More Trouble for Darwin


When Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, he suspected it would cause a storm of protest and indignation from religious quarters. He was right. Evolutionary studies, along with the new geological studies of the 19th century, posited the first awareness of “deep time,” as Stephen Jay Gould would later call it. It hypothesized that the earth was older, incredibly older, than had been previously thought. The evidence, corroborated by scientists then and since, has supported the hypothesis and shown that The Bible of the Christian church isn’t a reliable guide to the history of the planet.

Worse, from a Victorian point of view, was the evidence that man, along with the great apes, had descended from a common ancestor, through a long process of natural selection. One measured in millions of years for our branch alone.

Darwin had a hard time of it publicly and was lampooned in the newspapers of the day. But, continued studies through the next 150 years plus a new understanding of genetics, has shown that, with minor exceptions, Darwin got it right. For this he is justly honored for being one of the great figures of science.

Among scientists of natural history, the theory of evolution fits the facts, full stop. Nothing scientific has ever been put forward to challenge this point of view, and the so-called “gaps” put forward by those who don’t want to believe the facts, have been closed one by one as more discoveries have been unearthed. The fossil record and the genetic record are both consistent with evolution having taken place in the deep time of the planet Earth. To most scientifically literate people, the theory of evolution is as solid as the theory of gravity.

But there are still those who resist facing the facts. While visiting a cave in Arkansas last spring, I innocently asked our guide how long it took for the magnificent large limestone formation to form. She replied, “It depends on whether you believe in the ‘millions’ theory or the ‘thousands’ theory of the earth. I’m in the ‘thousands’ camp so I’d say a few thousand years.”

The “thousands” theory? This derives from Bishop James Ussher in the 17th century who speculated that the date of the Biblical Creation could be dated by calculating the lifespans of Old Testament patriarchs. Ussher’s conclusion was that the earth began on October 23, 4004 B.C. This totally Biblical calculation has somehow survived into present times, within sects of fundamentalist Christians who believe therefore that the earth is some 6000 or so years old, despite scientific (and rather obvious) evidence to the contrary.

What people choose to believe as an article of faith, rather than reason, is a basic right in the Western world. There are people who believe in the efficacy of quartz crystals and “power spots” as well. The problem begins when beliefs such as these spill out from personal and congregational spaces into public spaces.

You’d think that 150 years of solid evidence for the evolution of life on our planet, including our own evolution into Homo sapiens, would be sufficient reason for having it taught in schools. Yet there are still fundamental Christian lobbyists who want it taught alongside something they call “intelligent design.” Judge John Jones III ruled in the Dover, Pa., case in 2002, that “intelligent design, by its very nature, is a religious belief, not a scientific fact or theory, and therefore should not be taught in schools.” Intelligent Design is a tarted up name for Creationism — an attempt to give it scientific trappings.

But the debate continues. A recent Washington Times article, “On teaching evolution: New year, old fight,” reports that “at least two U.S. states in 2012 will consider bills that downplay the notion man evolved from animals and call for Charles Darwin’s famous theory to be taught as just that – one possible explanation, not the definitive answer.” Alongside Intelligent Design, that is.

Rep. Gary Hopper of New Hampshire is quoted as saying, “I want the problems with current theories to be presented so that kids understand that science doesn’t really have all the answers. They are just guessing.”

Guessing? If this is any indication of how some people think science works, it’s clear that we need more, not less, teaching of science and scientific literacy. Certainly science doesn’t have all the answers. That’s the nature of science. A scientist, like a good detective, follows the evidence, wherever it leads. In fact science is based on challenging the evidence. Whenever a new study emerges, other scientists try to pick it apart. If it withstands the challenges and is replicated by other scientific studies, a consensus forms around the results. If, eventually, evidence points to something entirely different, then previous views are updated and a new consensus is arrived at. In brief, science is self-correcting.

Religious faith does not operate this way. It instead harbors the concept of “immutable” truths. Which is not to say that a scientist can’t be a religious person. It’s just that he or she doesn’t confuse the two “magisteria” as Stephen Jay Gould would call the different mental spaces of science and religion.

