The year 2009 marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Over eighty years ago, the Scopes "monkey trial" in Dayton, Tennessee, marked the beginning of a long battle for the soul of American public opinion, pitting biblical creationism against the teaching of human evolution in public schools. But how well do we understand what Americans know and believe about human evolution? National surveys by Gallup have certainly told us much about trends in Americans’ core beliefs about human origins: a relatively stable, sizable plurality (45%), for example, appears to believe in a creationist version of human origins; nearly 40% endorse the theistic supernatural idea that "man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, including man’s creation"; and only a very small percentage (12–14%) has accepted the naturalistic position that "man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process"(http://www.gallup.com/poll/21814/Evolution-Creationism-Intelligent-Design.aspx). We have also learned a good deal about the socio-demographic characteristics of those who hold such beliefs (http://pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=392). But we know much less about the nuances and structure of these beliefs and the scientific knowledge or ignorance that underlie them. Data from a recent national Harris survey (2008) addresses these deficiencies by measuring multiple dimensions of Americans’ beliefs about evolution, their familiarity with scientific concepts in evolutionary biology (for example, adaptation), and their scientific knowledge in general (for example, the age of the earth and of the universe) — all social-psychological facts that the American scientific and educational communities must confront in dealing with the obstacles to full acceptance of the theory of human evolution in the 21st century.
|God created the universe, the earth, the sun, moon, stars, plants, animals, and the first two people within the past 10 000 years.||600|
|There was a flood within the past 10 000 years that covered all of the earth and was responsible for most of the rock layers and fossils that are seen across the world.||599|
|The earth is less than 10 000 years old.||531|
|God made the dinosaurs, along with all other animals and humans, less than 10 000 years ago.||587|
|Dinosaurs lived at the same time as people.||574|
|The only reliable way to know for certain about what happened in the past is to have a reliable historic record written by someone who was an eyewitness.||573|
|Archaeological findings have confirmed the authenticity of the people and incidents recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible.||583|
|The theory of evolution is not supported by any confirmed facts.||566|
|The theory of evolution proposes missing links and speculates about how humans developed but does not have strong factual evidence to support it.||580|
|All of the events recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible are supported by archaeological evidence.||547|
|Human fossils have been found mixed in with dinosaur fossils showing that humans existed at the same time that dinosaurs existed.||573|
|All people are descendants of one man and one woman — Adam and Eve.||578|
|The Bible describes the creation of life exactly as it occurred in six days.||607|
|There is no such thing as a genetic defect — all genetic changes result from the decisions of a God or an Intelligent Force.||584|
|All living things exhibit evidence of having been purposefully designed, which means there must be an Intelligent Force or a God.||525|
|God created the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry in just the right way, so that life, particularly human life, would be possible.||544|
|God has intervened in the evolutionary process to create millions of species at various times over millions of years.||533|
|God started the evolutionary process and directed it over millions of years.||521|
|God allows organisms to survive by way of natural selection in a post-Flood world.||539|
|God allows variations within each species, like a man or a dog, through natural selection, but does not allow changing from one species to another species.||535|
|Humans are so complex, advanced, and unique that we cannot have arisen due to chance events.||525|
|The life processes in cells are so complex that they could not have developed by random events.||530|
|The complexity of life cannot have arisen by chance or random events.||532|
|Some traits in humans were produced by intelligent design while other traits evolved by natural selection.||508|
|The origin of all life in the universe is the result of intelligent design and not chance events.||558|
Our first analysis of these data has revealed a remarkable diversity of religiously driven and scientifically informed (and uninformed) beliefs about human evolution, much of it seemingly contradictory (see summary table on page 17). To begin with, sizable chunks of the American adult public evidently believe a whole host of creationist articles of faith to be true, among them such claims as:
Archaeological findings have confirmed the authenticity of the people and incidents recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible (65%).
All people are descendants of one man and one woman — Adam and Eve (60%).
The theory of evolution proposes missing links and speculates about how humans developed but does not have strong factual evidence to support it (52%).
The Bible describes the creation of life exactly as it occurred in six days (50%).
