Evolution: A Memoir

My active resistance to evolution began in 1944, when I was about ten, with a cartoon I drew of the devil–for family consumption only, though I don’t remember getting any reaction. My devil was a kind of sumo wrestler with horns and hooves but no tail, wearing a belt labeled EVIL and brandishing a trident large enough to support three words, MOVIES on the short middle tine and MODERNISM and EVOLUTION flanking it right and left.

Movies, which along with dancing and cardplaying formed a frowned-upon trio of “worldly amusements” in our communion, might have been referred to at the family table now and then, though they weren’t a real issue until my high school years. “Modernism,” referring with disapproval to many recent tendencies in thought and action, including Hollywood movies, was a word I must have heard at church. The same was true of “evolution,” though that was a narrower concept, combining a lack of respect for Genesis with notions of an ancient earth and a human ancestry found among the apes.

My most vivid evolution memory involves a car-ride conversation with my father as we passed a Sinclair gas station. I asked why there was a dinosaur silhouetted, green against white, on its sign, and he said, “Dinosaurs were around when the oil was laid down–supposedly,” the last word suggesting that for my father, who had graduated from Northwestern University after two years at Calvin College, the topic of dinosaur existence, age, and provenance wasn’t closed, exactly, but should be approached with suspicion. At any rate, I must have been alert for “evolution,” as it appeared in popular and secular culture, as a sign of disrespect for my family and my people, not to mention God.

In the 1947–48 school year, after we had moved to Wisconsin, I was a freshman at Racine Lutheran High School. I was shocked at our general science textbook, which chose to ignore the clear and stately account of Genesis in the King James Bible, red-letter edition, presented to me by the Mothers’ Club of Racine Christian Reformed Church, September 17, 1947: that on the fourth day of creation God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also. Instead it brought forward something called the planetesimal hypothesis, in which “about five billion years ago,” as the authors blithely hypothesized, the planets simply “condensed” from large gaseous clouds, which were “essentially of solar or cosmic composition.” These clouds surrounded the sun; and the moon–our moon!–some two or three billion years later, either “escaped” from Earth or “was captured” by Earth or (least poetically, therefore least excusably) simply “accumulated.”

I take this language from the 1972 Britannica, but the 1947 textbook’s shock to my system must have been similar, like hearing a veterinarian lecture while dissecting a family pet. I took my revenge against the planetesimal hypothesis by treating it, in our class’s assigned summary, as a fairy tale, doing unto the authors’ story as they had done unto mine. “Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, there lived a gaseous cloud around the sun . . .” It wasn’t according to the Golden Rule, but it seemed fair to me then.

Mr. Trinklein, my science, math, and religion teacher throughout high school, liked this essay, and, when I was a senior, approached me with an unexpected offer. How would I like to represent the school as a Bausch and Lomb scholarship contestant? I would have to write an essay outlining and describing a science project. When I hesitated–I had no science project–he reminded me that I’d had four years of science classes and was a good writer. “You’ll do just fine,” he said. “Why don’t you write about evolution?”

Of course I accepted. Mr. Trinklein was my favorite teacher; he thought well of my freshman essay! But I had more problems with my “science project” than lack of hands-on experience. I no longer knew what I thought about evolution. It was one thing to resent its careless acceptance in the popular press (finny creatures in cartoons walking out of the sea toward cities and civilization) but another thing entirely to think it through. Wasn’t there in fact variation within any given species? I had only to look at my (by now) four siblings to see that the answer was yes. And wasn’t there in fact selection among these variations, some dying off and others persisting? Again on the larger scale the answer was yes, the earlier birds catching more worms and so on–and also on the family scale, though I hated to admit it; I had four brothers and sisters, each superior to me in some way, the older ones cuter, wittier, more outgoing, and the latest arrivals already walking or talking earlier than I had, or so I was told by my mother, rather ungraciously, I thought, before she left them in my care as babysitter. One was even a “better eater!” Surely that was a sign, if nothing else was, of being more fit to survive.

Scripture was no comfort, what with elder brothers being scorned everywhere from Cain and Abel to the prodigal son. It turned out that neither nature nor scripture could be read according to one’s preferences. That book-filled spring semester, my head was abuzz with Darwin’s predecessors– geologists like Sir Charles Lyell; poets like Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin and the first-century BC Roman, Lucretius; and then his contemporaries and competitors, like Alfred Russel Wallace and Jean Lamarck. Eventually, my confident working title, Why Evolution Is Wrong, devolved to the modest question Is Evolution Incontrovertible? It was a title I stuck with through the final draft, though by then I knew that my answer, had I dared express it, would have been “yes”–or at least “not controvertible by me.” I regretted disappointing Mr. Trinklein– although in fact, and to his credit, he never told me what conclusion I was expected to reach. In May he accepted my paper without comment, and when I received my Honorary Science Award from Bausch and Lomb in the mail that summer, I hoped he had not read the paper.