That we live in an age of science is indisputable. And the scientific consensus is that Darwin got it right. There are no evidence-based challenges to evolutionary theory, only faith-based ones. To become good, participating citizens of a scientific world, students need to be taught how science works and not have their publicly-funded science studies entangled with the religious beliefs of fundamentalist Christian (or, for that matter, Islamic) faith.

In a modern world, church and state must be kept separate. The teaching of science must be taught in the context of following the evidence, not of comparing it to religious beliefs. To do anything else would be a disservice to the students.

A Morning at the Park


We place our lawn chairs beside the small stream in Saddington Park, underneath gnarled, elvish willows, our backs to the lake. Marion unpacks her art supplies and lines them up on the ground, then begins sketching. I switch on my Kindle and begin reading “The Gold Bug” by Edgar Allan Poe. It’s another of the endless stream of classics I neglected in my youth.

Male redwings shout their shrill, aggressive calls nearby, chasing intruding birds that venture into “their” territory. Female redwings sneak through the undergrowth. It’s mid June and they have youngsters hiding from view. The Redwings may have staked this as their spot, but no one owns a stream and other birds fly into the trees and down to the water.

Momentarily losing my concentration on Poe, I begin inventorying birdsong. A red-eyed vireo belts its pretty but incessant affirmations from overhead, high in the treetops. A mockingbird cycles through its extensive repertoire. A male robin joins in, then a male cardinal. Then a nuthatch and a song sparrow. Just beyond the trees rough-winged swallows and barn swallows swoop and tumble noiselessly through the air, speeding like stealth fighters, nailing insects in mid flight.

Marion stands for a moment, stretches, then takes a couple of limping steps. She gets bursitis in the region of her replacement hip, and her other hip is deteriorating. Osteoarthritis — painful, insistent. I stretch too, stiff, sore. In our mid 60’s our health is relatively good, but age is telling. We feel young, but the internal scaffolding is wearing out.

As Marion turns to the lake, she sees someone on a plank with a sail attached. We both grope after the word for it but can’t bring the name back to memory. Something like “sail plane” but we know that’s not quite right. I turn on the Kindle’s wireless and search Wikipedia. Nope, a sail plane is a glider, but I stumble across “sail board” and “sail boarding.” That’s it. We do crossword puzzles every day to try to stave off memory loss. It helps … a little.

Back to the stream. Marion finishes her initial pencil sketches and starts applying watercolour. I return to the tale of the gold scarab beetle and its deepening plot. What has possessed Mr. William Legrand? Jupiter, his black serving man, thinks the gold bug is bad mojo. The narrator thinks Legrand may be going insane. Jupe is now up an ancient tulip tree, at Legrand’s insistence, and finds a skull nailed to the seventh branch. The plot is twisting.

As we sit quietly, a pair of mallards silently paddle into view where the stream widens at this spot under the willows. They stop to preen. A redwing chases out a grackle. The vireo never stops singing. For some while little insects have been alighting on my hands and arms, occasionally ambling across the Kindle’s screen. I look more closely at them: there are three kinds leafhopper nymphs, all of them green. The largest is about the length of the quick of my thumbnail and is a brilliant uniform green — katydid green. The middle one is darker green, with black stripes. The smallest is a uniform muddy green. All of them look much the same, except for size and colour. Then, in the middle of the green, a red speck strolls across my hand to the kindle and across its top. A red mite.

Suddenly I need a cuppa. I check with Marion and she too would like a hot drink. And a bagel. There’s a Starbucks about a fifteen-minute walk from the stream, so I switch off the Kindle, leaving the story near its climax. I’ll savour it more once I’m caffeinated. Besides, I need the exercise. I had a good physical exam on my 65th, but my doctor chided me a bit on my waistline and weight. As I’m a heart patient, he advised me to slim down.

At the Starbucks counter I learn that someone came in earlier and bought up all the bagels. I remember seeing a ferris wheel appear suddenly across the bridge at the local library. Waterfront Festival. The carnival people have just arrived and set up, which probably accounts for the run on bagels. I pick up a grande mild coffee and a grande black tea and slice of lemon poppyseed cake for Marion. With luck she’ll offer me a bite.

I walk back to the stream and the redwings and the lawnchairs. We sip our hot drinks and I finish “Gold Bug.” Although the prose is from another era, Poe was an immensely creative writer. It was a very good read.

