Dissing Darwin

As Texas grapples with the future of biotech, our long-standing hostility toward one of modern science’s founding fathers is about to cost us plenty.

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, CHARLES DARWIN was quite a nice English gentleman. A former divinity student who had once hoped to become a country parson, the reclusive naturalist was so concerned for his family and friends that he kept his theory of evolution to himself for a couple of decades; he was finally forced by a competitor to reluctantly publish On the Origin of Species in 1859. Still, that turned out to be at least 146 years too soon for most Texans, whose animus toward one of the founding fathers of modern science has been a remarkably enduring feature of our cultural and political landscape.

While it would be political suicide in today’s Texas to fling early-twentieth-century prejudices at African Americans, Hispanics, or women, this particular dead white male can still be bashed as blithely as he was eighty years ago. If anything, the vehemence has only amped up across the generations, from Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, who vowed in the twenties that she was “not going to let that kind of rot go into Texas textbooks,” to current House majority leader Tom DeLay, who blamed Darwin for the Columbine massacre (“Our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who are evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud”). This perennial pique was a fairly cheap indulgence throughout the twentieth century; despite widespread conviction that the age of the earth did not exceed the Biblical six millennia, we always had enough geologists who understood how to find oil in rocks hundreds of millions of years old. But as Texas enters the twenty-first century, dissing Darwin is about to get very expensive.

That’s because the scientific revolution Darwin started in the nineteenth century—transforming biology from the domain of amateur naturalists like himself into a disciplined science probing ever deeper into the mysteries of life—has finally come to fruition. We are leaving behind the digital age and entering the biotechnology era, with the promise and peril of regenerated limbs, cloned replacement organs, and genetic cures. Indeed, George W. Bush’s first major televised address as president concerned “stem cells,” a term that has now entered the everyday lexicon. (Found in days-old human embryos, stem cells are capable of developing into any kind of body tissue and could potentially yield treatments for everything from paralysis to Parkinson’s disease.) Although the president dismayed researchers with his split decision to limit federally funded embryonic stem cell research to several dozen “lines” previously obtained from embryos unused in in vitro fertilization, his cautious approach created an opening for enterprising states. Last November, California voters committed $3 billion to fund largely unrestricted stem cell research over the next decade; not wanting to miss out on what is being called the biotech “gold rush,” a host of governors from Wisconsin to New Jersey have proposed spending hundreds of millions each to compete for biotech businesses and researchers.

Texas isn’t out of the running for the biotech gold. All that oil money built Nobel-laureate-staffed biomedical research complexes at the Texas Medical Center, in Houston, and the University of Texas’s Southwestern Medical Center, in Dallas, and high-tech Austin has become a promising biotech business cluster, where academic researchers can partner with for-profit biotech start-ups. Rick Perry has often sounded like the biotech governor, creating a Governor’s Council on Science and Biotechnology Development and earmarking significant chunks of his $300 million Texas Enterprise Fund, as well as his proposed $300 million Emerging Technology Fund, specifically for biotechnology. But our ability to compete has already become an issue in the preliminary sniping between Perry and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has hinted that she’ll challenge him in next year’s Republican primary. Hutchison recently remarked that Texas would be “left in the dust by California” without a policy to permit embryonic stem cell research, a position that echoes that of the 39,000-member Texas Medical Association. Perry, who also believes that “we can’t afford to be left behind” by California, fired back that he would oppose any taxpayer dollars’ being used on “research that ends a human life.” (The embryo is discarded after the stem cells are removed; however, many more embryos perish in the process of routine in vitro fertilization.)

Even if Perry didn’t oppose the most promising form of stem cell research, Texas would still face big challenges in narrowing the biotech gap with California. Various studies, including the one by Perry’s own biotech council, have uniformly pointed to our serious shortage of both the venture capital and the human capital necessary for the kind of clustering that has made San Diego, Boston, and North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area the nation’s top biotech business centers (Austin rates twelfth on the list). A study of San Diego’s successful formula observed that a kick-butt cluster requires not only star researchers but also a life-sciences-literate local workforce, from lawyers and investors to lab managers and technicians. But Perry’s council found that Texans don’t know much biology. Our students test below national averages in science achievement, our science curriculum isn’t competitive, and we have a shortage of science teachers. According to the council’s report, little more than a third of Texas students are taught science by teachers “who consider themselves well-prepared in key science disciplines.”

However, the real problem isn’t that Texas’s science teachers can’t teach; it’s that Texas’s teachers can’t adequately teach evolution, thanks to our long legacy of Darwin-bashing. Ma Ferguson really didn’t have to worry about protecting Texas schoolchildren from evolutionist rot: Though the celebrated Scopes “Monkey Trial,” in 1925, widely discredited the Biblical version of natural history, evolution remained a topic too hot for American textbooks until the late fifties, when the Soviet Sputnik revealed a national science gap. By then Darwin’s theory had been rejuvenated by neo-Darwinism as modern geneticists and cellular biologists observed evolution on the molecular level. The state’s schoolchildren, however, didn’t learn much about either Darwinism or neo-Darwinism. During the seventies and eighties, Texas textbook vigilantes like the late Mel Gabler and his wife, Norma, hectored the State Board of

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