Copyright ©2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

IRA FLATOW, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

In 1831, Charles Darwin stepped onto the HMS Beagle as a creationist with little scientific training. Five years later, he stepped off the boat convinced that a process called evolution had created the almost unfathomable array of plants and animals he saw on his journey. But it would take him another 20 years before he would publish his ideas in that famous work on "The Origin of Species."

What happened on that trip and in the years following? Well, this hour the evolution of Charles Darwin. What did he see? And could he have known how much it would change the world? Did he anticipate the tsunami of criticism he would face for daring to challenge the biblical story of creation? We're going to be talking about the role of science museums, also, in meeting the challenges to evolution by creationists. All of that we'll be talking about this hour, and if you'd like to get in on our conversation, I invite you to give us a call. Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255; 1 (800) 989-TALK. And, as always, you can surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com.

Let me introduce my guests. Niles Eldredge is a curator in the Division of Paleontology and a curator of the Darwin exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History here in New York. He's the author of several books, including "Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life," which has just been published, and he's here in our studios.

Thanks for being with us here, Dr. Eldredge.

Dr. NILES ELDREDGE (Author, "Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life): Oh, it's great to be back, Ira.

FLATOW: Also with us is Edward J. Larson. He is the Herman Talmadge chair of Law and the Richard B. Russell Professor of American History at the University of Georgia in Athens. He won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in history for his book "Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion." He's also the author of "Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory." He joins us from WUGA.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Larson.

Dr. EDWARD J. LARSON (Author, "Summer for the Gods"; "Evolution"): Thank you. Happy to be here.

FLATOW: Thank you.

Dr. Eldredge, let me ask you first about the exhibit. Let's talk about--when I go the museum, I come to your exhibit, I'm greeted with what? Walk me through the exhibit, the highlights.

Dr. ELDREDGE: The highlights of the exhibit: You walk through the existing Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians, and bingo, you see two live Galapagos tortoises. You plunge right in...

FLATOW: Real ones?

Dr. ELDREDGE: Yes.

FLATOW: Wow!

Dr. ELDREDGE: Twenty-five years old apiece. And we installed them about a week and a half ago. They're happy there and they're moving around. It's really great. When you go into the exhibition proper, you will see Darwin's magnifying glass, just in this little room in one little case. And it's...

FLATOW: The actual mag...

Dr. ELDREDGE: The actual magnifying glass.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. ELDREDGE: Oh, we have tons of Darwin's actual material here. But this symbolizes this young man who set off with rather inadequate training, really, and didn't know too much, but he had an open mind and an open heart and he let nature come to him. And we want kids to come to the exhibit and see that it's still possible, using relatively simple tools and keeping your brain open, basically...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ELDREDGE: ...and your eyes open, to--you can still discover things.

FLATOW: So this is an interesting time to have this exhibit. Was this planned many years in advance or...

Dr. ELDREDGE: It's three years ago.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. ELDREDGE: We had an Albert Einstein exhibit...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ELDREDGE: ...which was very successful, and Darwin seemed like a natural follow-up because it actually fits our program very well.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Tell us about Darwin before he went on the Beagle. Was he really a creationist, believed totally in the story of creation?

Dr. ELDREDGE: Well, he--everybody was a creationist in those days.

FLATOW: Yeah, in those days. Right.

Dr. ELDREDGE: His grandfather, interestingly enough, Erasmus Darwin, wrote a book called "Zoonomia." He was a physician. He actually speculated a little bit about evolution. But most people thought that the Earth was about 6,000, 10,000 years old, the species were created sometime after the Earth was formed, separately, more or less in the forms of theory, and that was the usual supposition. And he had read a creationist tract, Haley's 1802 book, and said it was charming and quite convincing.

FLATOW: Ed Larson, peo--other people in Darwin's time were talking about the idea that species may have evolved. They weren't all just put on Earth, as it is, by a creator. Were there other people around having some of those ideas then?

Dr. LARSON: Sure. Darwin was born at a really dynamic time in the history of biology and the thinking about origins. Not too long before Darwin was born, in 1809, Lemarque in France, a really great, very imaginative, very creative biologist, had come up with a theory of evolutionary development. This fit into a whole pattern of thinking in Enlightenment France that went back for 50 years before that. And then, of course, as Niles mentioned, Darwin's own grandfather had written a tome about it, had thought about it. There was a lot of debate back and forth.

The other big development, really--two other really exciting developments is Georges Cuvier in Frances, the great anatomist, had burst the limits of time by proving to everyone, all scientists' satisfaction, that the Earth was very old. And so really, by 1810, all working scientists in Europe believed that the Earth was very, very old, but they still were creationists in the sense that the various species, Cuvier explained, must have been created, because they're so complex and they're so delicately balanced. But they weren't all created at one time; rather, they were created in a succession of times.

And then came the one other addition: Charles Lyell, the great geologist, who came up with his ideas of uniformitarian geology, which more than anything else inspired Darwin. He took Lyell's first book with him on his voyage of the Beagle. And Lyell was also a creationist, but yet a different type: ones who believed that, over time, different species were created in different centers of creation over the world, and then gradually spread out. So Darwin, when he went to the Galapagos, was actually looking at the Galapagos as possibly a unique center of creation.