Marion adds black ink “highlights” to her watercolour, bringing out more of its structure. As usual, she dismisses her work, but I like it. Like most artists, she undervalues her talent.

Soon we wrap up. Marion puts away her brushes, pens, and pencils while I attempt to take a macro shot of one of the leafhopper nymphs with my little digicam. They move too quickly and appear blurry in the viewing panel, so I delete the pix. We fold our lawn chairs, carry our trash to the bins, and return to the car in the parking lot, bidding adieu to the park until next time.

A Morning at the Park

Transitioning into Autumn

Late Summer / Early Fall

Psychologically, New Year’s Day is the day after Labour Day. The leisurely pace of summer ends, school’s back in session, people return from trips, blogs and podcasts are updated more frequently, summer reruns are replaced by new shows — life is energized. There’s a crackle in the air. Perhaps it’s conditioning from years of being in (and actually liking) school. My reading inclinations change from the lighter summer fare of fantasy, science fiction, and mystery fiction, to science, natural history, philosophy, art history — in short, anything intellectual. It’s automatic. I don’t say to myself, “Enough of this fluff! Let’s get on with the real stuff!” I don’t even think about it, until I realize I’m reaching for different kinds of books, and I start thinking about acquiring more Teaching Company courses.

Although the transition to autumn in nature is gradual, it seems sudden. As if the day after Labour Day the goldenrods and asters explode into full bloom and tree leaves begin turning red, yellow, or brown, according to their kind. As if nature itself were prompting us to get on with the new season.

In Ontario the nights begin to cool, and even though the days can remain quite warm, you feel the difference in the early morning. Dawn happens a little later, which, for people like me, makes it a little easier to achieve. I don’t have to get up quite as early to photograph the pre-dawn and daybreak colours.

Autumn is my favourite season. It’s the combination of quickening of the spirit with the beautiful vivid colours before the landscape becomes tired and monochromatic. It’ll be awhile yet before autumn reaches its peak beauty, but I’m highly partial to its transition time when the colours start appearing and the grass is still summery green

And every year I make a feeble vow to learn the names of the goldenrods and the asters that dominate the early autumn colour palette. I’m decent at spotting and identifying birds (except for fall warblers), but plant ID always eludes me. I make the vow, then look at what’s involved in learning the species, and I flinch.

Take the asters. They come in white and purple and I think I can usually ID New England aster correctly, though I wouldn’t stake my rep on it.  It’s discouraging to find out how many species are out there. The excellent online guide to Learning the Asters of Ontario lists the following as just the most common ones:

#1. Here is a list of the common Asters that occur in Ontario. This is a beginner’s list. Get to know all of the species on this list before moving on to list#2.

* Arrow-leaved Aster (Symphyotrichum urophyllum)
* Calico Aster (Aster lateriflorus)
* Flat-topped White Aster (Aster umbellatus var. umbellatus)
* Frost Aster (Aster pilosus)
* Heart-leaved Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)
* Heath Aster (Aster ericoides)
* Large-leaved Aster (Eurybia macrophyllus)
* New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
* Panicled Aster (Aster simplex)
* Purple-stemmed Aster (Aster puniceus var. puniceus)
* Smooth Aster (Aster laevis var. laevis)

There are two more lists after this one, the less common species and the rare ones.

Equally daunting is Learning the Goldenrods of Ontario:

#1. Here is a list of the common Goldenrods that occur in Ontario. This is a beginner’s list. Get to know all of the species on this list before moving on to list #2.

* Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia)
* Early Goldenrod (Solidago juncea)
* Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)
* Gray Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis var. nemoralis)
* Hairy Goldenrod (Solidago hispida var. hispida)
* Rough-leaved Goldenrod (Solidago patula)
* Rough-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa spp. rugosa)
* Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis)

#2. The infamous three. These three species are very similar and very difficult to tell apart. In fact, two of them are often lumped together as one species.

* Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)
* Tall Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis var. scabra)
* Late Goldenrod (Solidago gigantea)

#3. These are less common Goldenrods in Ontario. You should only tackle these as the last step of learning Goldenrods.

