Teaching Evolution

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

Friday, September 30, 2005

100 Most Frequently Challenged Books -- Where's Darwin?

I guess I should be pleased that the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000 doesn't include any that have anything to do with evolution. (When a member of a community asks the library to pull a book from its shelves, that constitutes a challenge.)

But I really was baffled when I read the list. Yes, I know a lot of people don't like Huck Finn, and Of Mice and Men has lots of cussing in it. And obviously, any book that aims to teach adolescents about the changes in their bodies during puberty is going to be highly offensive to a certain segment of the population. But some of these titles are seemingly benign. I read A Day No Pigs Would Die when I was a kid and I can't think of any reason anyone would have a problem with it. (The No. 1 type of challenge is the "Anti-Family" category, and A Day No Pigs Would Die describes a loving relationship between a child and his parents.)

If you're looking to buy a book as a gift or for yourself, this list looks like it would be a great place to start.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Grow Some Testables

William Saletan writes about the trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, over the school board's requirement that intelligent design be taught. Money quote:

Under the policy, "Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, Intelligent Design." Notice the "of" before "other theories." The policy doesn't tell teachers to discuss gaps and problems in ID. It tells them to discuss gaps and problems in Darwinism—and then to discuss ID as an alternative "theory." The board's brief makes clear that the policy's aim is "informing students about the existing scientific controversy surrounding Darwin's Theory of Evolution, including the fact that there are alternative scientific theories."

The professor best known for championing intelligent design is Michael Behe, and Saletan discusses Behe's claim that intelligent design is, in fact, a falsifiable theory. Behe describes a hypothetical experiment that could disprove intelligent design, but you know what? I don't buy for a second that Behe would accept any experimental findings like the ones he describes. Once a "scientist" uses the old "because God made it that way" answer, why wouldn't he keep using it to explain anything that occurs in the lab?

Thanks to Paul Noonan for the tip.

Aids Virus Could be Weakening

This is so obvious I'm amazed I never thought of it before. It makes perfect sense that one of the reasons HIV has gone from a death sentence to a treatable illness is that the virus itself is weaker. We usually think of Darwinian evolution as the strong thriving while the weak die off, but think about what that means from the standpoint of a virus. If a virus is extremely strong, it will kill its host immediately -- before the host has had a chance to spread the virus to anyone else. And therefore the virus will be contained and will eventually die off, because it hasn't had the opportunity to find new hosts.

But a weak virus will stay around for a long time. If a virus takes decades to kill its host, it has decades to find new hosts.

As this article makes clear, newer samples of HIV appear not to multiply as well.

[Keith Alcorn, senior editor at the HIV information charity NAM, said] "This would suggest that over several generations, HIV could become less harmful to its human hosts.

"However, we are still far from that point - HIV is still a life-threatening infection."

Dr Marco Vitoria, an HIV expert at the World Health Organization, said other diseases - such as smallpox, TB and syphilis - had shown the same tendency to weaken over time.

"There is a natural trend to reach an 'equilibrium' between the agent and the host interests, in order to guarantee concomitant survival for a longer time," he said.

Note: Although I understand why it's necessary, I think it's a shame that writers of articles like this always feel the need to include so many disclaimers that "the latest findings should not lull people into a false sense of security." Only an idiot would come across this article and conclude that AIDS is no longer anything to worry about. I guess there are enough idiots out there, though, that it's a point that needs to be stressed.

Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan

UPDATE: An interesting look at the evolution of the cholera virus here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

ACLU Blogs on the Dover Trials

The ACLU, which is providing legal help to the courageous parents who are fighting to get rigorous science standards back in their children's classes, has its own blog to keep people posted on the trial.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

One in Five Americans Say Evolution "Definitely False"

No link because as far as I know this isn't online anywhere, but I just saw the latest Gallup poll on evolution. According to the summary, "By 58% to 26%, a majority of Americans express their belief in creationism; by 55% to 34%, a majority also accept evolution." Not entirely sure how that works, but I guess some people are able to explain to themselves why both are true.

But what disappointed me most was the question of whether creationism, evolution, and intelligent design were definitely true, probably true, probably false, or definitely false. Only 8 percent said creationism is definitely false, 10 percent said intelligent design is definitely false, and 20 percent said evolution is definitely false. Creationism also beats evolution in the definitely true category by 29-20 percent, with intelligent design coming in at 8 percent (more than a quarter of all people are not familiar with intelligent design, so it gets lower marks in all the categories.)