FLATOW: And what did he see there that changed his mind or convinced him that evolution was occurring?

Dr. LARSON: Well, he actually didn't notice that at the time, but he made collections because, as Niles commented and as you commented, he went on not as really a trained naturalist--he only had an undergraduate education--he was sent as a collector, really, and he collected quite a few specimens from the Galapagos, as he did from other places where the voyage of the Beagle stopped over its five-year trip. And then he was stud--it takes a long time in an old sailboat to get back from the Galapagos all the way to England around the Horn of Africa. And he was looking over his specimens, and what really struck him was that the mockingbirds were different on different islands. And also, there were quite a few different types of finches, and he wasn't sure if those came from different islands because he hadn't collected them properly. He hadn't marked them properly.

But if they were, then he simply couldn't believe that these had just been cre--that God would have created all these different similar species in basically the same archipelago. Rather, he thought, it must have been that a pair of mockingbirds and a pair of finches, or a few of each of the same type, had come there and then evolved to fit on the various islands. And he had that idea--it's pretty well documented in his diaries--on the last leg of the trip back to England, and that's what made him think that, `If, when I get back, the great--the different specialists in birds'--when they get back--and it happened to be a person named Gould, the great ornithologist of the day who looked over his specimens--`If it turns out that these are, indeed, different species and not just varieties, then they must have evolved.'

Dr. ELDREDGE: Yeah. Actually, Darwin had three clues that he stumbled on when he was on the Beagle. The first one was collecting fossils. Long before he got to the Galapagos, he found extinct forms of armadillos and sloths, and he knew that there were modern armadillos and sloths, of types of organisms that just only occur, basically, in South America. So he said, `We have this pattern here of extinction and replacement by members of the same group. What is that all about? What does that really mean?'

Another extremely important pattern he saw was the replacement--he made it a general replacement, but he actually only had one example. Two kinds of ostrich-looking things, rheas down there, the greater rhea and the lesser rhea. And they'd replace each other geographically. They'd meet in one place. They don't interbreed. He saw that they were separate species. And again, they're all--not found any other place in the world. And `What is going on here? Why are there two behaviorally very similar, ecologically very similar organisms replacing each other?'

Then he gets to the Galapagos and, you know, that story's basically right. He does notice the mockingbirds there. He actually does see that and he sees--he thought there were four varieties or species there, and he also then heard from the governor of the Galapagos that anybody who lives in the Galapagos can tell you what island produced what shell. He showed him the shell of a tortoise. And that was very interesting.

So that's right. We have that document in the exhibition, where he writes in his ornithological notes--he talks about the tortoises. He talks about the mockingbirds. And, indeed, that was still while he was on the Beagle. And basically, I'm convinced that he had--he was convinced that evolution had happened by the time he got home.

FLATOW: Yeah, but he didn't write about it. He didn't publish it for a long time, did he?

Dr. ELDREDGE: Well, he didn't. No. He opened up a set of notebooks.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. ELDREDGE: The first one is the Red Notebook, which--we're still arguing whether he finished it--whether he actually wrote some of that stuff on the Beagle or after he got home to England. You open up his transmutation notebooks, and he got--instead of getting very--he was very sort of impressionistic when he was first out there, but then he gets very sort of deductive, and he says, `Well, Linnaeus' classification scheme works if you notice--if you have this concept of evolution.' If all organisms are descended from a single common ancestor, then you get these clusters of similar species. You know, Linnaeus had put human beings in with the great apes and just didn't have an evolutionary concept behind it.

So Notebook B, page 36, he says, `I think'--and he draws the first evolutionary tree. It's very dramatic. It looks like E=MC squared; it's the same sort of a thing. And as he develops these notebooks from 1837 to '38 and '39, he reads Malthus and he stumbles on natural selection, so his ideas are fundamentally in place by 1839. There was no question about that. But yes, he only tells his wife. He tells nobody else.

FLATOW: Huh. And so is that because he's so fearful of what he's discovered, that this is going to...

Dr. ELDREDGE: Yeah. I mean, his wife was worried that the implications of his work were that they would not spend eternity together, basically, and she was quite upset that...

FLATOW: He would be damned. He would...

Dr. ELDREDGE: Yeah. We have a letter that she wrote to him, and he said at the bottom of the letter: `Note how many times I have kissed and cried over this,' because it really upset him. But yeah, he kept this very close because he was fearful of the reaction. When he finally told the botanist Joseph Hooker--we have that letter--in 1844, he said it was like confessing a murder. That's how seriously he thought he would be, in effect, punished if this got out, what he was really thinking. He was really that fearful of the reaction.

FLATOW: And it was, like you say, E=MC squared--such a radical idea, that everything could have a common origin.

Dr. ELDREDGE: Exactly. Exactly so.

FLATOW: Whether it be trees or animals or bac--I don't know about bacteria, but that's--everything.