The only reliable way to know for certain about what happened in the past is to have a reliable historic record written by someone who was an eyewitness (50%).
Human fossils have been found mixed in with dinosaur fossils showing that humans existed at the same time that dinosaurs existed (43%).
God created the universe, the earth, the sun, moon, stars, plants, animals, and the first two people within the past 10 000 years (39%).
There was a flood within the past 10 000 years that covered all of the earth and was responsible for most of the rock layers and fossils that are seen across the world (60%).
Yet hardly a fifth (18%) actually believes the statement "The earth is less than 10 000 years old." And this is one of many such cognitive-psychological incongruities in the public’s belief system.
At the same time, much of the American public appears to endorse as true propositions about the origins of life that are strikingly theistic and in sync with a range of appeals from the "Intelligent Design" movement, namely such claims as:
And perhaps most amazing:
God created the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry in just the right way, so that life, particularly human life, would be possible (69%).
All living things exhibit evidence of having been purposefully designed which means there must be an Intelligent Force or a God (64%).
Humans are so complex, advanced, and unique that we cannot have arisen due to chance events (60%).
God started the evolutionary process and directed it over millions of years (56%).
God has intervened in the evolutionary process to create millions of species at various times over millions of years (54%).
There is no such thing as random genetic mutations causing changes in a species — all genetic changes result from the decisions of a God or an Intelligent Force (35%).
There’s no such thing as a genetic defect — all genetic changes result from the decisions of a God or an Intelligent Force (24%).Despite all this religiously-rooted reasoning, large percentages of Americans (often the same people) likewise accept as true a multitude of evolutionary scientific facts that are seemingly at odds with other statements they accept as true, such as:
Layers of rock containing fossils cover the earth's surface and date back hundreds of millions of years (78%).
Humans share reflexes with other primates that are not shared with other animals (75%).
Dinosaurs became extinct about 65 million years ago (69%).
All life forms are descended from common ancestors that developed over millions of years (65%).
Birds appear to have evolved from dinosaurs (55%).
Living organisms on earth have evolved over a billion years ago from nonliving chemicals (44%).
Our exploratory factor analysis of sixty such items turned up four fundamental dimensions that underlie most beliefs about human evolution, which we call: (1) Purposeful Complexity–Intelligent Design, (2) God as Biblical Creator of the Universe & Human Life (3) Reality of Genetic Relatedness & Change in Life, and (4) Truth of Scientific Claims on Evolution (details are not included here, but are available on request from the authors). So Americans’ beliefs about evolution are a lot more nuanced and multidimensional than heretofore suspected. Not only that, we found a number of anomalous response patterns when we looked at the relationship between responses to our belief items and responses to the Gallup question about human origins.
For example, over a third (35%) of respondents who chose Gallup’s creationist category (God created human beings in their present form at one time in the last 10 000 years or so) did not believe the creationist tenet "Dinosaurs lived at the same time as people." In fact, over half (56%) of these respondents also agreed with the statement "Dinosaurs became extinct about 65 million years ago." Even better, a solid majority of them (54%) agreed that "All animals share common ancestors that gave rise to all the different types of animals that are alive today." These and other anomalous patterns (not shown here) tell us that the widely cited Gallup question may significantly overestimate the percentage of orthodox creationists in the American public.
We also discovered that, underneath all these
inconsistent and perplexing belief patterns,
Americans’ knowledge of basic scientific and evolutionary
facts looks rather poorly grounded. Less than
half (43%) knew (or guessed in a multiple-choice format)
that the earth is billions of years old and only
30% knew that the universe was also billions of years
old. Barely more than four out of ten Americans (42%)
was aware that the last dinosaur existed on earth millions
of years ago; roughly a fourth (26%) thought it
was a hundred thousand years ago or less. Just a fifth
or so (22%) could correctly answer that modern
humans emerged hundreds of thousands of years ago, and
not unexpectedly, less than one third (28%) could
accurately identify when human beings began to
migrate across the world from the continent where
they originally emerged: 10 000–100 000 years ago (see "Atlas of the Human Journey" at
Furthermore, Americans’ self-reported acquaintance or familiarity with key evolutionary concepts looks equally abysmal:
|Concept||Very Familiar||Somewhat Familiar|
So, with evolutionary literacy so rudimentary and fundamentalist, theistic, and "intelligent design" — driven beliefs so widespread, it should not be terribly surprising that public resistance to the theory of evolution in American society remains remarkably high, as compared to what has been documented in international surveys of citizens from other economically and scientifically developed nations by Jon Miller, Eugenie C Scott, and Shinji Okamoto (in their "Public acceptance of evolution," Science 2006; 313 : 765–6) — all this, mind you, in the Year of Darwin, 150 years after the publication of the Origin of Species. Surely the graybeard must be turning in his grave.
