On Empty Headedness Among Biologists and State Boards of Education

My father, the geneticist William Bateson, used to read us passages of the Bible at breakfast—lest we grow up to be empty-headed atheists; and so I find it natural to wonder what broadening of the mind may come from the strange anti-evolutionary ruling of the State Board of Education in California.139

Evolution has long been badly taught. In particular, students—and even professional biologists—acquire theories of evolution without any deep understanding of what problem these theories attempt to solve. They learn but little of the evolution of evolutionary theory.

The extraordinary achievement of the writers of the first chapter of Genesis was their perception of the problem: Where does order come from? They observed that the land and the water were, in fact, separate and that species were separate; they saw that such separation and sorting in the universe presented a fundamental problem. In modern terms, we may say that this is the problem implicit in the Second Law of Thermodynamics: If random events lead to things getting mixed up, by what nonrandom events did things come to be sorted? And what is a "random" event?

This problem has been central to biology and to many other sciences for the last 5000 years, and the problem is not trivial.

With what Word should we designate the principle of order which seems to be immanent in the universe?

The California ruling suggests that students be told of other attempts to solve this ancient problem. I myself collected one of these among the Stone Age head-hunters of the Iatmul tribe in New Guinea. They, too, note that the land and the water are separate even in their swampy region. They say that in the beginning there was a vast crocodile, Kavwokmali, who paddled with his front legs and paddled with his back legs, and thereby kept the mud in suspension. The culture hero, Kevembuangga, speared the crocodile, who then ceased to paddle, causing the mud and the water to separate. The result was dry land upon which Kevembuangga stamped his foot in triumph. We might say he verified that "it was good."

Our students might have their minds broadened somewhat if they would look at other theories of evolution and consider how a man's spirit must take a different shape if he believes that all sorting in the universe is due to an external agent, or if, like the Iatmul and modern scientists, he sees that the potentiality for order and pattern is immanent throughout this world.

And then the student may be forced by the new system to look at the "Great Chain of Being," with Supreme Mind at the top and the protozoa at the bottom. He will see how Mind was invoked as an explanatory principle all through the Middle Ages and how Mind later became the problem. Mind became that which needed explanation when Lamarck showed that the Great Chain of Being should be inverted

* This item in Bioscience, Vol. 20, 1970, is reproduced by permission from that journal.

139 See "California's Anti-Evolution Ruling," Bioscience, March 1, 1970.

to give an evolutionary sequence from the protozoa upward. The problem then was to explain Mind in terms of what could be known of this sequence.

And when the student reaches the mid-nineteenth century, he might be given as a textbook Philip Henry Gosse's Creation (Omphalos): An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. He will learn from this extraordinary book things about the structure of animals and plants which are today scarcely mentioned in many courses of biology; notably, that all animals and plants show a time structure, of which the rings of growth in trees are an elementary example and the cycles of life history, a more complex one. Every plant and animal is constructed upon the premise of its cyclic nature.

After all, there can be no harm in Gosse, who was a devout fundamentalist—a Plymouth Brother—as well as a distinguished marine biologist. His book was published in 1857, two years before the Origin a f Species. He wrote it to show that the facts of the fossil record as well as those of biological homology could be made to fit with the principles of fundamentalism. It was to him inconceivable that God could have created a world in which Adam had no navel; the trees in the Garden of Eden, no rings of growth; and the rocks, no strata. Therefore, God must have created the world as though it had a past.

It will do the student no harm to wrestle with the paradoxes of Gosse's "Law of Prochronism"; if he listens care-fully to Gosse's groping generalizations about the biological world, he will hear an early version of the "steady state" hypothesis.

Of course, everybody knows that biological phenomena are cyclic-from egg, to hen, to egg, to hen, etc. But not all biologists have examined the implications of this cyclic characteristic for evolutionary and ecological theory. Gosse's view of the biological world might broaden their minds.

It is silly and vulgar to approach the rich spectrum of evolutionary thought with questions only about who was right and who was wrong. We might as well assert that the amphibia and reptiles were "wrong" and the mammals and birds "right" in their solutions to the problems of how to live.

By fighting the fundamentalists, we are led into an empty-headedness analogous to theirs. The truth of the matter is that "Other men have laboured and ye are entered into their labours" (John 1:38), and this text is not only a reminder of the need for humility, it is also an epitome of the vast evolutionary process into which we organisms are willy-nilly entered.

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