Teaching Evolution

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

Monday, February 28, 2005

Bush's Science Advisor on Intelligent Design

President Bush's science advisor, John Marburger, has come under heat from scientists who say the administration misleads the public about scientific research to advance its political goals. But even Marburger won't support the silliness that is intelligent design:
Speaking at the annual conference of the National Association of Science Writers, Marburger fielded an audience question about "Intelligent Design" (ID), the latest supposedly scientific alternative to Charles Darwin's theory of descent with modification. The White House's chief scientist stated point blank, "Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory." And that's not all -- as if to ram the point home, Marburger soon continued, "I don't regard Intelligent Design as a scientific topic."

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Charles Darwin: Voyaging (Part One)

Charles Darwin Voyaging
Part One
I've been reading Charles Darwin: Voyaging, the first volume of Janet Browne's terrific biography. I've finished Part One, so I thought I'd share some things I've learned:

Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, was a very prominent and respected figure in that class-conscious English society. Everyone knows that Charles Darwin in some ways built upon his grandfather's own theories of inherited traits, but what's interesting is that Erasmus was perhaps best known in his own time for being a poet.

Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day: February 12, 1809. I know of a movement to celebrate Darwin's birthday, but I think it's a bad idea. In the United States, Darwin's birthday will always be overshadowed by Lincoln's. Perhaps we could celebrate another day, such as the anniversary of the Beagle's voyage, December 7, 1831. (That's also my sister's birthday. Not the same year, though.) Is that too close to Hanukah and Christmas? If so, maybe we could celebrate the anniversary of the Beagle's arrival at the Galapagos Islands, September 15, 1835. I didn't realize that the Beagle actually spent more time on the east coast of South America than the west, and spent only a little more than a month at Galapagos. Browne writes, "Of the 57 months that the Beagle was at sea, 42 were spent in the waters of South America. Of these, 27 were spent on the east coast, and 15 on the west."

Darwin's father was a doctor and a meticulous bookkeeper. Darwin no doubt inherited his father's habit of cataloguing everything in great detail. But Dr. Darwin didn't like the idea of his son (who had already dropped out of medical school) going off to set sail. Darwin listed several reasons his father told him he shouldn't go on the Beagle:
(1) Disreputable to my character as a Clergyman hereafter
(2) A wild scheme
(3) That they must have offered to many others before me, the place of Naturalist
(4) And from its not being accepted there must be some serious objection to the vessel or expedition
(5) That I should never settle down to a steady life hereafter
(6) That my accommodations would be most uncomfortable
(7) That you should consider it as again changing my profession
(8) That it would be a useless undertaking

Well, I think we can all agree that No. 8 was wrong, but most of the rest of them pretty much turned out to be correct. Especially No. 3. Captain Robert FitzRoy did, in fact, offer the job to others who turned it down before settling on Darwin. Funny how those decisions can change the course of human history. I wonder how many creationists realize that Darwin was planning to join the clergy before he set sail on the Beagle.

FitzRoy was an interesting character himself. This was his second trip to South America on the Beagle, and the first time he took it upon himself to bring back some natives, collecting them the same way he might have collected rocks or butterflies.

I'll have more to say about this book (as well as Volume 2 of Browne's biography) in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

It's a Fact

I think many of us who support the teaching of evolution allow ourselves to get bogged down in semantic games over the meaning of the word "theory." As Patrick Chisholm writes in the Christian Science Monitor,
But saying evolution is a theory is like saying the earth revolving around the sun is a theory. Or that plate tectonics (continental drift) is a theory. Or that things are made of atoms is a theory. Just because such things are not apparent to the human eye doesn't mean they aren't factual.

Evolution is a fact. Because it involves time periods spanning hundreds or thousands of generations, evolutionary change happens much too slowly for humans to perceive.