* Bog Goldenrod (Solidago uliginosa)
* – not found often due to its habitat (bogs) Large-leaved Goldenrod (Solidago macrophylla) – only found east of Lake Superior
* Northern Goldenrod (Solidago multiradiata)
* – only found in the far north on Hudson Bay Ohio Goldenrod (Oligoneuron ohioense)
* – found mainly on the Bruce Peninsula & Manitoulin Island Silverrod (Solidago bicolor)
* – found in the E Lake Superior region and scattered other sites Stout Goldenrod (Solidago squarrosa)
* Upland White Aster (Solidago ptarmicoides)
(now classed as a Goldenrod, in spite of its common name and appearance)

You get the drift. If you want to be a serious naturalist, you have to do some serious study and memorization. I’m not against this, in principle, but the older I get, the more porous my memory becomes. I can just remember the names of the baristas at Starbucks, but I have to work at it and re-ask them their names periodically, or I forget.

So, as much as natural history appeals to me, intellectually, I’ll stick to the photographer’s classification of asters and goldenrods: white, purple, and yellow. I live by the GEPO principle: “Good Enough, Push On.” (Pronounced GEP-po)


1. As all the naturalist sites point out: goldenrods don’t cause your allergies. Goldenrod pollen is large and heavy and is carried by insect from plant to plant. Goldenrod just happens to appear at the same time as the potent ragweed plant, which is more inconspicuous. Ragweed pollen is tiny and light, and is dispersed by being carried airborne. Ragweed pollen is a potent allergen and accounts for much of the province’s autumn hayfever suffering. Goldenrod is an innocent, and very pretty, bystander.

2. Aster/Goldenrod honey is the last honey of the season produced by bees, and honey aficionados consider it one of the tastiest. You can purchase some of this golden-bodied, amber and delicious full-bodied fare from Bee Sweet.

Robins, Grackles, Redwings

This is the week Winter’s game went ’tilt’. She may attempt a comeback or two, but she’s tried for one freeze too many and is now out of the competition.

The lawns in the park have been greening, almost imperceptibly. A hint of colour that deepens subtly each day until the colour palette changes from browns and greys to chlorophyll. Spring is at the controls!

Surging through the biological clocks of plants, insects, fish, birds, and animals (including cellphone-chatting primates), the new season gathers strength and puts forth life. Energy over dormancy. Robins fresh from a long flight are already patrolling the lawns, scouting the emerging earthworms. Grackles fly around in bunches, squawking and preening and doing whatever else grackles do.

A lone male redwing has claimed the territory by the bridge over the harbour. Singing aggressively, scarlet epaulets flaring in the sun, it brooks no challengers.

Tagging studies have shown that many migratory birds return to the exact same territory they occupied the summer before. I wonder if the robin in our back yard this morning is the same one I watched last summer.

I wonder, particularly, if the hormone-frenzied redwing is the same one that dive-bombed pedestrians last summer. Not just fly-bys to chase us away, but actual pecks on the head. I got drilled three times and I’ve talked to others with similar stories.

You never saw him coming. Just a sudden, loud fluttering of wings in your ear and a peck on the head while he circled around in the air just out of reach. When you’re walking along lost in thought or listening to your iPod, it’s startling.

But I say, welcome back! Welcome home!  If you’d ease off on the attacks a bit, it might improve your PR, but glad to see you nonetheless.

The Ballad of Charlie Darwin

Charles_Darwin_aged_51 (by StarbuckGuy)

In this Year of Darwin, I hope you will help me celebrate his birthday on Thursday, Feb. 12, by singing this little ditty I wrote in 1979 for the ROM’s annual Charles Darwin Birthday Luncheon. The event was an informal brown bag lunch originally held in the Paleobotany Lab and hosted by Curator Dr. John “Jock” McAndrews, the museum’s palynologist. For years thereafter I would lead the lunch meeting in this song on Charlie’s birthday.

