Teaching Evolution

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

Friday, July 29, 2005

New Study Explores Evolution Of Male Parental Care And Female Multiple Mating

It's quite simple, really. Males will have more offspring if they have sex with more females. But females will have the same number of offspring whether they have sex with one or many males. It's more interesting and fun to study it in humans, but here it's studied in birds.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Scientists Find Oldest Dinosaur Embryo Ever

A 190 million-year-old embryo has been discovered among fossils excavated in South Africa in 1978. The horizontal neck, heavy head, and limb proportions indicate that the young were quadrupeds who then matured into bipeds. The article says that's a pattern of development almost unheard of among vertebrates, but isn't that essentially how humans mature?

"The results have major implications for our understanding of how these animals grew and evolved," said Robert Reisz of the University of Toronto, who headed the team of paleontologists.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

This is Scopes

Following up on my last post, when you go to the Smithsonian archives, be sure to check out the picture of John Thomas Scopes. Keep in mind, he was 24 when he went on trial in Dayton. Why is it that 24-year-olds back then looked so much older than 24-year-olds now?

Remembering William Jennings Bryan

It might surprise you to learn that I feel a lot of affection for William Jennings Bryan.

Bryan, who died 80 years ago today, is best remembered for being on the wrong side of the evolution-creation debate in the Scopes Monkey Trial. But Bryan's heart was in the right place; remember that in those days evolution was often championed by those who thought it somehow proved that light-skinned people were superior to dark-skinned people.

Among the issues where I believe Bryan is on the right side of history are women's suffrage, direct election of senators, and an income tax where the rich pay more than the poor. Inherit the Wind was a fictional play (its writers tried to make that perfectly clear by changing the Bryan-like character's name to Matthew Harrison Brady) that made no claims of historical accuracy, and yet many people alive today think it portrays an accurate picture of the man. It would be great for more people today to learn more about Bryan's life. A good place to start is at the Smithsonian Archives.

Evolution of Taste

I've always thought the sense of taste is one of the most interesting fields of study for people who want to know more about evolution. Why do we like things that are sweet and dislike things that are bitter? Presumably because there was some evolutionary advantage to seeking out sweet foods and avoiding bitter foods.

Researchers have found new evidence that an aversion to bitter tastes has been advantageous to human evolution.

In new work, researchers including Nicole Soranzo of University College London and Bernd Bufe of the German Institute of Human Nutrition have shed light on the potential role natural selection has played in forming our present sensitivities and protecting us from harmful natural chemicals. The research team analyzed the nucleotide sequence of a human gene encoding a bitter-taste receptor that mediates recognition of a class of naturally ubiquitous, but toxic, cyanide-releasing compounds. By analyzing sequences from a large sample of individuals representing 60 human populations, the researchers found evidence that specific variants of the receptor gene have been strongly favored in the early stages of human evolution. Employing additional gene sequence analyses, the authors estimated that the favorably selected versions of the receptor gene arose prior to the expansion of humans out of Africa.

The researchers went on to show experimentally that such variants of the receptor, when expressed in individual cells, conferred an increased sensitivity toward several harmful compounds found in nature.

The work strongly supports a pivotal role for bitter-taste perception in toxin avoidance in humans, an attribute that could have come into particular play during periods of expansion into new environments. More broadly, the work contributes to the debate on the mechanisms governing the evolution of chemical sensory perception and on the role of diet as a selective force in human evolution.

The research (full study not online) is featured in the July 26 Current Biology.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Butterfly unlocks evolution secret

Scientists have always had a tough time nailing down exactly why and when one species branches off into two. We know that it happens when two groups within the same species stop breeding with each other, but we don't know why that happens, other than that sometimes they get separated geographically. New research into the phenomenon of speciation is focusing on a butterfly family that has unusually distinct wing markings despite living in the same place.

These wing colours apparently evolved as a sort of "team strip", allowing butterflies to easily identify the species of a potential mate.

This process, called "reinforcement", prevents closely related species from interbreeding thus driving them further apart genetically and promoting speciation.

Although scientists have speculated about this mechanism for years, it has rarely been witnessed in nature.

Hat tip: ejswanso.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Man Who Advanced Bird-Dinosaur Link Dies

John H. Ostrom, a Yale paleontologist, was 77.

No Clear-Cut Boundaries in Nature

Creationists often talk about the gaps in the fossil record, as if evolution is a lie because we don't have any skeletons that are half-man, half-chimp. I think the best response to that is, Of course there are gaps in the fossil record. The vast majority of organisms never become embedded and preserved in the earth's crust.

In an interesting column in the L.A. Times, David P. Barash, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, writes,

Yearn as we might for clear-cut, yes-no boundaries, nature only rarely obliges. There aren't many genuine leaps in the biological world, an observation that contributed greatly to Charles Darwin's insight about the gradual transformation of species.

The essay isn't really about evolution, but it does have an interesting look at how people often search for a biological basis to an argument, even where none exists.

Thanks to ejswanso for the tip.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Houston Chronicle Letters: Rebutting Evolution Deniers

Although I'm a big fan of blogs, I really believe the best way for any citizen to share an opinion about anything is to write a letter to the editor. I've had letters published in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and Los Angeles Times, to name a few, and I'm sure more people have read those letters than have read any of my other writing. Three Letters in the Houston Chronicle are particularly impressive. If you have views you'd like to see reach a larger audience, write a letter to the editor of your local paper.

UPDATE: Only hours after I recommend letters to the editor, I come across this story of a woman who was killed because of the contents of a letter to the editor she wrote. And in comments, Paul Noonan mentions that a weirdo started contacting him because of one of the letters he wrote. So write at your own risk.

Reason: Creation Summer Camp: Live from the 2005 Creation Mega-Conference

Ronald Bailey of Reason Magazine isreporting from the 2005 Creation Mega-Conference. Bailey does a good job of showing how creationists are good at making their case, no matter how ridiculous their case is. He says that the presentations are "far more slick than the presentations I usually see at scientific conferences."

Also interesting is that you won't find any sympathy for intelligent design here. As a Liberty University professor said, "We believe that Adam and Eve were real people and that God created everything in six 24 hour days."

And here's the young-earth chronology, for those wondering how it all happened:

Creation—six 24-hour days
Lost World—1700 years—no big mountains, no plate tectonics
Flood—370 days—creation of high mountains, deep oceans, sedimentary rocks, plate tectonics form continents
Ice Age—1000 years
Post Ice Age—3000 years and counting.

Keep reading Reason for reports on "Hubble, Bubble, Big Bang in Trouble" and "Fossils, the Flood and the Age of the Earth."

Thanks to Paul Noonan for the tip.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Hall of Shame: Two Utah Officials

A Salt Lake Tribune editorial rightly nails state Sen. Chris Buttars and state Superintendent of Instruction Patti Harrington for criticizing the teaching of evolution. It's depressing that a person capable of saying there is "no evidence to connect the family of apes with the family of man" can get a job as the person in charge of all teaching in the state. But in Utah, Ms. Harrington said that and has that position. And Buttars went even further, saying any teacher who teaches evolution "will be dealth with."

More here.

Monday, July 18, 2005

How Humans Hurry Evolution

One of the reasons that I don't understand those who deny Darwinism is that it's incredibly obvious to anyone who looks at how other species respond to humans' actions. As the Sunday Times reports, elephants have smaller tusks than they used to because

When a large proportion of the individuals with a particular trait — in the case of the Asian elephant, large tusks — are eliminated before they reach their maximum breeding potential, more of the animals without these qualities pass their genes on to the next generation.

The smaller-tusked elephants are in effect better adapted to their environment, in which having large tusks makes animals a target for hunting. If the breeding population is small, even the elimination of a few large-tusked animals can have a large effect on overall genetic make-up.

We see our own impact on the evolution of other species all the time. When we develop antibiotics, resistant bacteria evolve. Racehorses get faster as human breeders select parents with the traits for speed. Evolution is right in front of us, no matter how many people can't see it.

Friday, July 15, 2005

News from Agape Press

Well, I guess you can't please all of the people all of the time. Here I am criticizing the Catholic church for stepping away from evolution, and at the same time creationists are criticizing the church for daring to suggest that God might have needed a little longer than six days to make the universe. Here's Ken Ham, who the Agape Press identifies as a creation scientist:

"If you're going to believe in evolution," Ham asserts, "and say that God took an ape man and made a soul to make Adam, and God took an ape woman and made a soul to make Eve, then the woman came from an ape woman. She didn't come from Adam. And if the woman didn't come from Adam's side, then you've got a major problem....You've just destroyed the whole basis of marriage, the whole basis of oneness in marriage and even Christ's relationship to the Church, which is based upon the doctrine of marriage -- the church being the bride of Christ."

Looking at the Agape site, I'm actually not sure if it's a spoof. I hope it is; I think it isn't.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Still More on the Conservative Intellectuals

John Derbyshire's post at The Corner on National Review Online says he would have had the shortest answers to the questions on conservatives and evolution:

---Whether he personally believes in evolution: "Yes."

---What he thinks of intelligent design: "Bunk."

---How evolution should be taught in public schools: "Same as algebra."

I like John Derbyshire. I can't for the life of me figure out why he's so homophobic, but on most issues he's eminently reasonable.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

School Board Votes to Remove Anti-Evolution Stickers

The news is mixed out of Beebe, Arkansas. Yes, it's good that the schools won't have stickers telling students that "any statement about life's origins should be considered as theory, not fact" and suggest "an intelligent designer." But it's bad that the board did it not out of a concern for first-rate science education standards, but out of concern for litigation costs if the ACLU went after them.

UPDATE: Here's the ACLU press release.

Questions for Pope on Evolution Stance

Will Benedict answer three scientists' questions on his evolution stance? Cornelia Dean reports.

What Catholics Think of Evolution - They don't not Believe in It

In today's edition of Slate's often helpful Explainer column, Keelin McDonell tells us what Catholics think of evolution:

That it's a fine theory for explaining the natural world as long as it doesn't deny divine purpose and causality. The Catholic Church has never embraced biblical literalism. That may be why, unlike evangelical Christian faiths, Catholics have never made creationism a religious tenet. The church has produced letters, studies, encyclicals, and speeches in the last 100 years that praise the scientific research behind the concept of evolution. But it has never endorsed "belief" in evolution by including it in the Catholic Catechism, the church's official compendium of teachings and beliefs.

Largely due to its embarrassing condemnation of Galileo in the 17th century, the church has since been very cautious about responding to scientific theories. It took the Vatican nearly a century to react formally to Darwin's 1859 treatise The Origin of Species. The official response came in 1950, when Pope Pius XII wrote in the encyclical Humani generis that "the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that … research and discussions … take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution."

I'm not particularly interested in what the official teachings of the church are because as we all know, the vast majority of Catholics routinely disregard the church's teachings on any number of issues. But because Catholic schools are such an important part of the educational system in the United States and throughout Europe, Africa, and Latin America, I think it's been very important that Catholic schools have taught evolution for decades. I worry that the church will shift to the right under Benedict and that rigorous biology standards in Catholic schools will be a casualty of that shift.

One question: What will happen to Catholic universities if Benedict takes this route? I think you can get away with it in high schools and below because the science standards just aren't very high. But no serious science professor is going to want to teach at a school that doesn't include Darwinism in its curriculum.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Ebert's War of the Worlds Review Revisited

I blogged about Roger Ebert's War of the Worlds review a couple of weeks ago, and today Ebert goes into it in more detail in his answer man column. Ebert quotes a correspondent as telling him, "Your comment, 'If evolution has taught us anything, it is that the limbs of living things, from men to dinosaurs to spiders to centipedes, tend to come in numbers divisible by four' is wrong and misleading. Numbers of limbs are divisible by two, due to the principle of bilateral symmetry to which nature adheres." I made the same point.

Ebert responds by saying, "I meant of course to write 'two' instead of 'four' but was attacked by a brain cloud. My online review has been corrected."

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Catholic Church Moving away from Evolution

Well, this was just a matter of time, I guess. As the Catholic church continues its march to the right, it is now laying the groundwork to turn its back on evolution. Catholic schools have long been supporters of teaching evolution, in many communities putting the public schools to shame with significantly more rigorous science standards and with clear language supporting Darwinism. The New York Times reports on the fallout from an op-ed it ran:

Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, a theologian who is close to Pope Benedict XVI, staked out his position in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times on Thursday, writing, "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not."

In a telephone interview from a monastery in Austria, where he was on retreat, the cardinal said that his essay had not been approved by the Vatican, but that two or three weeks before Pope Benedict XVI's election in April, he spoke with the pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, about the church's position on evolution. "I said I would like to have a more explicit statement about that, and he encouraged me to go on," said Cardinal Schönborn.

He said that he had been "angry" for years about writers and theologians, many Catholics, who he said had "misrepresented" the church's position as endorsing the idea of evolution as a random process.

Opponents of Darwinian evolution said they were gratified by Cardinal Schönborn's essay. But scientists and science teachers reacted with confusion, dismay and even anger. Some said they feared the cardinal's sentiments would cause religious scientists to question their faiths.

Thankfully, Times reporters Cornelia Dean and Laurie Goodstein don't fall into the common trap of thinking they need to present the anti-Darwinists as if they have a legitimate scientific case. They give their readers the facts:

Darwinian evolution is the foundation of modern biology. While researchers may debate details of how the mechanism of evolution plays out, there is no credible scientific challenge to the underlying theory.

Dean is the Times' science editor, and I think she's probably the country's best science journalist. Goodstein is a religion reporter who has recently covered the Air Force Academy scandal and Billy Graham's final crusade. I hope the Times keeps putting them on this important story.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The New Republic Online: Evolutionary War

I recently blogged on George Will's column on intelligent design. The New Republic (in an article that's unfortunately available only to subscribers) has asked many of the leading conservative thinkers how they feel about evolution and intelligent design. It makes for fascinating reading, although I must say I'm disappointed. I typically think of the Republican party as having two factions: the religious right and the low-tax faction. From the looks of this, those distinctions aren't as great as I had thought. Charles Krauthammer, a writer I greatly respect even though I greatly disagree with him on many issues, had a response that I support completely. But many "conservative intellectuals" seem represented by people like William Kristol, who, it turns out, isn't even intellectually curious enough to flip through one of his kids' science books:

William Kristol, The Weekly Standard

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "I don't discuss personal
opinions. ... I'm familiar with what's obviously true about it as well
as what's problematic. ... I'm not a scientist. ... It's like me
asking you whether you believe in the Big Bang."

How evolution should be taught in public schools: "I managed to have
my children go through the Fairfax, Virginia schools without ever
looking at one of their science textbooks."

Grover Norquist, Americans for Tax Reform

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "I've never understood
how an eye evolves."

What he thinks of intelligent design: "Put me down for the intelligent
design people."

How evolution should be taught in public schools: "The real problem
here is that you shouldn't have government-run schools. ..."

David Frum, American Enterprise Institute and National Review

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "I do believe in evolution."

What he thinks of intelligent design: "If intelligent design means
that evolution occurs under some divine guidance, I believe that."

How evolution should be taught in public schools: "I don't believe
that anything that offends nine-tenths of the American public should
be taught in public schools."

Stephen Moore, Free Enterprise Fund

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "I believe in parts of it
but I think there are holes in the evolutionary theory."

What he thinks of intelligent design: "I generally agree with said critique."

Jonah Goldberg, National Review

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "Sure."

What he thinks of intelligent design: "I think it's interesting. ... I think it's wrong. I think it's God-in-the-gaps theorizing. But I'm not hostile to it the way other people are because I don't, while I think evolution is real, I don't think any specific--there are a lot of unknowns left in evolution theory and criticizing evolution from different areas doesn't really bother me, just as long as you're not
going to say the world was created in six days or something."

Charles Krauthammer, The Washington Post

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "Of course."

What he thinks of intelligent design: "At most, interesting."

Whether intelligent design should be taught in public schools: "The idea that [intelligent design] should be taught as a competing theory to evolution is ridiculous. ..."

William Buckley, National Review

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "Yes."

What he thinks of intelligent design: "I'd have to write that down. ... I'd have to say something more carefully than I can over the telephone. I'm a Christian."

John Tierney, The New York Times

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "I believe that the theory of evolution has great explanatory powers."

What he thinks of intelligent design: "I haven't really studied the arguments for intelligent design, so I'm loath to say much about it except that I'm skeptical."

James Taranto, The Wall Street Journal

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "Yes."

Whether schools should teach intelligent design or similar critiques of evolution in biology classes: "I guess I would say they probably shouldn't be taught in biology classes; they probably should be taught in philosophy classes if there is such a thing. It seems to me, and again I don't speak with any authority on this, that the hypothesis ... that the universe is somehow inherently intelligent is not a scientific hypothesis. Because how do you prove it or disprove it? And really the question is how do you disprove it, because a scientific hypothesis has to be capable of being falsified."

How evolution should be taught in public schools: "It probably should be taught, if it's going to be taught, in a more thoroughgoing way, a more rigorous way that explains what a scientific theory is. ... You know, my general impression is that high school instruction in general is not all that rigorous. ... I think one possible way of solving this problem is by--if you can't teach it in a rigorous way, if the schools aren't up to that, and if it's going to be a political hot potato in
the way it is, and we have schools that are politically run, one possible solution might be just take it out of the curriculum altogether. I'm not necessarily advocating that, but I think it's something that policy makers might think about. I'd rather see it taught in a rigorous and serious way, but as a realistic matter that may be expecting too much of our government schools."

Norman Podhoretz, Commentary

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "It's impossible to
answer that question with a simple yes or no."

Richard Brookhiser, National Review

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "Yes."

What he thinks of intelligent design: "It doesn't seem like good science to me."

Whether intelligent design should be taught in public schools: "No."

Pat Buchanan, The American Conservative

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "Do I believe in absolute evolution? No. I don't believe that evolution can explain the creation of matter. ... Do I believe in Darwinian evolution? The answer is no."

Tucker Carlson, MSNBC

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "I think God's responsible for the existence of the universe and everything in it. ... I think God is probably clever enough to think up evolution. ... It's plausible to me that God designed evolution; I don't know why that's outside the realm. It's not in my view."

On the possibility that God created man in his present form: "I don't know if He created man in his present form. ... I don't discount it at all. I don't know the answer. I would put it this way: The one thing I feel confident saying I'm certain of is that God created everything there is."

Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "Yes."

Whether intelligent design should be taught in public schools: "I guess my own inclination would be to teach evolution in the public schools. I don't think that you ought to make a federal case out of it though."

David Brooks, The New York Times

Whether he personally believes in evolution: "I believe in the theory of evolution."

What he thinks of intelligent design: "I've never really studied the issue or learned much about ID, so I'm afraid I couldn't add anything intelligent to the discussion."

Thanks to Paul Noonan for the tip.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Does God Have Back Problems Too?

Those who believe in intelligent design say we've been put together so perfectly that an evolutionary accident (well, actually, a series of millions of accidents) couldn't possibly have done it. That, of course, ignores the fact that we're actually not put together all that perfectly at all. If you believe in intelligent design, presumably you believe that God designed us with backs that are easily injured because he has back problems too.

The problem with essays like this one, by David P. Barash, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, is that they assume a rational argument is possible between those who believe in evolution and those who believe in intelligent design. It's not. If you believe in intelligent design, you first decided that God created everything, then set out to find a way to justify that belief. Reasoning like that does not make for intelligent debates.

Monday, July 04, 2005


On this Fourth of July, I think one of the most patriotic things a person can do is dissent from popular opinion. For the purposes of this blog, that means defending evolution in settings where it's not popular. If you live in a place where there's a lot of hostility to evolution, consider writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.

Larry D. Martin of Flowood, Mississippi, has a great letter in the July 1 Clarion Ledger. He explains what a theory is and refutes an uninformed letter that had appeared previously in the paper.

Flowood is a town of 4,750 residents. I'm betting there are a lot of people there who strongly support having real science education in their local schools. Mr. Martin has given voice to all of them. Good for him.

Friday, July 01, 2005

False Science

A good but depressing Boston Globe editorials examines why the Smithsonian would allow intelligent design to taint its scientific work.

Intelligent design got another museum boost Thursday night when the Discovery Institute hosted an invitation-only showing of ''The Privileged Planet" at the museum. This film contends that the life-sustaining position of Earth in its galaxy suggests the hand of an intelligent designer. The museum was supposed to be a cosponsor of the event in exchange for a payment of $16,000, but it refunded the money and took its name off the program when a furor erupted among scientists.

The push to make intelligent design respectable is part of a campaign to have it taught in public schools alongside evolution. The Discovery Institute is trying to increase the respectability of the theory by attaching it to legitimate scientific enterprises, such as the proceedings of the Biological Society and the Smithsonian.

The Museum of Natural History gets 70 percent of its funding from the federal government, which may explain why it allowed ''The Privileged Planet" to be shown amid the furor over the Sternberg case. Having gotten wind of the Sternberg case, US Representative Mark Souder, Republican of Indiana, is considering holding hearings on the back-and-forth over the film. He has demanded all relevant documents from the museum. As chairman of a subcommittee of the House panel that oversees the Smithsonian, he's within his rights to examine activities of the museum, but he should not use the controversies over von Sternberg and the movie as pretexts to lend the authority of Congress to intelligent design. Congress needs to focus on expanding scientific knowledge in the United States, not on worrying about dead-end, unscientific theories.

Remember, the Republicans running the country today are not small-government Republicans. They're big-government Republicans. They'd love nothing more than to use taxpayer money to perpetuate their anti-science religious beliefs.

George Will: A Debate That Does Not End

George F. Will is a hero to some conservatives, but unfortunately they tend not to be the types of conservatives who oppose the teaching of evolution. This column is typical Will, in that he gives us some ponderous thoughts on the Scopes trial ('The most widely publicized misdemeanor case in American history') and waits until the third from last paragraph to give us this:

The problem with intelligent-design theory is not that it is false but that it is not falsifiable: Not being susceptible to contradicting evidence, it is not a testable hypothesis. Hence it is not a scientific but a creedal tenet—a matter of faith, unsuited to a public school's science curriculum.

Theory of Evolution 'strong'

I hadn't blogged on this before, but the World Summit on Evolution ended two weeks ago on the Galapagos island of San Christobal. I like the nickname they gave it: The Woodstock of Evolution.