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By DesignScience and the Search for God
By Larry Witham
Encounter BooksCopyright © 2004 Larry Witham
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDARWIN TRIUMPHANT
The East, African midday calm was shattered by Mary Leakeys scream, "I've got him!" She had just brought the Land Rover to a rattling halt, sending a swirl of dust through the base camp. Her cry shook her husband, Louis, the white-haired fossil hunter, from a feverish nap: "I've got him! I've got him!" This was in July 1959.
Since 1935, when Mary left England to follow Louis to Africa, they had been repeatedly scouring the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. This earthen gash, which reveals two-million-year-old hardened sediments, as yet had yielded only animal fossils, stone axes and snakes. But now the "long quest had ended," said Louis, a Cambridge-educated scientist and adventurer. "After all our hoping and hardship and sacrifice, at last we had reached our goal-we had discovered the world's oldest known human."
That morning, Mary had gone alone to the gorge with their two Dalmatians, wearing her broad-brimmed straw hat and crawling among the lowest rocks of the three-hundred-foot walls. The noon heat usually signaled quitting time, and Mary had her epiphany just before that when she came face to face with a bulky cranium, jaw and molars. When Louis went to the dig with her, he too felt exultation. "The teeth were projecting from the rock face, smooth and shining and quite obviously human," he later reminisced. "At last we had found him." They called him Zinjanthropus, for "East Africa Man."
The discovery could not have come at a better time. In four months, Louis Leakey and "Zinj" would journey to America for the greatest science celebration ever held, the Darwin Centennial. Convened during Thanksgiving week at the University of Chicago, the event drew thousands after its opening on November 24, the date in 1859 when Charles Darwin received the first copy of On the Origin of Species off the presses. In the book, Darwin had said only that "Much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history," but a few years later, in 1871, he boldly pointed to Africa, home of the gorillas and chimpanzees, as the likely place where man was born.
There had been debate in England over whether tropical Africa with its "lowly natives" could produce the noble human, and the discovery of humanlike fossils in Asia had directed attention there. But Darwin's prediction appealed to the young Louis Leakey, a child of British missionaries in Kenya, who since 1926 had striven to prove Darwin right. Now, at the age of fifty-six, he would make his first trip to the United States, a vacation from the scorching Olduvai heat in snow-swept Chicago. And then, with Mary, he would go on to international fame. "After Zinj, the days of shoestring budgets and quiet times exploring Olduvai together were finished," his biographer Virginia Morell wrote.
Though a backwater compared with London or New York, Chicago became the focal point of the Darwinian centenary by managing to attract bigger names than other cities. Two years in advance, organizer Sol Tax, a University of Chicago anthropologist, had set his sights on Sir Julian Huxley, the "spokesman for the twentieth-century evolutionary edifice" and grandson of Thomas H. Huxley, who as Darwin's "bulldog" had promoted scientific naturalism. Whoever secured the presence of Sir Julian Huxley had the Darwin Centennial. And other big names in science were no small draw: there was Sir Charles Galton Darwin, grandson of the great naturalist; Harlow Shapley, the most famous living American astronomer; and Leakey himself.
Chicago got them all, and for five days in 1959 the university, with its secular Gothic ambiance, became the cynosure for international scholars and for the public. There were exhibits and lectures and a showing of the evolutionary film The Ladder of Life. Sir Charles kept audiences spellbound with talks such as "Darwin the Traveler." Visitors gawked at an exhibit and illustrated lecture by Louis Leakey on Zinjanthropus, humanity's ancient ancestor, and every state in the U.S. sent a biology teacher on a federal scholarship. Most evenings, the university's cavernous, Baroque Mandel Hall was packed for performances of an original showboat-style Darwinian musical, Time Will Tell. The media was enthralled.
