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 ā about this institute thatās named after me ā I take a great deal of pride in this, of course. But this usually happens after youāre dead. And Iām 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. Thatās 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 thereās danger, I think, of a worldwide movement. We have our work cut out for us.
I have a favorite quotation from Darwinās time. Itās from a Victorian lady, the wife of the canon of Worcester Cathedral. Hereās what she said: āDescended from the apes! Dear me, letās hope itās not true. But if it is true, let us hope it never becomes generally known.ā
People have asked me how long Iāve been interested in evolution. I canāt remember when it started. I must have had vestiges of this view way back because I do remember not believing the story of the Noahās ark. I didnāt see how you could possibly get all those animals into an ark and have them survive and mate.
I also didnāt 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 OāDonnell, evolution is a myth. Iāve been a supporter of having more women in public life, but along came OāDonnell, Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle, all of whom shook my faith. Iām still in favor of more women in public life; these three canāt spoil it entirely.
My research for the past 60 years has been in evolution, sort of on the fringe of the subject. Iāve been taking it for granted and havenāt often asked myself why I do believe in this āmyth,ā as itās been called. I know you know the standard arguments: the fossil record, embryology, domestic animals ā 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 ā if you want to read more about this and see what the arguments are, read Richard Dawkinsā latest book The Greatest Show on Earth. Itās a wonderful read. Iām 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 havenāt read it, look it up. It is fun.
I want to raise a different kind of question thatās usually not discussed as a reason for evolution. Iām 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 ā it tinkers with whatever is there. It does a good job, of course, but itās tinkering nonetheless. It patches up whatās already there. An intelligent engineer would start from scratch. Evolution hasnāt any foresight ā it cannot see beyond the next generation. Any intelligent designer, any good engineer, would think more than one generation into the future.
Hereās another aspect: To evolution, nothing matters after reproduction ceases. Evolution doesnāt care about people my age. Weāre dispensable. Once weāve reproduced and reared a family, weāre no longer of any use. Evolution is only interested in survival and reproduction.
An intelligent, benevolent designer ā and I wouldnāt worship one that wasnāt intelligent and benevolent ā wouldnāt permit as much pain and sorrow as evolution has produced. Pain is natural for evolution; itās 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. Itās 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. Itās 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 youāre a male of my age, youāre very, very conscious of another thing, and thatās the location of the prostate gland. It couldnāt be in a worse place.
My favorite example is whatās 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.
Thatās an extra distance, nothing too serious. But imagine what this is like in a giraffe. Thereās an extra 15 feet of nerve thatās caused by the mislocation of this particular nerve. Thereās a story in Dawkinsā book about his attending the public dissection of a giraffe that traced this particular nerve. To me itās 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 Iāve said, evolution has done remarkably well.
What are your favorite things about evolution? I admire the elephant trunk ā 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 donāt understand it as well as weād like to.
And I admire this magnificent sense of smell that a dog has. Itād be nice to ā well, I donāt know if it would be nice or not ā 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 ā they think we donāt understand whatās going on.
In detail, we donāt, but in the general picture, we certainly do. I want to emphasize the idea that weāre really a united front as far as the overall story is concerned, if not about all the intricate details.
As Iām 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 arenāt. My favorite quotation on this subject, and often he is very quotable, is from Bertrand Russell. He was asked one time, āBertie, suppose that youāre totally wrong about this? Suppose you die and there really is a God and youāre taken up to the Pearly Gates, what would you say?ā
Russell answered instantly, āI would say, āGod, why didnāt you give us better evidence?ā ā
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 donāt think thereās anyone among them, though, who takes the Old Testament literally.
For myself, I believe you donāt 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