Darwin's legacy at Stanford

Darwin's legacy at Stanford

On a miserable wet evening that Charles Darwin himself would have found familiar, 10 actors took the stage recently at Cubberley Auditorium to reenact the long and careful process by which the great scientist discovered evolution.

"It's as if God were interrupted on the sixth day," the on-stage Darwin exclaimed to his wife and colleagues as he struggled with the strange natural evidence he had seen on the Galapagos Islands. Why were there different varieties of the same bird on each island? Why so many different beaks? How did they get that way?

"Were you practicing, Lord?" Darwin asked, in one of his several one-on-one conversations with his putative maker. And, he asked one of his friends, "What kind of god sets creation in motion and then washes his hands of it?"

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

During the two decades after he returned from his voyage on the Beagle, Darwin slowly figured out the puzzle. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of the result, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, as well as the 200th birthday of its author (born the same day as Abraham Lincoln). At Stanford and universities around the globe, scholars are celebrating his works and his example, which set the gold standard for scientific method.

Darwin's lessons go way beyond identifying why giraffes have long necks or how fish managed to crawl out of the sea. The reason why Darwin is still being talked about in departments of biology, philosophy, psychology and even music is that he provided a model for how species and their societies and cultures develop. He gave us tools for understanding change. There's no discipline that cannot learn from him.

The Stanford events honoring Darwin are a varied lot. Aside from the dramatic reading, based on letters by Darwin and his associates, there was a quarterlong multidisciplinary course, Darwin's Legacy, offered by Continuing Studies; an afternoon symposium marking Darwin Day, an international event founded right here in Palo Alto in 1995; a 26-day "Voyage of the Beagle" by chartered jet, organized by the Travel/Study program, which retraced Darwin's footsteps around the globe; a Sophomore College course in the Galapagos Islands; and the summertime "Darwin Safari" to the United Kingdom, organized by the Bing Overseas Studies Program and led by the indefatigable Robert Siegel, associate professor (teaching) in the Human Biology program. Enthusiasts at Human Biology launched the anniversary year on Darwin's 199th birthday with a nicely decorated birthday cake, a ritual repeated this month on the 200th.

Like confessing a murder

William Durham

William Durham

In an early kickoff to the anniversary year, William Durham, the Bing Professor of Human Biology, chose Darwin as the subject of his Class Day lecture to the graduating class of 2008.

"Darwin was quite ordinary" in many ways, he reassured his audience. What was extraordinary was how he persevered, how well he observed, how tirelessly he interrogated his data and specimens and how courageous he was in the face of received wisdom. He was a discoverer, Durham said, something we need more of.

After Darwin's rather lackluster passage through a series of educational institutions, he was hired as a naturalist on the Beagle when he was just 22. He took 245 books on board with him and spent nearly five years on the voyage—only five weeks of which were in the Galapagos Islands, though that brief spell would prove historic.

Once he returned to England, he spent 20 years developing his ideas, taking long detours, reading broadly, making mistakes and relying on the advice and corrections of his friends and collaborators. The fact that there are 16,000 extant letters in Darwin's papers indicates the breadth of his scientific networking. Darwin was not the first to realize that species were not all created at once, but he was the first to demonstrate why it must be true. There was no "aha!" moment (especially not in the Galapagos), a point Durham emphasized in his speech. It was not that easy.

Nor was it safe. Darwin feared the implication of his own ideas. In 1844, he wrote to his friend Joseph Hooker, "At last, gleams of light have come, and I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable." If he took two decades to publish his heretical findings, it was, in part, because he realized their revolutionary potential at a time when Europe was in no mood for social upheaval.

Darwin proposed descent from a common origin with modification, placing human beings on one branch of a tree, an image that biographer Janet Browne told the Continuing Studies audience was "absolutely transformative." All organisms on Earth came from a common source, Darwin wrote, and natural selection was the principal—though not exclusive—means through which these organisms were randomly modified over time. By the time he published Origin in 1859, Victorian Britain was finally at a point where empire, industrial development, intellectual exploration and social reform made it possible to consider that such an idea, alongside mountains of evidence, might just be correct.

Biology and behavior

Melissa Brown

Melissa Brown

Darwin's Legacy, a course for undergraduates and Continuing Studies students, was directed by Durham and Carol Boggs, the director of Human Biology; biologist Rodolfo Dirzo; and Siegel, a microbiologist. The lecturers and respondents, from Stanford and elsewhere, were drawn from anthropology, religion, medicine, psychology, philosophy, literature, law and biology.