Note: This article is a revised and updated version of a paper presented at the 64th Annual Conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, Hollywood, Florida, May 14–17, 2009. The data were originally collected by Harris Interactive with 4626 respondents in two waves of data collection from July to October, 2009. Respondents were drawn from Harris Interactive’s on-line panel and weighted based on age, sex, region of country, income, education, and ethnicity to resemble the overall US based on US Census proportions.
Last year’s twin anniversaries of Charles Darwin’s birth in 1809 and the publication of his On the Origin of Species in 1859 prompted a string of books on the life of the English naturalist who was so concerned about his evolutionary findings that he delayed their publication for twenty years. Yet there was a woman, also raised religious, who helped blaze the trail for Darwin — an often forgotten and dismissed fossil hunter who was just as surely tortured by her own bizarre discoveries, but who ultimately came to accept the evolution of life.
Born in 1799, Mary Anning — the dirt-poor woman said to have inspired the tongue-twister “She sells seashells by the seashore” — would spend her entire life uncovering and piecing together the fossils of one never-before-seen monster after another: organisms that had been hidden away for nearly 200 million years in the cliffs up and down England’s southern coastline. In short, she provided raw material to the scientists — all male — that would be instrumental in forming their evolutionary theories. Stephen Jay Gould later remarked that Anning is “probably the most important unsung (or inadequately sung) collecting force in the history of paleontology” (quoted in Jo Draper’s Mary Anning's Town: Lyme Regis (Dorchester [UK]: Dorset County Council, 2004). Yet Anning’s place in history happened quite by accident.
By birth, Anning never should have become an influential fossil hunter and geologist. She was marginalized not only by her family’s poverty but also by her sex, her regional dialect, and her nearly complete lack of schooling. But she enjoyed one natural advantage: the very good fortune of having been born in exactly the right place at the right time, alongside some of the most geologically unstable coastline in the world; it was — and still is — a place permeated with fossils.
After her father died in 1810, young Mary’s family was in dire financial straits. In order to put food on her table, she was forced to run the shore’s gauntlet of high tides and landslides to hunt for curiosities that she could sell to seafaring tourists. If she hadn’t, her family very well could have starved.
Her first discovery, made in 1811 when she was only 12 years old, was of the fossil of an ichthyosaur, a marine reptile about four feet in length with flippers like a dolphin and a chest like a lizard. At first people thought it must be a crocodile. In time, though, the specimen attracted massive crowds to museums in London, where many soon realized the skeleton was of a creature never before seen.
Indeed, a wide range of lifeforms had been safely deposited in ancient sea beds up and down the coast near Lyme Regis, Anning’s hometown, rendering the region’s stratigraphy uniquely able to store (and later reveal) evidence of 200 million years of evolution. Scientists eventually discovered that the cliffs east and west of Lyme Regis portrayed an almost continuous sequence of rock formations spanning the entire Mesozoic Era, perhaps better than any other locale on the planet. Until the early 1800s, though, the area’s residents had no knowledge of this rich resource.
The strange fossils found along England’s southern shoreline had baffled the locals for as long as anyone could remember. They came in all forms and sizes — including what later were determined to be bivalves, ammonites, belemnites, and brachiopods — and sometimes even the fragments of giant critters never heard of before. Some people thought the fossils were so lovely and delicate that they surely must be God’s decorations, allowed to bubble up from the inside of the earth, a bit like flowers were allowed to ornament the outside. Others thought they must be the remains of the victims of the global flood recorded in Genesis.