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My four years at Calvin College were not ideal for controverting evolution, since I was an English major. In freshman biology I was intrigued by the textbook’s mention of “vitalism,” the doctrine that life could not be explained by purely chemical or physical forces–which seemed a rebuke to evolution, if not a refutation; but we did not discuss it. As a junior I signed up for a genetics class, knowing that Darwin’s work had been done without his knowing Mendel’s science–and was disappointed to learn that by the twentieth century Darwin and Mendel had been “synthesized” and were apparently happy together.

Another disappointment: through my fiancée, Marlene Meyerink, I was introduced to Kipling’s “Just So” stories, which seemed to spoof evolution. But if Kipling’s story about how the elephant got its trunk was a spoof of anything, it was not Darwin but Lamarck, who believed in the possibility of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Lamarck was in fact my preferred evolutionist because his theory seemed to remove some of the horrid randomness I saw in Darwinian evolution, a randomness that seemed to bother Darwin himself, though not enough to make him deny the truth of what he had found when later in life he left the doctrines of the Church of England and became an agnostic.

My year at Vanderbilt University–our first year of marriage, in Nashville, Tennessee–might have proved fruitful to an anti-evolutionist’s quest. The scene of the 1925 Scopes trial, or “monkey trial,” lay two hours to the east, and the law against teaching Darwinian evolution in the public schools, the law Mr. Scopes had disobeyed, was still in effect. A Vanderbilt chancellor, when asked how he would answer “the question of evolution,” was even-handed, saying “Build more laboratories.”

But evolution was not first on our list. Newly married, we were adjusting to each other and to a series of lodgings and to our new statuses as graduate student and, for Marlene, first-grade teacher. And to life in the South–language, mannerisms, and customs were different, especially customs regarding race. The 1954 Supreme Court decision that racial integration of public schools was to be accomplished “with all deliberate speed” meant that it would begin in Nashville with next year’s first-grade classes, and Marlene’s fellow teachers were nervous about it. As for me, I integrated Nashville’s segregated public transportation system absentmindedly, embarrassingly, and uncourageously, by seating myself in the back of a bus in September of 1955– preceding Rosa Parks’s integration of her bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, by several months.

Unexpectedly, these experiences would turn out to have something to do with evolution. But that year, the crucial experience came early in the summer quarter, when I wandered into the Peabody Library looking for recent periodicals in education. Once there, I found myself drawn to issues of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (the so-called “doomsday clock” already a feature of its cover), especially an article by H. V. Bronsted, a Danish scientist, in the March 1956 issue, titled “Warning and Promise of Experimental Embryology.” Embryology was of interest because Marlene and I had been discussing when to begin our family–as we put it back then. Of special interest were comments on vitamins and hormones and their effects on embryonic development, as well as warnings about poisons and radiation. But there were also comments about evolution: diversity, not uniformity, was “at the core of evolution”; nature produced diversity “both by mutations . . . and sexual propagation”; and mutations could be caused by radiation–but here with a humorous aside to science-fiction addicts that “too much weight should not be given to the more or less fanciful prophecies that in the atomic age geniuses may be created by increasing or directing mutation rates.”

I spent an hour, perhaps less, poring over this article. In later years, when recalling how I became convinced of the truth of Darwinian evolution, I remembered asking myself how many eons, and how much radiation, could produce mutations enough to account for the origin of present-day species–and answering that for the God to whom a thousand ages were like an evening gone, there would have been enough; and that the God of the parable of the sower, who scattered seeds randomly and wastefully over barren and rocky and thorny soil, could (despite my reservations) accept the wasteful randomness of Darwin’s evolution.

In the end, however, it was not scripture or logic that were decisive but rather the ethical proof furnished by Bronsted himself: less a “believer” in evolution than someone whose life work was built upon it, he seemed a kindly gentleman who had no interest in Bible-bashing but wanted only to show young Americans like Marlene and me the right path to healthy development for our hoped-for embryos. It was this kindly figure who won the day. When I went into the Peabody Library I did not believe evolution; when I came out, I did.

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Forty-five years later, at my Lutheran High School class reunion in Racine, Mr. Trinklein was a featured speaker. It was only a year or so before his death, as it happened; but he still had his sense of humor, and he spoke very well. In recounting his career, he said that when he went to college as a young man, some older members of his church urged him not to study science lest he lose his faith. “But I decided to study science,” he said, “and I’ve studied science all my life, and I’ve never lost my faith, although I have come pretty close at some church meetings.”

