Tag Archives: Creationism

July 16, 1925 (a Thursday)

John Thomas Scopes, June, 1925.

On this date, lawyers for both sides in the Scopes Monkey Trial debated the issue of whether the defense should be allowed to present expert witnesses. Mr. Darrow said:

We expect to show that [the Bible] isn’t in conflict with the theory of evolution. We expect to show what evolution is, and the interpretation of the Bible that prevails with men of intelligence who have studied it. [Metcalf] is an evolutionist who has shown amply that he knows his subject and is competent to speak, and we insist that a jury cannot decide this important question which means the final battle ground between science and religion—according to our friend here—without knowing both what evolution is and the interpretation of the story of creation.

The prosecution argued that such testimony was irrelevant to Scopes’ guilt or innocence under the statue. Assistant prosecutor Hicks said:

[W]hy admit these experts? Why admit them? It is not necessary. Why admit them? They invade the province of the jury…If they want to make a school down here in Tennessee to educate our poor ignorant people, let them establish a school out here; let them bring down their experts. The people of Tennesee do not object to that, but we do object to them making a school house or a teachers’ institute out of this court. Such procedure in Tennessee is unknown.

Dudley Field Malone countered for the defense, arguing in a thundering voice that the prosecution’s position was borne of the same ignorance “which made it possible for theologians…to bring Old Galilee to trial.” He concluded by saying:

There is never a duel with the truth. The truth always wins and we are not afraid of it. The truth is no coward. The truth does not need the law. The truth does not need the force of government. The truth does not need Mr. Bryan. The truth is imperishable, eternal and immortal and needs no human agency to support it. We are ready to tell the truth as we understand it and we do not fear all the truth that they can present as facts. We are ready. We are ready. We feel we stand with progress. We feel we stand with science. We feel we stand with intelligence. We feel we stand with fundamental freedom in America. We are not afraid. Where is the fear? We meet it, where is the fear? We defy it, we ask your honor to admit the evidence as a matter of correct law, as a matter of sound procedure and as a matter of justice to the defense in this case.

It was a powerful speech. Anti-evolution lawmaker John Washington Butler (who authored the statute Scopes was charged with violating) called it “the finest speech of the century.” Members of the press gave Malone a standing ovation and most courtroom spectators joined in the sustained applause.

July 15, 1925 (a Wednesday)

Drugstore owner Fred Robinson and his family with chimp Joe Mendi (second from left) sipping a Coca-Cola.

On this date, the prosecution in the Scopes Monkey Trial presented its case against the defendant, calling to the stand Rhea County School Superintendent Walter White, two of John Scopes’ students (Howard Morgan and Harry Shelton), and Fred Robinson, who was a drug store owner and head of the school board. When the time came for cross-examination, Darrow went on the offensive. White conceded that the textbook Scopes was accused of using – Hunter’s Civic Biology– was the official biology textbook of the state of Tennessee. The students admitted that learning Darwin’s theory of evolution from their football coach had in no way damaged their faith or their character. Robinson testified that he himself sold copies of the offending textbook in his drugstore where John Scopes had been arrested.

Towards the end of the day, the defense called its first witness, zoology professor Maynard Metcalf, to explain evolution and to prove that even devout Christians accepted evolution; he was not only an evolutionary biologist from Johns Hopkins University but also a Sunday school teacher at his congregational church. The prosecution argued that Metcalf’s scientific testimony was irrelevant, but Judge Raulston had not yet made up his mind so he excused the jurors while Metcalf was initially questioned.

As court ended that day, Bryan handed Darrow a small wooden monkey, a tiny memento of the trial.

July 14, 1925 (a Tuesday)

A trained chimpanzee named Joe Mendi performs for a group of school children outside the home of Mrs. F. Robinson.

On this date, lawyers in the Scopes Monkey Trial argued over whether it is appropriate for Judge Raulston to begin each court session with a prayer. Darrow stated, “I understand from the court himself that he has sometimes opened the court with prayer and sometimes not, and we took no exceptions on the first day, but seeing this is persisted in every session, and the nature of this case being one where it is claimed by the state that there is a conflict between science and religion, above all other cases there should be no part taken outside of the evidence in this case and no attempt by means of prayer or in any other way to influence the deliberation and consideration of the jury of the facts in this case.” Nevertheless, the judge overruled the objection.

An angry Judge Raulston appointed a committee to investigate who leaked to reporters the story that he would not grant the defense’s motion to quash the indictment on constitutional grounds.

"A Venerable Orang-outang", a caricature of Charles Darwin as an ape published in *The Hornet*, a satirical magazine on 22 March 1871.

Outside the courtroom, two chimpanzees and a strange appearing man who was called “the missing link” were brought today to Dayton and attracted large crowds. One of the chimpanzees — named Joe Mendi — wore a plaid suit, a brown fedora, and white spats, and entertained Dayton’s citizens by monkeying around on the courthouse lawn. Apparently, the stunt was designed to “prove” that it was not man who evolved from the anthropoid, but the anthropoid which devolved from man. Mr. Bryan’s eyes sparkled as he gazed at the chimpanzee. “Wonderful!” he said. “Wonderful!” The so-called missing link was Jo Viens, formerly of Burlington, Vermont where, it was said, he was once mascot for the Burlington Fire Department. He was 51 years old, of short stature with a receding forehead and a protruding jaw like that of a simian, and had a peculiar shuffling walk which was said to be like that of an anthropoid. Mr. Nye asserted he was an example of how men “may go down now even as he [mankind] went down ages ago into the anthropoid.”

July 13, 1925 (a Monday)

The judge (right) and jury.

