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The FASEB Journal • Editorial

Teach evolution, learn science: we’re ahead of Turkey,
but behind Iran
The experience of sequencing the human genome, and uncovering this most remarkable of all texts, was both a stunning
scientific achievement and an occasion of worship.
—F. S. Collins, The Language of God (1)
Our discovery put an end to a debate as old as the human
species: Does life have some magical, mystical essence, or is it,
like any chemical reaction carried out in a science class, the
product of normal physical and chemical processes? Is there
something divine at the heart of a cell that brings it to life? The
double helix answered that question with a definitive No.
—James D. Watson, DNA: The Secret of Life (2)
It’s clear from these statements that the religious
beliefs of any individual scientist have no bearing on
the validity or significance of the work. With Watson as
its founder and Collins its executor, the public Human
Genome Project was fueled by the energy of agnostic
and believer alike. But what about the larger society in
which these attitudes compete: do national choices
among one or another systems of belief influence the
course of science and how it is taught?

Nothing illustrates the influence of religious belief
more than our nation’s recurrent battle over the teaching of Darwinian evolution. Small, but significant victories in Pennsylvania and Kansas have been countered
by proposals in several other states, Ohio the most
recent, to “teach the controversy,” as if intelligent
design were a proposition that could explain microbial
resistance to penicillin. Sad to say, while it’s hard to find
a modern biologist who does not accept Theodosius
Dobzhansky’s aphorism that “nothing in biology makes
sense except in the light of evolution (3)” the bulk of
Americans have trouble making sense of Darwin.
A recent study published in Science (4) documents
that fully one-third of American adults believe that
evolution is “absolutely false” while only 14% of adults
acknowledge that evolution is “definitely true.” In Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and France over 80% of adults
had no trouble accepting the facts of evolution, nor did
78% of Japanese. Indeed, of 33 countries surveyed as to
their acceptance of evolution, the United States ended
up as 32nd on the list. Turkey finished dead last, while
Cyprus beat us by a whisker. Perhaps in response to the
“intelligent design” movement, the percentage of U.S.
adults accepting evolution has actually declined over the
last 20 years. Supporting this notion, Miller et al. found
that “the total effect of fundamentalist religious beliefs
0892-6638/06/0020-2183 © FASEB

on attitudes toward evolution (using a standardized
metric) was nearly twice as much in the United States as
in the nine European countries.” They concluded that
“individuals who hold a strong belief in a personal God
and who pray frequently were significantly less likely to
view evolution as probably or definitely true than adults
with less conservative religious views (4).”
Thus, while Francis Collins may have resolved the
conflict between scripture and evolution in his own
mind, fundamentalism has separated Americans not
only from Europe and Japan but from other parts of the
globe. A bizarre editorial in Nature, effulgent with
praise for the leader of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,
contrasted Ahmadinejad’s pro-science policies with
those of Christian (read U.S.) attitudes towards evolution and stem-cell research: “One practical advantage
for science in Muslim countries is the lack of direct
interference of religious doctrine, such as exists in
many Christian countries. There has never, for example, been a debate about darwinian (sic) evolution, and
human embryonic stem-cell research is constrained by
humanistic rather than religious ethics (5).”

The split between our country and the rest of the world
was brought home to me at Woods Hole this summer.
Hundreds of FASEB buttons urging citizens to TEACH
eagerly by packs of students, post-docs and lab people
from all over the United States. (They are available
from FASEB’s website on evolutionary resources
http://www.evolution.faseb.org/.) But while folks from
Maine to Mississippi knew what the fuss was about,