I didn’t speak to Mr. Trinklein afterward, in part because I didn’t know whether he would think my believing in evolution for forty-five years meant losing my faith. Certainly I didn’t think so. Nor did Marlene. Our prayers and worship continued after 1956 as before. We had never believed in a “god of the gaps,” and we were not disturbed to think that evolution should be absorbed into “providence” along with the once equally troubling concepts of earth’s movement around the sun and the sun’s unimportant place in the universe. And I had learned since my high-school days not to be disturbed that God might have forgone a poetic “creation” of the moon, like a boy making a snowball, and allowed it simply to “accumulate” from pre-existing planetesimals. (Later I would be happy to learn that science had replaced the “planetesimal hypothesis” with the “giant impact hypothesis,” and had repoeticized lunar origins by giving the name Theia to the hypothetical planet that collides with earth, thereby creating the moon–Theia, after the Greek Titan who gives birth to the moon goddess Selene.)

We hadn’t yet heard of the well-known scientist who said he “didn’t need God” to create a universe. But then, we didn’t need God for that either, the universe having already been created; we needed God to give it meaning and purpose, to give us a spirit or principle or mind or personality in whom to live and move and have our being, someone to pray to, someone with whom to register our hopes, our gratitude, our complaints, our longings, our pleas for justice and for mercy. In that, our faith was the same as before 1956, the same as the faith of those who sang and recited and wrote and copied the Psalms for thousands of years before that, a faith so deeply rooted in us and others (but apparently not all) that recent popularizers of evolutionary principles have referred to it as encoded in our “genes” or our “DNA.”

But our faith was changing. Over forty-five years we had come to imagine God differently, to read scripture differently, in ways not caused by belief in evolution but consistent with it. We imagined God less often as intervening, more often as always present, in our lives. Less often as maker, more often as progenitor. Creation more as a continuing process, less a finished product. Mark Twain’s Huck and Jim have a version of these oppositions when they agree, looking up at the stars from their raft, that the stars might have been laid, not made. “I’ve seen a frog lay most as many,” Huck says, “so of course it could be done.”

We read scripture less often literally and more often liberally, or spiritually: we realized that even a text like “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life,” which we liked to take at face value, had to be read in historical context. Living in Los Angeles in the late sixties, we reassured our older girls, then in grade school, that their new Jewish friends were not doomed to hell, as they reported having heard. And remembering that Marlene’s youngest brother had been given a hard time (or had given his teacher a hard time) on the question of how many animals, and of what sort, could be housed on Noah’s ark, we assured them that we did not take the flood story literally but as a parable showing how God had saved humanity in times past and was still with us in the midst of our troubles, even those we have brought upon ourselves.

These seemed normal and necessary changes in a living faith. But in 2001, at the Lutheran High reunion, I knew that (apart from Mr. Trinklein) there were classmates for whom my embrace of evolutionary science and biblical modernism might be problematic. At Calvin College in the nineties, certain professors of astronomy, theology, and geology attempted in their research to reconcile science and Christian doctrine and were roundly criticized–more for the attempt, it seemed, than its relative success or failure. When my turn came to speak as a representative of the class of 1951, my recollections of our senior-year spring included the band’s waiting in vain on a cold Racine street to serenade General Douglas MacArthur, the choir’s trip to St. Olaf College, the seniors’ performing “vocational aptitude” tests, and other rites of passage–but I made no mention of my own Bausch and Lomb project on the incontrovertibility of evolution. This was to be a class memoir, not an individual one.

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Later I wished I had made a more personal statement by way of coming out of the evolutionist’s closet, so to speak. By way of witnessing. Because the whole evolution controversy, as it was called, was becoming political and national in a way not seen since the Scopes trial. And the controversy seemed inspired less by religious, scientific, or educational concerns than by the need to enlist religion in the cause of “identity politics.” It became clear that the categories of “creationist” and “evolutionist” were defined in a totalitarian spirit, so that we identified ourselves not simply by allegiance to one belief but by abomination of the other. Candidates for the Republican Party’s nomination to the United States presidency were asked during televised debates, “Do you believe in evolution?” The overwhelming majority answered in the negative, giving indirect proof, it seemed, of evangelical piety. Among Democrats, whose candidates were not subjected to a similar question, one heard the terms “creation” and “evolution” used often enough as polar opposites to encourage shouting “false dichotomy!” at the writer or speaker.

Yet it was not fantasies of Luther-like courage in the face of persecution that prompted my urge to testify. To the contrary, I came to see that unless I confessed evolutionism soon, my confession or claim would be moot. Religion and science would have been reconciled without me. For while evolutionary science was being excommunicated in some quarters, it was flourishing in others–in many articles, books, and learned conferences on the subject, some of them anticipating Darwin’s two hundredth birthday (like Lincoln, he was born in 1809), and on a more popular level in many television shows on nature and science, often celebrating such “wonders” of evolution as the symbiotic codevelopment of two or more species together. Especially interesting for me was the renewed attention paid to my old favorite, Lamarck.