On this date, the defense in the Scopes Monkey Trial argued that the indictment of John Scopes should be thrown out for violating either the United States or Tennessee constitutions. This was the heart of the defense strategy; the goal was not to obtain the acquittal of Scopes, but to have a higher court – preferably the U.S. Supreme Court – declare laws forbidding the teaching of evolution to be unconstitutional. As expected, Judge Raulston denied the defense motion.

Notably, it was today that Clarence Darrow made the following famous statement during the trial:

If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lectures, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.

July 10, 1925 (a Friday)

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the trial.

On this date, the famous Scopes Monkey Trial began in Dayton, Tennessee with jury selection in the Rhea County Court House.

On 21 March 1925, Tennessee Governor Austin Peay had signed the Butler Act, making it illegal “to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals.” In May, the American Civil Liberties Union had announced that it was willing to offer its services to any teacher who challenged the constitutionality of the new Tennessee anti-evolution statute.

Local town leaders, realizing that a controversial trial would bring attention to Dayton and that the resulting publicity might thereby economically benefit the town, had recruited a local high school teacher, John Scopes, to stand trial under the Act. The 24-year-old Scopes was in his first job after graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1924. He taught algebra and physics, served as athletic coach, and occasionally substituted in biology classes at the Rhea County High School. The indictment identified the date of his teaching evolution as “the 24th day of April.”

Clarence Darrow, known as one of the best lawyers of his era, led the defense while William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic candidate for President and a populist, led the prosecution. The stage was set for one of the most famous trials in American history. For many Americans, this event marked the beginning of a re-examination of long-held religious beliefs and a growing acceptance of evolution and its implications for the place of humans on the planet.

More photos are available here.

June 30, 1860 (a Saturday)

A cartoon from Vanity Fair depicting Bishop Samuel Wilberforce.

On this date, one of the most memorable dramas in the history of science took place at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Oxford University. Darwin’s The Origin of Species had been published in 1859, but his health was not good enough to allow him to go to the Oxford meeting. However, Thomas Henry Huxley was there and it was he who so brilliantly debated Darwinism with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of the Church of England. More than 700 people crowded into the lecture room on that day – so many, in fact, that the meeting had to be moved to the library of the University Museum. Wilberforce, having refused to regard monkeys as his ancestors, turned to Huxley during the debate and asked whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from “a venerable ape.” Huxley took the challenge and is reputed to have answered, “If I am asked whether I would choose to be descended from the poor animal of low intelligence and stooping gait, who grins and chatters as we pass, or from a man, endowed with great ability and splendid position, who should use these gifts to discredit and crush humble seekers after truth, I hesitate what answer to make!”

June 28, 1971 (a Monday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Lemon v. Kurtzman was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Although unrelated to the teaching of evolution, the Court established a set of legal criteria for determining whether a law violates the Establishment Clause. In order to be constitutional under the “Lemon test,” a law must have a secular purpose, not advance or inhibit religion, and not excessively entangle the government with religion. The Lemon test will be applied to subsequent cases on the teaching of evolution.

June 23, 1934 (a Saturday)

Police photographs of William Bayly taken in January 1934

On this date, William Alfred Bayly was convicted of murder in New Zealand despite the fact that the body of one of his victims was never found. Most of the evidence against Bayly consisted of trace amounts of human hair, bone, and tissue, representing a marked advance in the field of forensics.

I mention this historic event in jurisprudence to counter a fallacy that is often argued in what might seem to be an unrelated field – namely, evolutionary biology. Religious fundamentalists and creationists often argue that evolution can’t be true because no human being was around to see, for example, fish evolve into amphibians. If an eyewitness is necessary to “prove” evolution, how can someone be convicted of murder if not only is there no eyewitness, but even no corpse?!

This is how:

Sam and Christobel Lakey disappeared from their farm in Ruawaro, New Zealand, in October 1933, along with their rifles. Christobel’s body turned up on 16 October 1933 in a pond on the farm with terrible bruising to her face and head, and investigators then discovered fresh bloodstains in both an old buggy and a barn, leading them to believe that Sam had been shot and transported somewhere else.

One of the first suspects was William Bayly, who owned a farm adjacent to the Lakey’s and who was known to have had frequent arguments over fences and access roads with the Lakeys. Years earlier, he had been suspected of killing his cousin, but was released due to insufficient evidence. Suggesting to police that Sam Lakey had probably fled after killing his wife, Bayly soon dropped out of sight himself.

Meanwhile, detectives found the missing rifles buried in a swamp on Lakey’s property. Following up on a report that there had been thick smoke coming from a shed on Bayly’s property on the day that the Lakeys disappeared, investigators found pieces of hair and bones, ash, and shotgun lead in a large oil drum inside the shed. It appeared that Bayly had cremated Sam Lakey’s body in this drum.

Tests of the hair and bone fragments from the drum in the shed proved that they were human in origin. Bayly was found guilty and hanged in Auckland prison at 8 am on 20 July 1934.

Even today, juries are reluctant to return murder convictions without the presence of a corpse. That a New Zealand jury was willing to take this unprecedented step so many years ago speaks volumes about the quality and quantity of forensic evidence made available by the prosecution.

References:

June 19, 1987 (a Friday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Edwards v. Aguillard was decided. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court invalidated Louisiana’s “Creationism Act” because it violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

May 28, 1807 (a Thursday)

Louis Agassiz

On this date, Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born in the village of Montier, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Receiving his medical degree from the University of Erlangen in 1830, he went to Paris in November 1831 to study comparative anatomy under Cuvier, the most famous naturalist in Europe. Cuvier died in April 1832, yet although their relationship lasted only six months, Agassiz always considered himself an intellectual heir of Cuvier. For the rest of his life, Agassiz promoted and defended Cuvier’s geological principle of catastrophism and his classification of the animals.

