belief in a literal six days of creation, a real Adam and
Eve (as well as a real Job and Jonah), a worldwide flood,
and the veracity of the patriarchs. None of the Bible’s
history was allegorized.
Thanks to his fifth-grade teacher assigning each of his class
of 10-year-olds to “create a bird book”, a budding ornithologist was born. From that grew a life-long interest in watching,
listing, drawing/painting, and photographing birds. And a
scientific career devoted to birds.
As Jon grew, so did his talent as an artist (figs 1, 2). At
just 15, a mentor organized a one-man show of 30 of his best
paintings. Especially given his age, Jon’s efforts were seen
as newsworthy. His now much higher profile helped him sell
most of the paintings he produced throughout high school,
where he wore his faith on his sleeve.
Editor of the school’s weekly newspaper, he wrote many
editorials touching on spiritual matters. He still has a copy of
his valedictorian graduation speech:
It was evangelical. The message in a nutshell was: ‘You
are now going out into the world. What are you going
to choose—God or mammon?’ There are about a dozen
direct references to Christ. The gymnasium burst
into applause at the conclusion. I’m sure there were
unbelievers in the audience, but in those days nearly
all accepted the principle that our nation was founded
largely by believers and guided by biblical principles.
Jon began his tertiary education in biology at Cornell
University. A large part of him would have simply preferred to
take up his first love, painting, full-time. Jon thinks he would
have quit by the end of the first semester except for the family
pressure to succeed.
Then, amazingly, his studies took a turn for the better. He
joined Dr Charles Sibley’s ornithology course in his second
semester. Suddenly, birds and biology made sense—albeit
in the framework of evolution—and so he ‘hung in there’. A
‘theistic evolutionist’ at this point in his life, Jon moved on to
Yale in 1966, following Sibley. The two began a collaboration
that would last for many years and produce fame and some
fascinating science. 2
But Jon wasn’t truly happy and, early in his uni years, he
began drinking heavily.
Alcoholism is a sin; it puts something else in the place
of God. ... I was cutting off my conscious contact
with God and grieving the Holy Spirit. To cut a very
long story short, I found Alcoholics Anonymous and,
with the help of God, following AA’s 12 steps with a
Christian emphasis, and some very fine friends, I found
my way back to both sobriety and sanity.
In 1988, during his tenure at Ohio University, Jon and
Charles were awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the
National Academy of Sciences for their work on the application
of DNA hybridization techniques to bird classification (fig. 3). 3
This revolutionized taxonomy by seeming to show at last how
Another of Jon’s paintings, ‘Long Shadows’. The bird
depicted is a young crow.
Fig 1: Jon at work on his painting of a Night Heron