This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

"Darwin" defends evolution

Published: November 3, 2005

Reporter Contributor

Charles Darwin made a rare special appearance at UB last week, defending his theory of evolution against creationism and intelligent design before scholars and scientists gathered in Buffalo for a three-day conference, "Toward a New Enlightenment," sponsored by the Council for Secular Humanism.


Charles Darwin, a.k.a. UB biologist Clyde F. "Kip" Herreid, defended his theory of evolution at a conference last week.

Darwin (a.k.a. Clyde F. "Kip" Herreid, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences), addressed issues that have surged to the national consciousness with a local school board controversy in Pennsylvania over whether intelligent design should be mentioned in high school biology classes.

"Darwin's" appearance on Oct. 27 in Lippes Concert Hall in Slee Hall was not listed in the conference program and came as a great surprise to members of the audience, who applauded as Herreid came on stage in Victorian-era garb, complete with waistcoat, watch-fob, cape and top hat. Feigning confusion at the sight of the podium's not-yet-invented microphone, "Darwin" explained he had heard rumors that creationist ideas refuted in his lifetime were once again on the world stage.

"Intelligent design is essentially defeatist," Herreid stated. He said whenever intelligent design comes up against something for which there is no current explanation, its proponents are forced to declare the phenomenon a "miracle."

Herreid explained that in the early 1800s, the Christian philosopher William Paley popularized the idea that everything in the universe possessed a predetermined purpose and was perfectly designed for that purpose. Paley invented the popular concept of a "divine watchmaker," which claims that everything in nature is so perfectly designed that its purpose is obvious—just as someone who has never before seen a pocket watch can determine its purpose simply by observing its precisely functioning parts.

However, Darwin's theory argues that not everything in nature is perfect. "One would have thought the ideas of Paley would cease," Herreid said.

He interspersed humor with examples of basic evidence that support evolution. He noted that numerous vestigial organs and other extraneous features in the human body, such as some muscles, serve no discernable purpose. There are at least 100 vestigial parts in the body, he said. In addition to such well-known examples as the appendix or tonsils, Herreid cited goose bumps and muscles that wiggle the ears or move the scalp, the last of which he wryly demonstrated.

Human eyes are not perfect, he added, asking audience members how many of them wore corrective lenses. He also remarked on the male prostate gland, which plagues some men in old age. "That is not intelligent design," he joked.

Less facetiously, he commented on vestigial organs in other animals as well, such as snakes with one useless lung or birds with one shriveled ovary.

In addition, Herreid cited "embryological abnormalities" in fetal animals and humans.

"We make a tail and then we absorb it," he said, adding that human fetuses also grow veins on their necks, as though to develop gills, but these fade away as well.

Fetal whales grow hair, which disappears before birth, and teeth, which later in gestation develop into a filter-feeding mechanism to gather algae, he said. Whales also grow nostrils as fetuses, but these migrate to the top of the head and become the blowhole.

In order to provide some perspective on the great advances of the past two centuries, Herreid described the world Darwin was born into on Feb. 12, 1809—the same day as Abraham Lincoln, he noted. The early 1800s was before the time of famous biologists Louis Pasteur and Gregor Mendel or physiologists Sigmund Freud and Ivan Pavlov, he said. There was no such thing as the telegraph, no theory of thermodynamics, no concept of DNA and, of course, no theory of evolution.

Scientific inquiry makes advances, he stated, whereas intelligent design cannot because it doesn't question what has not yet been explained. "That is the triumph of science," he said. "It moves on."