After Cuvier’s death, Agassiz became a professor at the Lyceum of Neuchatel in Switzerland, where for thirteen years he worked on many projects in paleontology, systematics, and glaciology. Agassiz began studying glaciers in 1836 as something of a sideline, but his contributions made him known as the “Father of Glaciology.”

In 1848, Agassiz became a professor at Harvard University. He immediately set about establishing a great museum of natural history. In 1859, his dream came true with the founding of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, which opened its doors in 1860. Agassiz labored for support of science in his adopted homeland; he and his colleagues urged the creation of a National Academy of Sciences, and Agassiz became a founding member in 1863. Agassiz was also appointed a regent of the Smithsonian Institution in 1863.

The cornerstone of Agassiz’s biological thought was his belief that the ranking from low to high forms, in any taxon, paralleled the order of appearance in the fossil record, the order of stages in the organisms’ development, and the distribution and ecology of the taxon. The “lowest” forms were found lowest in the rock record, earliest in embryonic development, and at the highest latitudes. Agassiz summed up his thought in his Essay on Classification, first published in 1851:

…the phenomena of animal life correspond to one another, whether we compare their rank as determined by structural complication with the phases of their growth, or with their succession in past geological ages; whether we compare this succession with their relative growth, or all these different relations with each other and with the geographical distribution of animals upon the earth. The same series everywhere!

Darwin, and many others after him, accepted these parallelisms as providing evidence for evolution. Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species that “this doctrine of Agassiz accords well with the theory of natural selection.” But Agassiz was no evolutionist; in fact, he was probably the last reputable scientist to reject evolution outright for any length of time after the publication of The Origin of Species. Agassiz saw the Divine Plan of God everywhere in nature, and could not reconcile himself to a theory that did not invoke design. He defined a species as “a thought of God.” As he wrote in his Essay on Classification:

The combination in time and space of all these thoughtful conceptions exhibits not only thought, it shows also premeditation, power, wisdom, greatness, prescience, omniscience, providence. In one word, all these facts in their natural connection proclaim aloud the One God, whom man may know, adore, and love; and Natural History must in good time become the analysis of the thoughts of the Creator of the Universe…

Natural theology had once inspired countless scientists, including Darwin and his forerunners, but by the time of publication of the Origin of Species it had largely run out of steam, unable to offer any real explanation for natural phenomena except “God made it that way.” Within Agassiz’s lifetime, and much to his grief, most of his students — including his son Alexander, a well-known naturalist in his own right — became evolutionists, though not necessarily Darwinians.

Yet Agassiz still made lasting contributions to evolutionary biology and systematics. Perhaps Agassiz’s greatest lasting insight was the realization that paleontology, embryology, ecology, and biogeography had to contribute to any classification that purported to show the true relationships of organisms — even if those relationships, to Agassiz, existed only in the mind of God. As he wrote in his Essay on Classification:

Classification seems to me to rest upon too narrow a foundation when it is chiefly based on structure. Animals are linked together as closely by their mode of development, by their relative standing in their respective classes, by the order in which they have made their appearance upon earth, by their geographical distribution, and generally by their connection with the world in which they live, as by their anatomy. All these relations should, therefore, be fully expressed in a natural classification; and though structure furnishes the most direct indication of some of these relations, always appreciable under every circumstance, other considerations should not be neglected which may complete our insight into the general plan of creation.

May 23, 1707

Celebration of Linnaeus' 300th Birthday.

On this date, the Swedish botanist, zoologist and geologist Carolus Linnaeus was born. He presented his revolutionary sexual system of plants for the first time in 1735. His contemporaries were shocked by the frank parallels Linnaeus made to human sexuality – nevertheless his practical system was soon to spread around the world.

May 7, 1925 (a Thursday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, the highly orchestrated arrest (but not detention) of John T. Scopes took place. The Tennessee legislature had earlier passed the Butler Act, which declared:

… that it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

As a reaction to this, the American Civil Liberties Union had offered to defend anyone who so dared to teach evolution in Tennessee. Some local business owners in Dayton thought that their town might be able to get some easy publicity if they were able to come up with someone who they could say violated the Butler Act. Scopes had volunteered, and ultimately he was charged with teaching evolution to a high school class.

May 4, 1925 (a Monday)

George Rappleyea in June 1925

On this date, George Rappalyea, a 31-year-old transplanted New Yorker and local coal company manager, arrived at Fred Robinson’s drugstore in Dayton, Tennessee with a copy of a paper containing an American Civil Liberties Union announcement that it was willing to offer its services to anyone challenging the new Tennessee anti-evolution statute. Rappalyea, a modernist Methodist with contempt for the new law, argued to other town leaders that a trial would be a way of putting Dayton on the map. Listening to Rappalyea, the others – including School Superintendent Walter White – became convinced that publicity generated by a controversial trial might help their town, whose population had fallen from 3,000 in the 1890’s to 1,800 in 1925. Thus, the “Robinson’s drugstore conspiracy” to put Dayton, Tennessee on the map was put into motion.