Dr. ELDREDGE: Yeah. And he saw embryos resembling each other in the earliest stages. That makes sense from that point of view--the unity of type, he called it, where the arms of bats and chickens and human beings...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ELDREDGE: ...all match up and things like that. If--they all makes sense if life has evolved and organisms share these common ancestors.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a short break, because we've got a lot more to talk about and I don't want to get into having to interrupt everybody like I normally do. Talking with Niles Eldredge at the American Museum of Natural History and Edward J. Larson of the American history--professor of American history at the University of Georgia in Athens. Well, stay with us for the rest of the hour, if you would, because we've got more to talk about and we'll take your calls when we come back after this short break. Don't go away.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about Charles Darwin, the theory of evolution, with my guests: Niles Eldredge, paleontologist and curator of the Darwin exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History; also, Edward J. Larson, professor of American history at the University of Georgia in Athens and author of "Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory."

Before the break, Dr. Eldredge was talking about when Darwin finally did publish it. Let me ask you, Dr. Larson, what was the motivating factor to have--you know, he waited 20 years--for Darwin to actually publish his ideas here?

Dr. LARSON: Darwin had always planned to publish his ideas. What he was doing during those 20 years was he was trying to get it right. He was trying to, as we'd say today, dot every I and dot every J and cross every T, because this idea had been being discussed throughout the scientific community in Europe for 50 years, and the proponents of evolution had simply been savaged because they didn't have a mechanism. Linnaeus was savaged, so were a whole series of scientists--Lemarque--after that when they'd suggest evolution. And Darwin wanted to get it right. He didn't want to suffer the attacks of Richard Chambers, which was a very traumatic experience in the 1840s in England. And so he kept searching, studying barnacles, studying coral reefs--I mean, all these different aspects--studying pigeon breeding in England--to pull all these ideas together into one long argument, as he said, that would be persuasive.

Well, he probably would have kept doing that for another decade when another great scientist, Alfred Russell Wallace, who was a collector and already a committed evolutionist, a published evolutionist--he was a naturalist who went around the world collecting specimens and also writing papers. And while he was over in what's now Indonesia--in fact, during the height of a malarial fever in a native's hut over there--he had a breakthrough, and a brilliant breakthrough, that Malphus' idea of struggle for survival, struggle for existence--that there's not enough food to go around and that only the fittest will survive--that that, indeed, could be the mechanism that explains evolution.

So he wrote up a beautiful paper explaining his idea, and then he had to send it off. And he knew Darwin was thinking about evolution; sort of offhand he knew that. And he admired Darwin's other writings, and so he sent it to Darwin and said, `What do you think about this? What do you think about this? And if you think it has merit, pass it on to Charles Lyell and see if you can get it published.'

Well, Darwin read it in 1858 and was just floored. His--he had been pre-empted. He had been scooped. Somebody else had come up with his idea before he'd published. So he took his earlier writings about it, the essays that he'd pulled together about it and the articles, the stori--the accounts he'd written to friends, and gave those and Wallace's letter to Charles Lyell and said, `What should I do?' And Lyell and Hooker got together, and they said, `We'll publish them jointly.' And those were published in 1858, and then immediately Darwin took all of his notes for this grand book he was writing and put them together, because the idea was now out: evolution by natural selection. That's what makes Darwin special, that idea of natural selection. And then he publishes it in that--in his book, his famous book, on "The Origin of Species" in 1859.

FLATOW: Interesting. 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number.

If you're a regular listener to this program, you know we talk a lot about this latest creationist challenge to evolution and natural selection called intelligent design theory. And the proponents of ID say that the Earth's creatures are too complex to have arisen through evolution and natural selection, so they must have been designed by someone or something--God, aliens, you take your choice, because they don't say what it is. And the intelligent design camp has been successful in getting their message to the public, so successful that, according to my next guest, increasing numbers of visitors to science museums are asking about intelligent design, and museum volunteers are sometimes getting caught up in heated conversations pitting science and religion.

And Warren Allmon has come up with a solution. He's the director of the Paleontological Research Institution and the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York. He's also an associate professor of geology and biology at Cornell University. And he's put together a program to train museum staff and volunteers on how to talk to visitors about evolution.

Thanks for talking with us today, Dr. Allmon.

Dr. WARREN ALLMON (Director, Paleontological Research Institution): Nice to be here.

FLATOW: Hi. How big a problem is this in science museums now?

Dr. ALLMON: Well, I'm not sure that it's a new problem, and I don't know--if it is, I don't know how big it is. And it might not be accurate to call it a problem. Museums are all about being there for people who walk in. Most people don't come into museums to learn things; they come in to be entertained. And it's also self-paced learning and it's self-motivated learning. And so museums have to be prepared for all kinds of things. And I'm sure the Darwin exhibit is a terrific example of that. And so people come in with all kinds of questions that--maybe they've been thinking deeply about them and maybe they've been thinking hardly at all about them. And now, since intelligent design is so much in the news, more people are coming into natural history museums with more questions and, inevitably, some of those are on the challenging side of the spectrum.

But the main challenge, I think, is for museums to simply meet the increased popularity of this issue.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And you've created something for your--for the museum guides called "Evolution and Creationism: A Guide for Museum Docents."

Dr. ALLMON: Most of our floor workers are volunteers...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ALLMON: ...here in Ithaca, and we--and most of them do not have formal science training, so we put this little guide together at their request to help them have the information at their fingertips so that they can answer these questions. And the questions are coming more numerously now than they did, say, before the Harrisburg trial started this summer or before the Kansas situation erupted, and so we wanted to give our docents just more information so that they'd be better equipped.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah, that's what I was meaning before when I said there was a problem; the problem being how do you explain it to the people who are coming in, who are asking these questions?

