Environmental Ethics
Science Education
People of Faith


The idea of an ivory tower, although originally applied to literary figures, is nowadays usually associated with academics. Come to think of it, most literary types are academics now (it wasn't always like that) and so the tower is just getting more crowded. The criticism here is that we are insulated from a lot of the harshness and vicissitudes of ordinary life, what with tenure, radical intellectual freedom, and interests that roam pretty much wherever we wish. Thus the academy can be the weirdo's refuge, the misanthrope's haven, and can permit people to go about their lives with utterly fanciful perspectives, to comfortably wander on a mental wild goose chase, with no real-world repercussions. Every subculture has kooky ideas, I know; but the thing about academia is that our role, the chief thing on the job description, is to know things, and so we have more responsibility than most people when we open our mouths. I agree to a certain extent with the ivory tower criticism, although the freedom and protection the academic enjoys are tremendously important. I also think that there are disciplines where people can come into remarkably direct contact with the real world, in ways that might even enable us to be more "down to earth" in a sense (if this is the opposite of "ivory tower") than we would otherwise be. I remember as a graduate student seeing two talks back to back, both of which were inspiring in that they brought me closer to reality, more a part of the world for the knowledge. Beverly Strassmann talked of her experiences among the Dogon people of Mali, describing a people so different from me yet whose cultural tendencies are predicted, just as my own are, by evolutionary theory; thus their strange customs become strange no longer, but just as sensible in their context as my own strange customs are in mine. Then John Mitani took us with him into the social circles of chimpanzees in Uganda, into their concerns and motivations and disputes, leading one green graduate student next to me to say, awkwardly but tellingly, that chimps aren't just... animals. Science certainly does coax us into an ivory tower in some ways-- but in others it can also give us keys to escape a tower in which we never realized we were already trapped.

Fortunately, there is also an institutionalized tool that can, if it is well used, chip away at the ivory tower in science. It's called outreach. The federal granting process in the United States explicitly and seriously encourages outreach to be part of all research programs that are supported with taxpayer dollars. Any grant application to the National Science Foundation that left out or glossed over the "broader impacts" section would not get funded. Outreach, including education and other public benefits, is generally what this section contains. Outreach is how the scientist's research enables engagement with the world-- the ways in which the scientist's work extends beyond the role of gathering knowledge and becomes applied to something of direct social relevance.

Studying nature, focusing on evolution, and spending time in Africa all lend themselves very easily to outreach. My two major outreach goals are to address persistent problems in the interaction between society, science (especially ecology and evolutionary biology), and nature; and to benefit people whose local ecosystems have provided us with natural wonders, new knowledge, and careers in field biology. Here I emphasize four particular manifestations of these goals, four areas that represent vital issues and provide opportunities for social and ecological benefits: (1) environmental ethics and concern for nature, (2) the quality of science education and especially the importance of evolution, (3) communication with people who hold religious beliefs that interact with science, and (4) interaction with and support for the people of Africa.


Environmental Ethics

Ecologists and evolutionary biologists have been perhaps the most effective and vocal group of professionals to educate people in a respect for nature and a concern for the detrimental effects of our activities on organisms and their ecosystems. This is not surprising, since our research focuses on natural processes and species. As Aldous Huxley said, "We can only love what we know," (The Perennial Philosophy, ch.5), and it is the job of ecologists and evolutionary biologists to know about nature. At a more specific level, in the course of our empirical work we often discover facts about nature that lend insight into environmental issues, as well as facts about our interactions with nature that have ethical implications. Conservation biology is a relatively recent subfield of ecology that is devoted to the scientific study of environmental problems and the management of natural and seminatural ecosystems. Most biologists, even if they don't pursue such applications themselves, are aware of the intersection between their work and conservation issues.

