Letters from the Canopy. Soberania National Park

Letters from the Canopy

Atop Panama's Soberanía jungle and near the banks of the canal, I write a series of letters to an American pastor who rails against evolution.

Above: Soberanía National Park, Panama. The jungle as viewed from Canopy Tower, Panama

Never fight fair with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way.” - Arthur Miller

The following notes are a series of letters I wrote to Pastor Paul Viggiano while visiting Soberania National Park, Panama. Pastor Paul is a Torrance, California pastor. I asked him to withdraw his support for a documentary that sought to disestablish the credibility of the scientific theory of evolution. Although the Pastor initiated this discussion with me and agreed to a public debate, he has yet to respond to these letters.

In 2018, we have a creationism advocate in Vice President Mike Pence, as well as other top cabinet officials in the Trump White House. The urgency to deny the creep of creationism in science classrooms is at its apex.

Dear Pastor Paul,

I am writing to you from my room at the Canopy Tower in the Soberanía National Park.  Even this late at night, the sounds from outside are relentless – the rain pounding the leaves, the chorus of frogs.

I’ve lit a single candle by which to read.  Earlier this week, a Panamanian couple had seen my books and said ‘You should be reading about Panama!”  I rattled off the books I’ve read about the country.  I said, “Are there any more?” 

And then I explained that to me, the joy of travel is stowing away the habits that make reading so difficult, and opening up countless hours to read.  When I choose what I should read when I am away, I don’t like to read about the place I’m going.  It sounds like homework.  For a visit to Soberanía, I looked between hardcovers for small, light books.  Tonight I am reading a small book called ‘A Good and Happy Child.’  It is a wonderfully written book about an exorcism in the Southern United States.

The Canopy Tower was once a U.S. military installation.  A tall, circular building, the tower had high-tech communications equipment, and it was cloaked from view by the canopy.  From its perch high on a hill in a valley, the U.S. could observe the canal zone, which it deemed a strategic military asset.

But when the United States handed the canal zone over to Panama, the tower lost its purpose, and a visionary turned it into a sort of eco-lodge for birders and naturalists and nature-series camera crews.

Collared Aracari

"Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings." - Salvador Dali
A Collared Aracari perches on a cecropia tree. These toucans travel through neotropical jungles in small groups.


I walk up five flights of metal stairs in the canopy tower, to the top deck.  The early morning is blue with fog and drenched in beads of dew.  When layers of fog separate, glimpses of the rainforest’s canopy are visible.  When the fog dissipates even more, I see toucans traveling through valleys, and beyond those valleys, great ships plying the canal waters.

The Aztecs believed that the toucan's brilliant beaks were created by the rainbows, and that a toucan sighting meant the Gods were offering a gift of rain.  It is a nice story, and one I prefer to imagine over the rather dull scientific explanation that toucan beaks attract mates.

This place, so rich in biodiversity, is the perfect place for me to conclude our conversation.  This place, with its monkeys, and birds, and beetles, and vines, this place is a perfect place to illustrate our differences.

 It’s been several months ago that you and I became friends.  Months ago, I was intrigued to have received an email from a pastor I have never heard of.  When you, a total stranger, sent me a political email, I was astonished and intrigued, and I responded back.

Several months ago, you sent an email stating your support for a documentary called, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.  I asked you to withdraw your support for the movie publicly and to your congregation. 

Howler Monkey

MONKEY, n. An arboreal animal which makes itself at home in genealogical trees. - Ambrose Bearse
A female mantled howler forages in the Panama canopy.


As you know, the movie purports that supporters of the theory of ‘intelligent design’ are being persecuted by the scientific community for their beliefs. 

Intelligent design, as you and I know, is the conjecture that life on Earth could only have arisen through an unspecified intelligent creator.

You and I both completely support a person's right to believe in a philosophical or religious notion that life on Earth and the universe itself were created by God.  Where you and I disagree is on the validity of intelligent design as a scientific theory, which millions believe is as equally valid as the theory of evolution.  I agree with the Dover district court case that ruled that intelligent design is religion cloaked as science.  I also believe that the widespread support for it is dangerous.  I will argue that your support for an intelligent design movie directly goes against some of the greatest challenges we face today.

You and I began our debate over the documentary before it was released.  One thing I think we should establish between ourselves now is that the movie has been out for several months: Expelled is one of the most critically panned movies in the history of filmmaking. 

Critics were shocked that the movie made no effort to actually argue against the theory of evolution from a scientific perspective, and made no effort to establish the scientific credibility of intelligent design.  Rather, it almost immediately sought to portray people who believed in science as evil.