A simple way of reading this would be to say that if you know five people, chances are that one of them thinks evolution is definitely false. Fortunately, that's not true. You, the reader of this blog, likely surround yourself with educated, intelligent, curious-minded people. Sadly, even you probably know some people who think evolution is definitely false, but I'm betting it's less than one in five.

Monday, September 26, 2005

With the lawsuit starting over the Dover, Pennsylvania school board's decision to teach "alternatives" to evolution, here's a profile of some of the town's residents. Money quote:

For Mrs. Hied, a meter reader, and her husband, Michael, an office manager for a local bus and transport company, the Dover school board's argument - that teaching intelligent design is a free-speech issue - has a strong appeal.

"I think we as Americans, regardless of our beliefs, should be able to freely access information, because people fought and died for our freedoms," Mrs. Hied said over a family dinner last week at their home, where the front door is decorated with a small bell and a plaque proclaiming, "Let Freedom Ring."

If that's the best argument they can come up with, I feel a lot better about the prospects for the lawsuit than I did before I read this article. Anyone who gives it even a moment's thought realizes that this is in no way a free speech issue. No one is suggesting that people who doubt evolution should be barred by law from explaining themselves. The simple and obvious point that no one wants to guarantee the right of a history teacher to tell students that the Holocaust never happened will demonstrate how bogus that argument is.

Thanks to ejswanso for the tip.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Lessons from the Stem Cell Debate

I was doing some research unrelated to evolution today when I came across something that, I think, illustrates how the media are complicit in the general misunderstanding of science that taints our society.

First, take a look at this August 10, 2001 piece from the CNN archive. In it, CNN gives ample time to Tommy Thompson insisting that 60 stem cell lines were available and viable for research, just as President Bush had said when he announced the federal policy on stem cells. "Are they adequate?" Thompson said at a Washington news conference. "The answer is a resounding 'yes.' They are diverse, robust and viable for research." Although the first paragraph acknowledges "some scientists' concerns about the viability for research," no scientist is quoted explaining those concerns. Instead, we get Thompson repeating the administration's talking points.

Is it any wonder, then, that the CNN piece concludes with a heading that reads, "Poll shows public support"? Well, of course the public supported Bush at first. The public got its information from places like CNN. And CNN didn't tell people the whole story. It wasn't until May of 2003 -- nearly two years later -- that National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni acknowledged in Senate testimony that "NIH support has helped increase to 11 the number of human embryonic stem cell lines that are widely available for all researchers."

So two years after Bush told the country there were 60 lines available for research, the director of NIH is bragging about an increase to 11 lines.

Sadly, I don't think Bush was lying when he said there were 60 lines available. I think he surrounds himself with science advisors who are so incompetent that they honestly believed there were 60 lines available.

And that brings us back to evolution. The people at the top in our government aren't very good at science. But they are very good at media spin. So I can forgive the folks at home who try to sort out information about evolution and can't. What I can't forgive is the way the press fails us all by repeating the talking points of political hacks instead of shedding light on science.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

What is a Germ?

Stories like this bother me because of their use of the words "resistant" and "germ" without putting them into context.

The story talks about a "germ" that caused three deaths and says it's "resistant" to drugs.

But how hard would it be to make clear that the "germ" is not a virus, but bacteria, and that bacteria become resistant to drugs because of natural selection? It's very easy for people to understand that the bacteria that can't resist antibiotics are killed, those that can resist antibiotics survive, and when they reproduce, the drug-resistant bacteria are all that's left.

Of course, evolution is the bedrock of biology, and the way bacteria become resistant to drugs is a case study in how evolution works. Sadly, I think many journalists fail to understand this, and their readers suffer.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Robert Trivers

The Guardian has a great profile of Robert Trivers, who as a graduate student in the 1970s became one of the most eloquent writers about evolution. My favorite part:

Despite his history degree, it was obvious to his supervisors that he knew little about human biology, so he was given the animals to write about, and started to learn modern Darwinian biology. He fell in love with the logic of evolution. In the flow of genes through generations, and the steady, inexorable shaping of behaviour by natural selection, he saw a geometry of time, as beautiful as the geometry of space that Newton and Galileo had discovered.

