Category: Our Dear Leaders Speak

Will Anyone In Alabama Speak For Evolution?

By Carl Zimmer | May 12, 2010 12:23 pm

Let’s get this straight.

An ad attacks a Republican candidate for governor in Alabama, Bradley Byrne, for the horrible crime of defending the teaching of evolution.

Byrne lashes back, stating

As a member of the Alabama Board of Education, the record clearly shows that I fought to ensure the teaching of creationism in our school textbooks. Those who attack me have distorted, twisted and misrepresented my comments and are spewing utter lies to the people of this state.

The nerve of some people to make such horrible accusations.

But wait! As Talking Points Memo observes, the ad that made that scurrilous charge that Byrne might have a bias towards reality has an important back story:

The group behind the ad and others attacking Byrne’s conservative credentials is called the True Republican PAC. Interestingly, as the Montgomery Advertiser reported last month, the PAC has gotten most of its money from the teachers’ union — or, more accurately, from a collection of other PACs heavily funded by the union.

According to the Advertiser, members of the Alabama Education Association have a beef with Byrne for his past attempts to ban the employees of two-year colleges from serving in the state legislature.

Emphasis mine. So does this mean the teachers of Alabama support an attack on a political candidate for not being a creationist (an attack that sadly is not even true)? Is anybody standing up for science in Alabama?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Our Dear Leaders Speak

The Enlightenment Goes Dark

By Carl Zimmer | March 12, 2010 5:09 pm

jeffersonToday the Enlightenment and Thomas Jefferson were disappeared from Texas.

Here’s a live blog from this morning’s hearings at the Texas State Board of Education. (Emphasis mine.)

9:30 – Board member Cynthia Dunbar wants to change a standard having students study the impact of Enlightenment ideas on political revolutions from 1750 to the present. She wants to drop the reference to Enlightenment ideas (replacing with “the writings of”) and to Thomas Jefferson. She adds Thomas Aquinas and others. Jefferson’s ideas, she argues, were based on other political philosophers listed in the standards. We don’t buy her argument at all. Board member Bob Craig of Lubbock points out that the curriculum writers clearly wanted to students to study Enlightenment ideas and Jefferson. Could Dunbar’s problem be that Jefferson was a Deist? The board approves the amendment, taking Thomas Jefferson OUT of the world history standards.

9:40 – We’re just picking ourselves up off the floor. The board’s far-right faction has spent months now proclaiming the importance of emphasizing America’s exceptionalism in social studies classrooms. But today they voted to remove one of the greatest of America’s Founders, Thomas Jefferson, from a standard about the influence of great political philosophers on political revolutions from 1750 to today.

9:45 – Here’s the amendment Dunbar changed: “explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present.” Here’s Dunbar’s replacement standard, which passed: “explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau,  Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Sir William Blackstone.” Not only does Dunbar’s amendment completely change the thrust of the standard. It also appalling drops one of the most influential political philosophers in American history — Thomas Jefferson.

Incidentally, Thomas Jefferson was arguably America’s first paleontologist. Which certainly didn’t help his case in Texas.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Our Dear Leaders Speak

This Is The Dawning of Aquarius–In South Dakota

By Carl Zimmer | February 26, 2010 1:24 pm

South Dakota, are you kidding me? Astrology in the classroom?

In the fine tradition of creationist legislation that claims that evolution is “just” a theory and that requires the teaching of alternatives, the South Dakota legislature has passed a resolution on the teaching of climate change. Here’s how it starts.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, by the House of Representatives of the Eighty-fifth Legislature of the State of South Dakota, the Senate concurring therein, that the South Dakota Legislature urges that instruction in the public schools relating to global warming include the following: (1) That global warming is a scientific theory rather than a proven fact;
(2) That there are a variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological, thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics that can effect [sic] world weather phenomena and that the significance and interrelativity of these factors is largely speculative…

That red color is mine. This resolution was not just offered, folks. It was approved by a majority of the legislature. Astrology and all.

At least I know what astrological means. Someone’s going to have to help me with thermological, though. It’s not even in the dictionary. (Whoops–I found it in the Oxford English Dictionary. Having to do with heat. Still, though–what about cosmological? Is global warming from the Big Bang?)

Wow. That is all.

Update: Thanks to Loree for pointing out that this original language was amended before the vote. Here‘s what it ended up as:

A CONCURRENT RESOLUTION, Calling for a balanced approach for instruction in the public schools relating to global climatic change.