The conspirators summoned John Scopes, a twenty-four-year old general science teacher and part-time football coach, to the drugstore. As Scopes later described the meeting, Rappalyea said, “John, we’ve been arguing and I said nobody could teach biology without teaching evolution.” Scopes agreed. “That’s right,” he said, pulling a copy of Hunter’s Civic Biology – the state-approved textbook – from one of the shelves of the drugstore (the store also sold school textbooks). “You’ve been teaching ’em this book?” Rappalyea asked. Scopes replied that while filling in for the regular biology teacher during an illness, he had assigned readings on evolution from the book for review purposes. “Then you’ve been violating the law,” Rappalyea concluded. “Would you be willing to stand for a test case?” he asked. Scopes agreed. He later explained his decision: “The best time to scotch the snake is when it starts to wiggle.”

April 7, 1864 (a Thursday)

On this date, Louis Pasteur uttered his famous statement, “The doctrine of spontaneous generation will never recover from the mortal blow inflicted by this experiment,” during an address he delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. The experiment he was referring to involved swan-necked flasks.

Pasteur filled a flask with medium, heated it to kill all life, and then drew out the neck of the flask into a long S. This prevented microorganisms in the air from entering the flask, yet allowed air to flow freely. If the swan neck was broken, microbes could enter the flask and grow.

Pasteur had placed beef broth in flasks that had open-ended, long necks. After bending the necks of the flasks into S-shaped curves that dipped downward, then swept sharply upward, he boiled the contents. The contents of these uncapped flasks remained uncontaminated even months later.

Pasteur explained that the S-shaped curve allowed air to pass into the flask; however, the curved neck trapped airborne microorganisms at the bottom of the curve, preventing them from traveling into the broth.  If the swan neck was broken, microbes readily entered the flask and grew. Thus, Pasteur demonstrated that (1) microorganisms are present in the air and can contaminate solutions; and (2) the air itself does not create microbes.

Interestingly, despite Pasteur’s successful demonstrations against spontaneous generation, attempts to repeat his experiments occasionally failed because, after some time, microbial growth occurred in some broths of swan-necked flasks. This created doubt in the minds of many. But, this problem was solved by John Tyndall, an English physicist, in the year 1877. He explained that bacteria exist in two forms: Heat-labile forms which could be killed by exposure to high temperatures, and heat-resistant forms (known as spores) which could not be killed by continuous boiling of the broth.  After the broth has cooled, the latter resulted in microbial growth in such broths.

Tyndall further stated that if such broths are subjected to intermittent boiling (that is, discontinuous boiling) on successive occasions, a process now popular as tyndallization, the heat-resistant forms of bacteria will be killed and the broths become completely free of them, and do not show any microbial growth. It so happens because the first boiling kills vegetative cells of bacteria but spores remain as such. The spores now germinate in cooled broth and produce new bacteria cells which are killed during further boiling and so on. In this way, Tyndall validated Pasteur’s results and helped end the debate on spontaneous generation.

Many creationists maintain that, as a result of the above experiment, “Louis Pasteur disproved Darwin’s theory.” In fact, Pasteur did no such thing. What he and the others who denied spontaneous generation demonstrated is that life does not currently spontaneously arise in complex form from non-life in nature; he did not demonstrate the impossibility of life arising in simple form from non-life by way of a long and propitious series of chemical steps/selections. Pasteur’s experiments were limited to a smaller system, and for a shorter time, than the open surface of the planet over millions or billions of years. In particular, they did not show that life cannot arise once, and then evolve. Neither Pasteur, nor any other post-Darwin researcher in this field, denied the age of the earth or the fact of evolution.

March 23, 1769 (a Thursday)

William Smith's "A Geological Map of England and Wales and Part of Scotland" (1815)

William Smith’s “A Geological Map of England and Wales and Part of Scotland” (1815)

On this date, the English engineer and geologist William Smith was born. Smith was instrumental in extending the science of stratigraphy. His early work was as a miner and an engineer, for a canal-digging company. From this experience he observed the difference in rock layers. He also recognized that the same succession of fossil groups from older to younger rocks could be found in many parts of England, which he called the principle of faunal succession. He traveled the entire country to verify that relationships between the strata and their characteristics were consistent everywhere. Thus Smith created a profile of the entire country of England. His great geologic map of England and Wales (1815) set the standard for modern geologic maps. Many of the colorful names he gave to the strata are still in use today.

March 21, 1925 (a Saturday)

On this date, Tennessee Governor Peay signed into law the Butler Act, “prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory” in all public schools and universities and making it unlawful in public schools “to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” This set the stage for the Scopes’ “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee during the subsequent summer.

The author of the law, a Tennessee farmer named John Washington Butler, had introduced the bill into the state House of Representatives on January 25, 1925. Ironically, he later was reported to have said, “No, I didn’t know anything about evolution when I introduced it. I’d read in the papers that boys and girls were coming home from school and telling their fathers and mothers that the Bible was all nonsense.” After reading copies of William Jennings Bryan’s lecture “Is the Bible True?” as well as Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, Butler decided evolution was dangerous. During the trial, Butler told reporters, “I never had any idea my bill would make a fuss. I just thought it would become a law, and that everybody would abide by it and that we wouldn’t hear any more of evolution in Tennessee.”

March 7, 1930 (a Friday)

ResearchBlogging.orgOn this date, the American chemist and biologist Stanley Lloyd Miller was born. In 1953, he (under his University of Chicago mentor, Nobelist Harold C. Urey) performed a famous experiment (the so-called Miller-Urey experiment) to determine the possible origin of life from inorganic chemicals on the primeval, just-formed Earth. They passed electrical discharges (simulating thunderstorms) through mixtures of reducing gases, such as hydrogen, ammonia, methane and water, believed to have formed the earliest atmosphere. Analysis days later showed the resulting chemicals included five amino acids: aspartic acid, glycine, alpha-amino-butyric acid, and two versions of alanine. Aspartic acid, glycine, and alanine are common building blocks of natural proteins. Other compounds included urea, aldehydes, and carboxylic acids. This experiment showed that the basic molecules of life could be synthesized from simple molecules, suggesting that Darwin’s “warm little pond” was a feasible scenario.

The apparatus used for Miller's original experiment. Boiled water (1) creates airflow, driving steam and gases through a spark (2). A cooling condenser (3) turns some steam back into liquid water, which drips down into the trap (4), where chemical products also settle.

Interestingly, the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment had two sibling studies, neither of which was published. Vials containing the products from those experiments were recently recovered and reanalyzed using modern technology. The results were reported in the 17 October 2008 issue of the journal Science.

Miller relied on a blotting technique to identify the organic molecules he had created — primitive laboratory conditions by today’s standards. He would not have been able to identify anything present at very low levels.

Indiana University Biochemistry Program doctoral student Adam Johnson, Scripps Institution of Oceanography marine chemist Jeffrey Bada (the present Science paper’s principal investigator), National Autonomous University of Mexico biologist Antonio Lazcano, Carnegie Institution of Washington chemist James Cleaves, and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center astrobiologists Jason Dworkin and Daniel Glavin examined vials left over from Miller’s experiments of the early 1950s. Vials associated with the original, published experiment contained far more organic molecules than Stanley Miller realized — 14 amino acids and five amines.

The apparatus used for Miller's "second," initially unpublished experiment. Boiled water (1) creates airflow, driving steam and gases through a spark (2). A tapering of the glass apparatus (inlay) creates a spigot effect, increasing air flow. A cooling condenser (3) turns some steam back into liquid water, which drips down into the trap (4), where chemical products also settle.

However, “The apparatus Stanley Miller paid the least attention to gave the most exciting results,” said Johnson, lead author of the Science report. The difference between the published and two unpublished experiments is small — the unpublished experiments used a tapering glass “aspirator” that simply increased air flow through a hollow, air-tight glass device. Increased air flow created a more dynamic reaction vessel, or “vapor-rich volcanic” conditions, according to the present report’s authors. The 11 vials scientists recovered from Miller’s “second,” initially unpublished experiment produced 22 amino acids and the same five amines at yields comparable to the original experiment.

“We believed there was more to be learned from Miller’s original experiment,” Bada said. “We found that in comparison to his design everyone is familiar with from textbooks, the volcanic apparatus produces a wider variety of compounds.” Johnson added, “Many of these other amino acids have hydroxyl groups attached to them, meaning they’d be more reactive and more likely to create totally new molecules, given enough time.” The report’s authors bring up-to-date what is a plausible scenario for the origin of the earliest biochemical molecules on Earth:

Geoscientists today doubt that the primitive atmosphere had the highly reducing composition Miller used. However, the volcanic apparatus experiment suggests that, even if the overall atmosphere was not reducing, localized prebiotic synthesis could have been effective. Reduced gases and lightning associated with volcanic eruptions in hot spots or island arc–type systems could have been prevalent on the early Earth before extensive continents formed. In these volcanic plumes, HCN, aldehydes, and ketones may have been produced, which, after washing out of the atmosphere, could have become involved in the synthesis of organic molecules. Amino acids formed in volcanic island systems could have accumulated in tidal areas, where they could be polymerized by carbonyl sulfide, a simple volcanic gas that has been shown to form peptides under mild conditions.

Stanley Lloyd Miller

Miller’s third, also unpublished, experiment used an apparatus that had an aspirator but used a “silent” discharge. This third device appears to have produced a lower diversity of organic molecules.

“This research is both a link to the experimental foundations of astrobiology as well as an exciting result leading toward greater understanding of how life might have arisen on Earth,” said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, headquartered at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

Suggested Reading:

WARNING: The creationist Jonathan Wells of the Discovery Institute has made false and misleading claims about the Miller-Urey experiment and other abiogenesis research in his book Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What We Teach About Evolution Is Wrong.

February 15, 1861 (a Friday)

Leonard Horner

On this date, in his presidential address during the annual general meeting of the Geological Society of London, Leonard Horner (1785-1864) proposed removing the world’s “creation” date of 4004 B.C. from the English Bible, citing geological evidence of a much older planet.

…It will be useful to look into the history of this date of four thousand and four years, given with so much precision for the creation, not of this our earth only, but of the universe, and to inquire into the authority by which an addition of so much import is made to the sacred text…

…I have thus laid before you the origin of this settled point in Sacred History as taught at this day in our schools, and, from its juxta-position to the text of the Bible, held in veneration by millions, there is every reason to believe, as an undoubted truth. The study of geology has become so general that those who are instructed in its mere elements cannot fail to see the discrepancy between this date and the truths which geology reveals…

…To remove any inaccuracy in notes accompanying the authorized version of our Bible is surely an imperative duty…

References:

February 5, 1770 (a Monday)

Alexandre Brongniart

On this date, the French mineralogist, geologist, and naturalist Alexandre Brongniart was born. He was the first person to arrange the geologic formations of the Tertiary Period (from 66.4 to 1.6 million years ago) in chronological order and describe them. He made the first systematic study of trilobites, an extinct group of arthropods that became important in determining the chronology of Paleozoic strata (from 540 to 245 million years ago). He also helped introduce the principle of geologic dating by the identification of distinctive fossils, called index fossils, found in each stratum and noted that the Paris formations had been produced under alternate freshwater and saltwater conditions. [Notice that the use of index fossils for the relative dating of rocks and fossils was established long before the use of radioisotopes for their absolute dating, contrary to what some “creationists” would have you believe.]