Dr. ALLMON: And right now, since it's in the news, lots of people come in, they bring clippings or they bring questions; `I just heard it on the news,' that kind of thing. And we do have a permanent exhibit about evolution in the museum and every exhibit is somehow connected to evolution. And so we wanted to be able to give the human beings that visitors talk to...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ALLMON: ...better equipment to deal with that. Our--we know from surveys and from talking to visitors that their most intense educational experience comes through talking to people, no matter how much signage and exhibitry we have.

FLATOW: Yeah. I--and these days, science teachers in elementary schools are so ill-equipped to teach science, you would hope that they might have a place they could take their kids for a day trip or something to actually get some facts on the issues.

Dr. ALLMON: And that's exactly the idea, and then to do so in a non-threatening way and a respectful way, if they do feel challenged by it, but to also be an authoritative source of information if they're looking for information. Despite the fact that there are all these museums and all these books and programs like yours out there, the general public barely knows anything about this topic.

FLATOW: Dr. Eldredge, do you find people coming in, also, to your museum...

Dr. ELDREDGE: Well, we haven't opened the Darwin exhibit. That opens to the public...

FLATOW: No, I mean, but in general, do they come in and...

Dr. ELDREDGE: Yeah, they come in, but our docents are well-prepared.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. ELDREDGE: We're, of course, doubling our efforts here for the Darwin exhibit.

FLATOW: Yeah. And your exhibit opens this weekend?

Dr. ELDREDGE: It does open tomorrow.

FLATOW: Yeah. Warren Allmon, would it be an interesting idea--well, we have a link to this--to your guide of evolution and creationism on our Web site. People can download it and look at it; go to your Web site to look at it. Would it be an interesting idea to just supply this to any teacher who needs it?

Dr. ALLMON: We actually--since it went up a couple of months ago, we've had--I think my last count was a couple of hundred hits or--and inquiries about it from all manner of informal educators. So people not just at museums, but people at parks, people associated with Scout troops, all kinds of other groups. There's clearly a need out there among the vast array of informal education opportunities for just information.

FLATOW: And, you know, these frank exchanges of views sometimes can really evolve into heated debates. What do you tell your docents to do if that happens--how to react to that?

Dr. ALLMON: We do have some kind of simple instructions to them that really have nothing to do with science or evolution, just things like be respectful, listen. We are a science museum, so even though these issues are intimately connected with religion, we explain to our docents that our institution is not about religion. If you want to talk about religion you need to do that somewhere else. It's very important to be respectful. You're never going to win arguments with these people, and most people don't want to have an argument. Some do, but most don't.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, good luck with your teaching out there in the science museums.

Dr. ALLMON: Well, thanks very much.

FLATOW: Warren Allmon is director of the Paleontological Research Institute and the Museum of Earth in Ithaca, New York, and he's associate professor of geology and biology at Cornell University.

Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255. We're talking with Niles Eldredge and Edward J. Larson.

Dr. Larson, what did you think of that idea of...

Dr. LARSON: Museums form a crucial link in our education system in America. They have ever since the 1700s. Many people get their understanding of science and art and other things through museums. I can understand it's a very complicated area, especially for where you get a volunteer worker there in the museum. And the resource--this sort of resource, I would imagine, would be enormously valuable. You know, you're right. There's a--our science teachers in public school are one of our most valuable resource in America, but they're highly--they're heavily pressured. They've got a lot to cover. They're underpaid. And if museums can do a bit to support this--museums have had a role--they were our first scientific institution in America, and institutions like the American Museum of Natural History are not only places of education, but they're very important places of scientific research. There's probably no institution in America that has sponsored and funded more research in evolution than the American Museum of Natural History.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And, Dr. Eldredge, your exhibition includes a current biology textbook, the one that's used in Cobb County, Georgia...

Dr. ELDREDGE: Exactly. Yes, that...

FLATOW: ...with the sticker and everything. Describe...

Dr. ELDREDGE: ...it's only a theory and so forth. So we have, actually, a short film with Francis Collins and a few other prominent scientists on it explaining what theories are, that these are the big ideas of science--well-corroborated ideas. They're not just wild guesses.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1 (800) 989-8255. Lots of people want to talk about it. Let's see if we can get a few phone calls in. Let's go to Nancy in Louisville. Hi, Nancy.

NANCY (Caller): Hey, how are you guys?

FLATOW: Hi.

NANCY: Good topic. You know, personally I'm a Christian that figured out that, you know, God was the who behind things, and the what, how, when it has to do with evolution doesn't bother me at all. But the high school library where I am, you know, library media specialist needs to have some stuff on this. I don't have enough and I know it's--you know, it's been a topic. And, of course, we can go to the Web sites and things like that. But I'm looking for names of books that address this in a good way. A school library journal just had an article about how schools in I think it's Dover, Pennsylvania, just had an incident. And I'm interested in being ready and not being savaged, and being, you know, an educational link in this whole thing. And I'm just curious about what titles you might suggest, Web sites.