WHEREAS, evidence relating to global climatic change is complex and subject to varying scientific interpretations; and
WHEREAS, there are a variety of climatological and meteorological dynamics that can affect world weather phenomena, and the significance and interrelativity of these factors remain unresolved; and
WHEREAS,  the debate on global warming has subsumed political and philosophical viewpoints, which has complicated and prejudiced the scientific investigation of global climatic change phenomena:

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, by the House of Representatives of the Eighty-fifth Legislature of the State of South Dakota, the Senate concurring therein, that the South Dakota Legislature urges that all instruction in the public schools relating to global climatic change be presented in a balanced and objective manner and be appropriate to the age and academic development of the student and to the prevailing classroom circumstances.”.

Thankfully, those who don’t know the difference between astrology and astronomy didn’t get their way. But the “balanced” rhetoric that remains is straight out of the creationist playbook. For more, see Science Progress.

[via Think Progress]

Sarah Palin On The Origin of Species

By Carl Zimmer | November 15, 2009 10:12 pm

Palin “didn’t believe in the theory that human beings — thinking, loving beings — originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea” or from “monkeys who eventually swung down from the trees.”

Quoted in Michiko Katutani’s review of Sarah Palin’s new memoir.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Our Dear Leaders Speak

Missing The Wrist

By Carl Zimmer | July 14, 2008 5:07 pm

We’re all for open and objective discussions of scientific theories, right? Who wouldn’t be? If your kids are taking physics in high school, you want them to read critiques of gravity, right? After all, shouldn’t they know that there are some serious weaknesses in the theory of gravity? Right? For instance, the theory of gravity says that gravity makes things fall down. But planets don’t fall into the sun. They go around it. So which is it–down or around? Clearly the theory of gravity is deficient. Right?

Wrong, of course. You don’t teach critical thinking with patent nonsense.

A couple weeks ago Louisiana passed a new science education act that promotes “critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” Along with the regular textbook, the law states, teachers “may use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner.” The law “shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.”

What the law does not make clear, however, is how schools will determine whether the extra instructional material is good science or nonsense. There is nothing in the law that would keep a teacher from introducing a bogus non-argument about gravity and the revolution of the planets.

I was reminded of this sad fact when I read a post published today by Casey Luskin, a staffer at the Discovery Institute, an outfit that promotes intelligent design. Luskin has been one of the leaders of the Discovery Institute’s efforts to get so-called “academic freedom” bills passed in states around the country. He personally testified in Louisiana in favor of their new education bill. When he’s not busy with politics, Luskin writes posts at the Discovery Institute’s “Evolution News and Views” site, where he “critiques” research on evolutionary biology, claiming to find major flaws. But his critique make as much sense as the falling-or-revolving challenge to gravity.

The subject of the post is a 375-million-year-old fossil that helps reveal the transition of our ancestors from the water to land, known as Tiktaalik. I’ve written about Tiktaalik here, and you can get more details from the book Your Inner Fish, written by Neil Shubin, one of Tiktaalik’s discoverers. (Here’s a review I wrote in Nature.)

Luskin claims that Neil Shubin calls Tiktaalik a fish with a wrist, but “from what I can tell, Tiktaalik doesn’t have one.” The bulk of the post is taken up by Luskin’s fruitless search for a diagram or some other helpful information, either in Shubin’s book or the original papers. He is frustrated not to find a picture showing a wrist on Tiktaalik compared to the wrist of a tetrapod (a land vertebrate). This sort of “evidence” leads Luskin to conclude that Shubin has something to hide. “In the end, it’s no wonder Shubin chose not to provide a diagram comparing Tiktaalik’s fin-bones to the bones of a real tetrapod limb,” he writes.

Instead, Luskin is forced to read a scientific paper. He writes:

So we are left to decipher his jargon-filled written comparison in the following sentence by sentence analysis:

1. Shubin et al.: “The intermedium and ulnare of Tiktaalik have homologues to eponymous wrist bones of tetrapods with which they share similar positions and articular relations.” (Note: I have labeled the intermedium and ulnare of Tiktaalik in the diagram below.)

Translation: OK, then exactly which “wrist bones of tetrapods” are Tiktaalik’s bones homologous to? Shubin doesn’t say. This is a technical scientific paper, so a few corresponding “wrist bone”-names from tetrapods would seem appropriate. But Shubin never gives any.

Um…Shubin did give them. They are called the intermedium and ulnare. (I just double-checked, for example, in Vertebrates by Ken Kardong, on p.332.) Shubin and his colleagues found two bones in the limb of Tiktaalik that bear a number of similarities to the intermedium and ulnare in the tetrapod wrist–in terms of their arrangement with other limb bones, for example. That’s why Shubin and company refer to the bones in Tiktaalik’s limb by the same two names. They are homologous–in other words, their similarities are due to a common ancestry.