Even more exciting: Vanderbilt University, whose chancellor once said that the answer to the “question” of evolution was to build more laboratories, was now claiming part of the answer. “Pathfinders in Biology,” an article in the Summer 2011 alumni magazine, recounted the work of Oswald T. Avery, who did research at Vanderbilt Hospital from 1949 to 1950 and was the scientist who discovered the significance of DNA for genetics and heredity. His paper on the subject evoked bitter opposition for eight years, until in 1952 it was confirmed through experiments involving bacteriophages–viruses that infect bacteria. Today his work is generally recognized as “the key to our understanding of evolution and how living things are made and work.”

The article’s second Vanderbilt pathfinder was Max Delbruck, corecipient of a Nobel Prize in 1969, a pioneer in experiments using bacteriophages, and known as the founder of molecular biology. But my own favorite pathfinder in biology quickly became a Calvin College undergraduate, Ariangela Davis, whose work with bacteriophages (yes, the same kind of organism) was reported in the Fall 2011 Calvin Spark. Her work, with that of other Calvin undergraduates and their professors, grew out of a biological research class supported by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Pittsburgh. To read of these Calvin students and their teachers doing work extending that of Vanderbilt’s heroes of evolutionary and molecular biology was an inspiring experience–so much so that one could sense the long-sought reconciliation of religion and science coming near. So that when reading the article in the same Spark about two Calvin religion professors whose work was coming under scrutiny after they had addressed colleagues in the American Scientific Association, a network of Christians in science, on the subject of the “issues involved if Adam and Eve are understood as literary theological figures rather than historical beings,” I took it not as a story of just another dustup between religion and science but as a sign of their approaching reunion.

This was not a story of religion oppressing science. It concerned two professors of religion trying to come to terms with the findings of science and doing so with greater or lesser success, as judged by college The controversy seemed inspired less by religious, scientific, or educational concerns than by the need to enlist religion in the cause of “identity politics.” administrators. (One professor remains teaching; one voluntarily retired.) It was not a replay of the church versus Galileo, though the fact that one professor retired did remind some of Calvin versus Servetus. Nevertheless it was not a story of dialogue cut short but rather of dialogue extended, with a review of “theological issues related to evolutionary science” by a committee of faculty and administrators and a yearlong series of public seminars dealing with “the ramifications of scientific discoveries and their impact on long-held theological viewpoints.”

A change in long-held theological viewpoints in the Catholic Church did occur during the period of Vatican II (1962–65), when the church (in the words of a review of John Connelly’s book From Enemy to Brother) made “a forthright condemnation of anti-Semitism and a revised official teaching on the Jews.” Such a dramatic change (from enemy to brother) was made, and could only be made, Connelly argues, by “border-crossers,” those who had converted to Catholicism from Judaism (and sometimes Protestantism), for the new declaration could only come from those who had experienced the “doubling of identity” experienced in crossing the border. Christian empathy toward Jews did not spring spontaneously from Christianity, says Connelly, nor from Judaism, but “from the experience of crossing, such that the other could persist in the new self.”

It may be, then, if one may compare small things to large, that if there is to be a new relationship, a new empathy, between religion and science– between, more narrowly, Darwin and the Reformed confessions–it will likewise depend upon some who have crossed a border. The Winter 2011 issue of the Calvin Spark prints five or six letters from alumni who could be called border-crossers, letters generally urging (and displaying) greater empathy toward that former enemy, evolutionary science. In the same issue the philosopher Al Plantinga, a 1954 alumnus returning to teach at Calvin after twenty years at Notre Dame, seems to add himself to the list of alumni border-crossers: “It seems to me that evolution and natural selection are not incompatible with C. S. Lewis’s ‘mere Christianity.'”

I would like to add my name to what is now becoming, I trust, a cloud of empathetic witnesses. And I would like to recommend a recent book to all would-be crossers of the border, especially those who (like me, until recently) have made peace with Darwin’s evolution but have doubts about Darwin himself. The book is Darwin’s Sacred Cause, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (2009). It shows in detail how what the authors call the “humanitarian imperative” of Darwin’s science sprang from nineteenth-century abolitionism, and it shows how the “religious roots” of that imperative sprang from Acts 17:26: “and hath made of one blood all nations of men.” (Darwin’s bitterest nineteenth-century opponents were the pro-slavery “polygenists,” who believed blacks and whites were separate species with separate origins.) In short, the book tells “the unknown story of how Darwin’s abhorrence of slavery led to our modern understanding of evolution.” In the process, it unifies for me my own midcentury experiences in Nashville, Tennessee, of riding racially segregated buses and coming to terms with evolution. And it forms the last step, so far, in the story of my own border-crossing: how a Christian Reformed youth learned about evolution in the twentieth century and came to love Darwin in the twenty-first.

Glenn Meeter is an emeritus professor of English at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. His collection Stories of Four Decades is available at www.authorhouse.com.