Chisholm, however, concludes his piece with the old intelligent design canard that organisms have complex parts, and that there would be no evolutionary advantage to having only a portion of one of those parts. In fact, many organisms do have parts that resemble a "rough draft" of a more complex organ.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Unintelligent Design

Jim Holt writes in the New York Times magazine that nothing about the design of living things on earth appears to have been designed intelligently:
From a scientific perspective, one of the most frustrating things about intelligent design is that (unlike Darwinism) it is virtually impossible to test. Old-fashioned biblical creationism at least risked making some hard factual claims -- that the earth was created before the sun, for example. Intelligent design, by contrast, leaves the purposes of the designer wholly mysterious. Presumably any pattern of data in the natural world is consistent with his/her/its existence.

But if we can't infer anything about the design from the designer, maybe we can go the other way. What can we tell about the designer from the design? While there is much that is marvelous in nature, there is also much that is flawed, sloppy and downright bizarre. Some nonfunctional oddities, like the peacock's tail or the human male's nipples, might be attributed to a sense of whimsy on the part of the designer. Others just seem grossly inefficient. In mammals, for instance, the recurrent laryngeal nerve does not go directly from the cranium to the larynx, the way any competent engineer would have arranged it. Instead, it extends down the neck to the chest, loops around a lung ligament and then runs back up the neck to the larynx. In a giraffe, that means a 20-foot length of nerve where 1 foot would have done. If this is evidence of design, it would seem to be of the unintelligent variety.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Both Versions of Evolution

Bill Maher, whose insightful HBO show returns tonight, in the L.A. Times:
the Morals & Values folks want us to take time out of the school day for prayer and the Ten Commandments and abstinence training and at least two theories of evolution — the one agreed upon by every scientist in the world and the one that involves naked ladies and snakes

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Full Range of Scientific Views

This is a good example of what the anti-Darwinists try to do. They claim that they just want all scientific views expressed. Of course, that's absurd. What they really want is their view expressed, even though there's not a shred of scientific evidence for their view. Giving students a full range of scientific views would entail telling them that throughout the scientific community, those who preach creationism or "intelligent design" are seen as ignorant fools, and that no serious scholar has ever been able to put forward any reasonable challenge to the fundamental teachings of Darwinism.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Good News from Maryland

School officials in rural northeastern Maryland yesterday unanimously voted to approve an updated high school textbook that emphasizes the significance of Charles Darwin. Debate arose in December when a school board member asked why the text did not give more weight to critics of evolutionary theory. The Washington Post reports that Superintendent Carl D. Roberts said the district's curriculum would be guided by state academic standards and by consensus views of leading scientific organizations.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Happy Valentine's Day

Love is in the air, and not just with people. We can learn a lot about evolution by studying the mating habits of crickets. The speciation rate of crickets is 4.17 every million years, which is lightning fast as these things go. Female crickets can determine a male cricket's pulse rate by his chirp, and the females breed with males whose pulse is similar to their own. That reduces the chance of interbreeding and promotes the formation of new species.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Greeley: Denying Evolution

In this op-ed by the Chicago priest Andrew Greeley, he reveals a statistic that probably shouldn't surprise me but still did: 42 percent of Catholics and 26 percent of Jews doubt evolution. Those numbers are horrifying. Even members of religions that accept Darwinism have been persuaded by the religious right. Greeley writes,

The evangelicals are entitled to their beliefs, but they have no right to try to impose their view of creation on the rest of us and to deprive other people's children of an accurate picture of how science models the emergence and development of life -- or an alternative view of the literary nature of the book of Genesis.

One can understand their effort to fight scientific modernism. If literal interpretation of Genesis is taken away from them, then their entire religious edifice is shaken to its foundations. However, when in their battle against modernism they deprive other children of a proper education, they violate our freedom of religion.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Octopus Sheds Light on Arm Evolution


The arm of an octopus is rubbery, but the octopus uses it in much the same way that animals with three joints in their arms do.

When grabbing something, the octopus flexes its arm to form three "joints," located in the same spots as the shoulder, elbow, and wrist in humans. The middle "joint" is like an elbow, dividing the octopus' arm into two segments of equal length, like the upper arm and forearm among humans. This similarity is not an accident.

