Not Long Ago


Not long ago I had the pleasure of driving down the length of the Great Plains from my home in the Dakotas to South Texas. I passed through nearly all of five large states and as I drove I watched the land change. To the careful observer, there is a world of difference in topography, flora, and fauna between the Missouri River breaks of South Dakota and the Cap Rock of Texas. Even the people change: from the stern northern European Lutherans of the Northern Plains to the slow talking Baptists and Hispanics of the Llano Estacada. But the similarities are overwhelming. Blue stem, grama, and wheat-grass is everywhere. The pickup is seldom out of the gaze of pronghorn antelope and mule deer. Migrating hawks and waterfowl shadow your progress north in the spring and south in the autumn.

The land has shaped even the people, for all their differences, into a single group, and as I drive, I notice the power of one of their similarities. Of course, the majority of the people from Bismarck to Lubbock depend directly on the land. But more interesting to me is their shared optimism with regard to the potential of the marginal agricultural land they find themselves inhabiting. It is a land of dreams that often revolve around improvement of farming techniques, livestock, and plant species. For all the heartbreak that has been the history of the Great Plains the spirit of ingenuity in developing better breeds of particularly cattle, horses, and farm crops abounds.

On my nine hundred mile trip, I must have passed fifty registered cattle breeders who are making unbelievable strides in producing breeding stock that has increased the weaning weights of cattle tremendously. In Kansas and Oklahoma I spoke to quarter horse breeders whose horses run faster, turn quicker, and buck less than their grandparents ever thought possible. Everywhere there are hybrid crops that far out produce any crops of only a generation ago. If a foreigner were to make the trip that I just completed he might well leave this country with one over-riding impression: The people of America’s Great Plains embrace and understand the concept of selective breeding.

But while they embrace the concept of selective breeding they clearly do not understand it. My trip took me not only down through the center of the Great Plains, but also through the center of ignorance that professes not to believe in evolution.

I have always thought that if a person declares that they don’t “believe” in evolution it simply means that they don’t understand evolution. Who doubts that if the tiny cheerleader marries the center of the high school basketball team that there is reasonable chance that some of their children will be tall? Who would breed a low weaning weight cow to low weaning weight bull in hopes of a high weaning weight calf? The examples are endless and they are the bedrock of evolution. Of course the hurdle in any understanding is shaking off the dogmas that have come before. In the case of the denial of some Great Plains people the dogmas are complicated, deep rooted, and too often a dead end for discussion. Where we might be able to make some progress is in looking at the agents of selection.

Darwin’s identification of the agent as nature herself, i.e. Natural Selection with survival of the fittest as the driving force, may well be an affront to the strictest of the dogmas mentioned above. Somehow, if humans are the agents of selection, even those strictest dogmas are apparently mollified. Perhaps by including humans in Nature these two notions of the agents of evolution could be married. Perhaps by including “God” in nature even the straw man of intelligent design could be incorporated. But to deny that evolution of species has happened and continues to happen denies all those subtle and not so subtle changes that I saw on my trip down through the Great Plains. There is no more doubt that Great Plains deer and elk, red fox and kit fox, big blue stem and little blue stem, buffalo berry and Russian olive have common ancestors then there is doubt that Herefords and Angus have common ancestors. Or, for that matter, that the blonde haired Lutherans of Bismarck share an ancestor with the black-eyed Catholics of Lubbock.

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