A Modest Proposal: The Darwin Airlift

It's disheartening to think what else world-class scientists could be working on if they didn't have to re-explain high school biology to us all.
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The other day, I had the privilege of attending a preview of a traveling exhibition at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. Entitled simply "Darwin," Darwin the show puts a human face on the struggles of Charles Darwin, as he worked to reconcile what he recorded in his scientific observations on the HMS Beagle with his own and his society's religious beliefs.

The exhibit runs through January 1 and is definitely worth a visit. It was a fascinating and often touching exhibit. Too bad that the people who need to see it most might not be there.

"Darwin" follows the scientist's life from an early age. Visitors might be surprised to learn that Darwin's grandfather Erasmus wrote a book called Zoonomia in 1794 that also asserted that animals evolve over time. What might not be surprising is the uproar it caused and how it brought shame to the well respected family.

Charles Darwin was a born scientist at a time when the concept barely existed. He liked nothing better than collecting specimens and noting their infinite variety. How could you not love a man who, as a college student, wrote to his equally bug-happy cousin, "I am dying by inches, from not having any body to talk to about insects"?

As a young man out of school, he applied for the unpaid job of naturalist on that most homely-named of vessels, the Beagle. One of his main jobs was to provide edifying conversation with the ship's young captain, but in the five years of noting oceanic fossils high in the Andes and varying traits among the finches and tortoises of the Galapagos, he helped set the stage for modern scientific inquiry.

Darwin actually wrote his On the Origin of Species a few short years after his voyage on the Beagle, then sat on the manuscript for more than a decade, showing it only to his wife and a few trusted colleagues. At the time, of course, people believed that, while some species can become extinct, all were formed as they presently appear by the hand of God. Filled with, as he put it, "the wibber-gibbers" that his theories of transmutation would cause an uproar, he even drew up a will tasking his wife with publishing the book after he was gone. On the Origin of Species was only published after another scientist working in Malaysia sent Darwin a paper for review, which contained a theory of evolution similar to Darwin's in everything but scope. A deal was reached through intermediaries that allowed both papers to be presented to the London scientific societies at the same time.

When On the Origin of Species was published, it was said a person couldn't walk through a restaurant in London without hearing a couple tables discussing his ideas. After the initial shock and a few public debates (other scientists stood in for Darwin, whose constitution couldn't handle such stress), the theory became widely accepted among scientists and most of society.

In the words of his chief defender Thomas Huxley, "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!"

This is the third recent exhibition at the Field Museum intended to rally public support for and knowledge of time-tested scientific principles, as those principles are being attacked by religious fundamentalists. Although the museum should be commended for stepping into the fray with increased public education, it's disheartening to think what else these world-class scientists could be working on if they didn't have to re-explain high school biology to us all.

What's more disheartening is the feeling I got that the museum is, to steal a cliché from the ecclesiastic world, preaching to the choir. The type of mind that's drawn to the Field Museum -- inquisitive, open to free inquiry, fascinated by the natural wonders of the world and the variety of cultures in it -- is not the type that would push for warning labels on science textbooks. "Darwin" was developed and first exhibited in New York, and is scheduled to appear in Boston, Toronto and London, not exactly hotbeds of creationist argument.

So here's a proposal: This year is the 60th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, which airlifted supplies to a starving eastern Europe dominated by the USSR after World War II. Can't we think of some way to airlift exhibits like "Darwin" to the parts of Kansas, Kentucky and the rest of the nation that so desperately need intellectual nourishment? Where people could see the evidence of evolution and consider how Darwin's theory ties this evidence together logically and methodically? Where people could talk with scientists to discuss how science and faith can actually complement, and not confuse, one's appreciation for creation?

It may cost a lot of money, but we can't afford to lose another generation to the idea that God created fossils 6,000 years ago and scattered them around the globe for the sole purpose of testing our faith.