many of the European scientists who work at Woods
Hole each summer simply shook their heads. “Only in
America . . .” mourned an Italian microscopist; “Poor
America . . .” sighed a young German biochemist. They
were assured that nowhere else in the world is the
Scopes “monkey trial” replayed daily in the courts. And
nowhere else in the world is a leader of modern science
likely to argue that:
You’ve got to accept who Christ was and what He said,
or reject the whole thing. . . I do think that the historical
record of Christ’s life on earth and his Resurrection is a
very powerful one (6).
The success of the human genome project was guaranteed at a Washington press conference in June of
2000. From the podium, President Clinton told the
world that the human genome was “the language with
which God created man.” On one side of the president
stood Francis Collins, leader of the NIH (or public)
arm of the Human Genome Project. Collins listened to
the president: by the summer of 2006, Collins’s book
The Language of God (1) was right up there with Ann
Coulter on the best-seller list. On Clinton’s other side
in 2000, stood Craig Venter, head of Celera, the private
company that set the pace of the quest. Venter had also
paid attention to Clinton’s phrase: he protested that
“the human genome is not the book of life, it is not the
blueprint of humanity, it is not the language of
God . . . .(7).” The father of the project, Jim Watson,
seated behind Clinton, Venter, and Collins on the
podium, had no immediate comment on the language,
syntax, or intentions of the deity. By the summer of
2006, Watson’s magisterial book DNA: The Secret of Life”
(2) had not appeared on any best-seller list. At the time,
Sidney Brenner quipped that “President Clinton described the human genome as the language with which
God created man. Perhaps now we can view the Bible as
the language with which man created God (8).”
Whether one holds with Collins or Venter, Watson or
Brenner, we might suggest that modern experimental
science is by definition, uni- and not multicultural.
Scientists from many cultures and all sorts of religious
belief work in a republic of reason, where each can
claim “Civis Scientium sum.” The threat to that republic
is not the personal belief of any one scientist, but the
intrusion of organized belief into the practice or teaching of science itself. Sad to say, faith-based fear of
science, as documented by Miller et al. (4) in the case of
evolution, has been around for a while.

Faith-based fear of science has a long history in America. As late as 1854, doctors in New York State were not
permitted to dissect the human body in medical
schools, a practice routine in Europe for centuries.
Finally, a statute called “The Bone Bill” passed the
legislature by a whisker, but only after a bitter public
battle between proponents of medical science and

Vol. 20

November 2006

John William Draper, M.D. (1811–1882). Photolithograph
from a private collection; printed with permission.

defenders of “natural law.” The doctors pleaded that
Vesalius’s great dissection atlas “De Humanis Corporis
Fabrica” had been used as a manual by medical students
in more enlightened parts of the world since 1543. But
in 1854, Harper’s Weekly argued the anti-dissection cause
in phrases that sound very much like the Bush administration’s stand against stem cell research or Senator
Sam Brownback on “intelligent design:”
Science may prove ever so clearly that there is nothing
there but carbon, oxygen, and lime . . . but all this can
never eradicate the sentiment we are considering, and that is
too deeply in our laws of thinking, our laws of speech, our
most interior moral and religious emotions (9).
Interior moral and religious emotions yielded to
medical science when antebellum Manhattan finally
caught up with Renaissance Brussels. The doctors’
public campaign had carried the day: “Teach Anatomy,
Learn Science” so to speak. The driving spirit behind
the politics of the Bone Bill was John William Draper,
founder and first president of New York University
School of Medicine (10). Draper sounded the tocsin
for the progressive side in his 1874 The History of the
Conflict Between Religion and Science, a best-seller that
went through twenty editions in English alone:
The history of science is not a mere record of isolated
discoveries. It is a narrative of the conflict of two
contending powers—the expansive force of the human
intellect on one side and the compression arising from
traditional faith and human interest on the other. As
large a number of persons now live to seventy years as
lived to forty, three hundred years ago (11).
We might note that mean longevity in the United States
in 1840 was about 40 years. By the 1980s, it was
approaching 80 years (12). That doubling of human
longevity, as Draper would have been the first to argue,
can hardly be credited to major increments in “our
most interior moral and religious emotions.”
Draper not only wrote a book that became the
machine de guerre of free thought for the better part of a

