Great society observes anniversary

On this day 125 years ago, a group of 33 men assembled in the Cosmos Club at Washington, D.C. with an unusual intent. Their mission statement was simple. They pledged to work for “the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge.” Thus the National Geographic Society was born.

The founders of the NGS were a diverse group of individuals, representing many different professional specializations — geographers, explorers, teachers, lawyers, cartographers, military officers and financiers. What united them was their thirst for knowledge about the world around them. It is worthy of note that the era in which the NGS was formed was one of great change, industrial ascension and scientific curiosity. They were eager to support the world’s most intrepid explorers and equally enthusiastic about sharing the explorers’ journeys with the public.

For most of us, the primary manifestation of the NGS is the well-known yellow-trimmed magazine. The first printing was distributed to just 200 people — charter members of the society. It was a thin volume, packed mostly with very technical articles of little interest to non-scientists.

That changed in 1899, when Gilbert H. Grosvenor took over as editor. He discarded the magazine’s less-than-engaging technical format for one of general interest and dramatic, high-quality photographs. This move boasted circulation from 1,000 to over 2 million in just a few years.

While we know and love the magazine, the cornerstone of NGS is the furtherance of humanity’s understanding of the natural world. The booming sales of the magazine have underwritten more than 1,400 grants to study and explore the wonders of the Earth.

These grants have made otherwise obscure scientists and adventurers into household names: Richard E. Byrd; Jacques Cousteau; Jane Goodall; Dian Fossey.

So too have NGS grants propelled significant achievements like: Mary Leakey’s 1979 report of 3.6 million-year-old footprints believed to be from the slow-walking ancestors of modern man, in the volcanic ash of a riverbed in Tanzania; Robert D. Ballard’s location of the RMS Titanic wreckage and subsequent location of the sunken USS Yorktown; and Johan Reinhard’s 1999 discovery of three frozen mummies and exquisite Inca artifacts in a grave atop Argentina’s Mount Llullaillaco.

Over time, the magazine has become more glossy and riveting. The society has expanded its empire into television, film and a vast Internet presence; and it continues to fund an increasing number of ambitious research projects. As successful as they have been, the society and other scientific support organizations like them, face a foe much taller than any mountain and deeper than any sea: the rise of anti-science in American politics.

The leading example of anti-scientific thinking is perhaps Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA). Broun, a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, was quoted as saying: “all that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang Theory… all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.”

Broun has also claimed that there is a scientific plot to hide the true age of the Earth, which he believes is “9,000 years old.”

The deepest hypocrisy of people like Broun is that they are glad to use all the products of science, medicine and technology, while at the same time denying the basic methods and theories that made them possible.

The greatest tragedy in people like Broun is that they can’t imagine a universe or a God complex enough to permit the harmonic coexistence of science and faith. They fail to understand that faith and science aren’t enemies and that we need not lapse into the pseudo-science realm of “creation science” to bridge the gap. They miss the fact that nothing about scientific explanations fundamentally conflict with a more mature view of God.

Of all the great natural obstacles, NGS funding has helped to conquer, willful ignorance appears happily unassailed.