Teaching Evolution

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

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Ebert: Four Legs Good, Three Legs Bad

This is why Roger Ebert is such a great critic. In his (negative) review of War of the Worlds, he writes about Ray Ferrier, the Tom Cruise character, and his battles with three-legged aliens. Then he drops a little evolution-related education on his readers:

If evolution has taught us anything, it is that limbs of living things, from men to dinosaurs to spiders to centipedes, tend to come in numbers divisible by four. Three legs are inherently not stable, as Ray demonstrates when he damages one leg of a giant tripod, and it falls helplessly to the ground.

I think it would be more accurate to say "divisble by two," since insects have six and most centipedes have 70. But the larger point is that even fantasy and sci-fi movies are better if we find the creatures they produce plausible, and three-legged beings won't feel right to us, even if we can't articulate why.

NOTE: For a good example of what we as Darwinists are up against, read this.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Larry David Can't Sleep

The brilliant creator of Seinfeld and co-creator of Cubr Your Enthusiasm has a great stream of consciousness:
I like how they keep saying the science isn’t in on global warming. They just don’t know. No proof. But, of course, it’s in on God. Lots of proof on that. Tons of empirical evidence. They got God’s DNA. And Moses parted the Red Sea. He said, “Open sea,” and it opened. And Jesus walked on water. Those are some tricks. People must have been after Moses to do it again until he finally got sick of them and lost his temper. "No, I'm not parting it again, now leave me alone." "C'mon Moses, please?" "I said no, now get the hell outta here!" You'd think anyone who believes this stuff would be so embarassed they'd keep it to themselves. But those maniacs shout it from the rooftops and they're running our country. God talks to Bush all the time. I don’t care if you’re President, if you say God talks to you, you’re a schizophrenic and a menace to society. You should be on drugs in a mental institution, like the Son of Sam. What’s the difference between God or a dog talking to you? It’s still a voice in your head. That means you’re certifiably fucking crazy! …Look what they’re doing to me. Take a deep breath. That’s good. Listen to your breathing. That’s a meditation technique. Clears your mind. There’s a breath, that’s good. There’s another breath. I guess the science isn’t in on evolution either…No, come on, breathe. There’s a breath. Of course the planet’s only 5000 years old. Breathe, prick, breathe. What about the fucking dinosaurs?! We have the bones. They know how old the bones are! The sad thing is these nuts who founded this country fled Europe because of religious persecution. Good trade for Europe.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Manufacturing Uncertainty

I've always thought there are a lot of similarities between the evolution/creation debate and the debate over whether cigarettes are addictive. As recently as 1996, Bob Dole said on national television that he didn't know whether or not cigarettes were addictive. If you look for it closely enough, you'll find people willing to assert any kind of scientific nonsense.

In a good Los Angeles Times op-ed, former assistant secretary of Energy David Michaels writes about how easy it is for people to use bogus scientific-sounding claims to make something that every scientist knows sound like it's just some abstract thought.

The tobacco industry led the way. For 50 years, cigarette manufacturers employed a stable of scientists willing to assert (sometimes under oath) that there was no conclusive evidence that cigarettes cause lung cancer, or that nicotine is addictive. An official at Brown & Williamson, a cigarette maker now owned by R.J. Reynolds, once noted in a memo: "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public."

Toward that end, the tobacco manufacturers dissected every study, highlighted every question, magnified every flaw, cast every possible doubt every possible time. They also conjured their own studies with questionable data and foregone conclusions. It was all a charade, of course, because the real science was inexorable. But the uncertainty campaign was effective; it delayed public health protections, and compensation for tobacco's victims, for decades.

The tobacco industry, left without a stitch of credibility or public esteem, has finally abandoned that strategy — but it led the way for others. Every polluter and manufacturer of toxic chemicals understands that by fostering a debate on uncertainties in the underlying science and by harping on the need for more research — always more research — it can avoid debating the actual policy or regulation in question.

Michaels doesn't mention evolution, but the lessons taught in this article can be applied in many fields.

Non Sequitur on Intelligent Design

Alert reader dhodge points to yesterday's installment of Non Sequitur. After our previous problems with the comics, it's nice to see the good guys win.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

House Debate Over Evolution at Pa. Schools

I mentioned Michael Behe before, so I thought I'd note thisarticle in which he's cited as the Intelligent Design expert who testifies in the Pennsylvania House on whether to teach ID in schools.

One lawmaker asked a good question:

"I've always viewed evolution as sort of the ultimate design. It would change and adapt and accommodate to whatever the situation was," said Rep. P. Michael Sturla. "When did the intelligent design occur, in your theory?"

Behe had no answer.

"Questions like, 'When did the designing take place?' ... are all good questions. We'd love to have answers for them, but they are separate questions from the question, 'Was this designed in the first place?'" Behe said.

And I liked this as well:

"How many new biotechnology companies will want to locate here in Pennsylvania if our students are being taught a watered-down version of the complexities of evolution?" asked Larry Frankel, legislative director for the state's ACLU chapter.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Evolution and Private Schools

This Philadelphia Inquirer story begins,
While the teaching of intelligent design in science courses has triggered a new debate in public schools, area religious schools have quietly been teaching both evolution and creationism for decades.

But read the whole story and it sure doesn't seem like there's much teaching of evolution going on. Nine people are quoted, and none of them support evolution unequivocally. I think the attitude I have the most trouble with is summed up in this quote by a school official:
"We have tried to deal with the diversity of opinions among Christians, rather than taking an official school stance and saying: 'This is what we're going to teach,' "

Schools are supposed to say "This is what we're going to teach." Many parents and children might be of the opinion that romance novels are better than Hemingway, but an American literature teacher needs to have the courage to stand up to them.

Then there's this:
In one of his school's biology classrooms, the red construction-paper sign on the bulletin board sums up teacher Chris Maffet's approach to science: "Through Him All Things Were Made... John 1:3."

I suppose every answer to a science test could be, "Because that's how God made it." But a student who learned in that environment wouldn't develop the critical-thinking skills that science classes are supposed to hone.

This is Intelligent Design

A friend and I discussed yesterday what a curriculum would look like if intelligent design were used in an academic setting.

I think the best place to find out is the Web site of Michael J. Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and perhaps the leading proponent of intelligent design. (I wonder who the leading proponent of flat-earth theory is.)

I'm not sure if he put it up by choice or if a dean forced him, but Behe does have an official disclaimer:
My ideas about irreducible complexity and intelligent design are entirely my own. They certainly are not in any sense endorsed by either Lehigh University in general or the Department of Biological Sciences in particular. In fact, most of my colleagues in the Department strongly disagree with them.

I have to assume that by "most" he means "all," but in any event I'm glad he has the disclaimer up.

I don't understand exactly what Behe teaches. I assume Lehigh's faculty considers him an embarrassment and tries to keep him out of the classroom as much as possible. But judging from his site, I'm guessing that a test in a class taught by Behe would include essay questions like, "Explain how the human eye is an irreducibly complex system." Because intelligent design is not a testable hypothesis, I also assume that no experimentation would take place in a Behe-taught class.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Housekeeping Note

I've finished the Grapes of Wrath and started a Studs Terkel book. UPDATE: The Terkel book I started is "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" It's got plenty of interesting stories, although I'm kind of skipping around to find the most interesting.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

National Academies Fights the Good Fight--For Now

The National Academies are standing firm in their support of evolution.

"The theory of evolution is one of science's most robust theories, and the National Academies have long supported the position that evolution be taught as a central element in any science education program," the Academies said in a statement.

"Over the past several years, however, there has been a growing movement around the country to include non-scientifically based 'alternatives' in science courses," it added.

I don't mean to sound pessimistic, but can this last? Won't it only be a matter of time before the federal government decides that the National Academies deserve scorn rather than respect because they've dared to take a stand on evolution? And when that happens, won't the National Academies back down?

Intelligent Design in Social Studies Class

I'd call this a partial victory.

Intelligent design won't be part of the curriculum at Gull Lake Middle School, but the Gull Lake Community Schools Board of Education says it can be included in elective social-studies classes at Gull Lake High School.

The board voted Monday to back the recommendation of a committee that's been studying the issue for months. It agreed with the committee to allow intelligent design to be taught in elective high school classes in political science, humanities and philosophy, at the option of the teacher and if the topic fits with the existing curriculum.

I'd prefer that kids learn more important things in their social studies classes, but it's certainly much better to have this stuff in the context of social studies than in the context of science.

Evolution Hearings Tab Nearly $17,000

The first paragraph says it all:

Topeka — Kansas taxpayers are being asked to pick up the tab for more than two dozen witnesses who flew here from across the country to disparage evolution during science standards hearings last month.

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.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Are Ashkenazi Jews Smarter than the Rest of Us?

In modern-day America, the supporters of Darwinism tend to be on the left, while the opponents tend to be on the right. It hasn't always been that way. Although Darwin himself wouldn't have endorsed their views, many of the early 20th Century champions of evolution were right-wing types who thought Darwin's theories proved the biological superiority of light-skinned people.

The study of evolution, I think, is held back in the 21st Century because we're afraid that new discoveries might lead us back to the idea that some groups are superior to others.

So many people aren't happy with the idea that natural selection has given Ashkenazi Jews a biological advantage when it comes to intelligence. The Economist reports:
Put these two things together—a correlation of intelligence and success, and a correlation of success and fecundity—and you have circumstances that favour the spread of genes that enhance intelligence. The questions are, do such genes exist, and what are they if they do? Dr [Gregory] Cochran thinks they do exist, and that they are exactly the genes that cause the inherited diseases which afflict Ashkenazi society.

That small, reproductively isolated groups of people are susceptible to genetic disease is well known. Constant mating with even distant relatives reduces genetic diversity, and some disease genes will thus, randomly, become more common. But the very randomness of this process means there should be no discernible pattern about which disease genes increase in frequency. In the case of Ashkenazim, Dr Cochran argues, this is not the case. Most of the dozen or so disease genes that are common in them belong to one of two types: they are involved either in the storage in nerve cells of special fats called sphingolipids, which form part of the insulating outer sheaths that allow nerve cells to transmit electrical signals, or in DNA repair. The former genes cause neurological diseases, such as Tay-Sachs, Gaucher's and Niemann-Pick. The latter cause cancer.

If the study of evolution leads us to these conclusions, some will resist it. But that would be wrong. Much better to deal with the issues raised by studying evolution than to ignore them.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

All Sciences Have Unanswered Questions

Sharon Begley of the Wall Street Journal (reprinted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where I'm linking because the site is free) has a great piece on the misunderstanding of science. In a nutshell, she says that there are things we don't know about evolution, but those gaps in our knowledge are no greater than the things we don't know about physics or botany or any other field.

Even some basics of physics are disputed if you dig deep enough. Introductory courses teach that mass is conserved, for instance. "But that couldn't be more wrong," says Frank Wilczek of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics. "Massive particles such as protons are built of quarks and gluons, which have zero mass (unless they are moving). Mass is far from conserved."

The law that "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction" isn't universally true either. "It fails for magnetic forces between charged particles," Prof. Wilczek says.

Teach the controversy? Then try the one over water. After the assertion that water's formula is H2O, add an asterisk: There is (controversial) evidence that it is sometimes H1.5O.

The Journal is a far-right newspaper, but its readers are far too sophisticated to buy into the creationist crap that many right-wing media outlets are offering these days.

Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries

When I first heard about this, I thought it was a joke. A bunch of conservatives wouldn't really get together and make a list of the most harmful books, would they?

They would.

Although Darwin doesn't crack the Top 10, check out the honorable mentions and you'll see that he has the special honor of being the only author who received votes for two of his books. Even better, they screw up the title of only the most influential and well-known scientific book ever written and call it Origin of the Species.

Hat tips: Justin Swanson and Paul Noonan.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Not All Evangelicals are Creationists

I guess this article is good news. It points out that many devout Christians support the teaching of evolution. It's still hard for me not to feel dismayed, though, when I read things like this:
Offered three explanations for the origin of humans in a CBS News/New York Times poll six months ago, 13 percent of respondents said they believed "we evolved from less-advanced life-forms over millions of years, and God did not directly guide this process." Twenty-seven percent believed "we evolved from less-advanced life-forms over millions of years, but God guided this process." And 55 percent believed "God created us in our present form." The poll, which questioned 885 people, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

In the court of public opinion, I think professors like this one are the ones who will have the best success in promoting evolution:
Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, is a Catholic and an ardent proponent of evolution and opponent of intelligent design. The author of "Finding Darwin's God," he is to be an expert witness for the parents in the Dover case.

"I think there is a God, and he is the creator of the universe," Miller said. "But the God of the intelligent-design movement is way too small. ... In their view, he designed everything in the world and yet he repeatedly intervenes and violates the laws of his own creation.

"Their God is like a kid who is not a very good mechanic and has to keep lifting the hood and tinkering with the engine."