TV Guide wrote, “But surely the film's greatest offense is the utter shamelessness with which it exploits the Holocaust, veering far off topic for a side trip to Nazi killing centers at Hadamar and Dachau in an attempt to tar Darwin…The camera's slow tracking shots through the death camps are followed by a similar creepy crawl through Down House, where Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. None of this has anything to do with the validity of evolutionary theory or intelligent design…”

The Globe and Mail called the documentary, “an appallingly unscrupulous example of hack propaganda.”   Critic Eric Snider said, “It teems with contradictions, false dichotomies, and specious reasoning.”

Among Rotten Tomatoes’ top critics, the documentary received a zero percent rating; a monumental failure the likes I have never before seen.  The New York Times called it, “One of the sleaziest documentaries to arrive in a very long time…a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry.”

One scene was filmed at my alma mater, Pepperdine University. In the scene, Ben Stein opens the doors to a packed auditorium filled with students critical of evolution, and open to Ben Stein’s inquiry into intelligent design.  Having attended the University, I know very well that a majority of the students believe in evolution, and Scientific American, reporting on the same issue, writes, "The biology professors at Pepperdine assure me that their mostly Christian students fully accept the theory of evolution."  The packed auditorium was filled, shockingly, not with my alma mater's notoriously conservative students, but with paid extras, acting.

In 1999, when I first starting writing Notes from the Road, I was openly critical of our country’s evangelical movement, and the atmosphere of antiscience their pastors pushed on their congregations.  Ten years later, I am pleased to see that across our country, and even here in Central America, evangelical congregations are finding compatibility between scripture and science.  As a consequence, we are seeing evangelicals signing on to the science-based positions of the environmental movement in droves.  Even the evangelical publication, Christianity Today, now famously accepts the climate change consensus.

I am writing you because I believe I can convince your congregation that evolution and faith go hand in hand.  I believe I can even convince your congregation that the stories of biological evolution, as seen here in the primordial canopies of Panama, tell a story so enriching, so beautiful, and so complex, that this example of evolution should move any religious man to a stronger belief in his God.  Furthermore, I believe I can pull apart your support for the content of Expelled, and leave its arguments in the garbage can where they belong.  I hope I can convince your congregation about the vital importance of science, right now.

As the fog fades and sunlight beams down on the canopy, a troop of mantled howlers emerge from the jungle.  They chew on cecropia leaves only six or seven feet away.  I lean over the edge of the tower and watch them for hours.  As a child, I believed that so much of humanity’s characteristics were unique.  Through observation over time, some of that belief has crumbled; our level of consciousness and intelligent is unique, but it was built upon a foundation of evolution; you can physically see a glimpse of humanity in our closely-related mammals.  To see these monkeys up close, so close you can smell them, is to see an animal that is conscious, aware and capable.

Shortly after my child was born, he would interlock the toes on each foot, and grip his mothers arms and legs.  It was something I had never seen before, and I had forgotten about it until now, when a young mother mantled howler reveals her own child. He is dangling carelessly under her, with his toes locked together to grip her body.

Wood Toads

"To a toad, what is beauty? A female with two pop-eyes, a wide mouth, yellow belly and spotted back" -Voltaire

Last night, with my candle burning and the rain falling outside, I reread your letters. I kept coming back to one paragraph in particular.  I have come to view that paragraph as the premise upon which your arguments are based.

You wrote, “the theory of evolution, which I believe to be poor science and a theory in crisis, is perhaps the most evil ideology thrust upon the world in the twentieth century.  As J Sidlow Baxter said, "those who believe we evolved from the primordial slime have destined themselves and those who believe them to re-evolve back into the slime from which they believe they came."

The thought strikes me suddenly this morning. I have just arrived in Gamboa, the perfect place to ponder your statement.  I am here with three people: two birders, one of whom is a biology teacher, and a trained Panamanian naturalist. Hard morning rains are keeping us from the jungle.  Instead, we are peering into backyards, scanning treetops for life.

Gamboa is a clean town on the banks of the canal.  Something about it reminds me of Hawaiian plantation villages; clean, bright and somewhat unnaturally uniform, with plenty of open space.  Gamboa was a canal town, built briskly in 1911 and filled to the brim until the canal’s completion in 1914.  Today, you can reach the town only by a single one lane bridge.

From Gamboa, you can see the container vessels moving along the canal.  It is an amazing sight.  But as you may remember, it came with a great cost of human life – 27,500 workers died building the canal.  The vast majority of these deaths, 22,000 of them, occurred during the earlier French efforts.  Horrible landslides killed some of these men.  But the real culprit was tropical disease; malaria and yellow fever were by far the worst of the many diseases men fell prey to.