Dr. ELDREDGE: The...

NANCY: I'm also kind of interested in, you know, kind of a balanced presentation that allows for both. I'm not sure whether your guests can speak to that, but I just--I kind of want to do both, because I'm a--you know, I need to provide it all.

FLATOW: Let me just remind everybody, first, this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Yes, Niles.

Dr. ELDREDGE: The Web site, National Center for Science Education--that is the clearinghouse for all of this. They'll give you bibliographies. They will be fair, you know, but it's a science education outfit. But they are the ones that are best informed about what the literature is and so forth--what's going on in different school districts and on and on. So that's the very best place to go.

NANCY: Great.

Dr. LARSON: I might add that the National Academy of Sciences has prepared a wonderful booklet that is widely used to help explain the difference between theory and hypothesis that people can look to. Their--I imagine what the museum's put together with Francis Collins would be very helpful; he's very good on these sort of topics. There's another book, given what the caller suggested--there's a book called "Species of Origin" which is by a couple of Christian college professors that sort of look at it I think pretty fairly. That might be one that she might be able to look through, to give to people, to talk about the issue as it works through. Of course, Niles has written some wonderful books, and I've written some books--there are lots of us--and Michael Ruse have written books, so there's lots of things out there. The key is to get the person connected with the right item at the right level to answer the question that that person has.

NANCY: I'd like...

FLATOW: Good luck to you, Nancy.

NANCY: OK. Let me make one other suggestion.

FLATOW: Sure.

NANCY: You know, picking the right phrase is so important. It could be that you guys could just change theory of evolution to some other thing--you know, kind of like...

FLATOW: The law of evolution.

NANCY: Yeah. There you go.

FLATOW: Like the law of gravity. There...

NANCY: There you go, and it might solve the problem.

FLATOW: OK. That's a...

NANCY: Thanks. Bye.

FLATOW: Thank you. That'd be an inte--what does it take to go from a theory to a law?

Dr. ELDREDGE: Yeah, it is confusing because we do use the word theory in so many different ways.

FLATOW: Yeah. 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's go to Justin in South Bend. Hi, Justin.

JUSTIN (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon.

FLATOW: Hi.

JUSTIN: OK. Other question. What's role did intelligent design play in Darwin theory and is that possibility that God, religion and evolution need each other to exist?

Dr. ELDREDGE: Well, I can address the first part of that. We have on display one of the pages--one of the original manuscript pages of "The Origin of Species," and just by coincidence deals with complexity, which is the big issue of intelligent design these days, but is also the central issue of William Paley's 1802 book, where he says that if you find a watch on the beach, it implies the existence of a watchmaker and therefore the human eye is so complex it implies the existence of a creator, basically.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ELDREDGE: And Darwin says no, there's a spectrum of complexity here and so forth. So intelligent design is an idea that's been--it's not--it goes way back even before Darwin's day and it simply doesn't work, because the more we find out about science--Mike Bee in his book, and he's an intelligent design guy, he acknowledges that Darwin has solved the problem of the complexity of the eye. He just shoves the problem back down further to the molecular and the ultrasmall level.

FLATOW: Ed Larson, did Darwin--was he forced after this came out to choose between religion and evolution? I mean, did people say you can't say this and still believe in God? Or if you do you're a phony?

Prof. LARSON: No, he wasn't forced in any particular way. Indeed, he was pulled many different ways because many people who accepted his theory of evolution were devout Christians and remained evangelical Christians. One great example of that is Asa Gray, one of Darwin's closest friends and correspondents. He was a great botanist at Harvard. He was one of the four people that Darwin had shared his ideas with before it was published. And Asa Gray was an evangelical Christian, Trinitarian Christian--which was unusual at Harvard at that time, and he remained so to the end of his life, and he remained close with Darwin. So--and he was pulling Darwin one way; you had T.H. Huxley pulling him another way. You had Lyell and Wallace who remained very spiritual and religious in their own way, and of course, they were deeply involved in debating evolution. So people were pulling all sorts of different ways. Darwin really wasn't forced to choose because of his science.

FLATOW: OK. All Right.

Prof. LARSON: Other issues came up.

FLATOW: All right. We have to take a break. We'll come back, talk more about Darwin and evolution. Stay with us.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Announcements)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.

We're talking about Darwin and the theory of evolution with Niles Eldredge, paleontologist and curator of the Darwin Exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, which is opening tomorrow. This weekend. For those of us who've seen the preview, it's fantastic. If you're in the New York area, advise you to go and take a look. Edward J. Larson, professor of American history at the University of Georgia in Athens, and author of "Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory."

Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255. You write, Niles, that no other historical figure in science retains such an influence over the years. Not even Einstein. Think that he's an even bigger historical figure.

Dr. ELDREDGE: Well, there is the atomic bomb, so I waffle a little bit with Einstein. But Darwin has not been metabolized by the Western world. It's not just science. Science has metabolized him...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ELDREDGE: ...and moved on and found that he was largely correct in the things that he wrote. So he's central to biologist. But Western culture has not metabolized this man, and it's because he changed our view--or he's asking us to change our view about who we are and where we came from.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Brandon in Red Bluff, California. Hi, Brandon.