Like most everyone in England at the time, Anning and her neighbors had absolute faith in the fact that species never evolved or became extinct. Everything that existed had always existed. Yet the fossils that Anning uncovered as a young woman — including many of the world’s first ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and pterodactyls — had never been seen by anyone, anywhere before.
Indeed her discovery of a nearly intact long-necked plesiosaur (Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus) in 1823 was so incredible that even the celebrated French anatomist Georges Cuvier did not believe it could be valid. It was only after British geologist William Conybeare defended Anning’s find — and verified that the neck did indeed boast at least 35 vertebrae — did Cuvier admit he was wrong. Eventually he pronounced Anning’s fossil a major discovery.
As Anning aged, and began working alongside Britain’s clique of male geologists — most of them Anglican clergymen — there were countless attempts to use biblical stories to explain the new knowledge about the natural world that resulted from her fossil discoveries. For example, Anning’s friend and associate William Buckland — the well-known English geologist and first professor of geology at Oxford — believed that the fossils found at high altitudes proved that a great flood had once covered the planet, just like the Flood described in the Bible.
Anning worked alongside Buckland for years, not only combing the beach looking for fossils, but also in the study of fossilized feces known as coprology. Anning had found many stones about four inches long inside the skeletons of ichthyosaurs, leading her to believe they might be fossilized clumps of undigested food. Soon they both concluded the stones were feces, which helped them figure out what the creatures had eaten.
In her later years, she also assisted the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz during his visits to Lyme Regis. Agassiz was best known as the first person to propose the scientific concept of an Ice Age in 1837. For years he strongly advocated the prime role of glaciers in bringing about physical changes in earth’s crust that had formerly been attributed to the biblical Flood. Agassiz had worked closely alongside Cuvier, who believed that the earth was immensely old and also that periodic catastrophes had wiped out a number of species. At the same time, a rival French intellectual, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, proposed transmutation, arguing that organisms could transform in such a way that higher forms could emerge from lower ones.
Anning’s views on the flood and the disparate theories of the male scientists of her era are not known. But in 1833, she was visited by a tourist, the Reverend Henry Rawlins, and his six–year-old son, Frank. Rawlins believed that God created the world within a week, but Anning described to young Frank how the fossils purchased by his father had been found by her at all different levels in the cliffs, explaining that this meant the creatures possibly had been created and had lived at different times. According to Frank’s journals, his father refused to discuss the issue after they left Anning’s home.
One can only imagine how frightening it must have been for Anning to find the fragments of these exotic creatures — with their bat-like wings, snake-like necks, and big, bulging eye sockets — and wonder if perhaps the live versions were not about to fly out of the sky or come up out of the sea to terrorize her. The puzzle of Anning’s specimens weighed on the public’s mind as well. Many religious leaders were convinced that her ichthyosaur and other fossil finds were soiling the sacred teachings of the Bible. “Was ever the word of God laid so deplorably prostrate at the feet of an infant and precocious science!” exclaimed an exasperated evangelical Anglican pastor named George Bugg, author of Scriptural Geology, written in 1826.
But according to most accounts from her friends, Anning continued to be a deeply meditative woman who often could be found praying or reading the Bible and who almost never missed a Sunday service. Anning’s close friend, Anna Maria Pinney, wrote of how the two often talked of the idea of creation and other spiritual topics. “To think that life shall never have an end quite fills the mind, but to think of God without a beginning is more than a created being can comprehend,” Pinney wrote.
Anning tried to reconcile what she was unearthing with her belief in God’s omnipotence, a belief she apparently held until her death from breast cancer at the age of 47. Some of her letters to friends suggest that she grew to accept that there had been a progression of living things. A few years before she died, she remarked that — from what she had seen of the fossil world — there is a “connection of analogy between the Creatures of the former and present World.” From most accounts, it seems she continued to believe in God throughout her life, but that she also came to accept that evolution was part of God’s plan. Toward the end of her life, she copied into her journals many poems and passages laced with religious overtones.
