An old pal of mine, the splendiferously morphogenetical Don Kane, has brought to my attention a curious juxtaposition. It’s two articles from the old, old days, both published in Nature in 1981, both relevant to my current interests, but each reflecting different outcomes. One is on zebrafish, the other on creationism.
1981 was a breakthrough year for zebrafish; I think it’s safe to say that if one paper put them on the map, it was Streisinger et al.‘s “Production of clones of homozygous diploid zebra fish (Brachydanio rerio)”1. George Streisinger was the father of zebrafish as a model system (and also a wonderfully nice guy, enthusiastic and passionate; everyone who knew him misses him), and what he had worked out was a technique for generating clones of isogenic fish that were homozygous at all loci. This is an extremely useful trick for doing genetics: it simplifies the genetic background of a complex vertebrate, and it allows you to, for instance, maintain mutations in heterozygous colonies and generate homozygous progeny fairly easily. That set the stage for future research and generated a great deal of interest in our little animals.
Twenty five years ago, there were few people working on zebrafish; George Streisinger’s lab was the leader, Chuck Kimmel (both at the University of Oregon) had only recently switched over, and we developed a bit of a reputation for vigorously proselytizing our organism at scientific meetings—every talk began with what we called the zebrafish litany, a recitation of its advantages (“optically-clear-rapidly-developing-identifiable-neurons-genetic-tools”). I remember one conversation at the Friday Harbor development meetings when Robert Ho, who was at that time working on leech development, took us to task for being so damned annoying. (Robert, by the way, has since converted and now works on zebrafish, too. I’m sure he’d still say the experimental model is a convenience, and it’s the questions that should engage us.)
From two labs, there are now hundreds; the ZFIN database lists over 4000 people doing zebrafish research. That’s a big change. You can scarcely open a developmental biology journal anymore without stumbling over heaps of new research using that little animal. More than that, there have been huge advances in development and evolution since the beginning of the evo-devo revolution in the 1980s, and I’m just astounded at all the stuff we know now that weren’t on the books when I was in grad school. We didn’t talk about homeoboxes or Hox genes, for instance; they weren’t identified or named until 1983. (We had to learn about homeotic genes by reading about the purely genetic experiments of the scarily smart Ed Lewis, and struggled with Ubx and bx-c and experiments with complex epistatic interactions, the elaborate logic puzzles and math of abstract genetics).2 Zebrafish are a tiny part of a story about an explosion of new information in molecular genetics and development, and the growth of new ideas and data that support evolution.
Science changes. Those last twenty five years have been a period of remarkable success and growth of the field.
In the same issue in which George Streisinger published his seminal work, though, there’s an editorial which could have been written today. Nothing has changed; if anything, I think we’ve slid farther back.
1981 was also the year of McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, a trial like the recent Dover creationism trial, and like the Scopes trial before it, that hammered away at the attempts by creationists to insert religious dogma into our public school’s science curricula. I didn’t really notice. I read Gould’s accounts of the trial, but otherwise, creationism was just an irritating obstacle. I don’t recall this particular opinion piece at all, but then I suspect I didn’t look at anything else in the journal, since I wouldn’t have gotten past George’s paper. When Don Kane noticed it, though, and passed it along, I was like, all “Whoa. Deja vu.”
The piece is titled “Does creation deserve equal time?”, and it was prompted by the events in Arkansas and the fact that the British Museum had opened on exhibit on the origin of species that gave pride of place to Darwin’s ideas, but also highlighted the Genesis creation myth as another way of “accounting for the diversity of species”. You will be relieved to know that the conclusion is unambiguously negative, that creationism does not deserve equal time, but along the way it gives us the usual platitudes about accommodating religion. Here’s an excerpt; seriously, this could have been written yesterday, it’s just that the bland obtuseness of its story is a little more obvious with hindsight.