An Agence France Presse article explains:
Millions of years of evolutionary pressure has determined that the triple-jointed arm is the simplest and most efficient way of achieving this, the study suggests.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Times Op-Ed on Intelligent Design

The New York Times published an op-ed on Feb. 7 titled "Design for Living." I don't feel like linking to it, but I do have some observations.

First, the Times shouldn't have printed it. A newspaper should promote a wide divergence of views, but if people believe in "Intelligent Design," the place to write about it is the news pages. Op-eds should be saved for people who have something worthwhile to say.

The writer, Michael J. Behe, reveals the
weakness of the "Intelligent Design" theory he promotes by citing
public opinion polls that show most people believe life was designed.

No credible scientist would rely on public opinion to justify his
ideas. Throughout human history scientists have been ahead of the
general public in understanding how our world works. Relying on public
support for a theory has been the tactic of wrongheaded people who
were sure that the world was flat, that the sun revolved around the
earth, and that schoolchildren with AIDS would spread it to their

Instead of clinging to the opinion of the ignorant public, we should
embrace the overwhelming evidence for Darwin's theory of evolution and
promote teaching it in our schools.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

An Excellent Refutation of Intelligent Design

John Derbyshire is about as right-wing as they come, but he has a surprisingly effective commentary today on the stupidity of the "Intelligent Design" movement. A must read.

Monday, February 07, 2005

A View from England

It's always interesting to see that in the rest of the Western world, it's considered shocking that people in the United States actually want to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. This Guardian article gives a good perspective from the UK, including a nice little summary quote:
"They are trying to create a climate where anything an individual teacher wants to include in science class can be considered science," said Harry McDonald, a retired biology teacher and president of Kansas Citizens for Science Education. "They want to redefine science."

Friday, February 04, 2005

Evolutionary Biologist Ernst Mayr Dies at 100

He was known as an architect of the evolutionary or modern synthesis, an intellectual watershed when modern evolutionary biology was born. The synthesis, which has been described by Dr. Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard as "one of the half-dozen major scientific achievements in our century," revived Darwin's theories of evolution and reconciled them with new findings in laboratory genetics and in field work on animal populations and diversity.

The New York Times obit is here.

This Image is not Accurate

Everyone has seen the famous (and much-lampooned) artwork showing how humans evolved. It is, of course, an inaccurate view of human evolution because it implies that human evolution is simply a ladder to be climbed. The original, created in 1970 by Rudolph Zallinger, also wrongly used some species from which humans are not descended.

Zallinger should be commended for attempting to depict evolution visually, however, and now artists and anthropologists are working together to create a more accurate look at human evolution.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Dowd: Inherit the Windbags

Creationists sometimes succeed at convincing the news media to report on the evolution vs. creation "debate" as if it really were just a difference of opinion with both sides having valid views. But make no mistake: The media elite is on our side in this one all the way. Most journalists don't understand science, but they understand that they'll look stupid if they try to contradict scientists. Maureen Dowd's column today is a good example of the scorn that media bigwigs have for creationists:
Ever since he observed during his 2000 campaign that "on the issue of evolution, the verdict is still out on how God created the earth," Mr. Bush has been reeling backward as fast as he can toward the Garden of Eden, which, if creationists are to be believed, was really "Jurassic Park."

Seeing the powerful role of evangelicals in getting Mr. Bush re-elected, teachers across the country are quietly ignoring evolution, even when the subject is in their curriculums.

Fruit Flies Provide Evolution's Smoking Gun

Male fruit flies display spotted wings during courtship, and female fruit flies find those spots attractive. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison have now transferred the genes that cause these spots to fruit flies that don't have them and watched the changes in subsequent generations. The Wisconsin State Journal reports:
the research proves a couple of long-held theories. Certain characteristics, such as spots on a fly's wing, arise simply out of chance. But if that change proves beneficial - if it, for example, makes it more likely that a fruit fly will get a date - genetic mechanisms are there to take advantage and to drive the machinery of evolution.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Reconciling the Bible and Darwin?

