How I discovered evolution

A while back, Wesley Elsberry explained how Reader’s Digest and various other things led him to science. For myself, it was a longer and more tortuous route.

I never had a competent science teacher until college (with the exception of my physics teacher in high school, who did surprisingly well getting the subject through my stubborn head). The Sandefur family has a pretty strong scientific bent–my grandmother, Dr. Elsie Sandefur, founded the UCLA Bone Lab; my grandfather Kermit specialized in optics and helped design the cameras in the SR-71 Blackbird; my father, Mark, is an electronics engineer working on radar and radar jamming for Lockheed Skunk Works. When I was a child, my parents had me watching David Attenborough specials, but I wanted to be a physicist or a chemist (never wanted to be a lawyer). But biology? I thought animals were boring.

Then in my sophomore year in college I took biology with Dr. Dale DesLauriers. I never even opened the textbook, but his lectures were fascinating–I still remember his explanation of speciation through geographic separation. It was my favorite class that semester. Unfortunately, as soon as the semester ended, I put the subject out of my mind completely.

I transferred to a very conservative school, where I discovered many students whose parents had taught them creationism. One of the guys in my dorm was even a young-earther. I remember a conversation with him in which he brought up the Paluxy River tracks–I stopped him. “Wait a second,” I said, a rare flash of common sense peeping into my brain. “If dinosaurs and man were on the earth at the same time, why aren’t there any drawings of dinosaurs in the cave paintings? And why aren’t there ever any human bones found in dinosaur nests?” He had no answers for these questions, but a seed had been planted in my brain. It was shortly before summer break, and I resolved to spend the summer learning about creationism and evolution.

Among the other books I read that summer was Philip Kitcher’s Abusing Science. It’s an outstanding book, and although I have my reservations about some of Kitcher’s views–particularly as expressed in his The Lives to Come–I very much recommend Abusing Science to anyone just starting to learn about the controversy. One especially good aspect of the book is that Kitcher doesn’t just rebut the common arguments of creationists; he also provides an excellent introduction to some of the basic philosophical aspects of the scientific method. One metaphor of his that I frequently revert to is his likening of scientific theories to bundles of sticks–much as we lawyers liken property rights to bundles of sticks. When theories are tested through experiment, Kitcher explains, it’s not just a single assumption that is tested; it’s bundles of assumptions. This is why different experiments often need to be done to test a single hypothesis, and why it’s important to eliminate as many variables–which could make up invisible “sticks”–as possible in each experiment. None of the several other books I read on creationism and evolution quite matched this one. But I also very much enjoyed Robert Pennock’s Tower of Babel,</a> which has a fascinating analogy to the evolution of language as revealed by changes in famous biblical passages over the centuries.

About the same time, I started reading The Ascent of Man</i> by Jacob Bronowski. I admit, I picked it up just because of the pictures. But Bronowski’s writing is so captivating that I immediately became a fan, and remain one. Ascent is his masterpiece–it’s an almost verbatim transcript of his 13-hour television miniseries by the same name (which, by the way, was not scripted, but was delivered almost entirely extemporaneously, which means that he more or less dictated the entire book off the top of his head). Bronowski’s chapters on evolution, entropy, genetics, and primitive man are priceless. He was a poet, (in fact, he and Samuel “Waiting for Godot” Beckett published their first book together–a collection of European poetry called European Caravan–while they were rooming together in Paris in the 1930s), so his eloquence and gift for artistry combine with his scientific knowledge to make Ascent a powerful teaching tool. (It is not without its factual errors, however, as I later discovered.)

Then came the (sorta) completion of the Human Genome Project in the summer of 2000. I was clerking at the Institute for Justice that summer, and a writer for Reason magazine gave away some extra copies to the clerks. In it was a review of Matt Ridley’s Genome by Ronald Bailey. I was fascinated, and I rushed out and got the book. It is an outstanding, readable, exciting introduction to a amazing subject. That started an obsession with genetics which has still not abated. I read everything I could get my hands on (that I could understand, anyway), on DNA. Among the others I highly recommend Cracking The Genome</i> by Kevin Davies, which I reviewed in Liberty magazine in April, 2001.

Finally, I found a copy of Richard Dawkins’ Unweaving The Rainbow</i> sitting on a discount shelf. I read it in a few feverish days when I was supposed to be doing law school homework. It instantly became one of my favorite books of all time. Dawkins’ explanations of evolution, such as River Out of Eden and especially Climbing Mount Improbable, are readable, brilliant, and devastating. Anyone who wants to really know what modern evolutionary theory says must read these books. But what makes Unweaving special is Dawkins’ beautiful and moving testament to the wonders of nature, and his destruction of the pernicious notion that understanding the world somehow erases its romance. “The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us,” writes Dawkins, “is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that makes life worth living. . ..” How true, and how I wish we could open people to that passion.