One of the reasons I keep making speeches is that I get such pleasure out of an introduction like you just heard. One other thing — about this institute that’s named after me — I take a great deal of pride in this, of course. But this usually happens after you’re dead. And I’m refusing to take the hint.
We evolutionists have a problem, all of us. A recent Gallup poll shows between 44% and 47% of respondents believe that Earth is less than 10,000 years old. That’s a little hard to accept, by me at least. About two-thirds do not believe in evolution.
Furthermore, these ideas, which are especially strong in the United States, are being exported to other countries. And there’s danger, I think, of a worldwide movement. We have our work cut out for us.
I have a favorite quotation from Darwin’s time. It’s from a Victorian lady, the wife of the canon of Worcester Cathedral. Here’s what she said: “Descended from the apes! Dear me, let’s hope it’s not true. But if it is true, let us hope it never becomes generally known.”
People have asked me how long I’ve been interested in evolution. I can’t remember when it started. I must have had vestiges of this view way back because I do remember not believing the story of the Noah’s ark. I didn’t see how you could possibly get all those animals into an ark and have them survive and mate.
I also didn’t believe the story of Jonah and the whale, which seemed implausible to me then and now. I found myself in very good company in this regard, though. I read that Sinclair Lewis, when he was a child, made a name for himself by refusing to believe the story of Jonah and the whale.
According to Christine O’Donnell, evolution is a myth. I’ve been a supporter of having more women in public life, but along came O’Donnell, Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle, all of whom shook my faith. I’m still in favor of more women in public life; these three can’t spoil it entirely.
My research for the past 60 years has been in evolution, sort of on the fringe of the subject. I’ve been taking it for granted and haven’t often asked myself why I do believe in this “myth,” as it’s been called. I know you know the standard arguments: the fossil record, embryology, domestic animals — a remarkable example of rapid evolution and the similarity of DNA, which to me is the most convincing evidence of all and the most recent and most exciting.
An aside for the moment — if you want to read more about this and see what the arguments are, read Richard Dawkins’ latest book The Greatest Show on Earth. It’s a wonderful read. I’m also going to put in a plug for my colleague, Sean Carroll, who writes an article on evolutionary subjects every month or so in The New York Times. His latest was on the warfare, or the battle of toxins and antitoxins, in different kinds of snakes. If you haven’t read it, look it up. It is fun.
I want to raise a different kind of question that’s usually not discussed as a reason for evolution. I’m particularly opposed, as Jim Coors is, to the concept of intelligent design. I think just observing evolution is pretty good evidence against design.
For one thing, evolution is a tinkerer — it tinkers with whatever is there. It does a good job, of course, but it’s tinkering nonetheless. It patches up what’s already there. An intelligent engineer would start from scratch. Evolution hasn’t any foresight — it cannot see beyond the next generation. Any intelligent designer, any good engineer, would think more than one generation into the future.
Here’s another aspect: To evolution, nothing matters after reproduction ceases. Evolution doesn’t care about people my age. We’re dispensable. Once we’ve reproduced and reared a family, we’re no longer of any use. Evolution is only interested in survival and reproduction.
An intelligent, benevolent designer — and I wouldn’t worship one that wasn’t intelligent and benevolent — wouldn’t permit as much pain and sorrow as evolution has produced. Pain is natural for evolution; it’s very unnatural for any kind of a designer that I would want to worship.
I know how fundamentalists answer this question. They say that sin and pain are the work of the Devil. I find the Devil at least as hard to believe as God. So I reject both of them.
Evolution has made some striking mistakes. One that occurs to me, increasingly, as I get older, is that the esophagus and the windpipe are backward. We ought to have the windpipe behind and the esophagus in front. The present arrangement is an open invitation to choking. Well, we know why it works that way. It’s because of the historical development over time and during embryology. But it certainly would not make any sense to a good engineer.
The mammalian eye is a mistake, too. It’s wrong side out. That means that the light has to travel through quite a number of cells before it gets to the light-sensitive cells. A squid does better. Evolution has done a remarkable job of compensating for this error, but it would have been better to start over.
If you’re a male of my age, you’re very, very conscious of another thing, and that’s the location of the prostate gland. It couldn’t be in a worse place.
My favorite example is what’s called the recurrent pharyngeal nerve. This is the nerve that starts out from the brain. In embryological development, when we have aortic arches (like a fish), this loops around one of the arches and back on to its destination. As the organism grows, the head grows forward, the aortic arches stay put or move backward, and therefore, the nerve has to make a hairpin loop.
That’s an extra distance, nothing too serious. But imagine what this is like in a giraffe. There’s an extra 15 feet of nerve that’s caused by the mislocation of this particular nerve. There’s a story in Dawkins’ book about his attending the public dissection of a giraffe that traced this particular nerve. To me it’s one of the most beautiful examples of evolution gone awry, as it frequently does.
Nonetheless, what I want to emphasize is that despite its being a tinkerer, and despite its not looking ahead, and despite all the things I’ve said, evolution has done remarkably well.
What are your favorite things about evolution? I admire the elephant trunk — it can pick up logs but it can also pick up a peanut. What about a bird feather? Remarkably adapted for flight. And bird migration, how did that ever get established? We still don’t understand it as well as we’d like to.
And I admire this magnificent sense of smell that a dog has. It’d be nice to — well, I don’t know if it would be nice or not — to duplicate that skill! I would want only pleasant smells.
Then, finally, something that we all have great respect for: the human brain.
Despite the fact that evolutionists all agree about the occurrence of evolution and about natural selection being the main mechanism for it, evolutionists are still contentious.
They spend a lot of time arguing and that, I think, is misleading to the public — they think we don’t understand what’s going on.
In detail, we don’t, but in the general picture, we certainly do. I want to emphasize the idea that we’re really a united front as far as the overall story is concerned, if not about all the intricate details.
As I’m closing, I want to say a little bit about evolution and religious belief. My main personal reason for nonbelief is: Why would an all-powerful and especially benevolent creator permit so much sin and suffering?
Most evolutionists are nonbelievers, but they all aren’t. My favorite quotation on this subject, and often he is very quotable, is from Bertrand Russell. He was asked one time, “Bertie, suppose that you’re totally wrong about this? Suppose you die and there really is a God and you’re taken up to the Pearly Gates, what would you say?”
Russell answered instantly, “I would say, ‘God, why didn’t you give us better evidence?’ ”
Well, let me finally end this tirade, this screed, by asking do you need to be a nonbeliever to study evolution? Of course not! There are religious people who study evolution. I don’t think there’s anyone among them, though, who takes the Old Testament literally.
For myself, I believe you don’t have to be a nonbeliever to be an evolutionist, but I think it helps.
Thank you very much.
James F. Crow is a Lifetime Member of FFRF.
Photography by Brent Nicastro