December 26, 2009


Olduvai, Evolution, and Darwin: A conversation with philanthropist David H. Koch (Suzan Mazur, February 17, 2009, Archaeology)

It was an exquisitely warm, sunny February day and New York's groundhog had just bit the mayor, grabbing the headlines too. I made my way to the East Side, cutting through Barneys to the Madison Avenue offices of Koch Industries, Inc., the Kansas-based oil company. I had an appointment to talk about evolution with David H. Koch, a humanitarian with one of the world's great fortunes.

Not many people I've ever met have been to Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge--a place I had the thrill of visiting in 1980--where Mary Leakey found Zinjanthropus (later renamed Australopithecus), and along with her team, the Hominin footprints at nearby Laetoli. So I was particularly delighted when David Koch opened our conversation by telling me of his expedition there in 1986 and shared some of his favorite things, such as a swatch of fossilized raindrops from Laetoli, which he held in his hands as if those drops were Faberge. Of all the possessions Koch might consider precious, who would have thought they'd be fossilized raindrops? But David Koch is committed to the investigation of human origins. And his philanthropy is serious.

Next year, the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins opens at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where evidence of 6 million years of human evolution will be part of an interactive display that includes the Laetoli footprints and a reconstruction of Lucy. Visitors will be able to pass through a time tunnel to view early humans "floating in and out of focus," touch models of ancient human fossils as well as watch their own faces morph into those of extinct species. The Smithsonian display follows the creation of the American Museum of Natural History's David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing.

Richard Potts, director of the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program, explained about the new exhibition, "David's commitment to science and the study of human evolution will enable the Smithsonian to bring the latest discoveries in this field to the broadest audiences. The exhibition, still in the planning stages, encourages the public to explore the lengthy process of change in human characteristics over time. It also presents one of the new research themes in this field--the dramatic changes in environment that set the stage for human evolution. Although the subject can be controversial, the unearthed discoveries that bear on the question of human origins are a source of deep interest and significance for everyone to contemplate."

David Koch is Executive Vice President of $110 billion Koch Industries (he owns 42%) and CEO of its subsidiary, Koch Chemical Technology Group. He is often described as Manhattan's wealthiest resident, and contributes to Lincoln Center, Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and the fertility clinic at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, to name a few. He is also is the principal private funder of PBS's Nova series.

Koch's BS and MS degrees are from MIT in chemical engineering. At 6'5" he also found some perspective away from the lab--shooting hoops. His MIT basketball plaque is displayed on his office trophy wall along with other treasures, including a framed replica of Lucy's hand.

I asked him about Olduvai, human origins, changes in evolutionary thinking, and more. [...]

Suzan Mazur: You ran for U.S. vice president on the Libertarian ticket in 1980, considered the most successful Libertarian presidential ticket ever, getting roughly a million votes. What role do you think politics should play in educating the public about evolution?

David Koch: That's an interesting question. I think politicians should really stay out of it and allow scientists to present the facts and discoveries. I hate to see it politicized.

It's like saying what role should politics play in, for instance, religion? I think it should be up to individuals to decide what they believe. So often politicians are totally uninformed about scientific facts.

Suzan Mazur: And what about the local school boards?

David Koch: There again, the school boards should not have rigorous control over that subject. I think science teachers should be allowed to teach it very openly, without restrictions on what they can say.

Suzan Mazur: As a man committed to the principles and practices of freedom, including scientific freedom, and as a scientist yourself with degrees from MIT in chemical engineering - is it your perspective that we are now witnessing a sea change in evolutionary thinking? That even as the global celebration begins for Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, the man who brought us the theory of evolution by natural selection 150 years ago--Darwinian selection, or survival of the fittest, is now being viewed by serious evolutionary scientists as not enough to explain our existence?

To quote from my interview several months ago with NASA astrobiologist Chris Mckay, who was featured in the recent Nova Mars documentary you helped underwrite: "Something had to precede Darwinian natural selection. The Darwinian paradigm breaks down in two obvious ways. First, and most clear, Darwinian selection cannot be responsible for the origin of life. Second, there is some thought that Darwinian selection cannot fully explain the rise of complexity at the molecular level." So the question is: Is it your perspective that we are now witnessing a sea change in evolutionary thinking?

David Koch: No. I don't think it's a sea change. The sea change occurred back when Darwin published his evolutionary theories, backed up by massive, overwhelming evidence. What's happened since is that there's been a rather steady progressive acceptance of the concepts of evolution in the general public. It's amazing to me that in America a large faction of the population still doesn't believe in it.

Suzan Mazur: But the point is that Darwin started with life. He addressed what happens once you have life. He didn't address the origin of life. That's what Chris McKay, the NASA astrobiologist is saying.

David Koch: Scientific knowledge of early life was not something that had been discovered when Darwin was alive. A huge amount of knowledge of how life might have begun has now been determined.

Suzan Mazur: Much of the media and scientific community appear to be stuck in the debate on evolution vs. creationism. A recent Gallup poll in America revealed that two-thirds of Republicans questioned rejected Darwin's theory and a majority of Democrats and political Independents accepted it. What is consistently ignored by pollsters and the media is the evolutionary mechanisms aside from Darwinian natural selection.

More sophisticated evolutionary thinkers are now saying natural selection is not the most important mechanism of evolutionary change. I'm talking about scientists who are funded by the National Science Foundation, not kooks.

What Darwin Got Wrong is a forthcoming book co-authored by Jerry Fodor, one of America's most celebrated philosophers, who argues that at the end of the story "it's not going to be the selectionist story". A Swedish cytogeneticist, Antonio Lima-De-Faria, who's been knighted by the king of Sweden for his scientific accomplishments, has noted that "there has never been a theory of evolution."

In fact, there is a parallel celebration this year of the 200th anniversary of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the scientist who was onto the idea of evolution before Darwin. New York Medical College cell biologist Stuart Newman has said publicly he believes that "over the next couple of decades Lamarck's way of looking at things [the inheritance of acquired characteristics] will be more incorporated into mainstream biology."

Would you comment?

David Koch: Well I'm not an authority on all those details. I have a general working knowledge of evolution. I'm not competent to challenge some of the claims of those folks.

Suzan Mazur: This is a big debate, which the media is not covering. It's reached a crescendo and a lot of people are saying there's a sea change happening. Some of the evolutionary mechanisms being discussed, which relegate natural selection to a less important role, include self-organization--where cells organize themselves into more complex structures. The concept of morphogenetic fields, a developmental grid guiding development, is something Mount Holyoke paleontologist Mark McMenamin and Stuart Pivar have been investigating, identifying the famous Seilacher Namibian fossil that was part of Steve Gould's Scientific American article as a flattened morphogenetic torus, a metazoan creature.

David Koch: I'm not sure what the significance of that discovery is. It seems to me what's amazing is how much Darwin got right 150 years ago. It's staggering what he got right. He got enormously more right on evolution than what he got wrong.

Suzan Mazur: These people aren't questioning the concept of evolution. What they're saying is that there needs to be more, that we need to go beyond Darwin for answers. There's also something called saltational mechanisms which produce abrupt evolutionary change, that is--jumps--where one form rapidly replaces another. Niche construction where organisms invent their habitats rather than being selected.

David Koch: There's been a fine-tuning of Darwin's evolutionary theory, there's no question.

Suzan Mazur: Then there's epigenesis, where a chemical layer is laid down on top of the genes resulting from various stresses on the organism, and the resulting traits (including disease) can be passed on without changes to the DNA. A kind of neo-Lamarckian concept.

What I'm asking is, should the media, and in particular, PBS, focus on these better ideas of how evolution occurred and by enlightening the public, help stop the fighting about "old science"?

David Koch: As more and more knowledge is developed over time as to how evolution at the molecular level is driven, how it works--I think it's a very important responsibility of programs like Nova to continually update the public on the latest findings. I certainly agree with that.

Suzan Mazur: That's good to hear.

David Koch: If there's a difference of opinion between one scientist and another, or a third scientist and that debate can help clarify what's going on in the field of evolution--I think it's important to publish that and discuss it on those kinds of programs.

Suzan Mazur: As I mentioned earlier, next month in Rome the Vatican (Pontifical Gregorian University in collaboration with Notre Dame) will host an international conference open to the public called: "Biological Evolution Fact and Theories: A Critical Appraisal 150 Years After The Origin of Species".

One whole day out of three days will be devoted to a discussion of these evolutionary mechanisms with scientists, some of whom I've already noted, Stuart Kauffman, Lynn Margulis, Robert Ulanowicz, Scott Gilbert and others presenting papers. This comes on the heels of the Altenberg 16 scientists meeting last July outside Vienna to kick off what they now call the "Extended Synthesis" which updates the neo-Darwinian or Modern Synthesis which was last updated 70 years ago.

So far we have not seen these kinds of groundbreaking meetings taking place in America. Speakers at the annual AAAS meetings are organized by Eugenie Scott from the National Center for Science Education, who told me at the Rockefeller Evolution conference in May that her organization does not recommend textbooks for schools if those texts include a discussion of self-organization because it is confused with intelligent design. In effect, NCSE is recommending old middlebrow science for kids. There's a cycle of submission at play here. [NCSE has responded to this article saying that Eugenie Scott has organized symposia, not speakers, at AAAS meetings, and "NCSE does not recommend specific textbooks at all, although we encourage textbook publishers to ensure that their treatment of evolution is extensive, pervasive, and up-to-date, and we oppose the use of textbooks that treat creationism as scientifically credible."]

Do you have any interest in supporting an evolution conference in America along the lines of what the Vatican or the Austrians have done? Also, do you have any interest in creating a foundation specifically for the investigation of these other mechanisms of evolution?

David Koch: It's like debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I don't think there's much practical relevance to all this. Life started somehow.

Went from deep significance to irrelevance in a hurry, huh?

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 26, 2009 6:23 AM
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