At the Natural History Museum in London, as well as a small museum in Lyme Regis, Anning is recognized as having laid the groundwork for the theory of evolution, not to mention nearly two centuries of discoveries in the stillevolving worlds of paleontology and geology. Today thousands of people continue to go hunting for fossils along England’s so-called Jurassic coast — a 95-mile stretch of shoreline declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2001. And, to this day, real and startling discoveries are still being made, such as the skeleton of a 195-million–year-old Scelidosaurus, the earliest of the armored dinosaurs, in Anning’s hometown of Lyme Regis a few years ago.
With over 700 species of dinosaurs already identified and named, reminders of the prehistoric past just keep on surfacing, thrilling paleontologists. But there are plenty of people who are still unsettled by the signs of the completely different world that must have existed on earth before humans arrived — even if they also are able to marvel at the possibilities.
It is most likely a feeling that — nearly two centuries ago — Anning would have shared.
Richard Dawkins, Darwin’s latterday pit-bull, has a missing link. Or, rather, had. With the publication of his tenth book, The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins finally gets around to filling a conspicuous void in an evolutionary oeuvre that spans nearly forty years. As Dawkins himself explains, all his previous books primarily deal with the power of natural selection and simply assume that evolution has happened. Dawkins outlines the goal for his latest tome in the introduction:
Evolution is a fact, and this book will demonstrate it.No reputable scientist disputes it, and no unbiased reader will close the book doubting it.
That ostentatious declaration sets the bar high, but by the final flowery chapter, after over 400 pages of dramatic evidence, it is apparent that the author has successfully cleared the hurdle.
The book’s September 2009 release was just in time for the sesquicentennial anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, certainly no mere coincidence. In fact, Dawkins’s book shares many conspicuous parallels with Darwin’s first edition from 1859. Both have 14 chapters (including Dawkins’s appendix) and follow much the same outline for "one long argument" intended to establish the scientific case for evolution. Both begin by setting out the evidence for natural selection, first treating artificial selection in the origin of domesticated animals and plants and then moving to bona fide natural selection in the wild. Like Darwin, Dawkins next proceeds methodically to the ample evidence from the fossil record, from developmental biology, from biogeography, and finally from vestiges and other remnants of historical contingency. But Dawkins’s job is much easier than Darwin’s was, and it is correspondingly more compelling. Here in the 21st century, the evidence for evolution is indeed great, much more diverse and extensive than 150 years ago when Darwin wrote the Origin.
Chapter after substantial chapter, we are treated to the many independent, converging lines of evidence that all point to the same conclusion: the fact that "all living things are cousins". Dawkins devotes an entire chapter to geological dating, covering radioactive methods, tree rings, geological strata, and leading fossils, with a clear refutation of the oft-made charge that fossil dating is circular.
Dawkins really finds his stride in the fifth chapter, "Before our very eyes". Here Dawkins discusses several cases of evolution observed in real-time in both the lab and the wild, including the impressive Lenski experiments on twenty years of controlled bacterial evolution.
By the sixth chapter (on transitional fossils) one gets the feeling that Dawkins is really batting them out of the park, and he keeps on hitting homers for the rest of the book. Dawkins covers topics often given short shrift in other books of this kind, and his treatment of the modern molecular evidence, ranging from protein folding to molecular phylogenetics, is particularly satisfying. His consideration of the molecular clock and the neutral theory of evolution is especially useful and avoids some of the more common misconceptions that have persisted even in the primary literature.
I was singularly pleased to see David Penny’s formal test of common descent brought to a larger audience, where five independent protein phylogenies are shown to display statistically significant similarities — a result expected if the species harboring these proteins are genetically related. In the closing chapter, Dawkins deconstructs line by line, as if explicating a poem, the famous final paragraph of Darwin’s Origin. This unorthodox conclusion is perhaps the finest chapter of the book, touching on the universal genetic code, abiogenesis, thermodynamics, the RNA world, and the anthropic principle.
