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E v o l u t i o n

Edward J. Larson

     ... Pulitzer Prize winning author, historian of science and lawyer. Dr. Larson won the Pulitzer for Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. Among his growing number of books, he has contributed Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory to the prestigious Modern Library series, written with the curious lay person in mind. Dr. Larson's articles have appeared in dozens of journals, including The Atlantic Monthly, Nature and Scientific American. He is both Professor of History and of Law at the University of Georgia.


The theory of evolution has such enormous implications for our culture and society that all students must understand the idea. Then they can decide what to do with that understanding, says Edward J. Larson. The wonderful thing about science, he says, is that whatever one's conclusion about this theory, those same students can be part of changing and shaping our future understanding of what the theory is ... but only if they understand the theory in the first place.

Yes, Charles Darwin broke with the idea of special creation, convinced as he was that the human soul is a naturalistic product. That issue is still with us, Dr. Larson knows, continuing to divide scientists and non-scientists alike. But that's quite a different question, Dr. Larson says, than whether the human body, animals and plants evolve. Science has used its tools -- observation, testability and repeatability -- with unequivocal results that show evolution at work, results seen every day in laboratories around the world, from fruit flies to viruses and far beyond.

Dr. Larson's scholarly work as historian, lawyer and educator has focused on making today's theory of evolution accessible to all, intent on including ALL of the idea's elements: Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace's monumental discovery of natural selection and the importance environment plays in adaptation; Mendelian genetics; and Thomas Hunt Morgan's mathematical genius in bridging these two huge concepts together.

Yes, Darwin had the great "aha!" which has been painfully misrepresented, with devastating consequences, since he went public with The Origin of Species. But Darwin could never figure out the mechanism, Dr. Larson reports. Why? Because genetics had not yet been invented -- Gregor Mendel's careful studies in the monastery garden would not be rediscovered until 1900. But one more piece was required. Mathematician Thomas Hunt Morgan, working with his team, bridged the gap, finding answers in their studies of fruit flies. The result is what is known as the "neo-Darwinian synthesis." This enriched theory of evolution has been generally accepted by science for more than half a century.

This synthesis is NOT your great-grandfather's Darwin, and Dr. Larson's excitement never dims as he explains how it works.

The changes that the theory of evolution is talking about, he says, are very, very small, and they happen at the genetic level. Among the ways that a gene can change are a recombination at the time an egg and sperm meet. Radiation can do it. And so can hybridization. Whatever the cause, a gene becomes just a little tiny bit different. But as long as the organism with this slightly different gene survives to reproduce, that teeny-tiny change will always be there.

Then, if and when that organism's environment changes in such a way that this different trait proves more beneficial -- for example, the climate changes or a new competitor enters the scene -- that new trait can blossom. How come? Because the variety is already buried in the genetic structure, whether it is recessive or dominant.

The result? A new species, which then takes over. Then comes the next change. And the next change. And the next. And the next. It's just that simple. And just that complex.

[This Program was recorded May 12, 2004, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.] 

Conversation 1

Putting humanity firmly into the context of nature is an ancient perspective, Edward J. Larson tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, then enumerates many of the ways to look at evolution.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:41    

Conversation 2

Science and society are inseparable and deeply influence each other, Dr. Larson says, and expands. The connections people make between ideas of evolution and progress are explored, along with the dark side of evolution -- social Darwinism and eugenics. Contrasts are made between the co-discoverers of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin. Any idea that claims to be part of "science" MUST be based on three things, Dr. Larson points out: observation, testability and repeatability. He elaborates in the context of Darwin and Wallace's discovery.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:29    

Conversation 3

The idea of evolution replaced the idea of special creation in Western science with remarkable speed, Dr. Larson says, then elaborates on the setting in which this powerful idea blossomed. Darwin knew from his own grandfather’s experience that attacks on the idea of evolution would be focused on the evolution of the human species, Dr. Larson says, then outlines how Darwin dealt with this hazard. Darwin's conclusion that the human soul is a naturalistic product is presented, as Dr. Larson looks as how this idea continues to breed controversy.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:11    

Conversation 4

Eugene Dubois wanted to find the "missing link" in order to show his neighbors that evolution was real and applied to humans, Dr. Larson says, telling the story of “Java Man” or pithecanthropus, now known as homo erectus. Dr. Larson brings us to the present day, using the well-documented evolution of the human body and today’s commonplace laboratory observations of evolution at work, from fruit flies to viruses. He gives a historical overview of how genetics totally changed ideas about evolution, praises the mathematician who linked the original scientific work of Darwin with Mendel, and describes the "neo-Darwinian synthesis" which by 1950 had general acceptance within science.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:03    

 Conversation 5

Mathematician Thomas Hunt Morgan and his team of scientists are celebrated for working out Mendelian genetics with fruit flies. Dr. Larson describes the neo-Darwinian synthesis theory of evolution, focused on what happens to organisms at the genetic level as they adapt over time to changes in their environment. Returning to the dark side of ideas associated with evolution, Dr. Larson remembers how William Jennings Bryan's social critiques were intentionally overshadowed by people advancing their own religious agendas while misusing Bryan's.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:37    

Conversation 6    

The theory of evolution, which itself has evolved, is so central to today's culture and society that everyone needs to understand the idea. What we do with it is then our own decision, Dr. Larson concludes.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:09    


Dr. Larson's continuing interest in opening the wonders of evolution to the general audience is a gift to us all. We applaud his unwavering commitment to broadening the conversation about life and nature in all of its glory, based on the elegance and beauty of the ever-unfolding scientific perspective. And we thank him for the many ways he has shared his enthusiasms with us.

Paula particularly thanks Dr. Larson for the thrill of holding in her hands a first edition of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, signed by the author.

We thank the incomparable Joy Berry, member of the Georgia State School Board and winner of the Georgia PTA "educator of the year" award, for her lifetime of unwavering commitment to education for all, always at the very highest levels of integrity and intellectual rigor. Ms. Berry is a continuing inspiration. We appreciate also her tireless generosity in bringing together people from many worlds in pursuit of a shared commitment to the common good and to PUBLIC education.

Additional Links:

Edward J. Larson's book Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory is a Modern Library book.

Summer for the Gods and Evolution's Workshop: God and Science on the Galápagos Islands are both Basic Books.

Our first program with Dr. Larson focused principally on Summer for the Gods.

Richard Leakey and his family discovered the remains of many of our ancestors. Our evolutionary origins have implications for today.

Frans deWaal has shown how the origins of ethics and politics may be found in chimpanzees. And, Duane Rumbaugh finds the origins of creativity in our great ape relatives.

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh
studies language in bonobos.

In Sex, Time and Power, Leonard Shlain looks at how evolution has affected the relationship between men and women.

Following on Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Paul Ekman's research demonstrated that facial expressions of emotions are universal for all humans.

Walter Truett Anderson looks forward to what he calls The Next Enlightenment.

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