January 18, 1823 (a Saturday)

William Buckland

William Buckland

William Buckland, Professor of Geology at Oxford University and an ordained priest in the Church of England, had been contacted by the Talbot family of Penrice Castle on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales, England, who had reported finding “bones of elephants” on 27 December 1822. Descending into Paviland Cave (or Goat’s Hole Cave) on today’s date, Buckland discovered one of the best-known prehistoric burials in Britain – the notoriously misnamed “Red Lady of Paviland.”

In the field, Buckland had identified the skeleton as male, suggesting that the bones were those of a Customs Officer murdered by smugglers. By the time of publication later that year, however, the gender and age of the skeleton had changed with a new and better, but still erroneous, story.

Found at Paviland

Buckland, a devout Christian, believed no human remains could have been older than the Biblical Great Flood, and thus wildly underestimated its true age, believing the remains to date back to the Roman era. He believed the skeleton was female in large part because it was discovered with decorative items, including perforated seashell necklaces and ivory jewelry. These decorative items combined with the skeleton’s red dye caused Buckland to mistakenly speculate that the remains belonged to a Roman prostitute or witch. He later wrote in his book Reliquiae Diluvianae (Evidence of the Flood):

[I found the skeleton] enveloped by a coating of a kind of ruddle…which stained the earth, and in some parts extended itself to the distance of about half an inch [12mm] around the surface of the bones… Close to that part of the thigh bone where the pocket is usually worn surrounded also by ruddle [were] about two handfuls of the Nerita littoralis [periwinkle shells]. At another part of the skeleton, viz in contact with the ribs [were] forty or fifty fragments of ivory rods…[also]…some small fragments of rings made of the same ivory and found with the rods… Both rods and rings, as well as the Nerite shells, were stained superficially with red, and lay in the same red substance that enveloped the bones.

The “lady” has since been identified as a man, probably no older than 21, who lived about 26,000 years ago (26,350 ± 550 BP). It remains the first human fossil found and identified soon after its discovery and the oldest anatomically modern human remains found in the United Kingdom.

Buckland is also famous for being the first person to discover, name, and scientifically describe a fossilized creature that came to be recognized as what Richard Owen was to call a dinosaur. Buckland’s name for the animal was Megalosaurus, Greek for “great lizard”. Though he was not the first person to find a Megalosaurus bone (Robert Plot discovered a fossilized femur of one as far back as 1676), Buckland was the first to realize that these fossils belonged to an unknown class of huge reptiles. According to his calculations, the animal must have exceeded forty feet in length and weighed as much as a large elephant. Some people think his 1824 paper to the Geological Society of London (“Notice on the Megalosaurus or Great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield”) inaugurated the modern study of dinosaurs.

Buckland’s interest in dinosaur remains included more than bones. He also carried out a large amount of research into fossilized dinosaur feces. At a meeting of the Geological Society of London on 6 February 1829, Buckland described them and introduced the term coprolites (from the Greek words “kopros”, meaning dung, and “lithos”, meaning stone). His paper, “On the Discovery of Coprolites, or Fossil Faeces, in the Lias at Lyme Regis”, states that they have “undergone no process of rolling, but retain their natural form, as if they had fallen from the animal into soft mud, and there been preserved,” later comparing them to “oblong pebbles or kidney-potatoes.”

William Buckland Fossil Faeces (Coprolites).

William Buckland Fossil Faeces (Coprolites).

Interestingly, Buckland was very eccentric. He caused such a stir with his explicit lectures on the mating habits of reptiles that The Times of London felt he should restrain his enthusiasm “in the presence of ladies”. He always wore his academic gown when out digging for fossils. The hallway of his Oxford home was lined with the skulls of animals. Monkeys, a bear (in a mortarboard) and a hyena, amongst other animals, had the run of the house (the hyena ate the family’s guinea pig).

But strangest of all was Buckland’s diet. He was a committed zoophagist — an eater of animals. All animals. In Buckland’s opinion, the Creator had placed the creatures of the world at Man’s service, to feed and clothe him and to be his companions, and it was Man’s duty to eat the rich bounty of foods provided by the Almighty for his sustenance. And eat them he did — from elephant trunk soup, panther chops, horse tongue, porpoise head, crispy mice in batter, kangaroo ham, and eland steaks to accidentally grilled giraffe (there had been a fire at the London Zoo). He found the taste of mole to be the worst, until he tasted bluebottles.

Once, while touring a church, the local vicar showed him “martyr’s blood” dripping from the rafters — Buckland dropped to his knees and began to lap at the miraculous liquid, which was, he announced between laps, bats’ urine. On a visit to Nuneham House, he was shown a silver casket holding what was reputed to be the heart of King Louis XIV of France. Before anyone could stop him, Buckland announced, “I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before,” before snatching it up and swallowing it.

Buckland’s eccentricities earned him a famous description by Charles Darwin, who wrote: “though very good-humoured and good-natured [he] seemed to me a vulgar and almost coarse man. He was incited more by a craving for notoriety, which sometimes made him act like a buffoon, than by a love of science.”

References:

January 14, 1890 (a Tuesday)

Arthur Holmes

On this date, Arthur Holmes, one of the foremost geologists of the twentieth century, was born in England. He developed a method of determining the age of the Earth based on the radioactive decay of uranium in igneous rocks (which invalidated Lord Kelvin’s hypothesis that the Earth’s age can be established on the basis of the planet’s cooling from a initial molten state). Holmes’ method proved to be remarkably accurate and laid the foundation of isotope geology. This was the first quantitative time scale for geology based on measuring the radioactive constituents of rocks.

