March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Evolution Everywhere

Posted: Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

by Josh Rosenau

“We’re leveraging evolution,” Solazyme CEO Jonathan Wolfson told reporter Mike Grunwald, author of The New New Deal (2012). “We take what the planet is good at making, plant sugars, and turn it into what the planet needs, oils.” The San Francisco-based company’s $200 million market capitalization, its fuel contracts with the US Navy and major airlines, and its growing business producing oils for use in foods and cosmetics all testify to the economic value of leveraging evolution.

Further down the Bay, at NASA Ames, the Advanced Control and Evolvable Systems are using evolution to make better spacecraft. In a NASA webpage about the project, researcher Jason Lohn explains, “We’re taking our cue and inspiration from nature,” allowing antennas and computer chips to evolve in software, creating remarkable new designs. “No human would build an antenna as crazy as this,” he explains. But then again, no human could build an antenna that worked as efficiently.

NASA’s engineers are not the only ones who rely on evolution. The space agency’s Exobiology Discipline Working Group, struggling to devise a way to define life (whatever world we might find it on), settled on a working definition: “life is a self-sustaining system capable of Darwinian evolution.” The definition is often attributed to Gerald Joyce, a researcher at Scripps Research Institute whose work in San Diego is leading us ever closer to understanding how Earth’s first life came to be.

Indeed, evolution has been key to the California economy for over a century. Finding and selecting crop breeds that could thrive in California turned the state into the breadbasket of the world. “What a joy life is when you have made a close working partnership with Nature,” explained Luther Burbank, the Santa Rosa-based “Wizard of Horticulture.” Burbank, who developed over 1000 plant varieties at his Santa Rosa research center celebrated his work “helping [Nature] to produce for the benefit of mankind new forms, colors, and perfumes in flowers which were never known before; fruits in form, size, and flavor never before seen on this globe; and grains of enormously increased productiveness, whose fat kernels are filled with more and better nourishment, a veritable storehouse of perfect food—new food for all the world’s untold millions for all time to come.”

Inspired by reading Charles Darwin, Luther Burbank was an ardent advocate for evolution and evolution education. In the era of the Scopes trial (and decrees by the California state superintendent of instruction that evolution might be taught only as a theory, not as fact), he joined with Stanford Chancellor David Starr Jordan and a host of other luminaries to support a new advocacy group known as the Science League of America. A speech on behalf of the League and its defense of evolution education was among the last delivered by the man whose birthday was chosen for California’s Arbor Day.

Operated from writer Maynard Shipley’s home in Sausalito, the League battled efforts to force creationism into classrooms, or to ban the teaching of evolution. Burbank, Jordan, and the congressmen, clergy, doctors, scientists, and teachers who joined the effort all feared the harm that might follow from these attacks on science education.

Ninety years later, that battle continues. From an elementary teacher in Berkeley who told children that evolution, like Santa Claus, is a myth, to school boards attempting to introduce creationist lessons, California remains an active battleground when it comes to evolution. And while the Science League of America no longer exists, we at the National Center for Science Education do remarkably similar work.

We achieved our greatest fame in 2005, for our help with the legal battle in Dover, PA. That case resulted in a ruling that “intelligent design,” like all other forms of creationism, cannot be taught as science. The lawyers who won the case relied on NCSE’s archives and our deep knowledge of the scientific, pedagogical, theological, and legal issues surrounding creationism.

But most of what we deal with doesn’t involve lawyers or press conferences. Most conflicts over the teaching of evolution can be resolved collaborative. A teacher calls asking for help with antiscience administrators or parents, or a parent writes wondering what to do about an assignment which seems to call settled science into doubt. We help them navigate the bureaucracy, give them resources explaining what is and isn’t allowed, and share our experience with successful paths to defusing the conflict.

NCSE is in our 4th decade, and the organized creationist attack on evolution is nearing its century mark. These battles aren’t likely to end soon, even as evolution-related topics from synthetic biology to personal genomics become more central to society. And so long as science teachers and science education are at risk, we at NCSE will be ready to help.

Josh Rosenau is a programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education. He was invited to write for CCS by CSTA member Minda Berbeco.

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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