Our interaction with nature and our role in the natural world is not just a scientific matter, however. It is a thoroughly human collection of issues that bursts the boundaries of discipline or mode of investigation. We scientists tend to be relatively unaware of the diversity and profundity of thought on the human-nature relationship more broadly. In a relatively small way this matter must have been inherent in human thought since its inception. Our earliest contemplative writings contain elements of concern and debate about the role of nature in human experience, and vice versa (e.g., Gilgamesh, the Bible and the Vedas). However, aside from a few notable bubblings throughout history in various cultures, the twentieth century saw humanity's first deep and sustained attempt to think ethically about nature and our interactions with it. What kinds of responsibilities do we have with regard to nature? Is vivisection or hunting or carnivory moral, and why or why not? How about slash and burn agriculture? How important is an individual animal, a population, or a species? Should we take nature into account when making decisions about our property or our business? Should land be preserved by law from certain uses? Should we legislate a clean environment, and how? Whose responsibility is common air and water? Do we have duties to future generations, or even to other species? Spurred in part by environmental problems, these and dozens of related questions became objects of serious moral, religious, political, scientific, and philosophical cogitation and debate to an extent never before seen in human history.

In 1990, Holmes Rolston III, a prominent environmental thinker who is generally credited with inaugurating the professional field of environmental ethics, began assembling references to literature on environmental thought, under the auspices of the International Society for Environmental Ethics (ISEE) that he and colleagues founded in that year.

In the fall of 2009, Rolston began the process of turning the maintenance of this massive resource over to me. With the endorsement and funding of the ISEE, I began the project of enlarging and converting this database into a fully indexed, sortable, searchable comprehensive archive: the Online Bibliography of Environmental Thought (OBET). The goal of this internet database is to be a central gateway to thought on environmental issues and the relationship between humans and nature. This resource is freely available, and open to contributions and annotations by anyone. OBET was launched on December 28, 2010, twenty years to the day after Prof. Rolston established environmental ethics as a philosophical discipline and founded ISEE. Today there are over 16000 references in OBET, and links to over 20000 more, making it the largest hub in the world for thought on the interaction between humans and nature. I am grateful to the ISEE for funding the resource, and to William Grove-Fanning for a great deal of help in maintaining OBET.

OBET is a cooperative and entirely volunteer effort. I am looking for people who would like to contribute in various ways to the development of this resource. Anyone is welcome. We need volunteers to manage the database, add resources to it, interact with our members and guests, and provide ideas. We also could use financial contributions, as the project is expensive but we are committed to keeping it free and publically accessible. Please email me if you would like to contribute or become involved in this project!


Promotion Of Quality Science Education

In my opinion the most pressing problem at the interface of evolution and society is the challenge posed to science education from opponents of evolution. In at least ten U.S. states, for instance, recent motions have sought to weaken public science education by compromising or obfuscating the centrality of evolution as the fundamental principle of modern biology. Some of these antievolution initiatives have been have successful, and those that have failed politically have still fostered divisiveness and confusion. Moreover, science teachers in troublesome districts might not teach evolution to the extent and with the comfort that they would otherwise; and some insufficiently informed science teachers are themselves opponents of evolution or at least wary of it. Thousands of private schools and many home school curricula suffer from similar deficiencies. The short term result of this conflict is that young Americans by the millions are growing up with a misunderstanding of how science operates and a lack of knowledge of evolution as an explanation for natural phenomena. The longer term result is the perpetuation in the general public of this ignorance about science and nature.

THEN: A literature stall outside the trial of Scopes v. State of Tennessee, which prohibited teaching of "any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." (1925) NOW: Steve Abrams, chair of the Kansas Board of Education, voting in favor of weakened science standards drafted in part by creationist "Intelligent Design" proponents, which redefined science to include the supernatural, casted doubt on evolution, and allowed creationist rhetoric in science classes (2005)


Here is a lecture of mine for college nonbiology majors on evolution and religion that can give some background to the issues. This is a PowerPoint presentation; view notes slides to see a rough outline of the lecture beneath the slides. Picture and figure credits are listed on the last slide.


Why is this happening?