The FASEB Journal


century, but as Professor of Chemistry at NYU, shared
with Samuel F. B. Morse, Professor of Fine Arts at NYU,
the honor of producing the first daguerreotype portraits by an American. In 1840, the two entrepreneurial
professors opened up a commercial photography studio at the top of the University building in Washington
Square; they also taught photography to the likes of
young Matthew Brady. They collaborated successfully
on another project at NYU in the 1840s: tinkering with
an early version of his telegraph, Morse called on
Draper to help design cables that might transmit electromagnetic signals over distances longer than that of
their studio perimeter. Draper framed and tested the
hypothesis that the conducting power of an electric
wire varied directly with its diameter; an equation that
made commercial telegraphy possible (10). When in
1844 Samuel F. B. Morse transmitted the message
“What hath God wrought?” from Washington to Baltimore, he might just as readily have asked “What hath
Draper wrought?”
In 1847, Draper published his “Production of Light
by Heat,” an early contribution to spectrum analysis
(13). Indeed, he was the first to photograph the
diffraction spectrum. He was also the first to take a
photograph of the moon, and with his son, to prepare
the first photomicrographs of tissues. Ever the polymath, he became the featured lecturer at the historic
British Academy debate at Oxford, the “Monkey Debate” of 1860, between the evolutionists, led by Thomas
Huxley, and the religious, led by Bishop Wilberforce.
Draper (a.k.a.“Darwin’s American Cousin”) had been
invited as the American champion of Charles Darwin;
the doyen of American biology, Louis Agassiz, was still
flying the banner of creationism at Harvard (14).
Draper’s topic was “The Intellectual Development of
Europe Considered with Reference to the Views of Mr.
Darwin.” It marked the first entry of an American on
the stage of evolution.
Looking back at that Victorian battlefield, Owen
Chadwick, a Cambridge historian of religion, dismissed
Draper as a shallow village atheist:
Draper’s books contain the paean of praise to science, a
hymn, its mighty achievements, among them the telegraph, telescopes, balloon, diving bells, thermometer,
barometer, medicines, railway, air pump batteries, magnets, photographs, maps, rifles, and warships. . . . Draper never stopped to ask himself why anyone who
invented a camera or possessed a barometer might be led
to think his faith in the God of Christianity shaky (15).
I’m convinced that while our 20th century minds may
not be secularized by telescopes, balloons, diving bells,
and thermometers— or scanning GenBank, for that
matter—a glance at the bills of mortality might lead to
greater respect for Draper’s kind of reductionist science. Indeed, I conclude that we’re not living longer
because of Bishop Wilberforce’s belief system, but

because of what medical science has learned over the
years thanks to contributions like Draper’s Bone bill,
his microscopy, and his Darwinism.
We’re likely to live even longer in years to come. For
that we can thank not only reductionists like Draper
and Watson but also true believers such as Francis
Collins. The republic of science has room for all. In
fact, with its philanthropic thrust and social concerns,
Collins’s The Language of God could have used this 19th
century paean to religion as its epigraph:
Man is the world of man [and] religion is the general
theory of that world, its encyclopedic compendium, its
logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its
moral sanction, its solemn completion, its universal
ground for consolation . . . Religion is the sigh of the
oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul
of a soulless condition (16).
This passage ends with the well-known phrase “It is the
opium of the people.” When we wake up from pipedreams, we can Teach Evolution and Learn Science,

Gerald Weissmann
doi: 10.1096/fj.06-1101ufm


Collins, F. S. (2006) The Language of God. Simon & Shuster, New
York, p.12
Watson, J. D. (2002) DNA: The Secret of Life. Alfred A. Knopf, New
York, p. xii
Dobzhansky, T. (1973) Nothing in biology makes sense except
in the light of evolution. Am. Biol. Teacher 35, 125–129
Miller, J. D., Scott, E. C., and Okamoto, S. (2006) Science
communication. Public acceptance of evolution. Science 313,
Editorial (unsigned) (2006) Revival in Iran. Nature 442, 719 –
Liles, G. (1992) God’s work in the lab. MD Magazine 32, 49 –53
Venter, C. (August 17 2001) Sequencing the Human Genome. Lecture at the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods
Hole, Massachusetts. http://www.mblwhoilibrary.org/services/
lecture_series/venter/. Accessed August 2006
Brenner, S. (2001) Hunting the Metaphor. Science 291, 1265–
Editorial (1853-1854) Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. 8, 690
Fleming, D. (1950) John William Draper. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia
Draper, J. W. (1874) The History of the Conflict Between Religion and
Science. Appleton, New York, p. vi
Wilmoth, J. R. (1898) The Future of Human Longevity: A
Demographer’s Perspective. Science 280, 395–397
Draper, J. W. On the Production of Light by Heat. Am. J. Sci. and
Arts 4, 388 – 402
Thomson, K. S. (2002) Huxley, Wilberforce and the Oxford
Museum. Am. Sci. 88, 210 –215
Chadwick, O. (1975) The Secularization of the European Mind in the
19th Century. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 162
Marx, K. (1844) Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie. Einleitung (In Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy
(Lewis S. Feuer, ed.). Doubleday Anchor, New York, p. 262

The opinions expressed in editorials, essays, letters to the editor, and other articles comprising the Up Front section are those of the authors and
do not necessarily reflect the opinions of FASEB or its constituent societies. The FASEB Journal welcomes all points of view and many voices.
We look forward to hearing these in the form of op-ed pieces and/or letters from its readers addressed to journals@faseb.org.


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