Read the whole thing. Hat tip: aldaily

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Challenged by Creationists, Museums Answer Back

It's a shame that it's come to this, but I think museums are right to train their docents "on ways to deal with visitors who reject settled precepts of science on religious grounds."

One company, called B.C. Tours "because we are biblically correct," even offers escorted visits to the Denver Museum of Science and Nature. Participants hear creationists' explanations for the exhibitions.

So officials like Judy Diamond, curator of public programs at the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln, are trying to meet such challenges head-on.

Dr. Diamond is working on evolution exhibitions financed by the National Science Foundation that will go on long-term display at six museums of natural history from Minnesota to Texas. The program includes training for docents and staff members.

"The goal is to understand the controversies, so that people are better able to handle them as they come up," she said. "Museums, as a field, have recognized we need to take a more proactive role in evolution education."

One museum offers this list of answers to frequently asked questions to its docents, which seems like a good thing.

I worry, though, that National Science Foundation money will dry up. The politicial pressure to stop teaching evolution is only going to get worse.

Note: Be sure to check out the New York Times' index of articles on evolution.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Why Darwin's still a Scientific Hotshot

James D. Watson, who would know, writes a great piece on the modern application's of Darwin.

It may astonish those who think that evolutionary studies are carried out in the dusty rooms of museums amid all those specimens collected so many years ago, that the most impressive data supporting the laws of evolution come from the studies of the past 40 years in molecular genetics. The clearest evidence for the common ancestry of all living organisms comes from the universality of the genetic code, which provides the translation between the information in a gene and the protein encoded by that gene. With some variations, this code is the same for viruses, bacteria, worms, human beings, beetles, mice and slugs. The most extreme example is that bacteria can be given a human gene and they will make a human protein. What an extraordinary vindication of Darwin's ideas!

Darwin would have been thrilled to learn that the same set of 25,000 to 30,000 genes is present in most animals. Almost every gene in our DNA has a homologous gene in the DNA of other mammals, such as the mouse. It is even more extraordinary when we look at more distantly related organisms; the invertebrate sea squirt, for example, has only half our number of genes, but as many as two-thirds of these have homologues in human DNA.

Darwin had not anticipated that "Origin" would find an audience beyond the scientific elite, his peers. And yet the first printing of the book sold out at the pre-publication sale, with no fewer than one-third being bought by Mudie's Circulating Library, an endorsement equivalent to a recommendation today from Oprah Winfrey. The book, in short, was a sensation for the general public, and with good reason. Copernicus, Galileo and Newton had removed the Earth from its central position in the universe, although there was yet a grandeur in the ways the planets swept through space, and the regularities of their movements revealed the hand of the Creator. But the position of Man, as the image of God on Earth, was left unchanged by their revisions of the received cosmology. Darwin changed this. Although he made only the cryptic remark in "Origin" — "Much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history" — his readers were under no illusion of the consequences of accepting evolutionary arguments for the origin of man.

Today, there is a concerted effort by some religion-dominated scientists to treat evolution as a theory, as though that in some way diminishes its authority and power as an explanation of how the world works. Fortunately, the courts are exercising their wisdom and rejecting arguments of equal time for creationist beliefs in schools. We can only hope that a time will soon come when rational, skeptical thought renders the creationists' stories as what they are — myths.

Sadly, I'm not so sure that Watson is correct when he writes that the courts are rejecting equal time for creationism in school. But I've always found it amazing how well DNA has worked in establishing the fundamental truths behind Darwin's ideas. Think about how much the scientific world has changed since Darwin. (Darwin was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln, if that helps you envision what the world was like during his lifetime.) No one, in the middle of the 19th Century, could have imagined the discovery of DNA. And yet DNA has worked almost perfectly to illustrate that Darwin was right.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Science Without Borders

Can you imagine a Christian or Muslim leader telling his followers that if science ever showed something they believed was wrong, they'd have to change their beliefs? I can't. But that's exactly what the Dalai Lama says.

"My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims."

Thursday, September 15, 2005

March of the Conservatives: Penguin Film as Political Fodder

I mentioned before that I liked the movie Grizzly Man, and that I hadn't seen March of the Penguins because I had some reservations about what it suggested.

It turns out that some conservatives drew exactly the conclusions that I had feared, based on the reviews I've read.

On the conservative Web site WorldNetDaily.com, an opponent of abortion wrote that the movie "verified the beauty of life and the rightness of protecting it."