The primary reason why we fail to equip our youth with an understanding of the natural world is because many people see evolution as contradictory to their religious views about the origin of the universe and the nature of humanity. In the U.S. in particular, the main culprit is creationism. I think it is crucial to realize who creationists are. Most definitions of this term root it in the belief that a deity created the universe. I believe this is plainly inadequate as a definition of the term as people use it, and I think the only reason why this generalization has gone unchecked is because the debate is so polarized and very few people have given careful thought as to who the true opponents of evolution are. Are they scientists like Asa Gray and Theodosius Dobzhansky who were giants in the field of evolutionary biology but also believed that a God created the universe? Certainly not. Creationists are not those who simply believe the world is a divine creation. This is why some have been suggesting that creation and evolution can coexist; this may be the case, but creationism and evolution are thoroughly incompatible. Creationism as a para-religious belief system has more to do with how people use their beliefs about a creator God rather than their holding such a belief per se. Creationism has to do with whether theology and religious scriptural studies can reveal the mechanisms by which the universe and its contents have arisen. I propose the following definition:

Creationism: The belief that supernatural revelation is an appropriate source of knowledge of the processes by which natural entities (such as the universe itself and living things, including humans) come into being or achieve particular forms. According to this belief, the formation of at least some natural entities will never have a naturalistic explanation; supernatural revelation provides our only understanding of such events.

One is creationist to the extent that one holds this view. For instance, to say "X didn't evolve, God made X", where X is any living thing or part of a living thing, is to espouse creationism. People and views can be creationistic to varying extents; for instance, many people believe that natural processes can explain the history of life except for watershed events such as the origin of life or certain junctures in the history of humans. Some creationists, such as those who are involved in the "Intelligent Design" movement, dress up their reliance on supernatural revelation in academic language, but educators and supporters of quality science education must not be misled by this. Unless IDers propose that the "intelligence" that is responsible for the design is natural (e.g. space aliens!), they are all creationists. Of course, regardless of whether they are creationists or loony Roswell types, educators should not teach their ideas in science classrooms. There is no empirical (experimental or observational) basis for any of their claims.

Results of a U.S. Gallup poll in 2005. Among the take-home messages here are (1) most people do not care what is taught in school (the would-not-be-upset-regardless grouproughly 50% or over in each education class); (2) education helps a bit, but even among well-educated people two-thirds do not understand the importance or centrality of evolution enough to be upset if it were not taught at all! and (3) 17-37% of people (depending on education) actively do not want only evolution to be taught! We are surely in big trouble in this country with regard to science education.

In compromising science education and obscuring the importance of evolution, creationism has allies (witting or unwitting) in the "academic left", particularly the humanities. Many of these people hold views on the nature of society and human freedom that lead them to reject or alter evolutionary accounts of human origins. Others have a more fundamental suspicion of science, the spirit of which Matt Cartmill handily summarizes in a 1998 Discover article: "Anybody who claims to have objective knowledge about anything is trying to control and dominate the rest of us". The work of such people in the long run probably produces a degree of public confusion about nature and science that is comparable to that spurred by creationism. However, discontents in the humanities would be no happier with a creationist account of humans than they would with an evolutionary account; in fact, a disaffection with science may be the only thing these two groups have in common. Moreover, the challenges these two groups pose to an understanding of evolution happen at very different times in students' lives and in very different ways. Creationism is associated with political activism and directly affects primary and secondary education. Opponents of evolution in the humanities, on the other hand, generally present their ideas in academic books and college classes, and their work does not directly interfere with science education and is not generally discussed in science classrooms. Thus the defense of science education rightly focuses on creationism. However, a promotion of the public understanding of science more generally should address challenges from the humanities as well.


Why does this matter?

There are many interacting reasons for all of us to be concerned about the impact of creationism on science education. Just to make things simple, I'll squish them into three discrete points. Each of these is an important goal in our society that is threatened if we do not unabashedly teach evolution in our public schools:

1. Understanding and Conserving Nature. Evolution is the cornerstone of biology. Without it, we simply can have no cohesive understanding of living things or their features, or anything else fundamental about the natural world. We need to teach evolution if we want to know what the world is all about and how it got this way. There is simply no alternative way of thinking about the world that provides any knowledge base for understanding nature-- and of course this is not surprising, because evolution is simply true, and since its full discovery in the late nineteenth century it has had no real explanatory competitors. And we should not be content with just some people knowing about nature-- some people is never enough, because by exclusion this privilege enfeebles the rest of us. Creationism essentially creates a society divided into the knows and the know-nots, as terrible as that of Marx's haves and have-nots. Depending on whether one considers possessions or knowledge to be more important, our situation could become even more terrible. Some people grow up understanding the natural world they live in, and others do not and never will understand it. Those interested in social justice should take note of this harsh dichotomy. To get even more practical, an evolutionarily-informed knowledge of nature is what enables us to know what helps or harms nature. What will happen when we do X? What will happen to this ecosystem if this organism goes extinct? Can this organism adapt to that change? Can genes from another area come to the rescue of this population if our activities reduce it to just a few individuals? These and hundreds of other questions arise out of an evolutionary understanding, and cannot be answered adequately without it. Not only the understanding of nature but the very quality of its existence is at stake when we consider how to treat evolution in our schools.

Seen in the light of evolution, biology is, perhaps, intellectually the most satisfying and inspiring science. Without that light it becomes a pile of sundry facts some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole.

Evolution as a process that has always gone on in the history of the earth can be doubted only by those who are ignorant of the evidence or are resistant to evidence, owing to emotional blocks or to plain bigotry... There are no alternatives to evolution as history that can withstand critical examination.

-Theodosius Dobzhansky, in an address to the National Association of Biology Teachers in 1973. His comments are no less true today.

Theodosius Dobzhansky


2. Understanding and Healing Ourselves. We are a product of evolution, and our evolutionary heritage influences us every day. Most people do not know this. In this case, as in so many others, knowledge is power-- if we understand the evolutionary basis for ourselves and our tendencies, we stand a greater chance of being able to rise above the things we do not want to encourage, and to fully embrace the things we do. And there are myriad questions we simply cannot answer without evolution: Why are men and women different? Why are the races different? Why do humans look and act the way we do? We need to teach evoution because the power of understanding ourselves hangs in the balance. And as in the case of nature, it is through evolution that we can understand why we tend to have the problems we do, and evolution may point the way to solutions that would otherwise be opaque to us. Why was penicillin once a wonder drug and is now rarely administered? Why can't we get rid of AIDS, cancer, Down's Syndrome, Parkinson's Disease, or death through old age? Why do we have back and knee problems as age advances? How come we like salt and sugar and fat so much if they're not good for us? Why do people kill each other? Without evolution, we are in the dark about the deepest scientific answers for these things. If we want to get to the bottom of disease and human suffering, we need to have an evolutionary understanding of ourselves.

3. Situating Ideology and Religion. Science is the only public, self-correcting way of finding out about the world. If we can conceive of a method of knowing that meets these simple criteria, it qualifies as science. However, we all know things that science didn't teach us. We know we love someone, or that we are a certain age, or that we like or don't like cucumbers. We also have certain beliefs or inclinations, whether or not we claim knowledge about them, about which science is silent. Is there a God? Is there good and evil? Do I have a purpose? Whatever we hold in answer to these things, science cannot tell us one way or the other. These are tremendously important questions to many people. What is the proper role of these sorts of issues and explorations? Well, despite their importance, based on what I've just said above, their place is certainly not in a science class. Our beliefs about such things cannot possibly challenge or replace science. When we allow beliefs about how the world ought to operate, based on a political ideology or a religious faith, trump or limit exploration of how the world does operate, through empirical investigation, warning flags should go up. If we do it personally, we are being contradictory-- if our science doesn't match our politics or religion, something must be wrong. If we do it politically, such as in our school boards or educational standards, we are permitting tyranny-- we are allowing an untested and untestable idea obfuscate or subvert a body of knowledge that is based on publically available methods of experiment and observation. We need to teach evolution because religion and ideology, as important as they are as guides to life and thought, must not be used to control the public's understanding of science. The only thing that should guide curriculum in a science classroom is a commitment to science.


What can we do about it?

