You are here

John A Moore: A Champion of Evolution

An ardent long-time supporter of NCSE, the distinguished biologist John A Moore, Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), died in May 2002, a month short of his 87th birthday. John had a passionate commitment to improving the teaching of biology and stressed that evolution is the essential framework on which such teaching must rest.



John was born in rural West Virginia, where he acquired a lifelong interest in natural history. He published his first research paper in Auk in 1931 at the age of 16. His senior year of high school was spent in New York, where, while volunteering at the American Museum of Natural History, he formed a lifelong friendship with Ernst Mayr. From there, he entered Columbia University, where he specialized in embryology and genetics, receiving his PhD in 1940. In 1938, he married a fellow graduate student in zoology, Betty Clark. Betty was his scientific collaborator and co-author throughout their long and happy life together.

While in his 20s, he taught at Queens College of the City University of New York and Barnard College, but soon returned to Columbia University, where he remained until 1968. At Columbia, he rose rapidly to be Professor of Zoology and chairman of an illustrious department that included Theodosius Dobzhansky, among other outstanding biologists. In 1969, he moved to UCR, from which he retired in 1982. As a Professor Emeritus, he not only actively pursued research but also provided service to scientific and educational organizations. In fact, John served on more than 30 national committees on biological sciences education, for such organizations as the National Research Council, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Institute for Biological Sciences (AIBS). The latest of the many awards John received came from AIBS, which honored him with its 2002 Education Award for his efforts in the public understanding of science and the teaching of evolution.

His research on a wide variety of biological topics — especially herpetology, developmental biology, and population genetics — received widespread recognition. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1960 and a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1963. He was President of the Society for the Study of Evolution in 1963 and President of the American Society of Zoologists in 1974. One form of recognition, which he related to me with a special twinkle in his eyes, was the illustration of one of his research subjects in an unusually widely distributed format. John's research in herpetology took the Moores to Australia in 1952-3, resulting in his monograph on Australian frogs, which included the description of several new species. One of these, the spectacularly colored Corroboree frog, was later featured on a beautiful Australian postage stamp!

John was a champion for the cause of improving education in biology. His first major book, Principles of Zoology, published by Oxford University Press in 1957, was a widely adopted undergraduate textbook that influenced a whole generation of biologists in the US. He believed that modern biology and evolution should also be integral parts of a well-rounded education for non-scientists and should therefore be promoted at the K-12 level. He was one of the founders of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. In 1960, he supervised the preparation of one of the BSCS's first high school textbooks, Biological Sciences: An Inquiry into Life. It sold more than two million copies and for 20 years was the leading high school biology text using an inquiry-based approach.

The one unifying theme of John's approach to teaching was his insistence on placing each topic into its broad historical perspective as a way of understanding the development of scientific thought and showing how this development is influenced by the social context of the times. In 1993, Harvard University Press published John's seminal book, Science as a Way of Knowing: The Foundations of Modern Biology. It concerns the development of the major ideas of the biological sciences and explores their historical roots and the growth of the concept of evolution. He described his reasons for writing this book as follows:
There can be no future for the human experiment unless a critical mass of involved people understands that the laws of nature constrain our activities and that our solutions to these problems must be based on knowledge and not blind adherence to fads.
John edited 6 more volumes in what became a series of Science as a Way of Knowing books written by outstanding biologists.

During the 1970s and 1980s, John became increasingly concerned with the inroads being made by the resurgence of so-called scientific creationism. John saw this as an attempt to return to the science of the first half of the 19th century, before Darwin. He frequently pointed out that the modern creationists and proponents of "intelligent design" are the direct intellectual descendants of William Paley and his Natural Theology; or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802). The indifference of many mainstream biologists to the challenges being made by the burgeoning creationist movement concerned John greatly. His initial attempts to get the National Academy of Science involved in the creation/evolution issue met with failure. He therefore wrote numerous articles countering creationism and published them in journals such as Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Journal of Geological Education, Journal of Science Teacher Education, Academe, Daedalus, and The American Biology Teacher. Subsequent events, including those in Kansas in 1999, among others, brought home to many scientists that the impact of creationists on the public at large and on K-12 education in particular is too important to ignore. The National Academy of Sciences reconsidered its position, and John served on the committee that wrote Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences (second edition, 1999).

John was the author or editor of more than 180 articles and books. The most recent of these should be well known to the readers of RNCSE. In February 2002, the University of California Press published John's last book, From Genesis to Genetics: The Case of Evolution and Creationism. In it, he explains that for religion and science to coexist, they must be free to do the good for which each is uniquely qualified. He describes the ancestry of ancient creation myths and the history of biblical interpretations of the Book of Genesis. He reviews the historical context of creationism and intelligent design in the 19th century and the development of evolutionary thought. Finally, he strongly advocates strengthening the separation of science and faith in our educational system. All this is written with his usual, and awesome, breadth of scholarship and fluid style.

On the personal level, John was admired and loved by all who knew him. The enthusiasm for the natural world that he acquired as a boy never left him, but his interests were not limited to science: widely read in culture and history and with a strong appreciation for the arts, he exemplified the conception of a Renaissance Man. He was very supportive of his associates and students, freely giving them encouragement with his gentle, though penetrating, questions and humor that helped them to develop their ideas. At the memorial meeting for John held at UCR in May 2002, Bruce Albert, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, talked at length about the great influence that John had had on him, calling him his "hero and role model". And I am proud to have been numbered among his friends.

There is no more fitting way to conclude this tribute to John Moore's contributions than by quoting the concluding words of From Genesis to Genetics, in which he lauds those individuals down the ages who, by using their unfettered minds for rational inquiry, gave us:
the modern world and the possibility of truly great improvement of the human condition. They have replaced the primitive view of nature as chaotic, mysterious, and often threatening with a view of the universe and life as responding in patterns that are precise, beautiful, and awe-inspiring. Beyond giving pleasure to the inquisitive, analytical mind, this progress in understanding provides previously unimagined ways to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and lessen toil. Lives are poorly lived when they look out upon a cold, hostile, inscrutable world; lives are enhanced when they look out upon a world with appreciation of its beauty and order and its suitability as a warm and friendly home. It matters little for the great moral and ethical questions facing humanity whether or not the human brain and mind are the consequences of random events in evolution, though scientists are convinced they are. However, it matters a great deal that we use our brains and minds honestly, humanely, intensively, and effectively to preserve and improve the world for ourselves and for generations that follow (p 206).
John A Moore had just such a mind, honest and humane, one that worked intensively and effectively to improve the world of biology and of all who knew and interacted with him.