So Luskin wants to know what bones in the tetrapod limb are homologous to Tiktaalik’s intermedium and ulnare. The answer is…the intermedium and ulnare. He has unwittingly answered his own question. Now, perhaps Luskin got tripped up in Shubin’s “jargon-filled” writing. But that doesn’t change the facts–merely Luskin’s understanding of them.

Luskin’s entire post is based on a mistaken notion of homology–the similarity of traits due to common ancestry. The bones of a bird’s wing do not look just like a human arm. Many of the wrist bones in our arm are not present in a bird’s wing, for example, and instead of five fingers the bird has a rod-like bone at the end. But they still bear an overall resemblance in their arrangement. And when evolutionary biologists arrange birds and mammals in an evolutionary tree, they can see some of the steps by which an ancestral tetrapod limb evolved into our arm in one lineage, and into the bird wing in another.

Shubin and his colleagues offer a detailed analysis in their paper of how the intermedium and ulnare in Tiktaalik are homologous to the bones of the same name in tetrapod wrists. Not only do the bones have similar arrangements, but they also allow the limb to bend in a similar way to how the tetrapod wrist bends the hand. They also present evidence for the homology of other bones in Tiktaalik’s limb to the tetrapod limb. Some bones in the tetrapod limb don’t exist in Tiktaalik’s, and some of the bones that are there are different in some respects–size, and shape, and so on. But the relationship of the bones to each other makes sense if they’re the result of a shared ancestry with tetrapods.

To say that Tiktaalik lacks a wrist because it doesn’t have all of the bones in a tetrapod limb is to misunderstand how evolution works.

Luskin suggests instead it would be easier to make Tiktaalik a forerunner of lungfish. (Lungfish are among the closest living relatives of tetrapods, but our last common ancestor with them lived over 400 million years ago.) “Without trying to force-fit the fin of Tiktaalik into a pre-conceived evolutionary story,” he declares, “the living species that Tiktaalik’s fin seems to bear a much closer relationship to is the lungfish.”

Note the word seems.

If Luskin were offering a real scientific hypothesis, he could do an anlysis of lungfish, Tiktaalik, tetrapods, and other vertebrates–comparing not just their limbs but their heads, spines, and so on to figure out their evolutionary relationships. That’s exactly what Shubin and his colleagues did in their original paper on Tiktaalik. They compared 114 traits on species from nine different lineages of tetrapods and their aquatic relatives, including the lineage that produced today’s lungfish. And that analysis shows that Tiktaalik is more closely related to us than to lungfish.

Luskin apparently doesn’t need to do this sort of science. He can just announce what seems right to him personally.

If this is the sort of stuff that’s used to promote “critical thinking” in Louisiana classrooms, don’t be surprised to hear about the great gravity hoax.

Update: PZ Myers has more.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Our Dear Leaders Speak

Jack Kemp Phillis Schlafly: Evolution as Evil Plot

By Carl Zimmer | August 23, 2006 11:07 am

From his latest column:

Liberals see the political value to teaching evolution in school, as it makes teachers and children think they are no more special than animals. Childhood joy and ambition can turn into depression as children learn to reject that they were created in the image of God.

He may not be in office any more, but this piece wins Kemp an honorary spot in the creationist-friendly political pantheon.

Update: Thursday 8/24 Turns out this is the work of the old foe of evolution, Phyllis Schlafly. Kemp’s view on evolution remain a mystery. More here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Our Dear Leaders Speak

They Just Keep Piling On

By Carl Zimmer | January 10, 2006 12:40 pm

Governor Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky uses his State of the Commonwealth speech last night to plug intelligent design:

As I close, let me recognize Kentucky’s veterans. You have served to protect our liberty and the freedom that spurs our quality of life in this nation. Please know that this administration is committed to supporting you.

And where does this freedom come from that many have died to protect?

Our founding fathers recognized that we were endowed with this right by our creator.

So I ask, what is wrong with teaching “intelligent design” in our schools. Under KERA, our school districts have that freedom and I encourage them to do so.

This is not a question about faith or religion. It’s about self-evident truth.

Did you know that the Declaration of Independence was a biology textbook?

I’m going to create a new tag for these little entries. I hope I won’t be adding too many more entries to it, but I won’t be surprised if I do. [Update: See under “Our Dear Leaders Speak”]

(Hat tip: Ars Technica)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Our Dear Leaders Speak
MORE ABOUT: Evolution

And Introducing Our Latest Creationism-Friendly Politician, The Governor of Texas!