BRANDON (Caller): Hi, Ira. Thanks for taking my call. I am a geology major so I know that in the sciences that you have to take chemistry and physics and biology is definitely part of it, and part of the key fundamental theories of science, not theories but actual facts of science, are evolution. And I'm curious, and you touched on it a few moments ago, that what is it going to take to get the theory of evolution to be confirmed into law, and you also touched on Einstein. I'm just curious--is there a hesitancy or just some reason why we are so adverse to making laws of nature nowadays.

Dr. ELDREDGE: Well, nobody disputes in science that evolution in fact is a fact if you define evolution, which is the general way of doing it, that all organisms on the face of the Earth are descended from a single common ancestor in remote geological time. And so everybody agrees that life has evolved; it is a fact, it is a law, if you will, in that sense. But as evolutiona--theory pertains basically to how does evolution happen, and it's a growing, ongoing body of knowledge that's not entirely settled. I mean, I'm still engaged in some arguments with some of my colleagues about precisely how the evolutionary process works, so it's a theory in that sense. But it's not a dirty word to call something a theory; it's a body of really intense and hard-fought and hard-won knowledge about the world.

FLATOW: Ed Larson, add anything to that?

Dr. LARSON: I agree with Niles in the sense that when scientists use the term `theory' they mean a tested naturalistic explanation that's gone through a whole body of work and when we talk about a theory in this case, what scientists are talking about is not the theory of evolution really, it's the theory of evolution by natural selection. As Niles stresses, it's the process, it's the mechanism that remains a theory. Niles, with Stephen Jay Gould, have contributed to those ideas; there's new ideas coming in about mutation. And there's new ideas coming through about gene flows, so it's a very dynamic area.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. LARSON: And that part's a theory. What would be a fact that most scientists would maintain and Ernst Meyer was a good expositor of this idea, that common descent--that's what people talk about as a fact.

FLATOW: You know what I find interesting is that in everyday life usage, everybody calls it a theory of evolu--when we talk about the bird flu, everybody will say, `Well, if and when it evolves into something that can affect human beings...

Mr. ELDREDGE: Exactly. Exactly.

FLATOW: But if you--you know, even people who probably don't even fully understand what they're saying when they say, `When it evolves,' will say that it's going to evolve.

Dr. ELDREDGE: Had we no evolutionary concept, we wouldn't be worried about bird flu right now. We wouldn't see the possibility. We would not know it existed.

FLATOW: You know, and that's--but, you know, I think ID people actually make a difference between on the macro level and the micro level...

Dr. ELDREDGE: Oh, yeah.

FLATOW: ...of intelligent design.

Dr. ELDREDGE: Right, so they'll concede as the possibility of mutations and a mutation in bird flu--maybe it becomes humanly transmissible, but there's no way of stopping it. It's just like circles rippling around a rock that you throw into a pond. There's no break. It just goes on and on; it links up all of life.

FLATOW: 1 (800)...

Dr. LARSON: It can get very...

FLATOW: Sure. Go ahead.

Dr. LARSON: It can get very confusing for people listening and people hearing it all because at one time it's whether it's a theory of evolution, another time it's a theory of natural selection. One time they're raising questions about mechanism and then they're bleeding those questions of mechanisms that Niles has raised in the past and pushing it right back and saying that that raises question about the fact of evolution, and no matter how many times Niles or Stephen Jay Gould said, `No, we don't mean that,' people still do it. Right, Niles?

Dr. ELDREDGE: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Let's go to Kathleen in Cleveland. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. My question is regarding education and how it's such a large number of adults don't believe or aren't informed about the theory of evolution and what that involves--how that's possible after 40 years of having it in the curriculum.

FLATOW: Mmm.

Dr. ELDREDGE: Well, I--may take is that...

FLATOW: You could take a stab at it.

Dr. ELDREDGE: ...people will believe what they want to believe is really what it is. My only concern is not what individuals decide to believe, but it's the nefarious act of going into classrooms and teaching kids as if it were science things that are not science, things that are basically religion masquerading as science. That is the only objection I have, and I object to it because we need better science education in this country, not worse. We need an informed electorate and of course we need to crank out more scientists if we're going to stay number one.

Dr. LARSON: And I'm not so sure if people have been getting this for years because from my work as an historian in this area, I think there are many places in America that--many school districts, many schools that have never taught evolution. They just--it's not that they're necessarily teaching creationism...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. LARSON: ...they're just avoiding the subject because it's...

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. LARSON: ...controversial locally.

Dr. ELDREDGE: That's right.

FLATOW: We've heard that many times that the teacher will teach something that if you--you know, as they came to it, but never used the word `evolution.' Something changes in this--they'll never--actually afraid to put the word `evolution' in there. Thanks for calling, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN: Thank you.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. And interesting to note that today in the wires there was a story that the Vatican's astronomer--the official astronomer of the Vatican said that intelligence design should not be taught in--with biology class.

Dr. ELDREDGE: Yeah. Well, you know, intelligent design makes no predictions about what you would expect to see were it true--if it were true, and evolution does. And we make predictions all the time and we test them based on the notion of evolution. It's not science. That's why it shouldn't be in the schools. I'm very happy to hear the Vatican astronomer came out with that position.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's talk about--we have a few more minutes to talk about Darwin himself. He suffered from a stomach ailment.