The Council of Europe created an excellent resolution that provides the best general answer to this question from the perspective of ensuring quality science education:


Council of Europe resolution 1580, October 2007, summary of recommendations to states and their educational establishments (Article 19):

1. defend and promote scientific knowledge;

2. strengthen the teaching of the foundations of science, its history, its epistemology and its methods alongside the teaching of objective scientific knowledge;

3. make science more comprehensible, more attractive and closer to the realities of the contemporary world;

4. firmly oppose the teaching of creationism as a scientific discipline on an equal footing with the theory of evolution and in general the presentation of creationist ideas in any discipline other than religion;

5. promote the teaching of evolution as a fundamental scientific theory in the school curriculula.


There are many supportive organizations we can aid, or at least consult and be aware of, in the pursuit of these objectives:

Join and support the National Center for Science Education, "the premier institution dedicated to keeping evolution in the science classroom and creationism out." Joining this organization is probably the single best thing that an interested citizen of any profession can do to keep informed of current events in science education and confrontations with creationism, and to help us close the gap between the knows and the know-nots by teaching our children about how nature works. Their flagship publication, Reports of the NCSE, included with membership, is the best available resource for current issues, progress, and tools related to promoting public understanding of evolution. Eugenie Scott, our foremost representative of science education and the importance of evolution, is the executive director of NCSE.


Join and support the National Science Teachers Association, whose laudable position statement on the teaching of evolution resembles the Council of Europe resolution above but includes more practical application. The NSTA provides resources and advocacy for science teachers from elementary school through college, and publishes a periodical devoted to each educational level.


Join and support the National Association of Biology Teachers, whose position statement likewise strongly supports evolution. The NABT produces a number of excellent publications, especially the periodical American Biology Teacher, in which several influential articles on science education and the public understanding of evolution have appeared, including Dobzhansky's 1973 paper that I quote above.


Join the American Insitute of Biological Sciences, an organization devoted to biological research and teaching for the welfare of society. It is also an umbrella organization for 200 biological societies. Its main publication, the monthly Bioscience, is a peer-reviewed and well-cited repository of reviews and essays spanning the breadth of the life sciences, accessible to students and the educated public.


If you are a biologist, join the Society for the Study of Evolution, the premier professional organization devoted to the understanding of the evolution of life. Its journal Evolution is the most important source of new results and advancements in the theoretical and empirical understanding of evolution.


We should encourage participation in initiatives and strategies to foster science education and the public understanding of evolution. However, I think that this kind of work is insufficient to solve the problem. Working for quality science education and rectifying public misunderstandings about evolution may help wage this cultural war, but it will not bring us much closer to a lasting peace settlement. I believe that the key to ending the conditions that bring about this conflict lies in reaching out to the religious community. I view this as a distinct area of outreach, because the primary goal here is not so much to foster science education or public understanding of evolution (since this would be using people and their faith purely as a means), but rather to help people of faith come to grips with the natural world for their own sakes and to end this social discord.


Realizing the value of evolution

At the core of any defense or promotion of the importance of evolution in science education must be a recognition of the value of understanding evolution. In fact, I believe there are several important values that an understanding of evolution can promote. For convenience in conveying these values in an educational setting I have made them into an acrostic.

Why is an understanding of evolution important to society? It is important for:

Excellence:  our intellectual and social standing in the world
Vision:  allowing nature to inform our worldviews and philosophies
Organization of our knowledge: a unifying framework for the natural and human sciences
Learning:  the pursuit of truth and an understanding of our world      
Utility:  applications to medical, social, and ecological problems
Truce and treaty between science and religion
Insight and ideas:  enriching the arts and humanities
Ourselves:  understanding our species and its diversity, history, functions and tendencies
Nature:  discovering, appreciating, and conserving Earth’s organisms and processes



To People of Faith

Creationists have declared war on evolution. That much is obvious-- listen to a typical Christian radio station for an hour any time of day and you are likely to hear a denigration of evolution. The arguments creationists (including intelligent design proponents) use are scientifically thoroughly unimportant. However, it may be socially or practically relevant to know what the reasons for their animosity are. Based on my experience with (believe me!) more than enough conversations, books, lectures, broadcasts, and pamphlets, I've devised a little diagram of the main elements of creationist motivation to deny evolution. This chart summarizes the premises that creationists believe justify a repudiation of evolution. Not all of them are agreed upon by all creationists, but I believe they cover the main bases of creationist motivations. They fall into categories according to what principles they stem from or rely on: theology (ideas that evolution is inconsistent with religious tenets), morality (ideas that acceptance of evolution is morally detrimental), authority (responses to the opinions of certain people), anthropocentrism (ideas based on the centrality or superiority of humans), or prejudice (negative presumptions about evolution).