At a conference for young Republicans, the editor of National Review urged participants to see the movie because it promoted monogamy. A widely circulated Christian magazine said it made "a strong case for intelligent design."...

In part, the movie's appeal to conservatives may lie in its soft-pedaling of topics like evolution and global warming. The filmmakers say they did not consciously avoid those topics - indeed, they say they are strong believers in evolutionary theory - but they add that they wanted to create a film that would reach as many people as possible.

"It's obvious that global warming has an impact on the reproduction of the penguins," Luc Jacquet, the director, told National Geographic Online. "But much of public opinion appears insensitive to the dangers of global warming. We have to find other ways to communicate to people about it, not just lecture them."

That's gutless. Jacquet already has found another way to commuincate to people other than lecturing them. It's called making a movie. If the goal of his movie is to educate people about penguins, and people come away from the movie thinking they were designed that way rather than evolving to adapt to the conditions in which they lived, he's failed as a filmmaker.

I hope Roger Ebert has something to say about this.

Thanks to reader B for the tip.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Evolution Schmevolution

The Daily Show is devoting this week to evolution, and, of course, it's been great. Kurt Vonnegut's appearance last night was a bit strange (a brilliant guy, no doubt, but he's in his 80s and couldn't really keep up with the fast pace of Jon Stewart), but the previous night I enjoyed the discussion with Chris Mooney of The Republican War on Science.

Mooney made an interesting point about the anti-science views within the Republican Party, and how those views are one link between the religious right wing and the pro-business wing. There's no doubt that plenty of businesses have lied about science in an effort to cover up the deleterious effects of their products, but I think the religious folks and the business folks have such different aims that it's a relationship that can't last.

People who oppose science for religious reasons do so because they believe everything in the Bible is true. Science has disproved much of the Bible, so those folks have no choice but to deny the fundamental truths we've learned through scientific inquiry.

People who oppose science for business reasons, however, fully understand the need for scientific inquiry. General Electric executives might lie about science when discussing PCBs in the Hudson River, but they fully understand that having educated scientists is vital to their corporate goals. Ultimately, they'll support the teaching of science in a way the religious right won't.

Finally, one last note: Plenty of Democrats lie about science, too. Whether it's environmentalists overstating damage to the ecosystem or lefty sociologists insisting that genes have nothing to do with IQ, it's easy to find such examples. A book called The Democratic War on Science probably wouldn't have as much raw material to draw from, but it would still make a good read.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

America's Future Foundation ID Discussion

My Washington readers will be pleased to know that the America's Future Foundation is planning a roundtable discussion of Intelligent Design. I don't know anything about the panelists, but the two questions that they say will be answered speak volumes:

Is ID backlash for loss of local control over public schools and secularization of the curriculum? Is it symptomatic of a deepening cultural divide in America?

1. Backlash? If you feel that you're losing local control of your public schools, shouldn't you respond by doing all you can to make the education at your schools better? I don't see how turning science class into Sunday school accomplishes that.
2. The divide isn't about culture. It's about science, namely that a large (and, I fear, growing) number of Americans don't understand it and fear it. And worse, many of those Americans want to impose their anti-science views on the rest of us.

Teaching Science in Science Class

The Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon has a good editorial that places a bit of blame for Americans' ignorance of evolution on the public schools. I think it's a reasonable argument.

Most importantly, I think it's obvious from hearing public debate that the vast majority of Americans don't understand what a scientific theory is.

What seems abundantly clear from the Pew Center poll is that American public schools have consistently failed to teach students the fundamentals and vocabulary of the scientific method. Critics of evolution constantly repeat that it is "a theory, not a fact," clearly implying that alternative "theories" ought to get equal time in the classroom.

But this is a semantic subterfuge that succeeds precisely because so many products of the U.S. public school system - including many who now serve on school boards - don't know the difference between a scientific theory and the common usage of theory to mean a hunch or a speculation.

We need better science education in our schools, but I don't know if we're ever going to get it. There's such an anti-science mentality at the top of our government today that it's hard to imagine rigorous scientific standards becoming the norm in our classrooms.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Brain May Still Be Evolving, Studies Hint

Evolution is an ongoing process, not a path from Point A to Point B. So headlines like Brain May Still Be Evolving don't do much for me. Neither do sentences from the article like "It had been widely assumed until recently that human evolution more or less stopped 50,000 years ago." I don't think that's true. Evolution never really stops; certain traits will continue to make some people more likely to have children than others, and those traits will become more common. That's what evolution is, and it certainly didn't stop 50,000 years ago.