Stylistically, this latest offering harbors no surprises, and if you have enjoyed Dawkins’s previous books, you will not be disappointed with this one. Dawkins is the prince of scientific analogies and is uniquely adept at conveying difficult and complex scientific concepts by extracting otherwise arcane similarities from more familiar things. The embryonic development of an animal is likened to "inflating origami". Protein folding is compared to the spontaneous bunching of magnetic beads on a beaded necklace. If, over the millennia, you could hear the ticking of neutral fixations in the molecular clock, it would sound, according to Dawkins, like the random crackling of a Geiger counter.
Dawkins’s frustration with creationists and the excesses of religion are plainly sensed in this book, as in his others, and his indelicate remarks, though largely justified, will undoubtedly be offputting for many potential readers:
The history-deniers [Dawkins’s euphemism for anti-evolution creationists] themselves are among those that I am trying to reach in this book. But, perhaps more importantly, I aspire to arm those who are not historydeniers but know some ... and find themselves inadequately prepared to argue the case.
Flaws and quirks aside, Dawkins’s message will quite likely hit its intended target, as well as open some of the more hardened minds of evolutionary skeptics.
In a book on evolutionary evidence, it is hard to avoid a few nods towards debunking the common creationist fallacies. Nevertheless, unlike many other popular books that cover the evidence for evolution, this is not primarily a refutation of creationism or "intelligent design" arguments. Rather, Dawkins’s latest book is a positive commemoration of the triumph of a grand arching theory that has withstood the continuous onslaught of 150 years of new data, including the tsunami of molecular, genetic, and sequence data from the past fifteen years.
In the final analysis, The Greatest Show on Earth will take a deserved place alongside other "must-read" evolution books. No other book currently available approaches Dawkins’s comprehensive yet accessible treatment of the extraordinarily diverse and massive body of data that drives ineluctably to the same conclusion, the only conclusion that makes sense of everything in biology: that all the "endless forms" of known life share a common genetic kinship, as they have been, and are being, evolved.
When I was in eighth grade, we read Inherit the Wind in English class. Even when taught as literature, however, the idea that the play is inspired by the Scopes trial translates easily in young minds to the idea that they are more or less the same story, despite the fact that Inherit the Wind is about as historically accurate as Disney’s version of Pocahontas.
The addition of a book like Stephanie Fitzgerald’s The Scopes Trial to the pre-teen marketplace is therefore a boon to historically-minded educators, as well as parents who want to introduce their children to this exciting chapter in American history. Unfortunately, I would recommend a book like Fitzgerald’s The Scopes Trial, which itself has enough flaws that I cannot recommend it.
Certainly, there are things to be admired about the book. It is well-paced and attractive, evolution is treated as the only scientific explanation of life, and there is significant reliance on and reference to primary sources. However, certain elements of the book are less appealing.
The select bibliography includes Marvin Olasky and John Perry’s atrocious, pro–“intelligent design” Monkey Business: The True Story of the Scopes Trial (2005; reviewed in RNCSE 2006 May/Jun; 26 : 45–6) among a collection of primary sources, while Edward J Larson’s definitive Summer for the Gods (1997) is conspicuously absent. Though there is no evidence that Fitzgerald is sympathetic to anti-evolutionists — quite the opposite, actually — the risk that students or teachers might use the select bibliography for further reading makes this a concern.
In pursuit of the laudable goal of balance, Fitzgerald may overstate the nobility of her subjects. She is sympathetic to the Tennessee government, downplaying their support of the bill:
[T]he people who voted on [the bill] did not feel very strongly about the issue. … The Tennessee House of Representatives approved the bill by a vote of 71–5. Those who voted for it probably expected the members of the Tennessee Senate to kill it. But when the bill got to the senate it was passed by a vote of 24–6. Most of the members of the senate expected Tennessee Governor Austin Peay to veto the bill. (p 32)
Peay also supposedly signed the bill for fear that failing to do so would prevent fundamentalists from supporting a tax increase to increase school funding.
On the other side, Fitzgerald avoids the anti-defense team attitude taken by Olasky and Perry as she describes Darrow as famous for being a defender of “the poorest and most downtrodden people”; while it is true that he had gained fame defending union members and political radicals, he also defended wealthy murderers, and it was for this that he was most famous by the time of the trial (Larson 1997: 71).