The issue is not a simple extension into this century of the fierce rows about God and Darwinism that occupied some of the Victorians, especially in Britain. Then, with religion firmly entrenched and sometimes backed by the force of law, it was natural that people such as Huxley should have seized on Darwinism as a way of substantiating their long-standing disbelief. Now, with the shoe on the other foot—religion less widely practiced and in most places disestablished—the argument is different and more subtle. The scientific community is no, as popular legend has it, monolithically irreligious even if card-carrying believers are proportionately fewer than in the general population. And the fact that science and religion can coexist is a sign that, behaviourally, science and religion are not always antithetical. People, it seems, can spend their weekdays in laboratories observing phenomena which they suppose are causally determined and Sundays on their knees, believing that some events are differently arranged. (Sects differ in their estimates of the importance of physically non-causal events, as evidenced by their differing assessments of the function of prayer somewhere between the extremes of cathartic wish-fulfillment and putatively effective interruptions of causal processes.)
To many professional people, this awkward philosophical compromise is offensive, but mistakenly. It is not even a philosophically untenable position to suppose that the present world is well-determined, but that it was all set in train in, say, 4004 BC, the year that Bishop Ussher figured out the world began. Continuing inspired non-causalism is harder to accommodate, but even that circle can be squared in the mind of many people, professional scientists included. But much of modern religion is drawn in such a way that inconsistency crops up less openly. In any case, in most fields of scientific inquiry, the supposed conflict between science and religion is entirely irrelevant.
Such comfortable confidence! Oh, to go back in time and give this fellow today’s newspapers, where the creationists continue the same old battles under different names, where evolution is marginalized in the schools, where Ken Ham opens a multi-million dollar creation ‘science’ museum, where our president and other government officials are sympathetic to giving creationism equal time, in which he could make the acquaintance of Sir Peter Vardy. He’s so certain that religion is on the wane that he feels safe in patting them on the head and reassuring them that even a young earth is philosophically tenable. No conflict! Science and religion irrelevant! Science and religion coexist!
What a clinker.
Science rockets along, but so does the general ignorance of the public, fostered by the dogmas of religion. The situation worsens over these decades; you’d think that a continued lack of success would suggest that just maybe the old tactics of appeasement aren’t working, and perhaps we should all stop feeding the theological beast these mollifying scraps of heartening comfort. Religion, especially the fundamentalist cults, is unscientific, impractical, unsupported by the evidence, and antithetical to scientific thought. It may not be an absolute barrier to science, but it sure is a handicap.
You’d think we could learn a little from history, too. The author mentions the “fierce rows about God and Darwinism” that took place in Victorian England, and then casually notes that now religion is “in most places disestablished”; isn’t there a lesson in that? Could there possibly be a causal relationship between prominent battles against religious belief and the weakening of the influence of religion? Could there be a relationship between the namby-pamby apologies for religion represented in that editorial and the current regrowth of the power of superstition?
Isn’t twenty-five years of failure enough? Probably not. I wouldn’t be surprised to open Nature in 2031, and read an editorial deploring the renaming of the museum to the “Natural Theology Museum”, but taking comfort in the fact that the word “natural” still comes first, and carefully explaining that there really shouldn’t be any conflict between science and religion, anyway.
I expect that’s what we’ll see, unless more are willing to stop making excuses for religious nonsense and fight back.
1Note the nomenclature. There was quite a bit of back-and-forth between George and the editors of Nature. George insisted the fish was the “zebrafish”, one word, and those crazy Brits were sure it had to be two, “zebra fish”. Editors win. There has also been a taxonomic revision since, and the proper genus name is no longer Brachydanio, but Danio.
2These are the nerd equivalent of those old stories that usually begin, “We had to walk five miles to school! In the snow! After we’d milked the cows!”
Streisinger, G., C. Walker, N. Dower, D. Knauber, and F. Singer (1981) Production of clones of homozygous diploid zebra fish (Brachydanio rerio). Nature 291: 293-296.