Notice what are NOT included in this collection of reasons: insufficient or contrary evidence, improper theoretical status, conflict with laws of nature or current knowledge, or internal inconsistency. I do not include these because these do not actually figure in the foundational concerns of creationists. They are not the reasons why creationists deny evolution. Rather, they are merely tools used by professional creationists in their attempts to discredit evolution. In other words, creationists do not reject evolution because of perceived scientific or philosophical problems with it, but reject it for completely different reasons (the ones in the chart above). Then, if they are sufficiently ambitious, they might look for ways to represent evolutionary theory as having scientific or philosophical problems. We must recognize this discontinuity between creationist motivations and creationist arguments. If we fail to recognize it, as I did for years, then we might waste hours of time taking apart their alleged shortcomings of evolution right before their eyes, only to find to our confusion and dismay that their opinion remains thoroughly unchanged despite a lack of any coherent response. The anti-evolution opinion remains unchanged because the arguments are not the reasons or the motivations for the opinion, but are merely tools of the trade. Take away a weapon from a warmonger and he will not lose his will to fight. To do this (in case it is possible), you have to discover and address the reason why he wants to fight. You have to look to the underlying motivations of a person's creationism. And the basis of these motivations turns out to be very simple. No nonreligious person is a creationist. The reasons why people reject evolution are not scientific, they're religious. Every single appeal in the above chart is religiously motivated and undergirded. The more sincere creationists will go right to these matters and not trouble themselves with silly arguments about flagella or complex eyes or stratigraphy. The sincere creationist will know that these cannot possibly be the reasons evolution is being denied when it is thoroughly accepted by the biological community-- in these cases a conversation will revolve around the more fundamental (though of course completely misguided) perspectives in the above chart.

One of my long term goals is to someday address and dissolve creationist thinking in a systematic, accessible, and gentle way. Not to speak to the choir-- no book that will cause my fellow evolutionists to raise their fists in the air and celebrate triumph. I have no problem with such books; in fact I like them very much, not surprisingly as I am in that choir. However, if the goal is to spread truth by ending creationism, then these books are not to the point. If we want to change people's minds we have to come to them where their deepest reasoning lies. The professional creationists will not let us in, nor will lay creationists who are proud or in fear for their faith; but the sincere and humble ones who are confident in their faith will be honest with their concerns and will also listen. I could tell many first-hand stories of such sincerity leading to changes of mind, including my own siblings and in-laws. Of course, I have many more stories of persistent pride, fear, and a religiously defended will to ignorance. But we need not dwell on that.


When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.
-Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, ch.15.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.
-Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, introduction.


Now, people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett will say that what I have described goes only part of the way and I ought to just finish the job, to wrap things up. Creationism is a religious problem, as I have said, therefore religion is the problem. What we really have to do, they would have us believe, is destroy religion, the basis for creationism, and we won't have to deal with creationism any more. An obvious and total solution. Except that it displays a glaring ignorance and lack of social foresight. Using the martial analogy again (and it is unfortunate that such analogies work so well here), you simply can't win that kind of war even if you wanted to. Surely one of the most salient lessons from the history of conflict is that an attempt to destroy the religion of your opponent who is fighting you from a religious motivation is never, ever, ever successful. The only way to do this, as many terrible leaders in history have realized, is to wipe out your opponent completely-- to kill them all. You cannot fight them into changing their religion or abandoning it, because religion is what makes them tick, and religion is what makes them fight the likes of you. So there are your options, celebrated and reviled "New Atheists": you either have to kill them all or try to win them over, but you can't defeat them.