Blue Dacnis

"A forest bird never wants a cage." - Henrik Ibsen
A female Blue Dacnis gleans for insects in the Panama rainforest canopy.

In the 1880’s, nobody knew what caused malaria or yellow fever.  Many believed that the diseases were caused by invisible mists rising from the swampy water of the canal area, and even scientists were in wild disagreement about how these diseases spread.  But scientists and physicians around the world were working on the problem.  A French physician, Dr. Charles Alphonse, discovered Plasmodium, the tiny organism responsible for malaria.  And a Cuban Physician, Dr. Carlos Finlay, discovered the link between yellow fever and its carrier – a mosquito species, Aedes aegypti.

The work of these two spawned what would become one of the great early achievements of modern biology. Through science, immeasurable life was spared. And, today, Finlay is now memorialized as one of the early heroes of microbiology.

It is important to understand, Pastor, that biology is inseparable from evolution. You cannot have one without the other.   The foundation for modern biology, established in the nineteenth century, was a process of learning that organisms shared common traits.  Today, biology exists upon five unifying principles – cell theory, homeostasis, genetics, energy and evolution.

Today, Gamboa is quiet, and many of its buildings are empty.  The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute is stationed here.  It is the only Smithsonian institution outside of the United States, and its purpose is in understanding biological diversity.  Dozens of greenhouses line the streets, research facilities are everywhere. Gamboa not only lies along the canal, but at the periphery of unimaginable diversity.

The Smithsonian staff is no recent collection to Panama.  They were brought here in 1910 to take an account of the biological diversity of the region.  The research they conduct here in Gamboa, and on Barro Colorado Island and in Panama’s Caribbean, is vital research.  Biologists come here from around the world.  Author Elizabeth Royte, who is now on the New York Times bestseller list for the book Bottlemania, worked alongside biologists on Barro Colorado Island.

White-faced Capuchin in Panama

White-faced Capuchins are noted for their use of tools and are named
after an order of friars who believed in returning to a primitive way of life.

Royte manages to paint a very human portrait of the biologists who engage every day in backbreaking tedium.  Reading about them through Royte, these biologists aren’t too different than you and I.  They like a stiff drink, they make fart jokes, they are, well, quite human.  But Royte also manages to paint a picture of the cutting edge of biology – how these Smithsonian jungle labs are crucial in the race to understand what the world may very well lose forever.

Royte describes the Barro Colorado facility this way,

The laboratory on the island’s northeastern shore has operated continuously since 1923, its backyard the most-studied tropical rain forest in the world.  Barro Colorado is both a monument of nature and, perhaps tellingly, a monument to nature – off-limits to the general public, virtually stateless.  Sitting between two continents, it is populated by field researchers from around the world and administered by the Smithsonian Institution, which acts as a diplomatic mission to science.

All the greenhouses I see here in Gamboa are botanical laboratories.  And many of the buildings are quarters for biologists conducting research in Soberania National Park.  Yesterday, while walking on the famously wildlife-teeming Pipeline Road, I noticed so many of the trees and plants along the roadside were labeled.  Lines of flags and colored tubes and spots of paint were everywhere.  These are countless experiments in progress. 

At one point while walking on Pipeline Road, two men on a four-wheeler passed by.  They were carrying transmission equipment.  They were Panamanian biologists, tracking tagged harpy eagles.  

So much of this research is critical to what is quickly becoming the great moral issue of our age: man-made environmental problems threaten the world's species, and surely, with that the habitats and resources we rely on. Much of that diversity is concentrated in these jungles. Saving species is largely reliant on evolutionary biology.

Think about that for a moment, Pastor. Then, let me repeat what you wrote.  You said, “the theory of evolution, which I believe to be poor science and a theory in crisis…”

Forest in Soberania National Park

Creek near Plantation Road, Soberania National Park, Panama

When pastors use the word ‘theory’, you talk about it like the way you might say, “I have this theory about why the Grizwald’s aren’t donating to the church this year.”  Or “I have this theory about what’s gonna happen in American Idol” this season.

But a scientific theory is not something that somebody dreamed up over a twelve-pack of Pabst last night.  In science, theories are not hunches, but rather they are working frameworks of all pertinent sets of observations.  In science, nothing is ever shelved as simply a fact.  In science, doubt reigns; everything is tentative, awaiting refinement. 

With that said, a theory like evolution is about the closest science can get to a fact.  Evolution is the foundation for the modern biological sciences. You called it a ‘theory in crisis,’ and yet, nothing could be further from the truth.  In biology, there is no debate about the theory of evolution.  In fact, every day, the theory is becoming more powerful.  When you use the term, ‘crisis in theory’, it’s not a phrase that you just decided to use today.  It’s a well known creationist phrase, designed to confuse the public.  To say that evolution is a theory in crisis is an extremely intellectually dishonest statement.  It is equivalent to saying that the mathematical process of addition is outdated.

Now Pastor, you won’t like what I just said, I know that.  I expect you to try to call me out on this.  You’ll cite ‘brilliant scientists’ who in fact support the idea that the world is 10,000 years old. 

In our conversations, you wrote, “You may wish to examine the works of Dr. Mel Mulder on the issue.  He is a brilliant scientist and addresses this issue at the deepest level both scientifically and theologically.”

Whenever I talk with creationists and proponents of intelligent design, I get that same sort of comment.  You mention an obscure name, and trump it as a great scientist who has clearly denounced science and proven it all wrong. 

Sulphur Butterfly

Red-Legged Honeycreeper perches in Gamboa.

But I wrote you back and asked you if you were sure that Mel Mulder could truly be called ‘brilliant’, and if, perhaps, maybe he wasn’t really even a scientist.  You responded that you were pretty confident he was both a scientist, and a brilliant one at that.

I wasn’t satisfied with your answer, so I asked Mel himself.  He said, “[I am] hardly a brilliant scientist.  I'm a retired surgeon with a life-long interest, obsession, regarding theology and science.”  And that, I think, is the point.  You disingenuously make non-scientists appear to have gone through the rigorous life of evolutionary biology.  You are part of an umbrella group that builds institutions and think-tanks.  You build museums filled with dinosaurs living alongside Jesus and Abraham.  You disparage science, telling your congregation, as you told me, that those who believe in evolution have destined themselves…to re-evolve back into the slime from which they believe they came.

Is all of this really necessary, Pastor?  Should pastors really be dabbling in the politics of science?

Two years ago, entomologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson wrote his own letter to a pastor in the form of a popular book called The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.  His book is an appeal to bridge the gap between science and religion. “What are we to do?” he asks in the conclusion:

He continues,

Forget the differences, I say, meet on common ground.  That might not be as difficult as it seems at first.  When you think about it, our metaphysical differences have remarkably little effect on the conduct of our separate lives.  My guess is that you and I are about equally ethical, patriotic and altruistic.  We are products of a civilization that rose from both religion and the science-based Enlightenment.  We would gladly serve on the same jury, fight the same wars, sanctify human life with the same intensity.  And surely we also share a love of creation.

While walking on Pipeline Road yesterday, we found a wood toad hiding in the road’s gravel.  I crouched down to examine and photograph the tiny creature.  Up close, all amphibians are extraordinary.  This one has bright yellow eyes, like a cat, and colorful bumps and protrusions along his spine.  Evolution, in a way, is the theory that we all come from parents, and that we are a bit different from our parents.  A long, long, long time ago, we shared a common ancestor with this wood toad. 

The long evolutionary story of how his ancestors evolved to become our ancestors is perhaps the greatest story on Earth.  I cannot see how such a story does not make a more compelling case for the existence of God than yours.  Consider Michael Shermer in Why Darwin Matters, who asks, “The glory of the creation commands reverence regardless of when creation took place.  And compared to omniscience and omnipotence, what difference does it make how God created life – via spoken word or via natural forces?”  He continues:

Intelligent design creationism reduces God to an artificer, a mere watchmaker piecing together life out of available parts in a cosmic warehouse.  If God is a being in space and time, it means that He is restrained by the laws of nature and the contingencies of chance, just like all other beings of this world.  An omniscient and omnipotent God must be above such constraints, not subject to nature and chance…Calling God a watchmaker is delimiting.

You and I both surely agree that the physical evidence for evolution is astounding.  E.O. Wilson says, “Would God have been so deceptive as to salt the earth with so much misleading evidence?”  It would seem so, if we were to believe the creationists and proponents of intelligent design when they mention that there are gaps in the fossil record.  

Creationists say, “If evolution happened, the fossil record should show continuous and gradual changes from the bottom to the top layers. Actually, many gaps or discontinuities appear throughout the fossil record.” 

One example they often use relates to the wonderful toad I witnessed yesterday.  Creationists say there is no evidence of a transition between fish and amphibian; the transition from sea to land.  Actually, in the 1970’s when creationists began aggressively using such arguments, there were legitimate gaps in the evolutionary record.  Since then, gaps have been closing up everywhere.  This year, I read Your Inner Fish, a popular new book by Neil Shubin, who leads a paleontology and genetics team that specializes in finding early forms of animals.  He is the man who discovered Tiktaalik, a kind of fish that crawled. 

