Terra Sigillata

Evolution of Democracy

This guest post comes to us from a colleague and friend, Dr Michael Wolfe. Enjoy!

The simultaneous celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the births of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin today offers a special opportunity to reflect on the state of our democracy and the status of science in our society. That these two iconic figures were born on the exact same day is, of course, a coincidence. And yet, as often happens in life, a chance confluence of events can help us see connections that we might otherwise miss.

Today we lionize Lincoln as perhaps our greatest President, and his eloquent expression of our democratic ideals is embedded in our national psyche. In stark contrast, if Darwin’s concepts were to be put up for a democratic vote of confidence in American society today, we would likely find, as polls have shown, that nearly half do not believe in evolution. State boards of education still battle over its teaching, and the controversy over evolution is too often one of the driving factors in parents deciding not to enroll their children in public schools.

Why the resistance to Darwin and evolution? A major part of the problem is that science is viewed as essentially materialistic: it informs us about what nature is and how it works, but it cannot tell us why we are here and what we should value. Despite these limitations, scientific advances have allowed us remarkable control over our environment, so that we are not so much at the mercy of the elements and disease as our ancestors were. And science has provided us with perspective about where humanity fits in space and time.

Darwin’s gift was to provide us with this much needed perspective. The world’s species have been evolving over a very long period of time and share common ancestry. We are literally related to all other forms of life on the planet. And we know this now because it is clearly written in the code of our genes, important confirming evidence about which Darwin had no clue.

Since the publication of On the Origin of the Species, 150 years of research has confirmed and extended Darwin’s concepts of descent with modification and natural selection to the point where there is no valid scientific debate over the matter. Indeed, as has been said, nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution. And evolutionary biology has been an essential factor in the advance of modern molecular medicine. As a biomedical researcher, I can attest that we routinely use the genetic relationship between humans and other organisms (including yeast, worms, flies and mice) to discover important processes involved in human health and disease. Not only is evolution true, it is practical; we need the insight it offers to understand and treat illness.

Democracy needs to evolve to the point where our representatives cannot vote on matters of scientific truth, just as a majority should not be able to vote to deny the rights of a minority. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and through this executive order, set the stage for the total abolition of slavery in this country. In the same way, national standards for science education should be established so that state and municipal boards of education cannot work to deny the truth of evolution and cause distraction and confusion by having scientifically inaccurate and indefensible alternatives taught in the science classroom and espoused in science textbooks.

Lincoln saved our union from dissolution and opened our minds to the equality of man. Darwin unified biology and opened our minds to the origin of man. Today we should proudly celebrate both men and their legacies. And let’s recommit ourselves, as President Obama said in his inaugural address, to “restoring science to its rightful place”.

Michael Wolfe is Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School.


  1. #1 Anonymous Coward
    February 12, 2009

    As a member of the wealthy minority, I feel oppressed by the minority’s taxation of my income at a higher rate. My right to form private contracts is being impinged upon as surely as if I were a member of a racial minority being denied work.

    The whole point of democracy is that the majority can take away the rights of a minority, as long as they do so in accordance with precedent. Indeed, the entire concept of democracy places more importance on the will of a majority than almost anything else, including scientific truth. Giving a monopoly on factual accuracy to scientists is a dangerous idea (though I would agree it’s a good one).

    Note: I do believe that democracy is the best form of government, especially when practiced on a smaller scale. I could segue into complaining about Lincoln’s evil federalism, but it helped the United States become a more powerful nation and is so far in the past that whining about it does no good, anyway.

  2. #2 Michael Wolfe
    February 13, 2009

    Your points are very well taken. The issue of taxation, however, is quite complex, and I will only briefly comment that as citizens who benefit from public service and works (e.g., defense, infrastructure) we should be contributing to the common good, and those who have most benefited should arguably contribute a greater proportion.

    I understand the libertarian position, but certainly the right not be enslaved (and other matters within the Bill of Rights and subsequent constitutional amendments) are on another moral and ethical plane than issues like the progressive income tax. From the Revolutionary period onward, the issue has been “no taxation without representation”, not equality in taxation (whatever that might mean). And when it comes to our human rights as stipulated in the Constitution, the courts are there to protect us when the majority oversteps its bounds in attempts to deny the rights of a minority.

    As for giving scientists a monopoly on factual accuracy, I am only arguing that in matters that have become so central to science, so useful, and over so long a period of time and that are not controversial among scientists (e.g., evolutionary biology), national standards are appropriate to prevent the mis-education of our children (and at taxpayers expense to boot)

  3. #3 Amy
    February 13, 2009

    Thank God for revolutionaries like Darwin and Lincoln. Sometimes progress is not readily accepted. Survival of the Fittest!

  4. #4 chat
    February 13, 2009

    very good sites

  5. #5 Jordan
    February 16, 2009

    Im with Miss bakers biology class and Abel you might remeber me. I am friends with Anna. I want to say this is a very interesting post. I recently attended the small conference in Washington D.C. on Darwin’s birthday. There they talked about the things Lincoln and Darwin did to change the Nation’s perspective on certain things like slavery and genetics. I conpletely agree with Amy, Thank god for these two revolutionaries.

  6. #6 Abel Pharmboy
    February 18, 2009

    Hi Jordan, of course I remember you! I was so excited to see you guys covered in The Scientist article by Elie Dolgin.

    This article was originally written for the New York Times by a friend of mine who was in a couple of my chemistry classes in college – I found him on Facebook where I learned that the essay wasn’t published. But I shared your enthusiasm for his message and he gave me permission to reprint it here. I’m so glad that you found it useful.

    As for Dr Wolfe, none of us in school knew that he’d become a full professor at Harvard at such a young age – work hard and take advantage of all of your opportunities. That’s the kind of thing I expect from you students in Miss Baker’s class!