For the most part, it was a love fest. Until, that is, Stanford anthropologist Melissa Brown arrived to explain why social scientists historically have been much less enthusiastic. Put simply, the Darwin of Origin is not the Darwin of Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, published 12 years later. In the latter, Darwin turned his attention to the human race, exhibiting what Brown called "an appalling attitude" toward racial and social differences. Here, unlike in his previous investigations, Darwin did have in mind a good and a bad. "Civilization" was good, and those who exhibited contrary behavior were, well, unfit. Darwin was both a brilliant scientist and a racist Victorian gentleman, Brown pointed out, which made perfect sense at the time.

(It is worth noting that these ideas partly explain why a statue of one of Darwin's earliest opponents, Louis Agassiz, is propped up on the facade of Jordan Hall. Agassiz shared with his rival an interest in race and human classifications, topics that later would develop into eugenics, or the selective breeding of human beings to encourage certain hereditary traits. One of the champions of eugenics, a field today identified with racism and Nazism, was none other than David Starr Jordan, Stanford's first president. The marble Agassiz had a headfirst fall during the 1906 earthquake but was promptly restored.)


Darwin statue

The statue of Louis Agassiz, an early opponent of Darwin, after it toppled from its perch on Jordan Hall after the 1906 earthquake. Photo: Stanford University Archives

Today, most social scientists interested in evolution have moved beyond genetic fitness. Instead, they think of cultural change as a process analogous to genetic change. The processes are separate, similar tracks that sometimes intersect, directly affecting each other. One of Brown's current research projects, for example, focuses on identity, marriage and cultural evolution in Taiwan; she and her colleagues explore whether gene-culture coevolutionary models can account for changes in marriage patterns between 1906 and 1945.

One of the first researchers to take Darwin's lessons and move them onto the plane of behavior was Konrad Lorenz, a 1973 Nobel Prize co-winner and a teacher of Stanford's Russell Fernald. Lorenz developed the notion of imprinting, which sees behavior as a series of adaptive legacies that optimize reproductive possibilities.

Darwin understood that competition created the possibility of brain plasticity, which then alters behavior. Lorenz watched ducks as they courted, and he identified steps they would go through again and again but which, on occasion, changed, mimicking the modification of a species.

Likewise, Fernald, the Benjamin Scott Crocker Professor of Human Biology and another of the lecturers in Darwin's Legacy, tracks the behavior of a species of fish in Lake Tanganyika to discover how its brain morphologically changes. Social information is transduced remarkably quickly into cellular and molecular change, Fernald has found. So behavior and the brain evolve together. Unlike those who study skeletal remains, researchers like Fernald have no historical record. There is no ancient brain tissue lying around, there are no fossils that reveal behavior. So researchers must study living animals and infer backward.

Designer fashion

Durham told the Darwin's Legacy students that the course organizers decided that the very first lecture after the introduction would be devoted to so-called Intelligent Design (ID), an indication of the degree to which, 150 years later, many people are still disappointed—frightened, even—at the lack of supernatural agency or divine purpose in human development.

Russell Fernald

Russell Fernald

The lecture on religion was delivered by Eugenie Scott, a biological anthropologist and executive director of the National Center for Science Education, based in Oakland. She instructed the class in what she calls "drive-by science," or how to counter creationist arguments such as, "well, evolution is just a theory." So is gravity, she points out.

Like Durham in his Class Day speech, Scott said Darwinism is an opportunity to think about epistemology. How did Darwin learn? What were his contributions to scientific methodology?
Most people—or, at least, most Americans—do not understand what science actually means, what theories are or how scientists conduct tests to reach conclusions, Scott said.

"Evolution is an inference," she said. "It is an inference based on a huge amount of information. Descent with modification cannot be observed; it can only be inferred. It is the only explanation that makes sense based on the information we have." In another piece of drive-by-science ammunition, she pointed out that nobody has observed the planets circle the sun. That's another inference, and a pretty good one.

Above all, science has nothing to do with religious belief, she said. It has to do with method. It is a way of knowing. It compels no particular religious belief or disbelief. In fact, as Janet Browne pointed out in her lecture, Origin itself dealt neither with God nor with human ancestry, so the controversies do not spring directly from Darwin's work.

And yet ... Science magazine in 2006 published a survey on evolution (Scott was one of the authors) showing that the United States came in second to last in acceptance of evolution.

Tree of Life

This canonical 1837 image of the “Tree of Life,” above, from Darwin’s notebooks, showing the relationship among all organisms, was the first known sketch of the evolutionary process.

Numbers like that make Stanford's former president Donald Kennedy (a former editor of Science) a bit hot under the collar. So when President John Hennessy formally kicked off the university's K-12 Initiative in April 2007, the speaker was Kennedy, and one of his themes was science education in the age of creationism.

