Teaching Evolution

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

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Evolution and Entropy

Of all the stupid things creationists say about evolution, I think the one that most annoys me is this:
The simple fact is that the law of entropy precludes macro-evolution from ever occurring. Entropy is the measure of increasing disorder in a system. The natural (or spontaneous) tendency of matter and of all of energy is toward greater disorder -- not toward greater order or complexity as evolution would teach.

As mentioned here, this argument shows ignorance of thermodynamics as well as of evolution. Entropy applies only to a closed system. The evolution of life on earth is not a closed system.

To put it another way: If the fundamental teachings of biology and the fundamental teachings of physics were mutually exclusive, wouldn't scientists have noticed?

Friday, May 27, 2005

Sims Creator Develops Evolution Game

I've never played those Sims computer games, but I know they're incredibly popular, and some people become obsessed with them. The creator of the Sims games has developed a new game in which species will evolve. Sounds fascinating, and quite educational. Maybe kids who aren't learning about evolution in school will learn about it on their own.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Depressing Poll Results from Gallup

This week's Gallup briefing (I think you have to pay to see it online, so I'm not bothering to link) is depressing. Only 22 percent of Americans say they would be upset if their schools taught children that human beings were created by God in their current form and did not evolve.

It's fascinating, though, to break it down by education level. Among people with a high school education or less, 37 percent would be upset if evolution were taught and 10 percent would be upset if creation were taught. But the trend lines go in just the direction you'd expect, and among those with graduate degrees, 17 percent would be upset if evolution were taught and 35 percent would be upset if creation were taught. Gallup's bottom line:
The percentage of Americans who actively want creation, not evolution, to be taught in schools may seem relatively modest at 30%, but this number is significantly larger than the percentage who actively want evolution to be taught over creation.

Confessing Ignorance

One of the traits that good scientists -- or, for that matter, smart people in any field -- is that they freely admit there are things they don't understand. The risk to admitting ignorance, though, is that your opponents will take that admission and use it to suggest that you don't know what you're talking about. Richard Dawkins has a smart essay about how creationists twist such admissions by scientists.
The standard methodology of creationists is to find some phenomenon in nature which Darwinism cannot readily explain. Darwin said: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” Creationists mine ignorance and uncertainty in order to abuse his challenge. “Bet you can’t tell me how the elbow joint of the lesser spotted weasel frog evolved by slow gradual degrees?” If the scientist fails to give an immediate and comprehensive answer, a default conclusion is drawn: “Right, then, the alternative theory; ‘intelligent design’ wins by default.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Why are Some Squirrels Black?

Throughout my childhood, all the squirrels I ever saw were brown or gray. The first time I saw a black squirrel I thought something had happened to it -- it fell in some tar at a construction site or something.

Through the Washington Post via Chris C. Mooney, I learn why black squirrels are gaining in number:
Scientists say it's a real-life example of natural selection at work, which has rolled on for a century here without much public notice.

"It shows the spread of a gene within a population," said Richard W. Thorington Jr., a Smithsonian Institution researcher working on a book that includes a history of the District's black squirrels. "That is evolutionary change before your eyes."

...Here's why some scientists believe the black squirrels were multiplying: In winter, their dark coats allowed them to retain heat from sunlight, leaving them less desperate for warmth than their lighter-colored cousins.

"If you can do it with solar heat, you don't need quite as much metabolic heat," and, therefore, need less food, Thorington said.

In some cases, this advantage seems to have outweighed the potential downside of a black coat -- being more conspicuous to hawks and other predators.

Thorington believes that black squirrels were slightly more likely to survive and reproduce, and their genes were passed on to succeeding generations.

Fascinating stuff, and I agree with Chris that this is a wonderful sentence: "He used to smear a tree behind his Silver Spring home with a mixture of peanut butter and Valium and then tattoo the squirrels that he found passed out below."

Victory in Georgia

Via the AP:
Complying with a judge's order, workers in Cobb County have begun removing controversial evolution disclaimer stickers from science textbooks.

By the end of the day Monday, several thousand stickers, which said evolution was a theory and not a fact, had been scraped off. The school district had placed 34,452 stickers on textbooks across the county.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Five Books I Wish I'd Read

I try to keep this blog focused entirely on evolution, but Kevin Drum passes along an irresistable question: "What 5 books are you vaguely embarrassed to admit you haven't read?"

First, one book that I haven't read but isn't on the list: The Origin of Species. I've read parts of it, but far from every word. The reason I don't feel ashamed is that I've read Darwin's Ghost by Steve Jones. The premise of Jones's book is that he goes through the Origin and updates it, writing it the way Darwin might have if he knew everything that scientists know today. That makes it, to my mind, a more important book to read for people in 2005 who want to understand this subject. I know I'll have some critics who are sure I'm a fool to have a blog like this without having read Darwin's most famous work, but I feel OK about it. And a couple of people who have posted critical comments on this blog might like to know one book I have read: The Bible. Every word, you ask? Yes, every word.

With that, here's my list:
1. The Grapes of Wrath
I've read and much admired other works by Steinbeck, but for some reason I've never gotten around to reading this one. I'm sure there's no substitute for this book for people who want to appreciate the struggle of Americans during the Great Depression, but it just hasn't made its way into my "to read" pile.

2. A Tale of Two Cities
Again, the other books I've read by Dickens I've loved. And I've read maybe the first 20 pages of A Tale of Two Cities and think they're about the most beautiful 20 pages I've read. But it's challenging reading, and I haven't continued. When I was a high school English teacher I tried to teach this, but it was way too difficult for my students, I'm sorry to say.

3. Anything by Studs Terkel
I, along with every other person who lives in Chicago, love Studs Terkel. I've seen him speak in person twice in the last year, and even into his 10th decade he's got a sharp mind and a quick wit. But I've never read any of his books. Shame on me.

4. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
I haven't read Ulysses, either, but I'm not the least bit embarrassed to admit I haven't read Ulysses because I suspect that nearly everyone I know, even English majors, would admit to not having read it, at least not every word. But Portrait of the Artist doesn't strike me as the Herculean task that Ulysses does, so there's really no excuse for my not having read it.

5. The 9/11 Commission Report, the Koran, histories of Islam, biographies of Osama bin Laden, etc.
It's the duty of every citizen to stay well-informed about what's going on in the world, but I have to acknowledge that I'm not particularly well read here. I've read excerpts of the 9/11 Report, but really, I should have read the whole thing. And America's future is deeply entwined with the future of the Middle East, so I should know more about the people and their religion.

The worst thing about this is that I own The Grapes of Wrath, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I make this vow to you: I will read all three before the year is over.

I'd love to see your list in the comments.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Primary Results Lead to November Showdown

This shouldn't be surprising, I guess. In the race for the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board, the seven pro-evolution candidates won in the Democratic primary and the seven anti-evolution candidates won in the Republican primary. So 14 candidates will vie for seven seats in the November general election. (Two other seats on the Dover school board aren't up for election this year.) The school district is about 60 percent Republican, so the prognosis doesn't look good.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Darwin's Defender

A fascinating profile of Pedro Irigonegaray, the lawyer arguing the pro-evolution case in front of the Kansas School Board:
Irigonegaray's oratory failed to impress the three members of the Board of Education who called for the hearings, however. They said the hearings provided solid evidence that evolution has its flaws, and they accused Irigonegaray of bullying opposition witnesses. The man leading the attack on evolution, Lake Quivira, Kan., lawyer John Calvert, wouldn't even shake Irigonegaray's hand.

It didn't faze Irigonegaray, who says he never expected to win the debate. It's not the first time he's taken on a losing cause.

He fought against the state's recently adopted gay marriage ban. He defended a female transsexual charged with providing false information about her gender when she tried to marry a man in Leavenworth County. He lent legal help to the family of Shannon Martin, a University of Kansas student slain in Costa Rica. He took on the Rev. Fred Phelps in a debate about homosexuals.

This in addition to regular clients, who have included Thomas Murray, the Kansas State University linguistics professor convicted of killing his ex-wife, Carmin Ross, and Clinton Odell Weidner II, a former Topeka bank president who was accused of conspiring with Westar Energy chief David Wittig.

"He's a busy man, but he's willing to put his time and his energy on the line to help fight these issues," said Tiffany Muller, a former Topeka city councilwoman and a gay opponent of the gay marriage ban. "He doesn't just talk about equality and justice. He takes it very seriously."

Irigonegaray, 57, left Havana after Fidel Castro had taken power. His family came to settle in the Kansas City area before moving to Topeka. That's where he attended law school, at Washburn University. The law was a natural fit. Irigonegaray is a dramatic speaker, with an even more dramatic appreciation for freedom and civil rights.

Note: This article was written by my former college roommate and fellow Daily Illini reporter, David Klepper.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Why do Women have Orgasms?

It's a subject I've studied closely through the years, of course, but from an evolutionary standpoint I had thought its origins were quite obvious. Why do women have orgasms? Because women who enjoy sex are more likely to have sex and therefore procreate and pass on their genes, right? Maybe not.

[I]n a new book, Dr. Elisabeth A. Lloyd, a philosopher of science and professor of biology at Indiana University, takes on 20 leading theories and finds them wanting. The female orgasm, she argues in the book, "The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution," has no evolutionary function at all.

Rather, Dr. Lloyd says the most convincing theory is one put forward in 1979 by Dr. Donald Symons, an anthropologist.

That theory holds that female orgasms are simply artifacts - a byproduct of the parallel development of male and female embryos in the first eight or nine weeks of life.

In that early period, the nerve and tissue pathways are laid down for various reflexes, including the orgasm, Dr. Lloyd said. As development progresses, male hormones saturate the embryo, and sexuality is defined.

In boys, the penis develops, along with the potential to have orgasms and ejaculate, while "females get the nerve pathways for orgasm by initially having the same body plan."

Nipples in men are similarly vestigial, Dr. Lloyd pointed out.

While nipples in woman serve a purpose, male nipples appear to be simply left over from the initial stage of embryonic development.

This is just the type of story to get schoolchildren interested in evolution.

The Evolution of Juvenile Diabetes

Studying evolution isn't just about understanding how we got here, it's also about understanding where we are now. That understanding can aid in the development of medicine. Take this item about a new theory on what led humans to develop juvenile diabetes.
The theory argues that juvenile diabetes may have developed in ancestral people who lived in Northern Europe about 12,000 years ago when temperatures fell by 10 degrees Fahrenheit in just a few decades and an ice age arrived virtually overnight.

Archaeological evidence suggests countless people froze to death, while others fled south. But Dr. Sharon Moalem, an expert in evolutionary medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, believes that some people may have adapted to the extreme cold. High levels of blood glucose prevent cells and tissues from forming ice crystals, Dr. Moalem said. In other words, Type 1 diabetes would have prevented many of our ancestors from freezing to death.

Let's be clear. This is just one idea for how diabetes may have evolved. Most doctors who treat diabetics aren't buying it. But it's a fascinating look at the way studying human evolution has the potential for real medical breakthroughs.

Hat tip: dhodge

The Election in Dover

The Pennsylvania town of Dover (population 1,815) might have the most important election in America this year. (Every time I hear about the L.A. mayor's race, I'm more glad that I don't live there anymore.) The New York Times reports,
At stake are seven seats on the Dover School Board currently held by supporters of a policy approved last fall requiring high school biology students to be made aware of the "intelligent design" theory, an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution.

If the pro-evolution candidates are smart, they'll make it clear that it's the anti-evolution members of the board who are politicizing this. The pro-evolution folks should run on a platform of high standards across ALL subjects, not just science.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Creationists' New Design

The tactic among the anti-Darwinists in Kansas is the same as the tactic of people everywhere who want to impose their whims on the rest of us: To paint themselves as the victims. It seems to be working. As Ellen Goodman writes, "something is happening when the opponents of evolution recast themselves as defenders of academic freedom and guardians of open debate." She continues:
The parade of Darwin's adversaries argued in terms that might have been ripped from the playbook of People for the American Way. One insisted, ''We're looking for an objective approach that looks at both sides." Another called the evolutionists ''the true censors." A third called evolution ''an ideology." A fourth said, ''It's important to foster academic debate and thinking and reasoning."

My favorite remarks came from a member of the Kansas science standards committee, William Harris, who said, ''Public science education is an institution. It appoints a teacher to be a referee among ideas. . . . Nobody would tolerate a football game where the referee was obviously biased." Who knew the budgets were so tight that teachers were now referees?

My, how the opponents of evolution have evolved. As recently as 20 years ago, the leaders quoted Genesis as the one true scientific source: The world was created in seven days, those geological layers were the work of Noah's flood, case closed. This evolved into creationism or creation science. But in 1987, the Supreme Court declared that teaching creation in the classroom was teaching religion and unconstitutional.

Now the leading argument is ''Intelligent Design," an intelligent redesign of the old arguments in new clothing. As Ken Miller, co-author of one of the most respected biology textbooks, says, ''So-called Intelligent Design is nothing more than creationism stripped of everything that a court would immediately recognize as religious content."

...I suppose there is something positive in the audacious way that the right has taken over the language of the left. It means that values such as open debate and academic freedom are so universally accepted that the right is using this popular vocabulary. But only when they need to. The same political allies in Texas who argued for an open debate in science textbooks last year are back arguing to close the debate -- abstinence only -- in sex ed textbooks this year.

So let's "Teach the Controversy." I'm all for it. But this controversy doesn't belong in biological science. It belongs in political science.

Hat tip: dhodge

Thursday, May 12, 2005

School Won't Let Writer Discuss Her Topic

Lisa Westberg Peters is an author of books for children. Pinewood Elementary School in Monticello, Minn., asked her to come to teach children about writing. Seems like a good idea to me. But there's a problem. Ms. Peters wrote a Minnesota Book Award-winning book called "Our Family Tree" that teaches children about evolution. The school told Peters that she could tell the children about her writing process, but not about her subject. When she heard that, she cancelled the appearance.

Obviously, anyone who knows anything about writing understands that it would be impossible to discuss the process in any meaningful way without discussing the subject. The process of writing includes gathering information about the subject, reading about the subject, talking to other people about the subject, etc.

Brad Sanderson, principal at Pinewood Elementary, explained that "It's a cute book. There's nothing wrong with it. We just don't need that kind of debate." I just called the school and left a message on Mr. Sanderson's voicemail, explaining that schools should be places that welcome debate. I doubt it will change his mind, but it felt good.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Evolution of Creationism

William Saletan of Slate says that as anti-Darwinists move away from Biblical literalism and toward "intelligent design," they're becoming more like us. Saletan points out that John Calvert, founder of the Intelligent Design Network, acknowledges that the universe is billions of years old and accepts the statement from the draft standards in Kansas that say, "The fossil record provides evidence of simple, bacteria-like life as far back as 3.8+ billion years ago." But Calvert says that life did not evolve, it was designed.

Saletan writes that liberals and scientists "go around sneering, as censors of science often have, that the new theory is too radical, offensive, or embarrassing to be taken seriously. It's too bad they think good science consists of believing the right things." I'm not so sure. I think those of us in the evolution camp think science should be about asking hard questions -- it's just that we don't believe intelligent design asks hard questions of evolution. Intelligent designers think the questions have already been answered, and we evolutionists just need to have faith that their answers are correct.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Kansas Board Members Won't Even Read Evolution Proposal

The members of the Kansas Board of Education who are deciding whether or not to teach science in their science classes can't even be bothered to read the proposal from the people who want evolution included in the curriculum. Have a look at this:

[W]itnesses had not fully read the evolution-friendly proposal, which would continue the state's policy describing the theory as a key concept for students to learn.

Board member Kathy Martin, of Clay Center, elicited groans of disbelief from a few audience members when she acknowledged she had only scanned the proposal, which is more than 100 pages. Later, board member Connie Morris, of St. Francis, also said she had only scanned it.

Martin said during a break: "I'm not a word-for-word reader in this kind of technical information."

The opponents of evolution have ceased even pretending that they understand the issue they're judging.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Kansas Hearings

This is more a general-interest evolution blog, and I don't want to get too bogged down in what's happening in Kansas. But if you want real-time blogging on the Kansas hearings from a Kansan who's paying close attention, the go-to blog is Red State Rabble.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Why Dogs Smile and Chimpanzees Cry

Saw a great documentary on PBS last night. Why Dogs Smile and Chimpanzees Cry gives a fascinating account of the way many animals show feelings similar to our own. These feelings can be found not only in observing the behavior of animals, but also in performing MRIs on their brains. And what I liked best about the documentary is that it unabashedly acknowledged the way similarities between humans and other animals demonstrate that we evolved from a common ancestor. I think anyone who gets angry at the idea that we're "related to monkeys" would have a hard time coming up with a rational explanation for the way human and animal behavior are so often so similar. I shudder to think, though, that it's entirely possible that in the near future PBS will feel political pressure not to show documentaries like this one.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

If They Can't Explain it, They Shouldn't Report It

This article from the Los Angeles Times might come across at first as an evenhanded examination of the hearings in Kansas on whether "intelligent design" should be part of the school curriculum. But then we get to the part where Pedro Irigonegaray is described as "a Topeka attorney representing what he called mainstream science." No, he's representing what everyone calls mainstream science. You can doubt Darwinism all you want, but you can't claim it's somehow outside the scientific mainstream.

And then check out this paragraph toward the end:
Evolution says species change over time and that such changes can lead to new species, giving different ones, such as man and apes, common ancestors. Intelligent design says some features of the natural world, because of their well-ordered complexities, are best explained by an intelligent cause.

Huh? An intelligent cause?

We conclude with a complete mischaracterization of the Scopes trial:
The board has sought to avoid comparisons of its hearings with the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tenn., in which a teacher was convicted of violating a law against teaching evolution. But the hearings resemble a trial, with attorneys managing each side's case.

There was one key difference. In 1925, attorney Clarence Darrow, representing teacher John Scopes, attempted to make creationism look foolish. In the Kansas hearings, evolution is under attack.

Yes, Darrow tried to make creationism look foolish. And William Jennings Bryan tried to make evolution look foolish. (Although, as I've written before, Bryan's views were more nuanced than you'd think if all you know about the trial comes from "Inherit the Wind.") In fact, in terms of the content of the arguments, the Kansas hearings are almost identical to the Scopes trial: one side will explain why it supports evolution; the other side will explain why it supports creationism, although in 80 years that side has learned to dress up its creationism with the fancy name of "intelligent design."

If all the media accounts of the Kansas hearings go like this, it's going to get ugly.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Questioning Biology Teachers

My wife taught biology in a public high school for four years, and she certainly came across her share of students who had been taught at home to challenge anyone who attempted to teach evolution. (She also once debated a creationist teacher on stage after the school's drama club performed "Inherit the Wind".) But I don't think she encountered anyone this organized. Creationists "are equipping families with books, DVDs, and a list of 10 questions to ask your biology teacher," according to this AP article. Ordinarily I would love the idea of students engaging their teachers in a spirited question-and-answer session, but if you follow the link and read the questions you'll discover that all of them are phrased in a way that assumes any answer that attempts to explain evolution is a lie. For example:

The origins of life. Why do textbooks claim that the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment shows how life's building blocks may have formed on Earth - when conditions on the early Earth were probably nothing like those used in the experiment, and the origin of life remains a mystery?

Darwin's tree of life. Why don't textbooks discuss the "Cambrian explosion," in which all major animal groups appear together in the fossil record fully formed instead of branching from a common ancestor - thus contradicting the evolutionary tree of life?

Monday, May 02, 2005

Update on B.C.

Reader ejswanso informs me that this is far from the first time B.C. has been a platform for Christian intolerance. Read more from the First Amendment Center and the Washington Post.

For the record, I have no problem with newspapers running B.C. I personally don't enjoy it, but I don't enjoy Ann Coulter's syndicated column, either. That doesn't mean newspapers don't have the right to run it. But what bothers me is how often newspapers back down when critics on the right complain about comic strips. Many newspapers would never dream of running a comic strip attacking creationism, but they have no problem running a comic strip attacking evolution.

Anti-Darwinism on the Comics Page

I generally avoid the comics page, but reader dhodge called to my attention the Sunday installment of B.C. It's the typical claptrap that we've all heard over and over: How stupid could this guy be, that he really thinks we're all related to monkeys? What's galling about it, though, is that I'm sure many of the newspapers that run B.C. would never dream of running a comic that insulted the beliefs of those who trust every word of Genesis.