Evolution in Alabama

By Carl Zimmer | May 12, 2010 9:26 pm

Earlier today I noted a weird situation in Alabama, with a teacher-union-funded ad attacking a candidate for governor for believing in evolution, and the candidate declaring himself a defender of creationism in the schools. I wondered who would speak up for science in Alabama. But I’d be remiss not to point out that good research in evolutionary biology does get done there. For example:

Beatrice Hahn studies the evolution of HIV from chimpanzee-infecting viruses.

Marshal Abrams studies the philosophical foundations of fitness.

Phillip Harris studies the evolution of diversity in freshwater fishes.

John Yoder studies the evolution of new organs.

Steven Secor studies the evolution of digestion in reptiles and amphibians, and what they surprisingly say about the evolution of our own species.

Jeannette Doeller and David Kraus have designed an innovative course on integrating evolution and medicine.

I could go on (and please feel free add other scientists in the comment thread). Suffice to say, there’s good stuff going on in Alabama. Too bad it’s not better known there.

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Comments (22)

Links to this Post

  1. Delusion Dandruff « Simple Country Physicist | May 14, 2010
  1. Brian Axsmith

    My lab studies the fossil record of vascular plants. I also teach a course in Evolutionary Biology and another on critical thinking.

    Tell me, in what other state does the general public accept evolution and expect their elected officials to be outspoken about it? From the polls I have seen, being a science teacher is no guarantee of acceptance of evolution either.

  2. Don’t forget Debra Moriarity, the biologist who put herself in front of a mass murderer’s gun to save the rest of the biology faculty at University of Alabama, Huntsville: http://chronicle.com/article/Heroic-Professor-Describes/64214/

  3. Julia V

    i’d say this debate should have no place neither in public schools nor in politics as the last time i heard we had separation of church and state in US. Perhaps someone should remind people of Alabama of that… as well as of what happens in countries that don’t follow this very useful principal…

  4. Taylor B

    Im a molecular biology student in Alabama currently. Coincidentally I worked in an the lab of a student of Hawn. There is science in AL! You just have to look, but too bad nobody wants to fight the religious masses here.

  5. Taylor B

    http://gump.auburn.edu/liles/ Dr. Liles is study ways to use metagenomics to find antibiotic compounds present in poorly understood soil metagenomes.

    http://gump.auburn.edu/suh/ Dr. Suh studies molecular mechanisms of bacterial stress sesponse and Pathogenesis. Also he is seeking ways to utilize of P aeruginosa as a biological factory similar to E. coli

  6. The commercials are a non-surprise in Alibam. One cannot be a politician, or apparently, office holder, in Alibam without being a professed Christian, preferably of some fundamentalist sect that stops short of manipulating reptiles, an advocate of women as chattels, and a proponent of the most odious of pork projects. Education is seen by the vast majority of the electorate as an evil of biblical proportion – all education, not just evolution or science. It would be convenient to attribute all this to ignorance or stupidity but it transcends that. Alibam is a third world country embedded in the republic; the only reason we don’t see dinosaurs wandering about is that they have all been shot by upstanding citizens from the security of the cabs of their pickup trucks.

  7. J Morber

    As someone who grew up in AL, I find this sad for the region and for the country. If the state cannot uphold the US Constitution, then the Federal Government needs to step in. When I was in school, this was not even an issue. The Episcopal School I attended had no trouble teaching evolution and other factual scientific concepts.

  8. jo challis

    creationalism? I had to laugh at that one…. with the deepest respect of course! I would love to corner the dolt who equates theories of evolution with blasphemy. All life is sentient and reactionary therefore evolutionary. If “god” created all things then he also created evolution…doh….and the minds that love to study it! Religion is a marvellous institution encouraging core values of decency and mutual appreciation of fellow earth dwellers. The quest for greater understanding of evolution should be embraced and marketed as the honorable thing to do. Its akin to getting an eye test and refusing to wear glasses as god intended bleary vision?
    Historically religion demands scholars to interpret teachings of religious thought and as societies evolved so did the teachings. Evolution is an area of study which is incomprehensible to the primitive mind, so lets remind all scholars that the search for knowledge is devine, to question is to understand and enlightenment is to accept what is found, we are no longer primitive minds , we do question, and we accept that the religious teachings of creation theory needs a modern interpretation. Evolution theory does not negate religious teachings, rather it emphasises that theres something pretty awesome out there , evolution is a miracle of the myriad kind.

  9. tikifire

    Jo, you’re forgetting that Alabama is in the bible belt and full of fundamentalist Christians. They have to take every word in the bible as truth (at least the words they agree with) and for them that makes evolution the great evil.