At the time, Kennedy told the audience, he had agreed to be an expert witness in a trial in federal court in which the Regents of the University of California were being sued by an association of fundamentalist Christian schools, which argued that their alternative science classes should be accepted as prerequisites for university admission. (One of the lawyers for UC turned out to be a former human biology student of Kennedy's.)

"What the creationist alternative does to students is to intercept and deaden curiosity, along with the desire to discover various truths for themselves," he said. "If relationships or correlations can be simply allocated to the cleverness of a designer, there is very little incentive to think up an experiment or undertake an analysis."

To prepare for the trial (which UC won in 2008), he studied the textbooks used by the plaintiffs, books with titles such as Biology for Christian Schools.

"In exploring these texts I found few instances in which students are being introduced to science as a process, that is, the way in which scientists work, how they do experiments, or the way in which they analyze and interpret the results of their investigations," he said.

"The curriculum represented by these books fails to accomplish that, even with respect to the hypothesis that dominates them, namely, that biological complexity and organic diversity are the result of special creation. Critical thinking is absent in the defense of those propositions."

Kennedy has an ally in Stanford's dean for religious life, the Rev. Scotty McLennan, who some time ago delivered a sermon highly critical of Intelligent Design. In a nutshell, ID posits that there must be an omniscient designer who steps in now and then to resolve the occasional inexplicable gap or anomaly in universal life. But that is religion, McLennan said, and it has no place in a science classroom. It also, he added, insults the glory of creation.

Teaching science

The challenge that Kennedy described, both in schools and in the courts, is taken seriously by the scientific community, so much so that the National Academy of Sciences in 2008 published a handbook, Science, Evolution, and Creationism, for those who want to counter anti-evolution allegations. One of the internal reviewers of the book was Sharon Long, the William C. Steere, Jr.–Pfizer Inc. Professor of Biology and former dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences.

In May 2008, the Public Library of Science Biology published what it called the first nationally representative survey of teachers concerning the teaching of evolution, and the results were worrying to Jean Lythcott, the Theodore and Frances Geballe Clinical Associate Lecturer and lecturer in science education at the School of Education.

"The survey showed that around one in eight biology teachers believes in creationism," she said, shaking her head. "There has been a strategy to repackage creationism" as Intelligent Design, she said, pointing to the Discovery Institute's recent campaign to get ID into schools by targeting teacher training. In many places, the campaign was successful—until the all-important 2005 decision in Dover, Pa. (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District), in which a federal judge established once and for all that ID was disguised religion.

"Will our graduates encounter this? Yes, they will," Lythcott said. "We can't tell how strong the challenge will be, but we must prepare them. At Stanford it is our ethical responsibility to prepare teachers of biology who fully understand the consensus view of biology. We have had some students here who, in the classroom, would support challenges to biology from a religious position, and that's very hard. It has gnawed at my ethical core. But we have to make our position very clear."

To that end, the School of Education recently posted a statement on its website that the Stanford Teacher Education Program "shares the position of the National Academy of Sciences, affirming that biological evolution is the central organizing principle of modern biology."

"Everyone needs to be free to hold their own understanding of the world without being challenged," Lythcott said. "But not everyone is entitled to be a biology teacher. Teachers have a professional obligation to their students."

Chemist Richard Zare, the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science, said in a conversation about science and religion several years ago, "We may never understand the world. This is an unbearable condition for some people. But I live with uncertainty."

Some cannot. They want a blueprint that gives meaning and direction to the universe. Without it, they say, we have no moral compass; we have only chaos.

But for others, such as Durham, Siegel and the thousands more who are toasting Darwin this year, it is exhilarating and humbling, one of the foundations of modern scientific thinking.

The two worlds sometimes meet. Another Darwinist, cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin, visiting from McGill University, told his winter Human Biology class that on the flight from Montreal, the man next to him had noticed Levitin was reading Origin. The man called the flight attendant to request a seat change, saying he was uncomfortable sitting next to an evolutionist. In the time that elapsed before the flight attendant could move people around to accommodate his wishes, Levitin—a Stanford alumnus and the author of two widely read books explaining what music does to our brain (and vice versa)—engaged the man, who turned out to be a civil engineer with deep, fundamentalist Christian beliefs.

Had he studied physics? Levitin asked. Of course, the engineer replied. And wasn't it hard to accept Newton's Law of Gravity? Levitin asked. Not at all, the engineer replied. God made the world in six days, and during that time bestowed gravity upon us. No problem there. Might He not also have bestowed the law of natural selection upon us, Levitin asked, so that a moth whose coloring protected it against predators might survive better than those without? Hmmmm? The engineer thought carefully. And then, like a designer stepping in—though in this case to squelch development—the flight attendant found him an empty seat.