Though Fitzgerald makes motions towards dispelling some of the stereotypes about the trial and its players in the body of the text, in the first chapter she unfortunately plays into many of them for the purposes of summary: Bryan was fighting for the Bible! Darrow was fighting for truth and reason! Scopes was an evolutionist rebel! The people of Dayton were ignorant hillbillies! Though only the first two are directly stated, readers go into the rest of the book with their preconceptions reinforced — not the ideal mindset for absorbing new ideas.
This simplification is not limited to the trial itself. In the chapter summarizing the history of evolution, Fitzgerald follows a perfectly serviceable description of Lamarckian inheritance with the dismissal that Lamarck was “just dealing with guesswork and did not have any evidence to support [his] ideas” (p 24). Though this was a criticism leveled at him both in his own time and by some modern scientists, it ignores the nature of science in his era and the comprehensive nature of the framework he developed. While some simplification is necessary when summarizing the entire history of evolutionary theory in twelve pages, it does no one any favors to dismiss an important figure in the history of biology.
Perhaps the greatest weakness in the book is one of language choices that a casual reader would likely overlook entirely — which is exactly why it is so dangerous in a book for pre-teens, who almost certainly lack the background to read between the lines. The most obvious example to RNCSE readers is Fitzgerald’s repeated use of the cringe-inducing phrase “believe in” evolution — a common but sloppy expression which carries religious undertones (a better alternative is “accept evolution”). There is also a problem with language that means different things to scientists and non-scientists. For example, Fitzgerald claims that the discovery of Neanderthal skeletons “offered proof” of primitive humans, and Archaeopteryx “proved Darwin’s claim that birds had evolved from reptiles” (p 24). When dealing with an audience that is unfamiliar with the scientific process, to imply that scientific claims are proved true or false, and by a single piece of evidence, sets them up for misunderstanding basic scientific concepts later on.
Fitzgerald’s efforts are admirable, and there is no smoking gun in this book, no sentence one can point to and say, “There, that’s wrong.” And it is clear that her heart is in the right place. But all the small objections that might seem petty taken individually add up to a book that just doesn’t make the cut.
Larson EJ. 1997. Summer for the Gods. New York: Basic Books.
Olasky M, Perry J. 2005. Monkey Business. Nashville (TN): Broadman and Holman.
Title: The True Adventures of Charley Darwin
Author: Carolyn Meyer
Orlando (FL): Harcourt. 2009. 272 pages
Title: Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith
Author: Deborah Heiligman
New York: Henry Holt. 2009. 320 pages
The True Adventures of Charley Darwin, by Carolyn Meyer, and Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith are two excellent new additions to Darwiniana for young people. Meyer gives us an engaging account of Darwin’s youth up until his marriage. Heiligman offers a poignant account of Darwin in maturity through the story of his family life and collegial relationships.
Despite some inevitable overlaps, the books are remarkably complementary. Both authors recount classic anecdotes; both authors describe Darwin’s youthful, ill-fated flirtation with Fanny Owen; and both document Darwin’s infamous 1838 list, jotted on the back of a letter, outlining the pros and cons of marriage (Darwin 1838). In fact, that list represents the pivot point between Meyer’s lively historical romance for adolescents and Heiligman’s well-crafted story of an older Darwin for a slightly older audience.
Carolyn Meyer has a devoted following of adolescent readers who love her fictionalized, first-person historical biographies (of Mozart’s sister, Grand Duchess Anastasia, Queen Anne, and others). In this vein, Meyer’s The True Adventures of Charley Darwin introduces the reader to the schoolboy who preferred to catch beetles and hunt for newts in the old quarry rather than study Latin and Greek; the young man who was more comfortable on horseback galloping across the pampas of Argentina than he was sipping tea in an English drawing room” (p 320).
Meyer is a novelist, exercising a novelist’s prerogative in introducing occasional minor anachronisms, arranging fictional encounters to move the action forward, and putting words into the mouths of her characters. On the other hand, she is also a meticulous researcher, who keeps her artistic license well within the bounds of credibility. She makes good use of the little information available about Darwin’s early childhood, relying on his Autobiography (1958) and Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995) to create an account of school days alive with friendships, pranks, and rivalries, all in the grim context of institutional thin blankets, unwashed sheets, and stale bread.