By Carl Zimmer | January 6, 2006 11:38 am

Rick Perry’s on board! And no postmodern vagueness for him. He’s here to tell us that intelligent design is a “valid scientific theory.” That’s right, governor. Just check out all the work on intelligent design going on in the biology department at your state’s fine university. Um…wait…it’s there somewhere. Just let me figure out how to work this search function…

(Hat tip to Panda’s Thumb.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Our Dear Leaders Speak
MORE ABOUT: Evolution

More Fun With Our Post-Modern Politicians

By Carl Zimmer | December 28, 2005 10:03 am

Why is it that politicians who say they want to strengthen science teaching standards can sound so post-modern about science? Two examples:

1. John McCain grooving with the kids on MTV about evolution:

“I see no reason why students should not be exposed to all theories, recognizing that Darwin’s theory’s certainly one that is generally accepted in most of the scientific community. I think it’s not inappropriate to say there are also people who believe this. Let the student decide.” [Emphasis mine]

Okay students, we’ve spent our science class this year learning all theories about the universe. We’ve learned about astrology, about the creation tales of the Scythians, and we had a special visit from Mr. Peterson who has been trying to create his own universe in his garage with tin foil and a magnifying lens. I know some of you were not happy that we had to squeeze all of modern astronomy into a ten-minute survey, but it’s hard to fit all theories into a year. But don’t worry about your exam. See, here it is–just one question: “Which theory do you decide is right? Don’t bother to explain why.”

2. Jeb Bush’s Secret:

The governor of Florida has proven hiimself a real pro at hemming and hawing about evolution. In the wake of the Dover decision, Bush was asked by the Miami Herald whether he believes in the theory of evolution.

His response:

`Yeah, but I don’t think it should actually be part of the curriculum, to be honest with you. And people have different points of view and they can be discussed at school, but it does not need to be in the curriculum.”

Okay, students, today we’re going to learn about evolution. Since we couldn’t learn about it at school, we’ve come to the governor’s mansion. Remember, this is all off the record.

[Hat tips to Red State Rabble and Political Animal.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Our Dear Leaders Speak

Florida, Where The Living Is Contradictory

By Carl Zimmer | October 10, 2005 12:16 pm

When it comes to evolution, the nation’s attention is focused these days on Dover, Pennsylvania, where parents are suing the local board of education for introducing creationism into the classroom. It’s certainly an important case, but if you really want to get a sense of what’s at stake in the struggle over evolution, I suggest you turn your attention south, to the sunshine state. Florida is trying to have it both ways when it comes to creationism, and sooner or later something’s going to have to give.

Two weeks ago, governor Jeb Bush broke ground on what he has called “a defining moment in Florida’s future.” The Scripps Research Institute, one of the world’s premier biomedical institutions, has agreed to build a huge east-coast campus in Palm Beach. Bush and his fellow Florida politicians had lobbied hard for Scripps to come to their state, because they expect it to be a vast economic boon. Thousands of people work at Scripps, investigating everything from regenerating nerve cells to potential cures for AIDS. It gets lots of money from the National Institutes of Health and other sources to pay all those taxpayers. On top of these attractions, Scripps has spun off dozens of start-up biotech companies around its main campus near San Diego. At the same time, it has attracted other companies to set up shop nearby, further vitalizing the southern California economy. Governor Bush hopes that Scripps East will do the same for Florida. It’s predicted to bring over three billion dollars to the community.

It’s a simple fact that when you bring such a leading player in biological research to your state, you bring a major dose of evolution as well. Evolution is part of the foundation of modern biological research, and the work at Scripps is no exception.

For years Scripps has fostered some of the most ambitious investigations of evolution. At the lab of Paul Schimmel, for example, scientists investigate the evolution of the genetic code: the way in which the sequence in our DNA gets translated into proteins. Gerald Joyce and his colleagues investigate the theory that DNA-based life evolved from a simpler precursor some 4 billion years ago. Floyd Romesburg studies how the structures and functions of proteins have evolved over billions of years, using rapidly changing antibodies as a model. While these scientists are trying to understand what happened to life in the distant past, their work is also serving as the seeds for new start-up companies that hope to make money on new kinds of biological molecules.

Evolutionary biology also helps guide medical research at Scripps. Some researchers study how resistance to drugs evolves in HIV and bacteria. Last year scientists made some important progress in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria by discovering how to prevent the microbes from evolving.

Claes Wahlestedt, one of the scientists who will be setting up shop on Scripp’s Florida campus, searches for new drugs by understanding how the human genome evolved. Genes only become active in our cells when certain proteins lock onto small stretches of DNA near them called enhancers. The enhancer bends until it meets up with another piece of DNA called a promoter. That bending acts like a switch, turning on the gene, allowing it to produce a protein. The elements of these switches are very hard to pinpoint in the human genome. That’s because they are very short and are located hundreds or thousands of positions away from the gene they control. Making matters worse, they are usually nestled within long stretches of DNA that don’t appear to serve any function. Finding these switch elements could prove very important to medicine. A mutation to a switch may make people prone to certain diseases or respond poorly to certain medicines.

