds up to a convincing demonstration of the fact of evolution. The first task is to show that evolution, as a general proposition, rests on good, solid evidence, and since all the facts of biology are evidence of evolution, that seems to me the way to approach the task. A routine listing of 'proofs' of evolution as a short topic in itself can never carry such conviction. With that general approach, specific information about processes and explanations of evolution, as distinct from (or, rather, additional to) the demonstration of the fact of evolution, will also emerge quite naturally. Most of the modern explanatory theory is inherent in the facts of genetics, ecology, and systematics if these topics are treated frankly in their relationships to the history of life. The broader implications, even though perhaps still on a more elementary level than those I previously gave as examples, will then begin to appear almost automatically.


[ George Gaylord Simpson, "One hundred years without Darwin are enough," Teachers College Record, 60 (1961): 617-626; Reprinted in Evolution: Oxford Readers, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 368-378. ]


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