The dramatic arc is significantly interrupted by a long chronological account of Darwin’s five-year voyage on the Beagle. But Meyer deftly keeps the narrative flow intact by referring to the letters Darwin received from family and friends at intervals during the voyage; and, true to the genre of historical romance, her narrative ends with Darwin’s ambivalent courtship and marriage to Emma Wedgwood.
Meyer gives us the young Darwin as an adored younger brother, a discontented schoolboy, an adolescent romantic; an intrepid explorer, a passionate hunter, a desirable catch, a preoccupied young scientist, and a hesitant suitor. And she offers her readers a rich and lively picture of upper-class English country life in the 19th century.
Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith springs to life at the point where Meyer’s draws to a close. Heiligman’s research is grounded in the available sources, especially the correspondence and diaries of Emma Wedgwood Darwin, Charles’s notebooks, and correspondence among Darwin’s colleagues and friends. From this rich trove, the author has drawn a nuanced and engaging portrait of the Darwins’ lifelong devotion to each other despite divergent religious beliefs.
From the late 18th century onward, scientific explanations for natural phenomena challenged the conventional Anglican world view of supernatural intervention and biblical literalism. A growing movement of freethinkers and Unitarians believed that human affairs should be governed based on reason and empirical evidence. The Darwins’ divergent spiritual perspectives embodied the contemporary tension between religious orthodoxy and science.
Heiligman reconstructs Emma’s perspective from letters, memories recorded by the Darwin children, short moral tales she created to teach her children to read, and from notes in the margins of her Bible. Heiligman depicts Emma as a complex woman: thoughtful, intelligent, honest, highly principled, and devout.
Growing up in a freethinking, Unitarian household, Emma took to heart the Unitarian commitment to rational and independent thought. And yet Emma had a deeply devotional side, which is revealed in her letters.
Heiligman places much weight on three letters in particular. The first, written shortly after the death of Emma’s sister Fanny: “Such a separation as this seems to make the next world feel such a reality — it seems to bring it so much nearer to one’s mind and gives one such a desire to be found worthy of being with her” (Wedgwood 1832).
In a second letter, written by Emma to Charles after their engagement in 1839, she worried that “our opinions on the most important subject should differ widely. My reason tells me that honest & conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us. I thank you from my heart for your openness with me & I should dread the feeling that you were concealing your opinions from the fear of giving me pain” (Wedgwood 1838). In a later letter she says, “May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way, & which if true are likely to be above our comprehension” (Wedgwood 1839). At the bottom of this letter, discovered among Darwin’s papers after his death, is a short note: “When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed & cryed over this. C.D.”
Like Emma, Darwin grew up among freethinkers and Unitarians. Darwin’s father had little patience for religion, but his sisters made sure he knew his Bible, which he interpreted literally in his youth. Heiligman provides a succinct summary of natural selection theory and a detailed description of the decades of inquiry that convinced Darwin that species have their origins in natural processes, leading him to describe himself as a materialist and an agnostic.
Despite Emma’s concern about the state of Charles’s soul and her fear that he was jeopardizing their chances of being together through all time, the Darwins’ marriage was strong and fruitful in many dimensions. Heiligman writes about their love, their family life, and their very human struggles to be true to themselves and to each other.
Charles and Emma is a poignant and intimately researched portrayal of the deep bond between two mature people with a commitment to each other, to their family, and to the truth. It is a worthy departure from the format of Heiligman’s earlier brightly illustrated children’s books.
Each of these fine books — The True Adventures of Charley Darwin and Charles and Emma — is unique in tone and emphasis. Each portrays a different and fascinating phase of Darwin’s long and productive life. Together, they offer the young reader (or the devoted Darwin fan) a lively and rich depiction of Charles Darwin and his intimate world.
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Darwin C. 1958. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1909–1882. Edited by Nora Barlow. New York: WW Norton & Company.
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