This article is interesting, though. Take a look at this:

The new finding, reported in today's issue of Science by Bruce T. Lahn of the University of Chicago, and colleagues, could raise controversy because of the genes' role in determining brain size. New versions of the genes, or alleles as geneticists call them, appear to have spread because they enhanced brain function in some way, the report suggests, and they are more common in some populations than others.

But several experts strongly criticized this aspect of the finding, saying it was far from clear that the new alleles conferred any cognitive advantage or had spread for that reason. Many genes have more than one role in the body, and the new alleles could have been favored for some other reason, these experts said, such as if they increased resistance to disease.

What bothers me is that there's a natural inclination to dispute any findings that some racist fool might possibly use to suggest that one group of people is naturally more intelligent than some other group of people. We ought to encourage researchers to find information without suggesting that a researcher who reaches a conclusion that isn't politically palatable has therefore committed bad science.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The President and Pseudo-Science

I read this post over at Andrew Sullivan without giving it much thought, other than my general feeling that South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, is almost certainly responsible for more AIDS deaths than any other person in history.

But my friend (and frequent commenter here) dhodge pointed out that Mbeki has some striking similarities with our own President Bush.

Read the whole article, and you'll see that because of Mbeki's complete ignorance of science, he wasn't able to discern the difference between the real medical breakthroughs that have been made in the fight against AIDS and the fools who espoused the idiotic idea that anti-retrovirals were toxic and there was no proof that HIV caused AIDS. As dhodge said to me, "It's very reminiscent of the ID/evolution debate in the US in many ways. A head of state propping up lies and pseudoscience in the hope of political (or perhaps financial) gains. Fortunately, no one is the US is dying due to ID."

The Legend of the Scopes Trial - Science didn't Win

"By the time of World War I," wrote the historian William Leuchtenberg, "an attack on Darwin seemed as unlikely as an attack on Copernicus."

But only a few years later, attacks on evolution were front-page news in every paper in the country as a science teacher in Tennessee went on trial for teaching Darwinism. David Greenbergwrites in Slate that science didn't win the Scopes trial, and he is of course right, both in the sense that Scopes had violated the law and in the sense that many people remained unconvinced by Clarence Darrow's effective deconstruction of creationism.

Many conservative Christians assumed they had prevailed at Dayton. While liberalism ascended in the public sphere, fundamentalism withdrew into local pockets and private subcultures where it thrived. Christian presses churned out anti-evolution books and pamphlets. Ministers warned their flocks of Darwin's folly. In Dayton, fundamentalists established Bryan College "based upon unequivocal acceptance of the inerrancy and authority of the Scriptures."

Indeed, large numbers of Americans continued to doubt Darwin and subscribe to literal readings of the Bible, some quite passionately. Anti-evolution sentiment was sufficiently strong in enough regions of the country to lead many biology-textbook writers to paint Darwin's teachings as less definitive than they are. Even George W. Hunter modified his Civic Biology—the book from which Scopes had feloniously taught—to make it palatable to scriptural literalists.

Note: Greenberg also writes that in the 1920s, Klan membership in the United States was about 5 million. I've done a bit of research on the Klan in the 1920s and plan to write about it some day, but I didn't realize it was that high. According to the 1920 census, U.S. population was just over 100 million. That would mean one in every 20 people was a member of the Klan. Stunning.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Undoing Darwin

I've mentioned before that I like the way Cornelia Dean has covered evolution and intelligent design in the New York Times.

The current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review also praises Dean's coverage of the issue but notes that many other media outlets haven't done such a good job of informing their readers about this "controversy." Read the whole thing.

Note: The co-author of this piece, Chris Mooney, has an interview here.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Chimps, Humans 96 Percent the Same

When determining the strength of a scientific theory, we need to test whether it's predictive. Darwin died before anyone knew what DNA was, but if his theory was right, once DNA is discovered and genomes can be encoded, humans and chimps will be found to be genetically similar.

Well, what do you know? Scientists have sequenced the genome of the chimpanzee and it's bad news for creationists.

[O]ur closest living relatives share 96 percent of our DNA. The number of genetic differences between humans and chimps is ten times smaller than that between mice and rats.