The Crusader approach, where an enemy is identified with its religion and the religion itself therefore becomes the real enemy, must be misguided in the struggle with creationism. To show this, one need only note the high profile dissent within the ranks of the evolutionists! In the Dobzhansky article I cited above, this noted Christian evolutionary biologist also says that "It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts." Kenneth Miller, biologist at Brown University, a staunch supporter of evolutionary education, is explicit about his faith: "Being a Christian, I'm eager to introduce people to Jesus. I just don't think I should do it in the science classroom." We could go on with many similar and oft-quoted statements from famous scientists. One more example will suffice: creationism is rampant in America, and yet our own supreme evolutionary club, the National Academy of Sciences, does not make the leap from denigrating creationism to denigrating religion. In fact, it explicitly defends religion! The official document Science, Evolution, and Creationism is geared towards nonscientists, and is dedicated to "explaining the differences between science and religion, and asserting that acceptance of evolution does not require abandoning belief in God." My point here is NOT that Dobzhansky, Miller, and the NAS are correct. I am not making an argument from authority that we ought to support religion. My point is that fighting religion cannot be a fruitful goal for us as evolutionists because there are people and organizations who embrace both evolution and religion. To attempt to destroy or discredit religion in the service of evolution, therefore, in addition to being simply impossible, is also self-defeating due to the high incidence of friendly fire. Those who propose to fight religion in order to defend evolution are a bit confused as to just who their friends and enemies really are in this conflict.

After relying on them myself so heavily to make the points above, I should like to abandon the military metaphors and the allusions to death and the most terrible events of history, just as I should like to abandon the strategy that so adequately fits such metaphors. My philosophy for dealing with creationism and religious belief in an age of science, and the goal of spreading the understanding and appreciation of evolution, has three main practical elements:


1. Address religious concerns about evolution without denigrating religion itself.

2. Provide options as to how to incorporate evolution into a worldview that already involves religion.

3. Allow people to make their own decisions as to whether their religious beliefs should be modified, abandoned, or harmonized with their knowledge of the natural world.


I believe that only a strategy like this will carry us over this creationist impasse, and usher millions of people who have been kept ignorant of the wonders of nature into a real knowledge and appreciation of them. With this change will come an increase in the great benefits of accepting evolution, as I outlined above: understanding and conserving nature, understanding and healing ourselves, and appropriately situating religion in human experience. I don't think that accepting and understanding evolution necessarily produces these benefits-- these are human projects and are accomplished to the extent that we wish them to be. But without evolution we are blind to much of the importance of these projects, ignorant of many of the problems and their causes, and so unaware of the solutions.


For AfricaMalang Sama

“Tell people in your country that Africa is hard.  Africa is very hard.”  So said Malang Sama, a young friend of ours in The Gambia (right), as my wife and I prepared to return to the U.S. after a research trip. Africa is an incredibly amazing and beautiful place both culturally and naturally, but yes, it can certainly be hard. Hard on people, as Malang meant, and also hard on nature. Our lab activities in or for Africa extend beyond science in various ways, complementing the scientific work we do there with small projects in natural history, ethnobotany, and the encouragement of young Africans interested in pursuing careers in the study or conservation of nature.


Awash Valley natural history

The 800 square kilometers of Awash National Park in Ethiopia span a variety of habitats and are home to a substantial cross-section of Ethiopia’s native flora and fauna. Sadly, the biodiversity of the region is threatened by unsustainable land use, and the Awash National Park is not immune. Nomads poach mammals and graze cattle within the Park boundaries, and the Park staff are not financially equipped or politically placed to manage the problem. Discussions with the "local people", as Ethiopians call them, have failed to curtail the encroachment. To help make the argument for conservation, local communities must gain awareness of the wealth of life that the Park supports.

Unlike the neighboring countries of Kenya and Tanzania, Ethiopia has no strong history of commitment to conservation and ecotourism. Consequently, no field guide to the flora and fauna of Awash exists. The continued health of Awash and other National Parks depends on ecotourism. In turn, the growth of ecotourism in Ethiopia depends on knowledge and publicity about the biodiversity in Ethiopian national parks.