Dr. ELDREDGE: He did.

FLATOW: Right?

Dr. ELDREDGE: Yeah, a gastrointestinal--complete from start to finish, gastrointestinal ailment every day of his life. His son Francis said he never knew his father to have a normal day of health like most of us enjoy.

FLATOW: Today what would we call it? Was it some--it was never diagnosed as anything, right?

Dr. ELDREDGE: No.

FLATOW: Could it have been stress or...

Dr. ELDREDGE: Stress seems to be the favored example amongst historians--most historians now, and even family members who have looked into this. But it's a possibility. The old idea was he was bit by a vinchuca bug and had Chagas' disease while he was on the Beagle. Nobody will really know, but his symptoms seemed to worsen under periods of great stress. When "The Origin" finally got published, that's when he really had his worst attack, as far as I can make out.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Dr. ELDREDGE: Yeah.

FLATOW: Worrying about the reaction to the...

Dr. ELDREDGE: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Dr. LARSON: Well, he grew progressively weaker throughout his life. He was healthy when he went on the voyage of the Beagle.

Dr. ELDREDGE: He was.

Dr. LARSON: Great expedition. Then it deteriorated, and also he liked to--though he was very active in promoting his work through letter writing and writing books, he didn't like to go out front. T.H. Huxley became his bulldog and being ill always served as a nice excuse for not having to go out and appear in public.

FLATOW: If...

Dr. ELDREDGE: Yeah.

FLATOW: I'm sorry.

Dr. ELDREDGE: He says in his autobiography, `I figure I've lost maybe two and a half, three years of productive work through my illness, but on the other hand, it's kept me from a lot of dinner parties.'

FLATOW: Cholesterol stayed low. If Darwin had--uses his voyage on the Beagle and to the Galopagos to look at the finches and the other things, what did Wallace do? Did Wallace never...

Dr. ELDREDGE: Wallace set out in I think it was 1848 with Bates--correct me if I'm wrong--and--to collect.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. ELDREDGE: He was not a wealthy person like Darwin was, so he was making a living as a collector. But the thinking is that he was already convinced of evolution as was Bates; didn't know about natural selection.

Dr. LARSON: He went out to test one of the great ideas--he thought he could prove evolution if he could show that closely related species lived right next to, right on the fringe, like adaptive radiation, right on the fringe of old populations.

Dr. ELDREDGE: Yeah, OK.

Dr. LARSON: And so he went out to the most remote places of South America and Indonesia to look for new species right on the fringes of orders(ph), and then he continued to do that throughout his very long life. He lived into the 1900s and he continued writing and he became very significant as a biogeographer.

FLATOW: Well, you say he didn't believe in natural selection.

Dr. ELDREDGE: Well, no, he didn't know about it.

FLATOW: Oh, he didn't know about it.

Dr. ELDREDGE: And the thinking is that, at least in part, he was inspired by the second edition of "The Voyage of the Beagle," where Darwin hints very broadly about evolution.

FLATOW: So he had...

Dr. LARSON: And...

FLATOW: I'm sorry. Go ahead.

Dr. LARSON: Well, and then what he did is he did not know how evolution worked and he knew that was the problem. Everyone knew the problem with evolution was no mechanism. And then when he had that brilliant moment of insight in Indonesia just as Darwin had that moment of insight--similar insight--both thinking of Malthus and then they become convinced that natural selection could do it. It was a separate discovery, and that's one of the convincing things about it, that two people could come up with the idea independently.

Dr. ELDREDGE: I agree with that. There's two morales there. If you have a good idea publish it, and secondly, if there's any value to the idea, it means somebody else will come up with it, absolutely.

FLATOW: Was there somebody who carried the banner after Darwin was gone as a protege or somebody who--or was that it?

Dr. ELDREDGE: Who would you say would be the great protege? I mean, Huxley barreled on. I think all the young people were convinced of evolution. Darwin was disappointed a lot of his mentors never bought it, and you know, they went to their graves resisting it.

Dr. LARSON: Wallace would certainly be one of...

Dr. ELDREDGE: Wallace would be one.

Dr. LARSON: ...he lived on for another 20 years and he was very visible as a proponent, but then a whole new generation picks up.

Dr. ELDREDGE: Right.

Dr. LARSON: In America, David Starr Jordan would be crucial. He was the founding president of Stanford. There right at the American Museum of Natural History, Harry Fairfield Osborn had an important role. In America, people like Cope, Hayek--tremendous paleontologist--Hekel in Germany--these people picked up the idea and ran with it all over the Western world.

FLATOW: Would somebody else have come up with it if they hadn't? Was it...

Dr. ELDREDGE: Oh, absolutely. I think that's the morale of the Wallace story.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. LARSON: Wallace already did, so I totally agree with Niles on that point, yes.

FLATOW: And then we get through--they both die and we have the Scopes trial a few years later, right?

Dr. ELDREDGE: That was in the '20s.

FLATOW: The '20s, yeah. Eighty years ago, and it's still doing the trial over and over again.

Dr. ELDREDGE: Oh, over and over again.

