Advanced Instruments, Inc., a leader in laboratory instrumentation, launches their GloCyte Automated Cell Counter System at the 68th AACC Annual Scientific Meeting & Clinical Lab Expo in Philadelphia, PA July 31-August 4.
Researchers are closer to finding a better way to treat children with a rare metabolic disorder called MPS I. It is caused by a deficiency of the key enzyme IDUA needed to break down complex sugars in cells.
Teams at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet in Munich and EMBL have created photosensitive mimics of a class of signaling molecules, thus enabling their actions to be regulated by light, and affording new insights into the communications networks that con…
Sophia Genetics, the global leader in Data-Driven Medicine, today unveiled SOPHiA, the world’s most advanced collective artificial intelligence (AI) for Data-Driven Medicine.
Scientists in Singapore have made a big leap on research on the ‘mini-brain’. These advanced mini versions of the human midbrain will help researchers develop treatments and conduct other studies into Parkinson’s Disease and ageing-related brain diseases.
Scientists have developed a new method of measuring the activity of disease-causing mutations in the LRRK2 gene, a major cause of inherited Parkinson’s disease.
The University of Warwick has led the development of a cloud-based microbial bioinformatics resource, which is believed to be the largest of its kind in the world.
A study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine identifies a mechanism by which bioscaffolds used in regenerative medicine influence cellular behavior, a question that has remained unansw…
Some people love avocados. Others hate them. For many of the latter, the fruit’s texture is the source of their intense dislike. What gives?
Researchers at CNRS, INSERM, Aix-Marseille University and AP-HM have just created a virtual brain that can reconstitute the brain of a person affected by epilepsy for the first time.
by Emily Schoerning •
In my first installment of this series reporting on NCSE’s first-ever summer evolution camp, I talked about how we arranged some of the necessary logistics to get our cool free summer camp up and rolling, and then almost immediately ran into creationist students.
What did I do when kids offered negative, creationist reactions to evolution? I wrote them down on the board with the other kids’ comments. I didn’t react negatively to the kids. I didn’t argue with the children or tell them they were wrong. And what happened?
The kids in question got to see what other children in the camp thought without being marginalized or excluded. They got to see that when most other children thought of the word “evolution”, the first words that came to mind were words like “change”, “dinosaurs”, and “DNA”.
I and the other volunteers also spent time talking with kids in small groups about evolution. We were very impressed by the depth of content knowledge many of the children possessed, including that significant minority of creationist students in the camp. We had more than one kid in the camp who associated “lies” with evolution. We also had kids who primarily associated words like “Armageddon”.
“I think, the end of the world,” one boy whispered to me. “Because, if things change, they only get worse.”
First reaction? That is super depressing. Second reaction? That is super interesting.
By refusing to act negatively or with hostility to our creationist students, by treating them the same as kids who were accepting of evolution, we got to hear more about their emotional reactions to evolution.
For most of these students, their education about evolution had gotten very tied up with fear. They had feelings that people who believed in evolution were mean or bad, that such people wanted to lie to them, and had, understandably, a child’s idea about lies. They didn’t conceive of the creationist/evolution debate as a conflict of belief vs. evidence, a debate over valid sources of knowledge, or a complex sociological issue. They saw it as truth and lies, and as we all know only mean people tell lies. In their minds, it seemed clear that “belief in evolution” was a cultural marker associated with outsiders, and that such outsiders were probably bad people who did not share any other values with insiders.
This, of course, is not true. By putting some humanity into these children’s experience of evolution education, I think we were able to start them thinking about evolution a little differently. By refusing to fight about evolution, but instead calmly informing the students what scientists and experts thought, we failed to fulfill their expectations of outsider behavior. From the perspective of the kids, the volunteer camp leaders were definitely talking about evolution, but for some reason they were not mean or argumentative. Instead, they were nice and giving out sandwiches. Maybe they weren’t outsiders, after all.
I did not focus on the creationist associations when we first talked about evolution with the campers. I just wrote them down with the other suggestions and then focused on what I thought would most productively drive discussion.
In this case, I wanted to talk about DNA. That’s because after lunch we were going to visit one of the world’s premiere producers of DNA for laboratory environments, Integrated DNA Technologies. We spent some time talking about DNA as the vehicle for evolutionary change with the children. This was a valuable strategy when working with creationist students. Most of these students had been taught arguments for refuting evolution as it related to organisms, but few had been taught arguments related to genetics. Without canned responses to give, the kids seemed interested to listen and learn.
All the children were very excited to visit the labs. Our kids went on a tour of the facility where they saw awesome giant machines, learned about various careers, and met many different types of engineers and scientists. They also got to “do real science!”, a phrase many of them gleefully exclaimed. After a brief lecture where more nice, calm, professional adults talked about what DNA was and how it related to evolution, professionals at IDT led the students in extracting DNA from strawberries using basic equipment and reagents.
The kids were so excited by this exercise. They felt very important and professional to get to wear gloves and handle sterile tubes. They were allowed to bring home vials of the DNA they extracted. Some of the kids carried these vials around all week as proof that they were now “real scientists”. Not only was this super-adorable, it was very nice from an educational perspective. The kids had a discussion about DNA’s crucial role in evolution, and then they got to physically hold DNA. DNA wasn’t a lie or an idea. DNA was a thing they could see. DNA was a thing people could make and sell. DNA was the thing behind all the jobs they saw all the nice people doing. Good jobs, that paid for the good cars in the parking lot and the good clothes the people were wearing.
Kids notice that kind of thing even if we want to think they don’t. One of the factors that convinced me to focus on my education as a kid was definitely looking at the kind of lives led by people who were highly educated. I wanted that kind of a life. Seeing that kind of a life, and seeing people do jobs that led to that kind of a life, helped me believe that such a life was something I could have.
The kind of career modeling we were able to do in our camp, combined with an open acceptance of evolution, is not what our pro-science community generally pictures when we think about how to deal with conflict with creationist students. However, I will freely admit it is 100% what I picture. This camp gave me a great opportunity to test another major strategy in my no-fighting approach to evolution education. I wanted to show the kids what accepting science could give them.
How did it work out? Keep reading, we’ll have another installment up tomorrow.
by Glenn Branch •
In part 1, I tried to verify a quotation supposedly from James Clerk Maxwell (right), who, according to George Frederick Wright’s “The Passing of Evolution,” said of all systems of evolution, “I have examined all that have come within my reach, and have found that every one must have a God to make it work.” Previous invocations of Maxwell by Wright suggested that it might have occurred along with a discussion of atoms as “manufactured articles,” which points to Maxwell’s article on “Atom” for the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1875). (Also a possible candidate is Maxwell’s “Molecules,” a public lecture published in Nature in 1873; it prefigures and is reflected in the encyclopedia article, so it requires no special treatment here.)
But the phrase “I have examined all that have come within my reach, and have found that every one must have a God to make it work” attributed to Maxwell by Wright is absent from the article on “Atom.” I was about to conclude that Wright confabulated it when I stumbled across the obituary for Maxwell by William Garnett in the November 13, 1879, issue of Nature. There it is claimed:
About three weeks ago he remarked that he had examined every system of Atheism he could lay hands on, and had found, independently of any previous knowledge he had of the wants of men, that each system implied a God at the bottom to make it workable.
Similarly, in Lewis Campbell and William Garnett’s The Life of James Clark Maxwell (1882), Maxwell’s cousin and friend Colin Mackenzie, who was present during Maxwell’s final illness, is quoted as reporting Maxwell as saying, “I have looked into most philosophical systems, and I have seen that none will work without a God.” Mackenzie was probably also the source for the obituary’s version.
As it happens, Wright used the “to make it workable” version in his The Logic of Christian Evidences (1881). But it then evidently mutated in his memory to the “make it work” version, and the types of system in question similarly shifted from atheism through materialism to evolution. Still, granting the accuracy of Colin Mackenzie’s and William Garnett’s reports, the distortions are not overly great.
It is noteworthy that Wright never claimed that Maxwell rejected evolution. (Today’s creationists, e.g., those at the Institute for Creation Research, are not so discerning.) In the article on “Atom,” Maxwell mentions biological evolution in the context of the question of why all molecules of a given type have the same properties. In the course of considering a number of possible types of explanations, he broaches the idea of a more or less evolutionary approach, swiftly rejecting it on the grounds that
a theory of evolution of this kind cannot be applied to the case of molecules, for the individual molecules neither are born nor die, they have neither parents nor offspring, and so far from being modified by their environment, we find that two molecules of the same kind, say of hydrogen, have the same properties, though one has been compounded with carbon and buried in the earth as coal for untold ages, while the other has been “occluded” in the iron of a meteorite, and after unknown wanderings in the heavens has at last fallen into the hands of some terrestrial chemist.
In so doing, Maxwell in effect grants that a theory of evolution can be applied to the case of living things. (He is cagey, I admit, writing only that “it has been found possible to frame a theory of the distribution of organisms into species by means of generation, variation, and discriminative destruction,” without going so far as to endorse the theory here.) He then suggests that the question can be answered in terms of the atoms of which the molecules are composed—but the problem reasserts itself at the level of atoms.
Thus Maxwell was arguably a creationist at least when it comes to atoms. (I generally prefer a stricter definition of “creationism,” as involving a rejection of biological evolution in favor of a supernatural creation, but I couldn’t resist here.) It is particularly visible in the conclusion to the lecture published in Nature, in which he declaimed, with reference to atoms,
They continue this day as they were created, perfect in number and measure and weight [compare here the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon 11:20], and from the ineffaceable characters impressed on them we may learn that those aspirations after accuracy in measurement, truth in statement, and justice in action, which we reckon among our noblest attributes as men, are ours because they are essential constituents of the image of Him Who in the beginning created, not only the heaven and the earth, but the materials of which heaven and earth consist.
But although Maxwell was a serious Christian, he was leery of trying to support his faith with science, regarding inferences from science to theology as illegitimate and dangerous. And although he was repeatedly importuned to join the Victoria Institute, which was established to combat the pernicious effects of books like Darwin’s Origin, he firmly declined—hardly the decision of a dyed-in-the-wool antievolutionist!
by Emily Schoerning •
NCSE has been focusing more on outreach. We want to find ways to help communities connect positively with science education, particularly on the issues we care most about: evolution and climate change. As part of the Science Booster Club Project, I’ve been developing a lot of new outreach strategies. In a first ever experience for NCSE, I spent last week running a free science camp for fifth and sixth graders focused on evolution. In this multi-part blog series I’ll share some stories of how we developed relationships with creationist students; provided kids with quality, engaging evolution education; and had a great time. If you’re interested in creating an opportunity like this for your community, I hope this series will give you some ideas and advice.
My first piece of advice? Don’t be like me.For someone who is pretty smart about some things, I am really dumb about kids—and I have two of them! Going into this camp, I thought that fifth and sixth grade students would be totally mature and civilized. Definitely able to take care of themselves, and not at all likely to draw on their faces with permanent markers. Sadly, I was wrong on all of these points. My decision to spend a week with dozens of nine to eleven-year-old children was, to put it as mildly, an extremely loud experience.
I realized the extent of my misconceptions on the first day, when I faced our initial group of forty students in the cafeteria of our partner school. Shockingly, it turned out that they were…kids. I thought they would be interested in quiet journaling, but they were more interested in loudly being ninjas. More on them in a minute. First, you need a little background on how we got all those kids there.
When we offered this free camp we wanted to make sure it reached populations that would really benefit from this opportunity. In particular, we wanted to get rural kids who would be less likely to have access to similar enrichment activities. To reduce financial barriers, we not only offered the camp at no cost, we also supplied all the kids with lunch, snacks, and supplies. This absolutely would not have been possible without our generous donors, including the ACT Corporation, the European Society for Evolutionary Biology, and Integrated DNA Technologies. On top of significant grants from those organizations, we received incredible in-kind donations from Scheels Sporting Goods, Subway, and most particularly Blick Art Supplies, who gave us nearly a thousand dollars worth of free art materials.
How did we get these grants and donations, you might ask? Well, we asked for them. I and other Booster Club members wrote and called major businesses in the area and asked colleagues to keep us informed about grant opportunities. Once we had funding and knew the camp was really going to happen, we called local businesses that had things we wanted and asked them if they would give us anything. Some club members were initially very nervous about doing this, but everyone discoverd it was not very hard or scary. The worst thing was when people didn’t give us free stuff for weeks on end, but trust me, you’ll learn how to deal with that pain.
Getting the money and the goods necessary for the camp was one challenge. Another was getting the kids. To reach rural populations, we asked for help from rural teachers. We made a flyer about the camp and distributed it to every fourth and fifth grade teacher in the rural school districts outside Iowa City, so that they could inform the parents. We asked the teachers to help us find the kids who could benefit from this camp the most: rural kids who loved science and who had limited access to other enrichment activities. The teachers really came through, using their specialized knowledge of their communities to help us find lots of kids we would not have otherwise been able to reach. Some of the rural school districts also connected us with home-schooled children who were interested in science and would benefit from both the educational and the social aspects of the camp.
On the first day of the camp, my volunteers and I had the fruits of our labor before us. A group of primarily rural students, who were socioeconomically, linguistically, and ethnically diverse. We had good, healthy food to feed them and lots of cool stuff to do. I led the kids through a discussion of the scientific method, using their journals to do individual and small group brainstorming before sharing with the whole camp. Then I asked them to move on to the topic of evolution. What words came up when they first thought of evolution?
“Lies!” shrieked one little camper. “It’s lies!”
I nodded my head and wrote the suggestion on the board. We were ready to roll.
If you try to run a camp like this, you are going to run into this issue! Check out the next installment to see where to go from here.
by Stephanie Keep •
“Silly,” “comically short,” “feeble,” “itty-bitty,” “teeny-tiny,” “useless,” and “wimpy” are not generally phrases you’d associate with a fearsome predator, but they are just some of the adjectives science writers used to describe the fiercest of the fierce—T. rex…or its arms, anyway. New research published this month had the science community awash with T. rex talk because it described a newly discovered dinosaur with T. rex-esque arms. That is to say, with arms disproportionally small compared to its overall body size and ended with just two fingers. The new dinosaur, called Gualicho shinyae, discovered in Argentina back in 2007 (remember, it takes a long time to extract, clean up, and describe a fossil!), was about the size of a polar bear but had arms about as long as your average elementary-school-aged child.
T. rex’s small arms are certainly striking, and yes, I suppose, comical (check out the Tumblrs “T. rex trying” or “Things a T. rex can’t do” for examples), but I’d never want to meet one in the woods or a dark alley, so I generally refrain from name-calling. I also try to refrain, as ever, from too insistently asking the tempting question “What were their little arms for?” because, for all we know, they weren’t for anything (see: belly button). With its little arms T. rex survived peachily for at least two million years before a giant meteorite ended the party (see: Chicxulub impactor). So who are we to point the fingers at the end of our well-proportioned arms and laugh?
The newly discovered dinosaur adds a new dimension to this conversation, however, and that’s really what I want to talk about. When you see species with the same trait, there are generally two broad classes of evolutionary explanations. Either each species inherited the trait from a common ancestor, or each species evolved the trait independently (convergent evolution). To decide which scenario is more plausible, evolutionary biologists follow the law of parsimony. The law of parsimony is really a variation of Occam’s Razor, and can be boiled down to this: The simplest hypothesis that explains the facts is the preferred hypothesis, other things being equal.
Let’s consider mammals. All mammals have hair at some point in their development (some adult whales that don’t have hair do have it in utero). It is possible that each mammal species evolved hair independently along its lineage (like Oprah, right? You get hair! And you get hair! And you get hair!), but a far simpler hypothesis is that all mammals inherited hair from a common ancestor. Why is it simpler? Because it assumes only that the trait evolved once—not thousands of times.
Back to the dinosaurs. Our new dino friend, Gualicho shinyae, had reduced arms just like T. rex. So the question arises: was this trait inherited from a common ancestor, or did it evolve independently? Well, it turns out that you have to go pretty far back along each species’s lineage to find the common ancestor—T. rex and G. shinyae were distant, not close, cousins. Many other dinosaur species were much more closely related, and they had proportional arms, not tiny arms. So the two contending hypotheses are (1) the common ancestor of T. rex and G. shinyae had reduced arms, which were maintained by T. rex and G. shinyae while all of the closer cousins independently evolved robust arms and (2) the common ancestor of T. rex and G. shinyae had robust arms and T. rex and G. shinyae each independently evolved reduced arms. Following the law of parsimony, the latter hypothesis is favored.
Okay, so two species of predatory dinosaurs each independently evolved reduced arms. That is an intriguing finding because it seems to suggest that there was some advantage associated with the trait. Notice that I didn’t say that the arms themselves must have been advantageous, only that there is likely to have been at least an advantage associated with it. So I stand by my earlier warning that asking what the little arms are “for” is not necessarily the right question to ask—rather, we should be asking what advantage did they confer, or even what non-arm-related advantage might have resulted in tiny arms.
The best suggestions I found were in the The Washington Post’s Speaking of Science blog, where Rachel Feldman writes that “smaller [fore]limbs might have made these ferocious dinosaurs more nimble hunters.” Paleontologist Thomas Holtz Jr. added, “Reducing the arms was probably ‘beneficial’ in that they got them out of the way of the more powerful jaws.” Reducing the size of the forelimbs would have carried the benefits of reducing overall energy expenditure and making room for more robust musculature in the torso and neck—all the better to chomp you in two, my dear.
I find all of these suggestions compelling. You’ll note that none of them answer the question of what were the little arms for. If these hypotheses are right, they weren’t for anything; rather, they are the outcome of selection for other advantages. In this way, they are a bit like Lewontin and Gould’s famous spandrels—the consequence of other functional and beneficial characteristics. The advantages of having small arms outweighed any disadvantages, and thus they evolved—at least twice—among dinosaurs.
So can we all put our hands together to applaud Sebastián Apesteguía and his colleagues for their research? I mean, those of us who aren’t T. rex or G. shinyae?
Are you a teacher and want to tell us about an amazing free resource? Do you have an idea for a Misconception Monday or other type of post? Have a fossil to share? See some good or bad examples of science communication lately? Drop me an email or shoot me a Tweet @keeps3.
by Ann Reid •
Lots of great stuff last week, but if you only have time to read one thing this week, read the interview with Mary Schweitzer below. What might the world look like if more scientists took Jack Horner’s approach?
- The Unlikely Paleontologist: An Interview with Mary Schweitzer: part 1 and part 2, The Well (InterVarsity), July 12-13, 2016 — Mary Schweitzer discusses her transition from young-earth creationist to evolutionary scientist, her controversial discovery of soft tissues in dinosaur fossils, and
the importance of studying paleontology.
- When Subpoenas Threaten Climate Science, The New York Times, July 19, 2016 —Rep. Lamar Smith has doubled down on his strategy of using subpoenas to intimidate the climate science community. First NOAA officials and scientists, now the Union of Concerned Scientists. Read Who’s Next? on the NCSE blog for more detail.
- Were Ants the World’s First Farmers?, Smithsonian, July 20, 2016 — A new genomic study reveals how attine acts made the move from hunting and gathering to farming, possibly as long ago as sixty-five million years. “It’s a symbiosis” between the ants and the fungus they cultivate, “and selection is acting on the combination.”
- Righting America at the Creation Museum, Times Higher Education, July 21, 2016 — Randy Malamud reviews Susan L. Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger’s book on Answers in Genesis’s Creation “Museum,” observing, “A small part of me wanted to hit the road and see at first hand what all this looks like up close. But the Trollingers have provided a service by writing this book so that we do not have to go there ourselves.”
- How a Guy From a Montana Trailer Park Overturned 150 Years of Biology, The Atlantic, July 21, 2016 — The inimitable Ed Yong tells the tale of how Toby Spribille discovered that lichens are not alliances between a fungus and an alga but among two different types of fungi and an alga. “Textbook definitions of lichens may have to be revised.”
by Minda Berbeco •
As an organization, NCSE is focused on science education—and as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, it tries to stay out of politics as much as possible. With the recent Republican National Convention making headlines though, politics was definitely on my mind this week (and no doubt your mind too!)
Without sliding into party politics, or even the most recent presidential election, I thought that it would be fun to delve into our archives to look at “politics past.” So today, take a big step with me back in time, to the year 2005. Where were you and what were you doing?
I was in my first year of graduate school—at the point, in fact, of deciding to switch from a masters to a doctoral program, and trying to convince my advisor it was a good idea. (P.S. It worked!)
Meanwhile, the folks at NCSE were working hard to keep “intelligent design,” the new form of creationism, out of the public schools. It was in the news a lot in the summer of 2005, since the lawsuit in Kitzmiller v. Dover had been filed, and the trial was approaching.
NCSE’s deputy director Glenn Branch wrote a piece that year for Reports of the NCSE (RNCSE) on then-president George W. Bush’s position on “intelligent design”:
During a press conference with a group of Texas reporters on August 1, 2005, President George W Bush responded to a question about teaching “intelligent design” in the public schools. The reporter referred to “what seems to be a growing debate over evolution versus ‘intelligent design’” and asked, “What are your personal views on that, and do you think both should be taught in public schools?” In response, Bush referred to his days as governor of Texas, when “I said that, first of all, that decision should be made to local school districts, but I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught…so people can understand what the debate is about.”
A seemingly politically savvy answer for Bush at the time, perhaps, but also no doubt discouraging to the scientists across the country who heard it. Branch then goes on to suggest that Bush should have sought the advice of his White House science adviser, John Marburger, who had called evolution the “cornerstone of modern biology” and rightly described “intelligent design” as not being a scientific theory. Touché!
Here we are eleven years later, with Kitzmiller v. Dover in the rear view mirror, and yet we still see threats to evolution education routinely popping up all over. Take a look at Branch’s piece and let us know how you think the terrain has changed since then. Do you think politicians are more cognizant of evolution and its role in biology? Do you think we have moved on to larger topics to argue over—such as Zika research funding, the effects of Brexit on international scientific projects, and the Taylor Swift/Kayne West conflict?
Give us your thoughts below—and remember, keep it civil; my mom reads this blog!
by Ann Reid •
Some time ago, I wrote about Lamar Smith (R–Texas and chairman of the House Science Committee) and his efforts to intimidate climate scientists. In that post, I noted that Smith had issued:
…a Congressional subpoena—the King Kong of information requests—for all emails and correspondence between the paper’s authors and NOAA officials.
You might say that as taxpayers we have a right to see everything that government employees and government-funded scientists write to each other…but when the only correspondence that is sought is that concerning a scientific finding that pisses off a politician, society’s collective you-know-what detector really ought to go off.
I’m happy to report that neither the paper’s authors nor NOAA complied with the subpoena, the issuance of which was met with severe criticism from the scientific community, including a fierce letter from the American Meteorological Society.
I’m sorry to say, though, that Rep. Smith has not given up. But now he’s turned his attention from government scientists to a non-profit advocacy group, in this case, the Union of Concerned Scientists. UCS has been around since 1969. when a group of scientists got together to make the case that scientific research should be focused on solving environmental and social problems, not developing new military technologies. And climate change is among those problems. As explained on its blog, “UCS has been working for years, publicly, to expose activities by the fossil fuel industry and their allies that undermine climate science, mislead the public, and shield oil companies from accountability.”
Wielding the same weapon he wielded against climate scientists, Rep. Smith recently issued a subpoena to UCS. In an op-ed published recently in The New York Times, UCS president Ken Kimmel explained:
The subpoena orders me to hand over correspondence between my staff members and state attorneys general, and between my staff members and environmental organizations and funders.
Why go after UCS? The background to Rep. Smith’s demand is that UCS has been uncovering evidence that scientists at ExxonMobil had informed company executives decades ago that the combustion of fossil fuels was contributing to global warning and posed a significant danger. Despite these warnings, ExxonMobil was apparently contributing to misinformation campaigns denying the reality of global warming and, even more significantly from a legal point of view, failing to warn their investors that the company’s main product was causing serious real-world problems. State attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts are now investigating these claims (and have received subpoenas of their own from Rep. Smith’s committee).
In an interpretation of the First Amendment that gives new meaning to the term “Orwellian,” Rep. Smith says that suggesting that Exxon Mobil might have been lying to the public and its shareholders is an attack on the corporation’s right to free speech. Meanwhile, apparently, UCS has no free speech right to share its evidence with state attorneys general. This makes my head hurt.