Wahlestedt is finding these promoters, and it’s evolution he’s using as his guide. He and his colleagues described their approach in an open-access paper published earlier this year in the journal BMC Genomics. They lined up the sequences of human genes with their corresponding genes in mice. They then looked near the genes, in the long sequence of non-coding DNA, searching for short stretches of DNA that were similar in both species. Their reasoning was this: if a piece of non-coding DNA in the common ancestor of humans and mice didn’t serve an important function, it might pick up mutations over time without causing any harm. As a result, most non-coding sequences should be noticeably different in humans and mice, because we share an ancestor that lived some 100 million years ago. But switches probably played a vital role in that common ancestor, and most mutations that struck them would have had a devastating effect. Natural selection should have prevented most of these mutations from becoming fixed in both humans and mice. As a result, parts of DNA involved in switching genes on and off should look very similar in humans and mice, unlike the other non-coding DNA.

Wahlestedt and his colleagues used this method to identify a number of candidate switches. Further tests confirmed that most of them actually did affect the way genes work. And still more tests showed that humans carry different versions of these switches, and that these differences affect the way that these genes make proteins. If Wahlestedt had used creationism as his guide, he’d still be floundering in an ocean of DNA.

In other words, Jeb Bush is bringing evolution into Florida. But you have to wonder if he knows what he’s doing. That’s because in addition to bringing Scripps to Florida, he’s bringing in a creationist to run his schools.

In August, Bush appointed Cheryl Yecke as his state chancellor of K-12 education. In her previous job, Yecke had served as Minnesota’s state education commissioner. A self-proclaimed creationist, she had said she wanted to get science classes to discuss “a higher power creating life alongside evolution.” Major science organizations, such as the American Institute of Biological Sciences were appalled. Yecke lost the post after a year, but Bush decided she was the right woman for the job in Florida.

Yecke has company in the sunshine state. The chair of the state House Education Council favors teaching intelligent design, and recently introduced a bill that he said would allow students to sue their professors if they didn’t consider it in class. Science standards are up for review next year in Florida, and as this article in yesterday’s Palm Beach Post explains, some observers won’t be surprised if a Kansas-style battle erupts.

How does Jeb Bush handle this contradiction? How does he explain simultaneously embracing evolution-based cutting edge biology and hiring a creationist to run his schools? Florida newspapers are discovering that his solution is simply to avoid the issue altogether.

This summer, for example, reporters approached the governor after he attended a meeting about Florida’s science standards. They asked him if intelligent design should be taught. As the Saint Petersburg Times reported in August, he declined to comment. Later, the Times asked his education commissioner, and he declined too.

Last week Bush was asked again about whether he believes, like his brother, that intelligent design belongs in science classes.

“I don’t know…I don’t know,” he said. “It’s not part of our standards. Nor is creationism. Nor is Darwinism or evolution either.”

That’s wrong. Natural selection and other evolutionary processes are part of the science standards. When Bush was informed of this, he blamed his education commissioner for misleading him. ”I like what we have right now,” he added. “And I don’t think there needs to be any changes. I don’t think we need to restrict discussion, but it doesn’t need to be required, either.”

When pressed further about these contradictions, Bush simply clammed up, as the Miami Herald reported yesterday:

“That is so loaded. That’s like, you’ve already written the article, why do you want me in it? It’s not fair,” Bush told a reporter when asked.

So that’s a ”no” then?

”No, that’s nothing,” Bush said. “That’s no comment. The governor refused to comment. That’s what it is in the article: The governor refused to comment.”

It’s possible that Bush is trying to run out the clock before he’s forced to say something coherent about evolution and creationism. After all, his term ends next year, so any fallout from a fight over school standards may just wind up as the next governor’s problem.

Claes Wahlestedt is frankly baffled by the hostility to evolution in his newly adopted home of Florida. “All our work at Scripps gives evidence of the existence of evolution,” he told the Palm Beach Post yesterday.

I don’t know how long Florida will be able to go on this way, trying to attract the biotech industry while its leading state officials try to teach its students that creationism is an equally valid way of understanding life. Sooner or later, something’s got to give.

Update: 10/9 6:30 pm Fixed description of promoters. Thanks to John TImmer for sending me back to my bio textbook.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Our Dear Leaders Speak

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The Loom

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

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