  10. kirk

    I think the issue is who might COME from Alabama not only who ended up there:
    Edward Osborne Wilson

  11. ihateaphids

    I’ll be going there to teach population genetics next year!

  12. Allen Collins

    My buddy Bob is an awesome evolutionary biologist working in Alabama.
    http://www.uab.edu/uabbio/thacker.htm

  13. fasteddie

    ihateaphids: “I’ll be going there to teach population genetics next year!”

    Don’t forget to include all the “begat” parts of the Bible!

  14. L in AL

    I work in a forensic lab. I’m a Californian transplant to AL.

    One of my Christian coworkers said yesterday, in reference to the ad mentioned in the post, “Both evolution and creationism need to be taught in schools. They’re both theories!”

    This from a woman who has an advanced science degree. Seriously.

    Sigh.

  15. Leslie Rissler studies the evolution of amphibians, particularly in the Southeastern US and in California. She also teaches the upper-level undergraduate and graduate course on evolution at the University of Alabama. (That’s right, there is an evolution course in Alabama. And it’s highly effective.)
    http://web.mac.com/ljrissler

  16. TiminAL

    I teach high school biology in southern AL, and the problem isn’t just people like Byrne and those who made the ad against him. The problem is that people like the ones you list (who do excellent research!) mostly stay silent in the state speaking out for evolution. There aren’t any vocal advocates for evolution in AL who are also experts on evolution. They do a lot of complaining that no one accepts evolution, but then they don’t follow it up with any efforts to change it. We should applaud them but also wag our fingers at them, IMHO.

  17. Jim fisher

    Hi. I’m an aspiring politician in Alabama and am thoroughly embarrased fir the people making us look like a bunch of ignorant hicks. There are at least 20 smart people in this state. Unfortunately, none of them ate in politics. One of these days ….

  18. “Alibam is a third world country embedded in the republic”

    Well, this is a bit offensive. You may be surprised of how secular South America is. Where I live (Argentina) most of the people would lough to the idea of teaching creation as equivalent to Evolution. I would say that the same is true for some neighbouring countries like Uruguay and Brazil… I think is not unaccurate to say that christian fundamentalism is mostly an american problem.

  19. Dante

    @Third world Physicist
    I’m not sure about Brazil and Uruguay, I’ve heard of alot of fundies there, including self flagelating ones. But at least they don’t run the country. I find it highly saddening that people put “Hey, old man in the sky popped his fingers and it magically appeared in a way that it would’ve happened eventually” and a highly valued, accurate, backed up by evidence scientific theory on the same scale.

    “They’re both theories” is the biggest fallacy I’ve heard. Creationism is at best a hypothesis that has ABSOLUTELY no evidence to point out it’s veridicity other than what ID proponents misrepresent as “evidence” (Irreducible complexity is crap”)

  20. mistero6374

    Back in the 1960’s I was an English Instructor at the University of Alabama. (Roll Tide!)

    In one of my classes I was leading a discussion of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” when we came to the “nature red in tooth and claw” passage.

    After class, one little beauty queen with a bee-hive hair-do and the required Bass Weejun loafers so “de rigeur” at the time asked me if I believed that “stuff” about evoution. I answered her by saying that very nearly all reputable scientists believed that evolution was a fact, not an unproven hypothesis. She, of course, was not serious. She was just “playing up to the professor.” She really didn’t care what my answer was. She just wanted to seem “interested” so her chances of a good grade would be enhanced.

    However, our conversation was overheard by a rather plain, but very rich, young girl from one of the rural counties in south-eastern Alabamawhere her father was an important judge.

    Plain Jane called her father the judge and reported that an English teacher at Bama was teaching evolution instead of English grammar and rhetoric. The judge then called the Lieutenant Governor who called the President of the University who called the Dean of Arts and Sciences who called the Head of the English Department who called me in to his office for a “serious” conversation.

    Well, being a clever young man who needed my job to feed my wife and a new-born son, I caved in and said it wouldn’t happen again.

    We have not advanced very far since then.

    Seeming to believe in evolution just cost gubernatorial candidate Bradley Bentley his chance to become governor in the 2010 election.

    I welcome your comments on my guestbook at

    http://members.tripod.com/mistero/pythonencounters.html

  21. mistero6374

    Fasteddie!

    Be careful. I am an old warrior now, but when I was young I proved that my father was right when he said that my mouth was whatt would get me in trouble.

    You might be interested in the following websites:

    http://members.tripod.com/mistero/pythonencounters.html

    http://members.tripod.com/mistero/alligatorencounters.html

    If you want to know what really happened when George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door in 1963, just contact me at wofo@hotmail.com. I was standing there like Forrest Gump!

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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