In Your Inner Fish, Shubin writes,

But our new creature broke down the distinction between these two different kinds of animal.  Like a fish, it has scales on its back and fins with fin webbing.  But, like early land-living animals, it has a flat head and a neck.  And, when we look inside the fin, we see bones that correspond to the upper arm, the forearm, even parts of the wrist.  The joints are there, too: this is a fish with shoulder, elbow and wrist joints.  All inside a fin with webbing.

Pastor, there will always be gaps in the fossil record.   But the magic of evolutionary biology and paleontology is that we don’t need to dig everything up; we just need the framework.  Tiktaalik was found not by chance. Tiktaalik was found because Shubin knew such a creature must exist, based on the life forms before and beyond it, and because as a paleontologist, he knew how to find it.

Amphibians are in worldwide decline.  Many frog and toad species have already slipped from the Earth in our life-times.  And populations are crashing around the world.  Amphibians are likely only an indicator of what is to come for other organisms - they are the first to go. If you are right, and evolutionary biology is all a farce, none of this should matter.  But if the scientific community is right, we are about to lose the living embodiments of our earliest land ancestors.   

Green Honeycreeper

I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience.
And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning,
science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true.
- Carl Sagan, The Burden Of Skepticism

Green Honeycreeper perches on a Cecropia in the Soberania jungle.

It's brilliant pink.

Immediately, I wonder why there would be a trinket of plastic garbage this deep in the jungle.  Then, looking closer, I realize – that's not garbage, that must be one of those biological study units.  A beaker placed in the jungle by a biologist, to measure something. I was inching my way down a cliff when I decided to head off the path to photograph a stream.  When I get closer to the strange funnel-shaped object, the discovery is stunning.  This is no man-made object.  It's a translucent pink mushroom. 

I crouch closer towards this surreal jungle fungus, and photograph it.  I accomplish the task, but lose my footing, and slide down the muddy cliff.  This is no made-for-movies adventure fall.  It is more a pathetic, muddy slide onto the riverbank.  Now I am covered with dirt, and realize my rather poor choice of wearing a linen shirt.  Along the streambed, the heat and deep jungle moisture are all-encompassing.

In the stream bed, a universe of life opens up.  Thousands of leaf-cutter ants progress down vines.  The leaves they carry are like miniature sails in the jungle.  Above me, for just a moment, a tiny black bird with a blue crown pauses on a branch.  Then, white-faced capuchin monkeys in the distance.  With my binoculars, I scope along the streambed, and glimpse the eyes of a frog – it's a non-poisonous poison dart frog in shades of beige and gold.

These are all animals I have seen before, but a thrill overcomes me when a small, plainish bird lands twenty feet away.  Its sound is a strange jungle sound, like a marching band made of high-pitched flutes.  I know from those inconspicuous birds in Portland's Forest Park – small wings, down-curved beak, a certain attitude in the way it flits about – this is a wren.  Then I stun myself when I mutter: white-breasted wood wren.

Green Honeycreeper

Gartered Trogon in lowland jungle.

This need for so many of us to categorize, understand and organize the natural world is not an accident.  We were made that way. Humans became humans because we evolved as generalists.  We are smart because we evolved to differentiate between different types of species: Edible, non-edible, poisonous, beneficial.  We evolved to forage and hunt a wide range of organisms.

Evidence of the theory of evolution exists everywhere.  It is not just that evolution is a theory studied by a small group of evolutionary biologists.  Think about genetics.  Think about molecular biology.  Think about zoology.  Paleontology.  Consider the fact that so many of biology's subject are successful because they apply evolutionary biology.

Pastor, while you are thinking about that, I want you to consider some of your own thoughts on the subject on evolution.  I think these thoughts offer an insight into your motivation for supporting an intelligent design documentary.

When I asked you if you thought that evolution was equatable to atheism, you said yes.  Also, in an unpublished article which you forwarded me, you stated,

"The message from God to man begins in Genesis, in creation ex-nihilo.  The big question, as I see it, is who or what is our ultimate authority when it comes to reality.  If there is an apparent conflict between modern science and Scripture, what trumps what?  If you're an evolutionist because you believe it is consistent with Scripture, that is, if you get there exegetically (I might disagree with your exegesis) but so be it.  But if you believe in evolution because you believe modern science is more authoritative and accurate than Scripture then I would say you're employing an unchristian method of arrive at truth.  Jesus said you can't serve two masters."