On Thanksgiving afternoon, a bell tower carillon echoed across the snow-dusted campus, the peals breaking out as a long procession of robed scholars reached Rockefeller Chapel. Huxley took the pulpit. Age seventy-two, he was tall and bulky in his robe, his oiled hair straight back, his glasses heavy. He eloquently declared the late 1950s to be "the period when the process of evolution, in the person of inquiring man, began to be truly conscious of itself." In what became known as his "secular sermon," he said that man no longer needed to "take refuge from his loneliness in the arms of a divinized father-figure" such as God. It was time to recognize that "all aspects of reality are subject to evolution, from atoms and stars to fish and flowers, from fish and flowers to human society and values." The context as much as the content made for arch newspaper headlines, and Huxley, recalling the subsequent mild scandal in his memoirs, agreed that it was not the most appropriate speech to have given in a church.
Yet Huxley's account, an epic tale of cosmic evolution culminating in humanity, did nothing more than state how science viewed reality at mid-century. He referred to religion as a mere stage in the ascent of Homo sapiens, which took us from subsistence to civilization, through organized religion to the level of "secular activities," or what Sir Julian called "the threshold of the evolutionary grade." Here, human thinking is "naturalistic," for "it has rejected the supernatural idea of creation for that of material progress."
Progress had now brought the atomic age, an era of physics and mushroom clouds and unending scientific triumphalism. Just three weeks after Zinj was found, the United States boosted its first satellite into orbit. Science had succeeded spectacularly by breaking matter down into its smallest bits, and the confident spirit of reductionism spilled rapidly into chemistry, biology and even the human sciences. Indeed, it was applied reductionism in the 1950s that brought about two of the greatest discoveries about life itself. In late 1952 at the University of Chicago, a graduate student named Stanley Miller produced amino acids, the building blocks of life, in an experiment simulating the primitive earth. The next year in England, young James Watson, an American, joined Francis Crick in deciphering the double helix structure of DNA, the code of life.
During the Second World War, computers had been built to crack enemy codes and the power of radio detection had been amplified. These developments increased science's ability to probe bodies in outer space and to speculate on the computational powers of the brain itself. Already in 1956, the first meeting of computer aficionados had gathered to dream about a humanlike mind in a machine-what became the quest for Artificial Intelligence (A.I.).
The mystery of the stars had also been solved in the 1950s. They were found to be great nuclear furnaces that cooked hydrogen into oxygen, carbon and iron, the elements of biological life. While this practical astronomy was advancing, the speculative cosmologists also came on the scene, talking about the beginning and ending of time itself. Their theorizing might annoy the bench astronomers, but the public was riveted by their debates on the expanding universe, and whether its apparent motion started with a cosmic Big Bang or was merely the churning of a continuous steady state that had been around for eternity. What this explosion in knowledge meant for humanity's self-image was obvious, according to the astronomer Harlow Shapley. "We are no longer at the center of the universe," he said. "Science has freed us from that illusion."
Professor Sol Tax, the Darwin Centennial's organizer, was an energetic man who liked bow ties and sported a crew cut and pencil mustache. To capture some of the sweep of contemporary science, he had organized the centennial around five major panel discussions, and despite the hoopla and the celebrities, he said later that "the panels were the celebration." They convened in Mandel Hall, where klieg lights glared for documentary footage and a thousand ticket holders jammed in daily for the three-hour discussions. Each forum lined up about ten leading experts, older men barely distinguishable from each other in their gray suits and tweed coats, but often differing in their views. The program was intended to give Americans "a larger view in which human society and culture are seen again as part of the natural order and subject to the same laws of evolution as the rest of nature."
Professor Tax's hope that "history would take a new turn" as a result of the centennial proved somewhat exaggerated. When the centennial week was over, its memory lingered on for another year as the proceedings were published in a three-volume tome, and the event's documents and memorabilia relegated to boxes for archival storage. But as an intellectual and symbolic event, it dovetailed with a political and financial acceleration of American science. In the late 1950s, Congress began pouring billions of dollars into the U.S. space program and science education. This included publication of biology textbooks and teacher training, an agenda that emphasized Darwinian evolution. The new president, John F. Kennedy, would tell the National Academy of Sciences that the age of basic, of theoretical, research had begun, and that the taxpayer would understand and be supportive.
The other turning point was cultural. Both the centennial and its promising new celebrity, Louis Leakey-whose first wife had commented on his "showbiz manner"-represented science's bid to do what religion had done before, which was to compel belief while defining the human. The centennial's last afternoon in Mandel Hall was given over to questions of evolution, science and religion, with Sol Tax stating his wish for the future: "I would hope that in the next hundred years our religious leaders may come to quote the Gospel as saying, 'Render unto science that which belongs to science.'" Much of the news coverage of the centennial was in fact about the philosophical debate, giving top play to Huxley's "secular sermon" and the final forum on religion-a topic that sold newspapers and one the American people, who are accepting of science and faith in roughly equal measure, could identify with.
Yet if the Darwin Centennial had conciliatory words for modernist or secularized religion, it handed no olive branch to America's Bible believers. As Huxley told Midwestern television audiences, "Darwinism removed the whole idea of God as the creator of organisms from the sphere of rational discussion. Darwin pointed out that no supernatural designer was needed." In tandem with this view, the 1950s were closing with the first intimations of the moral revolution that would erupt in the sixties. In the year of the centennial, Look magazine dispatched twelve veteran reporters to survey the nation's moral attitudes, which editor William Attwood characterized in the words of a young Pennsylvania woman: "Who am I to say what's right and wrong?" He elaborated: "Whatever you do is all right if it's legal of if you disapprove of the law. It's all right if it doesn't hurt anybody."
It took two years after the Darwin fete for the creationists to fire back. Their weapon was "creation science," spawned by the book entitled The Genesis Flood. Written by the Bible-believing engineering professor Henry Morris and the Old Testament theologian John Whitcomb, the book aimed to prove a literal Genesis by arguing from geological evidence for a recent global flood. This, they said, was "scientific creationism"-science in the service of God's revealed Word. Its narrative could not have been more different from the Darwin Centennial's: humanity had miraculously appeared on a young earth a few thousand years ago; the natural world was cursed at the Fall; and then in the days of Noah came the great global Flood. For creation science, also called "Flood geology," the Deluge was everything, for it had shaped the earth and left behind the fossil record.
Creation science was not the only religious response to naturalism at a time when believers struggled to reconcile their faith with modern science. But as the most fundamentalist and the most activist, it threw a sharp light on the wide gulf separating the religious outlook and the seemingly triumphant naturalistic worldview represented by the centennial and epitomized by the lives of Shapley, Leakey and Huxley.
Sir Julian was more publicist than scientist. He wrote popular books, hosted the British quiz show The Brains Trust, and headed the London Zoo until fired by the board of governors. The first director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, he was viewed by many as "the man who put the S in UNESCO," and he tirelessly advocated the preservation of the Galapagos Islands as a memorial to Darwin and Darwinian evolution. In fact, his 1942 work, Evolution: The Modern Synthesis, gave the next generation of evolutionary biologists their umbrella theme of a synthesis between genetics and zoology. For all his atheism, however, Huxley wrote a foreword for the 1959 English translation of The Phenomenon of Man, an epic meditation on the spiritual evolution of humankind by the French Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Both Huxley and Harlow Shapley were active statesmen for science. They had both participated in the drafting of the UNESCO charter in London in 1946. Shapley, as the science representative in the U.S. delegation, was credited with persuading Congress to back the charter, and it is still debated who actually ensured that science became an integral part of it. If Huxley had truly put the S in UNESCO, "Shapley almost single-handedly prevented the deletion of the S," according to one later writer.
What divided Huxley and Shapley most in the centennial year, however, was a matter of cosmic emphasis: was Earth or outer space the proper context for science? When Professor Tax had planned the centennial, some biologists had urged him, unsuccessfully, to exclude the topic of extraterrestrials. They found theories about aliens an embarrassment to natural science, viewing the evolution of the human mind as an event so improbable that it seemed preposterous it could have occurred elsewhere.
With his Earth-centered emphasis, Huxley was not shy in saying humans were the apex of nature.
Excerpted from By Design by Larry Witham Copyright © 2004 by Larry Witham. Excerpted by permission.
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