Teaching Evolution

A blog devoted to teaching evolution, both in our schools and in our communities.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

New York Times Magazine

Two notes today about the New York Times Magazine. One is that it published my letter to the editor, and while I'm glad the editors felt it was worthy of publication, I wish it hadn't been edited so substantially. I was responding to a column (no longer online) about the new essay requirement in the SAT. That column claimed that "no one believes in a writing gene." The point of my letter was that it's overly simplistic to refer to a "writing gene," just as it's overly simplistic to refer to an "intelligence gene" or an "alcoholism gene" or a "height gene". The human genome isn't a big collection of genes where one gene corresponds with one trait, and if you have the gene you have the trait. But there is, no doubt, a link between your ability to write and your genes. I'm not sure that my point came through in the edited version of my letter that the Times ran.

The second thing I wanted to point out is a column written by Freakonomics authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt. They refer to a study of capuchin monkeys that shows them using currency in a way similar to how humans use currency. They quote a researcher as saying, "We can be much more confident that when we see common behaviors in capuchins and humans, it's due our common evolutionary heritage".

It's good to be reminded, when we get depressed about the way creationism is creeping into our schools, that among intelligent, learned people, evolution is so widely accepted that no one hesitates to apply it to other sciences, even seemingly unrelated sciences like economics.

UPDATE: This is the original 125-word version of my letter, of which the Times printed 59 words:
In her column on the SAT's new essay requirement, Ann Hulbert demonstrates a lack of understanding of human genetics when she writes that an essay measures how well students have been prepared because, "Nobody believes in a writing gene."

Of course there is not one gene that controls writing skills, with those who have it being good writers and those without it being bad writers. But there is ample evidence to suggest that nearly all human traits -- including writing ability -- are shaped by our genes. Students who do well on the essay portion of the SAT can thank both the environment in which their skill was shaped and the innate talent
they have. That innate talent does, in fact, come from writing genes.


At 8:36 PM, Blogger Justin said...

Your letter in the magazine seemed good -- but it is disappointing to hear that it was that heavily edited.

Do you still have a copy of the unedited version?

At 2:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yep, that original is much stronger. I had heard the Times and its magazine edit letters pretty fiercely.

I see now just how much. That's not for clarity or length -- that was substantial. Weird.



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