The Ballad of Charlie Darwin

A topical ballad to be sung on Charles Darwin’s birthday, February 12
Written for the Annual Charles Darwin Luncheon at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Verses: Gene Wilburn (, 1979
Chorus: Dave Barr (, 2009
Creative Commons 2009
Melody: “The MTA” a la Kingston Trio)


Now this here song is the tale of old Charlie
Darwin of Shrewsbury
How he disappointed his mammy and pappy
When he went to the university

Charlie Darwin was the one to bring out the sun
On eevo-lution to shine
May we never regress to that dark wilderness
Of intel-li-gent design

Well he never was a grade A student
He muddled through a pass degree
Then he packed his Lamarck and set off on a lark
And sailed all out to sea

He sailed into the Galapagos Islands
Saying “What will become of me
These finches don’t conform to the Gideon’s Bible
I picked up in the hotel for free”

He sailed and he sailed and he sketched and he drew
Conclusions from every tree
He said “In a little while I’ll be just like old Lyell
And write me a natural history”

He didn’t know about genes and all them things in betweens
DNA and such chemistry
But when he got to thinkin the ideas started clinkin
He said “Selection’s natural, you see”

He sailed back to England and he married Emma
And the moved to the counteree
He settled down at Down where he worked with a frown
And he raised him a family

He was a quiet man for the rest of his span
As he worked on the family tree
Of the orchid and the barnacle and earthworm and the bee
And the likes of you and me

(last verse slowly)
Now old Charlie’s gone but his spirit it lives on
As we gather in his memory
And when you think you’re poor and recession’s* at the door
Just remember that Evolution’s free

*(or “inflation’s”, depending on the economic climate)


Please feel free to sing this, distribute it, improve on it, change the chorus, anything you like. I’d appreciate a complimentary copy of any changes you make, or even better, an audio file of your singing!

– GW, 2009

Here’s a PDF version of the ballad with suggested guitar chords in the key of C

Note: Chorus by Dave Barr added, 5 Feb 2009. Thank you Dave!

2009: Year of Darwin

HMS_Beagle_by_Conrad_Martens (by StarbuckGuy)

A watercolour by HMS Beagle’s draughtsman, Conrad Martens. Painted during the survey of Tierra del Fuego, it depicts the Beagle being hailed by native Fuegians.

My interest in Charles Darwin and evolutionary theory started when I began reading the late Stephen Jay Gould,  invertebrate palaeontologist and professor at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. His elegant essays, appearing monthly in Natural History, were gathered together on an annual basis and published in book form. My first Gould anthology was Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History, 1992, and perhaps because it was my first, it’s still my favourite.

I was already an amateur naturalist by the time I caught up with Gould’s popular and scientific writings — birding, wildflower identification, and nature photography were (and still are) among my favourite activities. You can’t become a naturalist and not be interested in evolution.

Gould introduced me to some of the more modern interpretations of ways evolution might have occurred, including the theory of punctuated equilibrium Gould co-proposed with his colleague Niles Eldredge. One thing that stood out for me in the discussions of modern evolutionary theory was the singular achievement of Charles Darwin, who provided the fundamental insight of how evolution occurred, without any knowledge of genetics or DNA. The concept of natural selection changed the world view and continues to right into the present. (I’ll leave aside its co-discovery by Alfred Russel Wallace — an interesting topic in itself.)

Eventually I bought a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species. I can’t say I’ve read it — more I’ve read at it, large chunks of it — but never cover to cover. What surprised me was how clear it was. Darwin, as I learned later from reading sections of Voyage of the Beagle, was an excellent writer. And knowing what he was proposing was going to have a profound impact on the Victorian world and beyond, he attempted to make his observations and arguments as logical, easy to follow, and convincing as he could.

The year 2009 is the bicentennial of Darwin’s birthday, and sesquicentennial of the publication of The Origin of Species. I found a website called Darwin Year 2009 that is dedicated to the celebration. The site is sponsored by the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS) and the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science (IUHPS).

Darwin is one of my heroes. I don’t have many, but this quiet, somewhat reclusive man living with his beloved family in Down, had the courage to look directly at the truth of the evidence and the courage to present it to the world, even though he anticipated the furor that would, and did, ensue.

It’s a pity that, after a century and a half of rigorous scientific investigation, religious fundamentalists still fight the teaching of evolution in the schools. Fundamentalists are welcome to their religious beliefs, as long as they keep them out of public policy, but they must not be allowed to introduce those fantasies into the school curricula, trying to disguise them as science.

Bless President Obama for stating “science will be restored to its rightful place.”

I’m tempted to add “Amen!”