Thursday, July 14, 2016

Celebrate Kentucky's Nobel Laureate Evolutionary Biologist

Thomas Hunt Morgan would kick Ken Ham's lying ass. So would Kentucky scientific heroes Frank McVey, Arthur McQuisten Miller and John T. Scopes.

If you worry the Creation Museum and its new Noah’s Ark theme park will cause outsiders to think Kentuckians are a bunch of anti-science rubes, at least take comfort in this: Lexington was home to perhaps America’s greatest evolutionary biologist.

Sept. 25 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Hunt Morgan, who won a Nobel Prize in 1933 for pioneering research that is the foundation of much modern biology and genetics.

But aside from the University of Kentucky’s biology department, almost nobody here seems interested in marking the sesquicentennial of Kentucky’s greatest scientist.

Morgan, who died in 1945, remains world-famous. But he has always been overshadowed in Lexington by his uncle, Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a controversial cavalry raider whose statue has stood on the old courthouse lawn since 1911.


Garland Allen, who wrote the 1979 biography Thomas Hunt Morgan: The Man and His Science, will speak at UK on Oct. 13. Cassone said the university also is trying to arrange a Lexington screening of The Fly Room, a 2014 movie about the genetics research with fruit flies in Morgan’s lab at Columbia University in New York.

The celebration will begin Oct. 1 with an open house featuring the work of biology graduate students at UK’s new Academic Science Building, which is now under construction and will replace the Thomas Hunt Morgan Biological Sciences Building.

Morgan isn’t UK’s only contribution to refuting the pseudo-science of creationism. Nearly a century ago, as now, creationism was enjoying a wave of popularity among Christians who found science incompatible with their narrow interpretation of Scripture.

One result was a bill introduced in the Kentucky General Assembly in 1922 that would have outlawed teaching the evolution of man in public schools and universities. The bill was vigorously opposed by UK President Frank McVey and Arthur McQuiston Miller, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and UK’s first football coach.

The bill was narrowly defeated, but similar legislation passed in Tennessee and several other states. The Tennessee law became famous in 1925, when the American Civil Liberties Union enlisted one of Miller’s former UK students, John T. Scopes, a high school teacher in Dayton, Tenn., to challenge the law in court.

The “Scopes monkey trial” became a national sensation that played a big role in turning public opinion away from anti-science for decades. Scopes was found guilty, but his conviction was overturned two years later. The Tennessee law remained on the books until 1967, but was widely ignored.

While Scopes remains a household name, few people remember he was a UK graduate. It seems to me that a good thing to put in front of UK’s new Academic Science Building would be an historical marker honoring the roles Scopes, Miller and McVey played in defending academic freedom.

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