Also, in a conversation with me, you elaborated on your premise.  You said, "it has been my experience, hundreds if not thousands of times, that an infinite regress of an ungodly life and world views parks itself at Darwin and his view of beginnings."

I am thinking about your statements, and I have a few ideas about them.  But excuse me for a moment, first.  I have to take my shirt off.  I can't believe I decided to wear a linen shirt today.  The shirt is literally soaked with moisture and sweat.  I remember something about Central Americans.  They can wear a nice, crisp white shirt, follow you through the steamiest jungle.  End of the day, it's like it's just off the press.

From your statements, Pastor, it is clear that you have arrived at your conclusion before considering the evidence.  You talk about ultimate authority, and arriving at the truth.  In the discipline of science, there is neither an ultimate authority, or ultimate truth.  Scientists, and those who follow science, leave such phrases for their personal philosophies and religions.  Your statements, then, are definitively unfit for science.  So, why then, is it okay for you to promote intelligent design; something that attacks science from a position which it claims is scientific?  What makes a pastor more qualified than the scientific community to understand complex scientific issues?

Perhaps now is a good time to further define the political tool you are supporting.  Intelligent design is the latest chameleon-shape of science creationism.  Science creationism is the conjecture that states there is scientific evidence that supports the book of Genesis as being literally true.  Religious social conservatives have sought to undermine the theory of evolution through science creationism in the public sphere.  In our country, the courts have served irrecoverable blows to straight-forward creationism by unmasking its veil. 

Tiny spider in lowland jungle

"It appears to me that almost any man may like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy citadel." - John Keats
Tiny unidentified spider in lowland jungle.

In an effort to cloak science creationism as something different, something untouchable by the courts, religious social conservatives learned to dress creationism up in a lab coat, by removing words like God.

Intelligent design, more specifically, is the reformulated conjecture that various features of our world are best explained by the existence of a so-called intelligent creator.  The central meat of intelligent design states that the scientific theory of evolution is surpassed by the fact that organisms are composed of biological systems that are irreducibly complex.  They explain that certain components of organisms confirm the existence of God because they are so complex, and all of their component parts are so focused on a particular job, that it would have been impossible for them to have evolved to become so complex.  Just like a clock requires a clockmaker, explain proponents of intelligent design, organisms have certain biological functions which needed a clockmaker.

Advocates of intelligent design have several examples which they claim are irreducibly complex.  The system by which vertebrates coagulate blood, for example.  The existence of eyes.  And the intelligent design proponent's favorite: the flagella of tiny bacterial organisms which have complex organic motors that require the interactions of dozens of proteins.

In peer-reviewed science, all intelligent design claims for irreducible complexity have been soundly shot down.  There are no examples that scientists have not been able to explain through possible routes of evolution.

Since intelligent design is itself shielded from falsifiability (you cannot prove or disprove the existence of an invisible intelligent creator), irreducible complexity became one of the focuses when intelligent design went on trial in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.  In the Judge's final ruling, he states,

"...on cross-examination, [the lead witness for the intelligent design movement] was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not "good enough."

Kissing Insect

Triatominae Kissing Insect in damp, lowland jungle.

Pastor Paul, You place a high priority on the book of Genesis.  You find truth in the Old Testament.  You find literal truth in the Old Testament.  You find literal truth in the Old Testament and you treat that interpretation of Christianity as if it is a reality that all Christians accept.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Christianity does not have a history of biblical literalism.  Literalism has been almost entirely absent from Christianity for the vast majority of the religion's existence.  It was only two hundred years ago at the advent of the modern industrial age that scriptural literalism began to appear throughout the world, in nearly every major religion.  As our world has marched rapidly into an ever more modern, complex, and sometimes confusing world, more believers have begun to cling to literalism.

Literalism is a modern idea.  You could even say it's a new age idea.  Karen Armstrong, the most popular living historian of religion writes, "Before the modern period, Jews, Christians and Muslims all relished highly allegorical interpretations of scripture. The word of God was infinite and could not be tied down to a single interpretation. Preoccupation with literal truth is a product of the scientific revolution, when reason achieved such spectacular results that mythology was no longer regarded as a valid path to knowledge."

Armstrong continues, "Part of the problem is that we are now reading our scriptures instead of listening to them. When, for example, Christian fundamentalists argue about the Bible, they hurl texts back and forth competitively, citing chapter and verse in a kind of spiritual tennis match. But this detailed familiarity with the Bible was impossible before the modern invention of printing made it feasible for everybody to own a copy and before widespread literacy - an essentially modern phenomenon - enabled them to read it for themselves."