FLATOW: Well, we're going to--let me just remind everybody that I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Talking about Darwin and evolution this hour. Let's go to the phones, see if we can get a caller or two. Larry in Kansas City. Hi, Larry.

LARRY (Caller): Hello. How are you?

FLATOW: Hi.

LARRY: Say listen, real quick. Years ago I saw a movie called "Andromeda Strain." And it was basically a sci-fi built on a mutation of something that came from outer space. My question is what is the (technical difficulty)...

FLATOW: Whoop. He's on the phone. Go ahead. I can tell here. He said what's the difference between evolution and mutation. Niles?

Dr. ELDREDGE: Oh, well, mutation is the ultimate source of variation, but to get that variation incorporated into a population you need natural selection, basically, to...

FLATOW: And, briefly, natural selection...

Dr. ELDREDGE: And natural selection is Darwin's--just three points. There's variation out there, it's heritable. Not all organisms that are born can possibly survive and reproduce; there's just too many organisms born each generation. And that was the big `a-ha' because Darwin thought that just enough were born to replace the parents, but there's far more born. And so the ones that are best suited will tend to be the ones that reproduce and they will pass those advantageous variations on to the next generation. Environment changes and you're going to get a different look to the population.

FLATOW: Right. So figuring out the mechanism then--that was one of the keys that separated...

Dr. ELDREDGE: That was the key.

FLATOW: ...all the different evolutionists.

Dr. ELDREDGE: Absolutely the key, because Darwin knew that everybody was thinking about--Ed was absolutely right. I mean, in medical school everybody was talking about evolution by the mid-19th century certainly, but nobody had a mechanism for it. Darwin did. He had it for 20 years, didn't really tell anybody much, and then Wallace came up with it and everything broke loose.

FLATOW: You agree, Ed?

Dr. LARSON: Sure. That was the way it worked. People were thinking about evolution but before you could become a plausible mechanism, there were so many arguments on the other side that without a plausible mechanism, people wouldn't switch over. But once that mechanism was offered, it was like a dam bursting.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. LARSON: And it's remarkable how quickly the acceptance of evolution swept through the scientific community, and it did so for a variety of reasons. For most people, it just simply--most scientists it made more sense than the alternative, and further, it offered them new questions, new ways of looking at nature and new ways, then, to exploit nature--that is, you could take these evolutionary mechanisms and apply them and use them and that's what science is all about really, down at the bottom level. Science is how we exploit nature.

FLATOW: So Darwin's book was a bit hit when it came out.

Dr. ELDREDGE: It sold out. I think it was 1,200 copies were printed and it was sold out in the first day.

FLATOW: Wow.

Dr. LARSON: Couldn't keep up with the printing. It sold out that first day, as Niles said. Everybody was waiting for it because the idea had been thrown out a year before with those joint published papers by Wallace and Darwin. It was reviewed. It wasn't just reviewed in science journals. It was reviewed next day in The London Times, in all the popular media. There were cartoons about it in Punch and the other British magazines. Immediately copies were spirited over to the United States immediately for publication here. It was a major cultural as well as a scientific event.

FLATOW: Well--yeah. Was there advanced buzz on it that it was coming? I mean, the publishers...

Dr. LARSON: Certainly. People...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. LARSON: ...because the basic idea had been sketched out in Wallace's beautifully written paper and also Darwin's old papers that were published by the Linnaeus Society of London a year before--that's when the idea was announced--so everybody knew it was coming, and Darwin then scrambled that year to pull together all the pieces of what was going to be his grand book into this--what he called his short book. It's not very short, and it's a beautifully written book. So people knew it was coming. Advance copies had gone out. Reviewers had advance copies. It was arranged just like any other literary release. It's hard to remember--it's important to remember that Darwin at the time was already very well-known and a popular writer because his "Voyage of the Beagle" was a best-seller. It was a very popular book. So this would be like a book coming out by a Stephen Jay Gould or an E.O. Wilson or Richard Dawkins, a writer and a scientist who was known and whose words were being waited for.

Now especially it was popular because evolution was such a titillating idea. It had been around, people had been debating it, and now here was coming a book that a already respected, leading member of society, sort of a culturally acceptable scientist, was putting it altogether, so people were waiting for this and you could have read the review the next day. Just like a new "Harry Potter" book coming out...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. LARSON: ...you could review it on the front page of The Times the next day.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, we've run out of time. But I'd like to thank both of you for taking time to join me today. Edward Larson, professor of American history at the University of Georgia in Athens, author of "Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory." Niles Eldredge, paleontologist and curator of the new Darwin Exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History here in New York, and I suggest you go over there. It's going to be running till April, something like that?

Dr. ELDREDGE: It's going to go to May 29th, then it goes to Boston, Chicago, Toronto, London in time for his birthday, then out to San Diego, so it's going to keep running.

FLATOW: Wow. Thank you for both taking time to be with us today.

(Credits)

FLATOW: Surf over to SCIENCE FRIDAY. We have our free teacher curricula we make. Click on the teachers button on SCIENCE FRIDAY's Kids' Connection. We'll turn this program into free curricula for teaching in your class. Also, podcasting. You can podcast SCIENCE FRIDAY. Learn how on the sciencefriday.com site.

Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: