Review: Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory

evolution

Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific TheoryEdward J. Larson. New York: Modern Library Chronicles, 2004.

Summary: A history of the development of evolutionary theory, including both the antecedents to Darwin and Russell and the extension of this theory, the controversies, both past and present that it provoked, and the genetic discoveries that have further revealed the theory’s mechanisms.

The theory of evolution is perhaps one of the most contested of scientific battlegrounds, both in terms of internal debates about aspects of the theory, and the conflict, particularly in the U.S., around this theory and at least some branches of Christian belief. What Edward J. Larson gives us here is not a scientific or theological treatise but rather a highly readable history that explains both key developments, even those preceding Darwin, and the controversies that resulted down to the time of publication (2004).

The tale begins with studies of both biological specimens and fossil finds by figures such as Cuvier and Lamarck that suggest both a great antiquity for life on earth that stretches the bounds of creation accounts in the Bible as they were understood, and also suggests both continuities and discontinuities between species in a kind of tree of life. Scientists before Darwin, as well as other thinkers thought in terms of some form of evolution but could not understand how one species developed from another. Were adaptive characteristics inherited, as in Lamarck’s proposals? How did speciation occur?

Larson discusses the work of Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace who are rivals for the title of the “father of evolution.” Each was coming to similar conclusions about natural selection and were even in touch with each other and jointly published a paper on natural selection. But it was Darwin’s book, On the Origin of the Species, that captured public attention and led to the primary association of his name with the theory.

The book also traces the history both of subsequent key findings, particularly in Mendelian genetics and the critical work of Watson and Crick, as well as some of the darker sides of Darwinism in “social Darwinism” and eugenics trials culminating in the genocide of the Holocaust. While not laying these developments at the feet of the theory, one does see in this history the darker tendency of humans to “help natural selection along” and sometimes at any cost.

Larson also gives an even-handed overview of the anti-evolution controversies both of the Scopes trial era and more recent efforts. He profiles the principle opponents of evolution and their ideas, as well as the problematic elements in what they propose. He also chronicles more recent controversies within the scientific communities around sociobiology as well as “punctuated equilibrium” that calls into question more gradualist accumulations of adaptive traits.

What Larson does is offer us a good history that seeks to be even-handed and not polemical in explaining the rise of evolution as a theory as well as the objections raised (as well as why they have not gained traction with the wider scientific community). Without wading deep into either science or theology, he offers clear explanations of each and thus helps us understand the history of one of the most important ideas in the last two centuries. A great piece of both history and science writing for a general audience!

Review: Private Doubt, Public Dilemma

Private Doubt, Public DilemmaPrivate Doubt, Public Dilemma by Keith Thomson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Summary: This book, drawn from Thomson’s 2012 Terry Lectures, explores the conflict between religion and science through a look at two men who struggled with this conflict, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Darwin, considering how they handled scientific findings that conflicted with their beliefs and the public aftermath and expresses hope for a different engagement in the future.

Are science and religious belief in conflict? Certainly much of the history of the last couple centuries would suggest this is the case. What Keith Thomson does is examine this conflict, not as two blocks of people opposed to one another, but in terms of what happens when scientific findings conflict with one’s established beliefs, creating both personal doubts and a public dilemma when one publishes these findings, knowing they will conflict with the beliefs of others.

Thomson uses two figures to portray this conflict: Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin. For Jefferson, as he was compiling his Notes on the State of Virginia, the issue was geology and the apparent great age of rock formations he was studying. Privately, Jefferson had moved from Christian faith to a vague deism, even as these findings challenged prevailing interpretations. In his case, however, he recognized that this gave his political rivals an issue and he decided to leave the matter unresolved and publicly espoused more conventional beliefs.

A similar issue faced Darwin, who at one time considered training to be a clergyman. As he came to write On the Origin of the Species, he also struggled with the implications of the theory he was proposing which denied the special creation of different kinds of species but argued that processes of natural selection could account for the rise of different species. Darwin was so troubled by all this that he relied on others to publicly defend his ideas, Aldous Huxley against Bishop Wilberforce in England, and Asa Gray against Louis Agassiz in the United States.

Thomson argues that the public debates and dilemmas are a public manifestation of the clash between old and new knowledge and between differing sources of authority rooted in the new (scientific) and old (religious) knowledge. His hope seems to be that in time, the influence of the old authority will lessen and that religious people and scientists will co-operate on a broad range of issues from climate change to biotechnology.

What troubled me was not so much the places where science and religion conflict about understanding of the physical world. Even in Darwin’s time, theologians like B.B. Warfield were responding cogently and with an openness to the “new” scientific knowledge. Rather, it is the assumption that religion should step aside with its ethical reservations when science asserts that something both can and ought to be done. His treatment of contraception is a case in point. While I think there could be a place for dialogue with the Roman church about its categorical refusal to permit contraception by other than natural means, I found Thomson’s dismissiveness of the church’s concerns about how contraception results in the “banalization of sexuality” singularly condescending. If religious reservations on other ethical questions raised by new technology and new scientific findings are thus simply brushed aside, there is little hope for a real engagement between thoughtful scientists and religious believers. (I would acknowledge that there are certainly reactionary religious ideologues who resist any advances in science and that these often garner far more media attention than thoughtful religious believers who engage in a far more constructive fashion–Francis Collins and his BioLogos Foundation is a good example of the latter.)

What I think is part of Thomson’s problem in these lectures and this book is that he assumes only two kinds of people: either those who mute their religious beliefs because of their science, and those “fundamentalist” believers who resist the advance of science. What I wish he would have done is highlight those in Darwin’s time and ours who do the far more difficult thing–holding firm religious beliefs and rigorous science in a creative tension, taking a both/and rather than either/or approach. I think such individuals in fact represent the best “way forward” in bridging the divide, perceived or real, between religion and science in a way that allows us to address the greatest hindrances to the flourishing of human beings and the rest of, dare I say it, creation.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher as an ebook via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science

Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science
Louis Agassiz: A Life in Science by Edward Lurie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Louis Agassiz might well be considered the foremost naturalist of the first half of the nineteenth century. He brought a rigor to the scientific enterprise in America that inspired everyone from cabinet members to farmers. And he also reflects the human dilemma of being caught late in life in a paradigm shift as the work of Charles Darwin won over a younger generation of zoologists, some who had studied with Agassiz.

This is an older work, published in 1960 and a cheap find at a used book sale at our local library! Lurie traces Agassiz from his youth in Switzerland, his clear sense of a plan for his life from age 15 that led to a succession of studies first in Neuchatel, and then in Germany, his efforts to forestall his parents aims that he would settle down to a respectable medical practice in his home town, and fortuitous relationships with Humboldt and Cuvier. It was with the latter that his metaphysical and scientific convictions about special creation and the fixed nature of species were formed. During this time he gained great reknown in Europe with lectures on glaciation and how these wiped out species and how different species were specially created in various locations following the last ice age.

This in turn led to lectures in America in 1846, and the offer of a Harvard appointment. In one of the darker sections of the book, we see his choice of American science over his dying first wife. Nevertheless, supported by rich Boston patrons and lecture income, he establishes a research program and the prolific collection of specimens that would continue for the rest of his life, far outstripping the ability to catalogue and properly display and utilize them. This led to plans for a Museum of Comparative Zoology, functioning under Harvard’s aegis with some funding from the college and much from patrons, the state, and even Agassiz’s own earnings. Along the way, he married Elizabeth Cary, a wife totally dedicated to and enthralled with his work.

The Museum in many ways represented both the pinnacle of his accomplishments in attracting researchers, rigorous publications, and one of the most comprehensive collections of zoological specimens, living and fossil, anywhere in the world. The efforts to sustain this Museum led to ever more taxing efforts that colored Agassiz’s responses to Darwin’s theories, alienated him from colleagues, and eventually fatally compromised his health. He suffered two strokes, the second of which proved fatal resulting in his death in December of 1873.

I was expecting to find a portrait of an increasingly rigid man, and to some extent this was so. And yet in his last years, he reconciled with Asa Gray and others he had alienated and even corresponded cordially with Darwin and wrestled with Darwin’s explanations and the data Darwin cited in support. He never changed his basic position, however, and in an Atlantic Monthly article published posthumously, he presented both his respect for Darwin’s work and his critique of the theory and reasons for continuing to hold his own views.

Along the way, Lurie helps us to understand how Agassiz gained such a standing and following. He was a driven personality with an expansive vision, huge energy, a compelling lecturer, and a dedicated researcher who could affirm original discoveries of his students, or even common citizens who sent him a specimen he had not seen before. Agassiz made science exciting not just for scientists but the wider public. This biography charts the strengths and weaknesses of such a figure and is worth the attention of anyone with great aspirations in science.

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