The Magazine

Teaching Darwin

Why we're still fighting about biology textbook.

Mar 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 26 • By PAUL R. MCHUGH
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At this point, the sympathetic reader eager to secure Darwin's narrative might resort to searching the "biochemical record." Surely the molecular structures of DNA, RNA, and proteins contain the long-sought evidence. Again, though, molecular biology helps in some ways in that it shows commonalities across species--just as other aspects of anatomical structures show commonalities--but again it's the distinctions--and the means by which they are generated--rather than the similarities that must be explained to support the theory.

If one turns to DNA to show how Homo sapiens gradually emerged by small and random variations from predecessors, one faces an immediate problem. At the level of DNA, humans and chimpanzees differ by a mere 1 percent, yet the chimpanzee is not 99 percent human in body, brain, or mental faculties--far from it. We need something more than the DNA record to support a narrative linking chimps and men.

Perhaps it's enough for the friendly guardian of the Darwinian narrative to propose that the genes that control the switching on and off of other genes simply changed in some random way, allowing humans to branch off the primate line. And maybe they did. But again, notice, this is a molecular narrative, not a proposition demonstrable by experiment. It's a story that fits the facts--but so might another.

SURELY AT THIS POINT the friendly reader might agree that, like any historical account, the Darwinian narrative can fairly be challenged--not to say that it must be wrong, only that it needs more supportive evidence. Perhaps there are statistical proofs or engineering concepts that could be found, or something else that might emerge that would be subject to verification by the scientific method.

But our would-be friend to evolution will soon discover that any questioning of the Darwinian narrative, no matter how sympathetic, is shouted down. If mathematicians try to say that even with the immense span of geological time available for random genetic variations to act, there is not time enough to produce the human eye, the response--typical for historians, who routinely argue backward from observations to their causes--is, Since the eye exists the math must be wrong.

If Michael J. Behe, the cellular biochemist who wrote Darwin's Black Box, proposes that the complicated molecular mechanisms sustaining the integrity of the cell seem impossible to explain as the result of random variations, the president of the National Academy of Sciences counters by pronouncing, "Modern scientific views of the molecular organization of life are entirely consistent with spontaneous variation and natural selection driving a powerful evolutionary process." That is, he affirms the Darwinian narrative by restating it, not by offering compelling proof that it is true. Lots of views are consistent with the cell's complexity--including the view Behe explores, that an intelligent creator designed the cell to work. But cellular formation needs identified generative mechanisms, not simply a consistent narrative, to explain it--a problem both for those who call on Darwin and those who call on an "intelligent designer."

Official science is too much at ease with the Darwinian narrative--primarily because it can't come up with anything better. As a result, many scientists are driven by an ideological bias and by fear--the thought that any challenge to the narrative will plunge the republic back into some dark age. Richard Dawkins and his associate Niall Shanks predict that, as Shanks wrote, "discriminatory, conservative Christian values [will be imposed] on our educational, legal, social and political institutions" should the public schools permit any airing of questions about the Darwinian narrative. This fear is way over the top, but it's of long standing, and in the past has provoked some loss of judgment among scientists.

When the most distinguished biological scientist of the 20th century, Francis Crick, saw the same complications as Michael Behe, he also concluded that time on Earth and random variation were not adequate to produce the viable cell. Crick resolved the dilemma, in a fascinating book called Life Itself published in 1981, by suggesting that living cells arrived on an unmanned spaceship from another planet, perhaps sent by intelligent beings facing extinction. He called his concept "directed panspermia," and this strange concept (I prefer to call it "life from Krypton") received a respectful hearing from biologists. With this imaginative device Crick could keep the narrative alive. He explained life's cellular origins without worrying about time, kept the God he hated out of the picture, and preserved the possibility of random variation and natural selection working their magic from these "seedlings" from a "galaxy far far away."

BY NOW, it would seem that a sympathetic reader of Darwin, if honest, could conclude the following. Darwinism is an imperfect theory, based as it is on a historical narrative, and carrying as it does the remarkable capacity to explain anything and exclude nothing. It has great strengths, and it has great evidential lacunae that seem no closer to resolution than when Darwin himself called attention to them 146 years ago.

The biological evidence--life rests on the cellular organization of nucleotides and proteins--compels the conclusion that all the various forms of life on Earth derive from a common source, as Darwin emphasized. Life is not recreated with every new species--this is now undeniable. The Darwinian concept of descent with modification seems the most plausible way to relate life and its varieties. Modifications within species are often responses to environmental challenges, and they sustain a species with the variety of expressions necessary for it to survive these challenges.

But when one tries to grasp how the distinct species, as against varieties, are generated--by what mechanism they separate--a pause to reflect is warranted. Darwin's random variation and natural selection may well offer the best available narrative, the most compelling theory. Yet something seems missing--for example, any sense of what propels life's forms toward a progressive complexity, rather than toward a simplicity of design that would guarantee survival come what may.

The discipline of evolutionary biology today resembles astrophysics when Galileo was attempting to explain the planetary orbits and the oceanic tides but lacked the concept of the force of gravity. His observations were accurate enough, but explanations awaited an Isaac Newton.

Evolutionary biology awaits its Newton. And until such a thinker emerges--to provide a fuller conception of the history of life and especially the forces at play that explain how things happened as they did--those who would expel all challenges to the Darwinian narrative from the high school classroom are false to their mission of teaching the scientific method.

Scientists as they engage in dialogue with others should abhor attempts to close off the conversation by excessive claims for any privileged access to truth. Scientists should tell what they actually know and how they know it, as distinct from what they believe and are trying to advance. If all of us, scientists and non-scientists alike, accepted that guiding principle, the 80-year history of attempts to use law to stifle the teaching of science--stretching as it does from the courtrooms of Dayton, Tennessee, to those of Cobb County, Georgia--could perhaps finally be brought to a close.

Paul McHugh is a university distinguished service professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and former psychiatrist in chief of the Johns Hopkins Hospital.