The best resource for the plants of Awash National Park, for instance, is a small herbarium, assembled by two German botanists in the late 20th century. It is tucked away in the Park and only locally accessible. In 2010 we began the project of publicizing Ethiopia's flora by creating a virtual herbarium. April Lahti photographed all 156 specimens in the Awash herbarium and their accompanying botanical descriptions, as well as many live plants throughout the Park. Franny Geller, aided by Rose Chin-Hong, has been identifying the live plants and creating an Ethiopian Flora database. Bruck Tadesse, an Ethiopian-Finn computer technician, is creating a striking web interface for this Flora. Our hope is that this website will raise awareness of Ethiopia's natural heritage both locally and globally.

Aera javanica (Amaranthaceae) from the Awash Herbarium (left);
and Solanum incanum (Solanaceae) blooming in Awash National Park (right)


See Franny's 2011 poster, "A Virtual Guide to the Flora of Awash National Park".


Gambian ethnobotany

Indigenous societies have accumulated knowledge about the properties and uses of local plants over hundreds or even thousands of years.  The dissemination and testing of this knowledge can serve diverse biological and social objectives, including economic returns to developing nations and the discovery of new medicines and materials.  At a recent Botany and Plant Biology Joint Congress, the loss of botanical diversity in The Gambia was highlighted and a call was made for more research into indigenous knowledge of Gambian plants. 

Mr. Baba Jarra of Janjangbureh Island, The Gambia, was a Mandinka craftsman and carpenter and a valued repository of knowledge of local plants and their uses. In 1999, because of our friendship, and in return for money enough to send his child through school, Baba agreed to walk around the island and tell us all he knew of the plants we saw, including their uses in food, medicine, crafts, and magic. Starting in 2010, Seema Choudhary, an anthropology and biology student in our lab with a strong interest in ethnobotany, has undertaken the project of documenting and researching Baba's claims. She has transcribed and organized our interviews, and is identifying each plant based on the local name (and we corroborated each one based on botanical characteristics), researching the known uses of each plant, and determining whether the claimed uses have previously been claimed and tested, and whether they figure in important ethnobiological databases (e.g., ALUKA) or the United States Pharmacopeia.

See Seema's 2011 poster, "Ethnobotany of Janjangbureh Island, The Gambia", and her Biology Undergraduate Honors Thesis.


Emerging African naturalists

We have worked closely with several bright field biologists and nature guides in Africa. We maintain our relationships with just a few of these people, and hope to follow them through their successful lives and careers.

Tsyon Asfaw is a university student from Nazret, Ethiopia. She is investigating the diet of Ethiopian carnivores. Armed with nothing but her wits and a knowledge of tracks and scats, Tsyon expertly follows lions and hyenas through the bush. She then analyzes their scat in the lab to figure out what they have been eating.
Girum Tewelde is an ecotour operator for ETTA, based out of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He is also the resident naturalist at Awash Falls Lodge, the base for exploration of Awash National Park. He has a remarkable command of the local birds and mammals, and knows where to find them. He can show you how to (or not to) sneak up on a sleeping crocodile, or how to watch a cave full of spotted hyenas mobilize for a hunt.
Mansa Dampha (Mandinka for "Tall King") is a Gambian bird guide. He has worked for the Bird Safari Camp on Janjangbureh Island, deep inland on the Gambia River. While there, he worked with us on a study of village weaverbird breeding ecology and responses to brood parasitism. See Mansa's paper with us on nesting associations of the village weaverbird.

Would you like to help?

If you would like to become involved, in even a small way, in our support of emerging African naturalists, please contact us at LahtiLab4Africa@gmail.com.





Awash Falls Lodge

Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society

Ethiopian Wildlife Association (Yirmed Demeke)

Note: We once also supported "Save Awash National Park", a non-governmental organization founded and led by Queens College postdoc Mat Pines. Unfortunately, Mat's patient and courageous efforts to preserve the natural and cultural heritage of Awash were not able to surmount bureaucratic infighting, and this NGO is no more.


The Gambia:

Bird Safari Camp, Janjangbureh

Birds of the Gambia, Ltd. (Clive Barlow)



Mauritian Wildlife Foundation