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Ignorance Can Be Funny
I recently gave a public lecture at a small fundamentalist college in Mount Vernon, Ohio. I had been invited to speak about my Australian fish research because a faculty member had heard me give a talk on that subject at the Columbus Zoo and thought that I would be a nice addition to the college's Lecture and Arts Series. The arrangements were made 10 months in advance, and flyers and posters were printed.
But apparently a few weeks before my scheduled lecture, the Lecture and Arts Committee discovered just whom they had invited. Two weeks before the lecture, I received an e-mail informing me that the college has a conservative constituency, heritage, and student body whose views on creation/evolution might be rather divergent from my own. They wanted to hear of my travels and research, but did not want to promote inflammatory dialogue. The committee and administration would offer for sale and signing my new book, A Natural History of Australia (1998), but not my other book, Evolution and the Myth of Creationism (1990) (see p 24). After a few more sentences about courtesy, respect, non-confrontational style, and so on, I was told that if I felt affronted by this or would rather not be placed in a position that compromised my integrity, the college would be willing to pay my full lecture fee whether or not I showed up.
My first reaction was, "Wow! This creates a whole new career path for me! I can threaten to speak at fundamentalist colleges, then accept a fee not to come. Is this a great country or what?" However, I was not about to cancel. I suspected that the evening would hold a few chuckles for me, and it did.
This lecture marked the first time I have ever been introduced with a disclaimer – something to the effect that the views expressed by tonight's speaker do not represent the views of the college or the church. I had not spoken a word yet, and they did not know what I was going to say, but whatever it was, it was not the view of the college. Man, I felt dirty – like a cigarette pack. Maybe I should get a t-shirt with the disclaimer printed on it.
I was then introduced as Professor Emeritus of The Ohio State University, but apparently my department's name, Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, could not be spoken. My Australian book and publication record were mentioned, but not "that other book". My talk was very similar to what is contained in Berra (1997) about megamouth shark and salamanderfish – just what I was asked to cover. My talk was very well received by about 150 people and all my Australian books were sold. Someone produced 3 copies of my evolution book from somewhere, asked me to sign them, and thanked me for writing the book. But such gratitude is not always the rule.
I was doing a book signing at a book store in a shopping mall near Mansfield, Ohio, shortly after Evolution and the Myth of Creationism was published. I was at a table surrounded by piles of my books and a large sign. About an hour into the evening I noticed a middle-aged woman with an enormous beehive hairdo pacing nearby. Eventually she screwed up her courage and came storming over demanding to know what kind of name Berra was. "Are you Jewish?" she screamed. I replied, "No, many names that end in a vowel are of Italian origin. Why do you ask?" She replied that no Christian could write such a book and that she understood why I would be an evolutionist because I had such "apish features". I am not making this up, folks. I was able to paraphrase Huxley's famous retort to the Bishop of Oxford that, if given a choice between a bigot such as her or an ape for an ancestor, I would unhesitatingly choose the ape. This sailed right over the beehive, but I felt very good.
Of course, there are times when the comic mixes with the tragic. One academic quarter, two introductory biology students complained to the dean that I spent too much time on Darwin and evolution. "He even asked us the name of Darwin's dog on a test!" During my annual review, the dean wanted to know what was going on. Why would I do that? Answer: I did not. There was a section of matching questions, with Thomas H Huxley matching with "Darwin's Bulldog". These students were so upset about hearing all this Darwin and evolution stuff that they could not think straight (at least that is the charitable interpretation). By the way, Darwin did own a dog – a white, rough-haired female fox terrier named Polly, originally belonging to his fourth child Henrietta, inherited by him when she married in 1871 and moved out of Down House (Freeman 1978). However, this sort of literalism about Darwin and associated canines would be out of place in a biology curriculum.
ReferencesBerra TM. Evolution and the Myth of Creationism. Stanford (CA): Stanford University Press, 1990.
Berra TM. Some 20th-century fish discoveries. Environmental Biology of Fishes 1997; 50: 1-12.
Berra TM. A Natural History of Australia. New York: Academic, 1998.
Freeman RB. Charles Darwin: A Companion. Hamden (CT): Dawson/Archon, 1978.