Arthur Holmes


References:

  • Cherry Lewis, The Dating Game: One Man’s Search for the Age of the Earth (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

January 11, 1844 (a Thursday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin wrote a letter to the botanist Joseph Hooker, revealing for the first time to another human being his theory of evolution by natural selection:

I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable…I think I have found out (here’s presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends…

Darwin’s description of himself as “confessing a murder” was not entirely tongue-in-cheek – he genuinely feared that Hooker might be appalled by his ideas. Prior to the nineteenth century, naturalists had divided the study of nature into descriptive natural history and explanatory natural philosophy, and the prevailing natural philosophy had been “natural theology.” According to natural theology, organisms had been separately and instantaneously created in their modern forms by an Intelligent Designer, or God (the terms were synonymous).

However, in Hooker’s day, this distinction between catalogues and causes was breaking down – the “natural” system of classifying organisms suggested a genealogical, not theological, explanation for the origin of species. Hooker replied to Darwin, saying that there might well have been “a gradual change of species,” adding, “I shall be delighted to hear how you think that this change may have taken place, as no presently conceived opinions satisfy me on the subject.”   Darwin was pleasantly surprised.

January 9, 1998 (a Friday)

Models

The story of how Dark Energy was discovered is a classic case of nature confounding expectations.

Ever since astronomers had accepted the idea of the Big Bang, they had been out hunting for its subsequent cosmic deceleration.

The idea was simple.

While the Big Bang blows space apart (it literally stretches all points of space-time away from each other), the gravitational pull of matter should, over time, slow down that initial burst of cosmic expansion. Two research groups, one at Berkeley and the other at Harvard, were racing to find the magnitude of deceleration in the universe. It was a critical project since the rate of cosmic braking is directly related to the total density of mass (and energy) in the universe.

Things didn’t go quite as planned. As data was gathered and analyzed, both the Harvard and Berkeley groups were stunned to find no evidence for deceleration. Instead, according to observations, the expansion of the universe was speeding up — it was accelerating. After exhaustively checking and rechecking their data, both groups bit the bullet and announced their results on this date (9 January 1998) at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in New York City.

“All the indications from our observations of supernovas spanning a large range of distances are that we live in a universe that will expand forever,” said the leader of one team, Dr. Saul Perlmutter of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. “Apparently there isn’t enough mass in the universe for its gravity to slow the expansion, which started with the Big Bang, to a halt.”

Dr. Peter Garnavich of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., a leader of the other team, said the low deceleration of the expansion rate means that the universe is much older, about 15 billion years old, than had been calculated by some astronomers, whose estimates had ranged as low as 8 billion years. If the universe was not expanding at a faster rate earlier, then it has taken longer for it to reach its present size.

In an independent study of the expansion rates of 14 distant radio galaxies, Dr. Ruth A. Daly, a Princeton University astronomer, said “our results are basically almost identical” to those of the Berkeley and Harvard-Smithsonian supernova observations. “We are 95 percent confident that the universe is going to expand forever,” Dr. Daly said.

Remarking on the close agreement of the different studies, Dr. Neta A. Bahcall, a Princeton astrophysicist, said this reinforced confidence that the conclusions are correct, or else everyone has overlooked some hidden flaw.

Where does Dark Energy appear in all this? As Newton showed 400 years earlier, accelerations need forces. And, as the physicists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries demonstrated, forces need energy. The discovery of cosmic acceleration meant that space was being forced apart and must, therefore, be pervaded by a new form of energy acting as “anti-gravity.” While Newtonian gravity only produces attractions, Einstein’s more complete description of gravity — as the shape of space-time — demonstrated that repulsion and gravity could go hand-in-hand.

The discovery of cosmic acceleration and Dark Energy upended cosmology almost overnight. In spite of the community’s incredulity, further studies, including studies of cosmic geometry, gave new support (multiple lines of evidence) for the reality of Dark Energy. Like it or not, this unanticipated form of anti-gravity was now a powerful actor on cosmology’s stage.

“Like it or not” is the key phrase. The history of science is stacked high with ideas and discoveries nobody was expecting, or even wanted. From the discovery of the muon (“who ordered that?” asked physicist I.I. Rabi) to climate change (the ultimate inconvenient truth), we don’t get to dictate to nature how it should behave. The greatest and strangest beauty of science is, in fact, this constant reminder of just how wrong we can be.

References:

January 5, 1982 (a Tuesday)

Scales of Justice

On this date, McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education was decided. An ACLU lawyer for the plaintiff dubbed it “Scopes II”, although the nickname didn’t quite fit this particular case. For one thing, Arkansas had already had its version of the Scopes trial in 1968, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state’s ban on teaching evolution (Epperson v. Arkansas). In the 1980s, instead of banning the teaching of evolution, anti-evolutionists were using a different tactic. They were trying to force the schools to teach creationism alongside evolution. Creationism, or creation-science as it was referred to in Arkansas’ “balanced treatment” law, is the belief that each species was independently created de novo a few thousand years ago in its modern form, and consequently living things do not evolve.

The Biblical creation had allegedly taken seven days, but its trial, which began on December 7, 1981, took nine.

Federal Judge William R. Overton found that Arkansas’ law (Act 590) mandating equal treatment of creation science with evolution violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. In a decision that gave a detailed definition of the term “science”, the court declared that “creation science” is not in fact a science. Interestingly, to support his conclusion, Overton noted that the Arkansas law was a “model” bill drafted and promoted nationwide by Paul Ellwanger, a respiratory therapist from South Carolina. In explaining his model bill in a letter to Pastor Robert E. Hays, Ellwanger made it clear that he did not believe that creationism was a science:

While neither evolution nor creation can qualify as a scientific theory, and since it is virtually impossible at this point to educate the whole world that evolution is not a true scientific theory, we have freely used these terms – the evolution theory and the theory of scientific creationism – in the bill’s text.

