Darwin in Iowa

Field Notices

Charles Darwin: 12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882
Luther College Chips
February 26, 2009

Only half of my ancestry is British, but sometimes more than half my heart goes out to the United Kingdom. That’s particularly true this year when, to honor the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, the U.K. minted a two-pound coin that pictures the scientist’s ape-like head staring a chimp eye to eye. The coin is ringed with a reminder that the great man’s “On The Origin of Species” is now 150 years old.

In America, alas, and in my home state of Iowa, in the run-up to the 2008 caucuses, four pretenders to the presidency of the world’s remaining superpower (Tancredo, Brownback, Paul and Huckabee) all flatly refused to accept Darwin’s now 150-year-old evolutionary theory. One of that group, Mike Huckabee, handily won Iowa’s Republican caucus vote.

This in a nation where, for seven years, if the truth about global warming or weapons of mass destruction in Iraq didn’t fit, America’s top leaders quietly set aside good evidence and replaced it with public relations, confident swagger and confessions-by-torture. It made me wonder if we, as citizens, were gluttons for torment.

On the eve of Darwin’s 200th birthday a Gallup poll of Americans showed that only 14 percent accept his theory of natural selection, a theory that favorable traits survive to a new generation better than unfavorable ones. Natural selection is the basic engine of evolutionary change.

A Pew Research Center poll in 2006 found that 58 percent of Americans would prefer that schools teach creationism, an article of religious faith, alongside Darwin’s evolution, a testable theory which science has found to be more and more robust in the 150 years since Darwin first published it.

Iowa’s favored Republican, Huckabee, defended his broad-mindedness by conceding, in a press conference, “If you want to believe that you and your family came from apes, I’ll accept that.” His answer shows an inexact understanding of Darwin, and blurs religion and science, equating a repeatedly confirmed scientific theory with other “beliefs” more or less as those who would have teachers introduce creationism in schools are happy to introduce religion into a science class.

Faith in a seven-day creation or an intelligent universal designer with a special love for humans keeps Americans like Huckabee from embracing Darwin’s lens for viewing the long and messy story of life on planet earth.

To give Americans credit, even Darwin wrestled with the implications his theories had for his faith. He started out as a biblical literalist who considered a career in the clergy. Slowly and grudgingly he shifted from literalism to deism to his ultimate position of agnosticism, admitting in an autobiography he did not publish that, “the mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble to us.”

The over 80 percent of Americans who let faith or ignorance stand in the way of Darwin’s science fail to see the evidence that is all around us. In the end, people and the planet both end up paying a price.

You don’t have to squint backward to the long-vanished quadruped ancestor people share with chimps to see evolution at work. Two Princeton researchers, Peter and Rosemary Grant, beginning in 1973, have demonstrated that in a mere 25 generations, finches on the Galapagos Islands (where Darwin firmed up his own original theories by observation) have changed their beak size and behavior to adapt to environmental shifts in food supply. This change is evolutionary because it has ultimately made one group of adapted finches unlikely to mate with the other.

In our own bodies, the evolution of bacteria favors those resistant to the antibiotics we use to control them, making common medicinal treatments less likely to be effective over time. In the fields that surround us, weeds that resist herbicides fare better over time than those killed by herbicides, and troublesome insects that tolerate insecticides survive at a higher rate than those sensitive to them.

In other words, natural selection, taking place as I write, affects our health and the abundance of our food supply.

An insight into evolutionary thinking is responsible for big walleyes being caught over the last few years in the river below campus. For years the Iowa Department of Natural Resources stocked the Upper Iowa with the offspring of pike drawn from Iowa lakes: offspring that failed to survive. Then one day some bright evolutionary thinker realized that the offspring of river walleyes might be genetically better disposed to thrive in a river. Result: naturally selected thriving fish.

The theory of evolution is basic to the study of not only biology but also human behavior—the most recent studies I’ve read that relied on evolutionary theory explain why children put dirt and dirty objects in their mouths and why people prefer, in potential mates, a flat belly button with a t-shaped crease.

This, ultimately, is why I join the Brits in celebrating Darwin. He moved from “On the Origin of Species” to “The Descent of Man,” putting aside religious reservation and embracing the facts that presented themselves to him: that people are not set apart from the rest of the animal and vegetable world, but a piece of it.

Like the Darwin on the British coin, when I look at an ape I’m happy to admit that I recognize a not-so-distant cousin whose future on the planet is controlled by the very same forces that affect my own.