Pastor Paul, Jews typically do not view the Torah as literal.  Thousands of years of the institutions of rabbinic wisdom are given equal weight to the old words.  This allows the religion room.

Spectacled Caiman

Spectacled Caiman, native of lowland wetlands throughout Central America and much of the Amazon Basin.

The Catholic Church explicitly supports evolution.  In our country, in all fifty states, hundreds of Christian churches celebrate Evolution Sunday, which celebrates the theory of evolution.  This celebration comes out of the Clergy Letter Project, a sign of support for the theory of evolution by over 11,100 members of the clergy.

So, who then, believes in intelligent design?

To answer that question, let's admit something: you and I both know you are not just a pastor.  You are also active in politics.  You write a religious social conservative column for a paper in Southern California.  You write columns justifying the denial of rights to homosexuals.  You argue that ideas like freedom and science can only exist in Christian nations.  You write columns arguing for or against various California propositions.  On your church website (, you write, "On the issue of homosexuality, the Bible is clear. The scriptures declare homosexuality to be the sinful and destructive behavior of an apostate people who have chosen to reject the truth of God."

Pastor Paul, I sense anger in your words.  Is this brand of anger particular to literalists?  In the news today, I see fundamentalist Mormons going to jail.  I see guns being raised in the air to Arabic chants.  And here on the West Coast, I see men waging a war against science and rationalism.  Literalism is the common thread.  It reduces our spirituality, heightens our fervor.

Is Christianity really at odds with evolution, Pastor?  Or is it really just at odds with the politics of religious social conservatives?

Pastor Paul, I realize the truck will be coming to meet me soon.  I have to walk quickly to get back to the road on time.  But look at me!  My shirt is drenched in sweat.  My pants are black with mud.  When I make it to the road, the truck has not yet arrived, so I try to wring the mud from my shirt.

When the truck arrives, the birders and naturalists from the Canopy Tower greet me. One man, Simon, has just arrived from England.  He is wearing a sharp khaki shirt and traveling pants.  I feel awkward covered in mud, until Simon shakes my hand and says, "We're going to the swamps.  See anything good?"

Green Honeycreeper

The almost imperceptible Cat-eyed Snake moves through dense tropical jungle.

I tell Simon about the mushrooms, monkeys, the white-breasted wood wren.  He says, "Brilliant!"

I realize why no one flinched at my unruly appearance – they're used to it.  Over the years, while photographing outdoors, I've met hundreds of these folks.  They are similar, in many ways, to fishermen, gardeners, mushroom hunters and those general, all-around outdoor naturalists – they thrive in collecting and understanding biodiversity.

In our very modern world, when our suburban and urban world offers so many modern diversions, why do so many seek out these simple joys in travel?  I am thinking about this Pastor, because of you.  I believe this is important.  There exists in all of us an urge and desire to find in our lives to focus on the very simple things.  The basics of humanity.

There is no doubt that you and I live in a world that is singularly modern.  It is a world in which increasingly, our greatest problems are problems of technology, progress and science.  They will be created by progress and solved by progress.  So while I admire the simplicity of your belief in seeing old things as literal truths, remember that the problems of today's world require everybody in our society to appropriately understand the power of, and authority of, science.

We arrive at our destination, and our group marches off into a swampy wilderness. It begins to pour, and then, for the next several hours, we all become drenched in rain, covered in mud.  Even Simon, in his khakis, is a mess.

Susan, Sandra, Simon and José each have an incredible ability to see and to find life.  The rain-drenched wilderness could appear almost lifeless. But when I realize that Simon has an extraordinary ability to see tiny animals hundreds of feet away, and that Sandra can pick out a tiny dot in the air and say, I think that's a zone-tailed hawk, I suddenly realize that the birder's hobby is directly related to the oldest joys of the wanderer.

Tent-making Bats

Tent-making Bats

Birders develop skills of wildlife observation because humans evolved to do exactly that.  And like those fishermen, who learn the subtleties of river currents, or the gardener who takes account of hundreds of species and packs her mind with botanical observations, the birder is taking part in a joy that is built into our species.

When anthropologists describe humanity’s earliest developments, they refer to us as generalists.  The features that make us uniquely human – our brains, our lack of body fur, our eyesight, our fingers – are the features of a species that foraged, collected, scavenged and hunted a wide array of foods seasonally from savannah to coast. In our earliest days, we learned to distinguish between hundreds of plant species, the types of seashore creatures and fish in the sea.  The parents of our distant ancestors trained their children to identify species at an early age – it was required for their survival. 