Overton said that Ellwanger’s other correspondence on the subject showed “an awareness that Act 590 is a religious crusade, coupled with a desire to conceal this fact.” For example, in a letter to Senator Joseph Carlucci of Florida, Ellwanger wrote:

It would be very wise, if not actually essential, that all of us who are engaged in this legislative effort be careful not to present our position and our work in a religious framework. For example, in written communications that might somehow be shared with those other persons whom we may be trying to convince, it would be well to exclude our own personal testimony or witness for Christ….

Overton showed that creationism was not science by first listing the essential characteristics of science: (1) it is guided by natural law; (2) it has to be explanatory by reference to natural law; (3) it is testable against the empirical world; (4) its conclusions are tentative, that is, are not necessarily the final word; and (5) it is falsifiable. He then argued that creation science failed to meet these characteristics because it required a supernatural intervention which is not guided by natural law and which “is not explanatory by reference to natural law, is not testable, and is not falsifiable.” In support of this he pointed out that creationist methods “do not take data, weigh it against the opposing scientific data,” and then reach conclusions. Instead, creationists “take the literal wording of the Book of Genesis and attempt to find scientific support for it.” This argument made it clear that “since creation science is not science, the conclusion is inescapable that the only real effect of Act 590 is the advancement of religion.”

The court also found that the statute did not have a secular purpose, noting that the statute used language peculiar to creationist literature in emphasizing origins of life as an aspect of the theory of evolution. While the subject of life’s origins is within the province of biology, the scientific community does not consider the subject as part of evolutionary theory, which assumes the existence of life and is directed to an explanation of how life evolved after it originated. The theory of evolution does not presuppose either the absence or the presence of a creator.

Judge Overton’s most devastating critique of creation science was probably the following observation:

The proof in support of creation science consisted almost entirely of efforts to discredit the theory of evolution through a rehash of data and theories which have been before the scientific community for decades. The arguments asserted by creationists are not based upon new scientific evidence or laboratory data which has been ignored by the scientific community.

December 27, 1822 (a Friday)

Louis Pasteur

On this date, the chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur was born in Dole in the Jura region of France.

From the time of the ancient Romans, through the Middle Ages, and until the late nineteenth century, it was generally accepted that some life forms arose spontaneously from nonliving matter. Such “spontaneous generation” appeared to occur primarily in decaying matter. For example, a seventeenth century recipe for the spontaneous production of mice required placing sweaty underwear and husks of wheat in an open-mouthed jar, then waiting for about 21 days, during which time it was alleged that the sweat from the underwear would penetrate the husks of wheat, changing them into mice. Likewise, the spontaneous generation hypothesis was proposed by scientists to explain the origin of the “animalcules” observed by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek in his magnifying lenses and had received wide acceptance all over Europe. Although such a concept may seem laughable today, it was consistent with the other widely held cultural and religious beliefs of the time.

It wasn’t until Louis Pasteur that this fallacy was finally disproved. In 1859, the French Academy of Science offered the Alhumbert Prize of 2500 francs to whoever could shed “new light on the question of so-called spontaneous generation”. Young Pasteur’s award winning experiment was a clever variation of earlier experiments performed by John Needham (1713-1781) and Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799). Pasteur filled a long necked flask with meat broth. He then heated the glass neck and bent it into an “S” shape. Air could reach the broth, but gravity acted to trap airborne microorganisms in the curve of the neck. He then boiled the broth. After a time, no microorganisms had formed in the broth. When the flask was tipped so that the broth reached the microorganisms trapped in the neck, the broth quickly became cloudy with microscopic life.

Pasteur filled a flask with medium, heated it to kill all life, and then drew out the neck of the flask into a long S. This prevented microorganisms in the air from entering the flask, yet allowed air to flow freely. If the swan neck was broken, microbes could enter the flask and grow.

Thus, Pasteur disproved spontaneous generation. Furthermore, Pasteur proved that some microorganisms are airborne. “There is no known circumstance in which it can be confirmed that microscopic beings came into the world without germs, without parents similar to themselves,” he concluded in 1864. His experiment also supported germ theory. Germ theory states that specific microscopic organisms are the cause of specific diseases. While Pasteur was not the first to propose germ theory (Girolamo Fracastoro, Agostino Bassi, Friedrich Henle and others had suggested it earlier), he developed it and conducted other experiments that clearly indicated its correctness, thereby managing to convince most of Europe it was true.

Despite what creationists and proponents of “intelligent design” may insist, Pasteur’s research on spontaneous generation did not demonstrate the impossibility of life arising in simple form from nonliving matter under conditions vastly different from those today and by means of a long and propitious series of chemical steps/selections. In particular, he did not show that life cannot arise once, and then evolve. Neither Pasteur, nor any other post-Darwin researcher in this field, denied the age of Earth or the fact of evolution. What Louis Pasteur and the others who denied spontaneous generation did demonstrate is that life does not currently spontaneously (i.e., within a matter of weeks) arise in complex form from nonlife in nature.

Memorable Quote:

One does not ask of one who suffers: What is your country and what is your religion? One merely says: You suffer, this is enough for me: you belong to me and I shall help you.

— quoted in Louis Pasteur, Free Lance of Science (1950) by René Jules Dubos, p. 85