UCS will refuse to comply with the subpoena, according to UCS’s Ken Kimmel, and should Rep. Smith try to push the matter further, I suspect that he will find himself stymied (a full vote of the House would be necessary to pass a resolution of contempt of Congress). But clearly that’s not what he’s after. Rather, he wants to score a cheap talking point. After all, if UCS doesn’t turn over its e-mails, Smith will be able to darkly suggest that it has something nefarious to hide. It’s all depressingly familiar. As executive director of a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that evolution and climate change are taught accurately in our nation’s schools, I find it hard not to take this personally. Who’s next?
by Glenn Branch •
I was recently reading through “The Passing of Evolution,” George Frederick Wright’s contribution to The Fundamentals (1910–1915). Wright (1838–1921) was a minister and self-educated geologist who, under the tutelage of the botanist Asa Gray, became (as Ronald Numbers describes him in The Creationists ) “one of Darwin’s most enthusiastic advocates.” But in the 1880s, when he was a professor at Oberlin College, “the thrust of his efforts shifted from defending evolution and the scientific enterprise against biblical literalists to defending the historical accuracy of the Bible against critics who applied evolution to the making of the Bible itself,” and by the time that A. C. Dixon was recruiting authors for The Fundamentals, he was a natural choice to be asked to contribute a screed against evolution.
Having recently read Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon’s book about the nineteenth-century British physicists Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, I was struck by the following passage in “The Passing of Evolution”:
Of this, as of every other variety of evolution, it can be truly said in the words of one of the most distinguished physicists, Clerk Maxwell: “I have examined all that have come within my reach, and have found that every one must have a God to make it work.” By no stretch of legitimate reasoning can Darwinism be made to exclude design. Indeed, if it should be proved that species have developed from others of a lower order, as varieties are supposed to have done, it would strengthen rather than weaken the standard argument from design.
That might sound as though Wright is going to defend a form of theistic evolutionism, sensu lato, but in fact he continues, “the proof of Darwinism even is by no means convincing,” and so forth. But what about that Maxwell quotation?
The earliest instance of the quotation I was able to find was, as it happens, from a “condensation” of a talk that Wright himself gave to the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston in 1898, published in the magazine Public Opinion in the same year:
Lord Kelvin and the late Clerk-Maxwell, two of the greatest physicists of the century, voiced the general verdict when they said, that on examination of systems of materialism every one of them was found to require a God to make it work; thus leading to the opening announcement in Genesis that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
So was it Kelvin or Maxwell (or both in unlikely chorus)? And was it not a verbatim quotation? The fact that the author was credited by Public Opinion as “Frederick G. Wright” suggests the possibility of error anyhow. But when a retooled version of the talk appeared under the title “The Accord of Science with the Bible” in 1902, it contained:
After tracing the protean forms of matter down to the ultimate atom, with which the chemist deals in all his formulae, Clerk-Maxwell affirms that they bear every mark of being “manufactured articles,” and, after having traced to its limits every variety of evolutionary theory, he affirmed with the utmost confidence that every one of them must have a God to make it work. Thus are these philosophers [Kelvin, Faraday, and Maxwell] brought back to almost the identical opening words of Genesis as the statement of their highest philosophy.
The same passage occurs in the entry for “Bible and Science, Accord of” by Wright in The New Standard Encyclopedia (1907). So, judging from the retooled version, it was Maxwell, but not necessarily a verbatim quote, and it may have appeared along with a claim about atoms as “manufactured articles.”
As it happens, Maxwell (above) mentioned atoms as “manufactured articles” in a conspicuous venue: his article on “Atom” for the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1875). The phrase is not Maxwell’s invention, as he explained, but John F. W. Herschel’s, from his Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830). (It was he who later dubbed the idea of natural selection “the law of higgledy-pigglety [sic],” by the way.) Herschel notes that atoms come “in a very limited number of groups or classes”—elements—“all of the individuals of each of which are, to all intents and purposes, exactly alike in all their properties.” That uniformity calls for explanation; Herschel infers that each atom must be therefore a “manufactured article” (emphasis in original) produced by a single agent intending to produce a uniform set of atoms.
Maxwell was evidently sympathetic to the argument, although not uncritically. In the article on “Atom,” he observed that because there are “three kinds of usefulness in manufactured articles—cheapness, serviceableness, and quantitative accuracy,” it was unclear how the argument was intended to run. Replying to a correspondent (Charles John Ellicott, the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, if you must know) in 1876, he seemed to endorse the argument on a reading of “manufactured article” where the uniformity is “a uniformity intended and accomplished by the same wisdom and power of which uniformity, accuracy, symmetry, consistency, and continuity of plan are as important attributes as the contrivance of the special utility of each individual thing.” But what about “a God to make it work”? You’ll see in part 2.