Up to only a few generations before my own, humans still required skills of nature observation.  Our grandparents' parents collected medicinals from the woods, and foraged or hunted at least some of their meals.  

Only a few generations ago, our ancestors saw the forest with a sense of observation that would seem foreign to many of us.  Their ancestors saw the forest in a way that would put to shame any modern biologists ability to break down the components of nature. 

I have been out all day, and now, the rainy sky was beginning to darken.  Birds are being replaced by bats, which swoop low over our heads.  In a single day, I have seen ninety-four birds I have never seen in my life, four new mammals, and three new reptiles.  It is almost night, and yet no one has the slightest desire to turn back.  We are strangers brought together by the simple and timeless joy of our species.

The men and women I am with today are all naturalists, or educators, or biologists.  These are men and women of science.  In your writings, you repeatedly state that a belief in evolution necessarily leads to atheism.  You said, "But when addressing certain life and world views, it has been my experience (hundreds if not thousands of times) that an infinite regress of an ungodly life and world views parks itself at Darwin and his view of beginnings."

Green Honeycreeper Male

Green Honeycreeper male

Pastor, nothing could be further than the truth, and your threats about science leading to ungodliness seems, silly, especially here among company that are religious and scientific.  In fact, in this modern world you and I live in, shouldn't we consider the importance of science to our religion? Carl Sagan said it best, “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”

With science, we can imagine and understand the magic of our world and our universe in ways our ancestor's would never be able to comprehend.  What a great source of spirituality for our religions to see and to know the complexity of our world – to see and to know and maybe to even understand a glimpse of creation, unraveled slower, but much more marvelously than the Old Testament explained it...if we read it literally.

But evolution doesn't just offer to enrich our spirituality.  Its existence, and our understanding of it, is one of the most critically important concepts of our age.  We are now facing the reality that we are about to lose many of the world's species.  Much of the creation will be gone forever.  The study and environmental applications of evolution are essential and irreplaceable tools in the challenge to save our world's species. 

That pastors like you are using pseudoscience to confuse voters and politicians about the power and legitimacy of the theory of evolution is to take part in something very, very bad.  Something whose impact on history may prove far more horrible than any holocaust, any genocide and any war.  And nobody's God wants that.

Pastor Paul, I stand here at the end of the day in one of Earth's most diverse valleys. A place like no other, with brilliant plants blooming in the mist, and with elegant animals gliding among the trees. It is here in Panama where some of the first of these amazing animals will perish, forever. And they will perish because politics, and confusion, and a lack of understanding of the scientific implications delayed action.

I urge you to reconsider your support for the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed and retract your statements of support to your congregation.




Explore more in the Neotropics

In Colombia's desert state of La Guajira, I learn about the Wayuu people's long history.

A defense of colorful language as we ascend the Santa Marta Mountains in Northern Colombia.

Into the mangroves, coastal scrub and pink lagoons of Mexico's Yucatan Coast.

The Osa Peninsula is a wild gem of protected lowland forest, teeming with life.

Notes on global biodiversity, from one of its prime hotspots in the Peruvian rainforest.

Notes on diversity and adaptation in the flooded blackwater lakes of the Amazon.

Notes on the joy of travel and the strange, modern cargo cults of the airways.

Thoughts on a life of sports and green energy in Costa Rica's Guanacaste province.

An exquisite adventure along the Guacamayos Ridge Trail in the Ecuadorian Andes.

What does it mean to travel as a citizen of a different country? I find out how the hard way.

Why are river islands unique, and important? Notes on the role of river islands in the Amazon.

Notes on the poison frogs of Isla Bastimentos in the Bocas del Toro archipelago of Panama.

A night-time ferry to a deserted island in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago.

Exploring isolated streams in the El Valle caldera, and notes on the amphibian epidemic.

Riding through Honduras' North Coast on an antique coconut train.

In the Panama jungle, I write letters to an American pastor who rails against evolution.

Travels in the San Blas Islands, home of the semi-autonomous Guna Indians.

Road trip stories from lazy, sun-drenched rivers in Southern Belize.

Notes on the ancient highways of the Mayan world, from a perch in Peten, Guatemala.

Notes on sustainable development from the dry forests of the Nicaraguan Pacific Coast.

Notes on travels in the colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua.

Sketches and notes from Lima, Peru in Copic markers, watercolor and sepia washes.

Sketches, Moleskine notes and illustrations from San Jose, Costa Rica.

Notes on the the diverse habits of the Andes, and the surreal denizens who inhabit them.

Exploring the Mombacho Volcano along Lake Nicaragua, including the rugged Puma Trail.