May 29, 1926 | Vol. 8 | No. 268
Evolution should be taught to all students, says botanist
Instruction in evolution for all college students is advocated in a recent number of Science by Dr. John M. Coulter, formerly head of the department of botany at the University of Chicago and now associated with the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Yonkers.
There are at least three important reasons why evolution should be regarded as a necessary part of college training, Dr. Coulter says.
“It has revolutionized modern thought. Every subject today is being attacked on the basis of its evolution. Not only are inorganic and organic evolution being considered, but also the evolution of language, of literature, of society, of government, of religion. In other words, it is a point of view which represents the atmosphere of modern investigation in every field.
“It is persistently misunderstood. From the press, the lecture platform and even the pulpit, one frequently hears or reads amazing statements in reference to organic evolution. If it were made an essential feature of student training, there would be developed a propaganda of information instead of misinformation.
“It has revolutionized agriculture. The practical handling of plants and animals, in the way of improving old forms and securing new ones, was made possible and definite when the laws of inheritance began to be uncovered through experimental work in evolution.”
UPDATE | September 24, 2011
Antievolution movement lives on
In the 1890s, John Coulter proposed that the peyote cactus be placed in its own genus, because of its distinct form and structure.
Evolution needed as many defenders as it could get in the mid-1920s. In 1925, John Scopes was found guilty of breaking a newly passed Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of evolution. Within the next two years, more than a dozen states considered antievolution bills, with Arkansas and Mississippi enacting such laws.
Though evolution may have lost the court case, its scientific support became widely publicized. Botanist John Coulter was one among many whose opinions were made known in the pages of the Science News-Letter. In June 1925, a council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science affirmed that “the evidences in favor of the evolution of man are sufficient to convince every scientist of note in the world, and that these evidences are increasing in number and importance every year.” That same month, Watson Davis, managing editor of the Science News-Letter, noted that the very ground on which the Scopes trial was argued contains fossils that “will all be irrefutable witnesses for the defense if men will but use their eyes and their brains.”
The issue was rekindled in the late 1950s. In an apparent response to the perceived superiority of the Sputnik-launching Soviets, U.S. school curricula were revamped to boost science literacy. New textbooks highlighted evolution as a unifying biological principle. By the 1960s a “creation science” movement was in full swing; it has since morphed into the “intelligent design” movement. Ongoing debate reveals that denial of Darwin’s ideas doesn’t die; it just evolves. —Elizabeth Quill
Credit: cactus: WILDLIFE GmbH/Alamy