This Newsweek article calls the controversy in Dover, Pennsylvania, the latest episode in the never-ending struggle to reconcile the Bible, Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species" and the First Amendment.

But it's impossible to reconcile the Bible with Darwin. One of them has to be wrong. Trying to reach a compromise is absurd.

The real news in the article is buried on the second page: In 1987 the Supreme Court (with Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice William Rehnquist dissenting) struck down a Louisiana law calling for equal treatment of evolution and "creation science." After four more years of a Bush administration, we could have five Supreme Court justices who want creationism taught in schools.

Church needs better evolution education

Good news from the Catholic News Service:
Catholic educators need better teaching programs about evolution "to correct the anti-evolution biases that Catholics pick up" from the general society, according to a U.S. bishops' official involved in dialogue with scientists for 20 years.
Without a church view of human creation that is consistent with currently accepted scientific knowledge, "Catholicism may begin to seem less and less 'realistic' to more and more thoughtful people," said David Byers, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Science and Human Values from 1984 to 2003.

Packed house hears evolution arguments

In Kansas City, Kansas, there's talk of increasing the emphasis on earth science and decreasing the emphasis on biology. Make no mistake, this is all about evolution vs. creation:

Hundreds filed into Schlagle High School in Kansas City, Kan., for the first public hearing on proposed revisions to the Kansas science standards. The auditorium, which seats 500, was full as individuals spoke before a committee charged with presenting a proposal to the Kansas Board of Education....

“We cannot hide our heads in the sand and continue to teach the misconceptions of evolution to our youth without exposing them to the truths of intelligent design,” Christenson said. Many scientists now believe that intelligent design “answers many more questions” than Darwin's theory, she said.

Read the whole thing here.
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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Georgia's Evolution Stickers

The Onion is on the case.

My favorite quote:
The thing is, they're right. Evolution is nothing more than a well-supported, predictive, scientifically rigorous theory.

Another Fine Ebert Review

I'm a big fan of the movie reviews of Roger Ebert. Be sure to check out his review of the new movie from Titanic director James Cameron, Aliens of the Deep:

"Aliens of the Deep" is a convincing demonstration of Darwin's theory of evolution, since it shows creatures not only adapted perfectly to their environment but obviously generated by that environment. It drives me crazy when people say evolution is "only a theory," since that reveals they don't know what a scientific theory is. As the National Geographic pointed out only a month ago, a theory is a scientific hypothesis that is consistent with observed and experimental data, and the observations and experiments must be able to be repeated. Darwin passes that test. His rival, creationism, is not a theory, but a belief. There is a big difference.

Teachers Intimidated into Ignoring Evolution

We've all heard the news about states with official policies that hinder teaching evolution. But even when evolution is on the curriculum, many teachers don't discuss it because they fear reprisals. As the New York Times reports,

In districts around the country, even when evolution is in the curriculum it may not be in the classroom, according to researchers who follow the issue.

Teaching guides and textbooks may meet the approval of biologists, but superintendents or principals discourage teachers from discussing it. Or teachers themselves avoid the topic, fearing protests from fundamentalists in their communities.

"The most common remark I've heard from teachers was that the chapter on evolution was assigned as reading but that virtually no discussion in class was taken," said Dr. John R. Christy, a climatologist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, an evangelical Christian and a member of Alabama's curriculum review board who advocates the teaching of evolution. Teachers are afraid to raise the issue.

I grew up in a fairly conservative Detroit suburb, and I can distinctly remember one math teacher telling me he believed strongly in creation. I never had a teacher express a strong belief in evolution. This is, oddly, one issue where religious schools tend to be ahead of public schools. Catholicism embraces evolution and therefore Catholic schools do, too. But heavily Protestant public schools shy away from it.

Let's conclude with one more paragraph from the Times story:

There is no credible scientific challenge to the idea that all living things evolved from common ancestors, that evolution on earth has been going on for billions of years and that evolution can be and has been tested and confirmed by the methods of science. But in a 2001 survey, the National Science Foundation found that only 53 percent of Americans agreed with the statement "human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals."