RNCSE 21 (3-4)

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
21
Issue: 
3–4
Year: 
2001
Date: 
May–August
Articles available online are listed below.

Flat Earth Society President Dies

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Flat Earth Society President Dies
Author(s): 
John R. Cole, Contributing Editor
Volume: 
21
Issue: 
3–4
Year: 
2001
Date: 
May–August
Page(s): 
6
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Charles K Johnson, president of the International Flat Earth Society for almost 30 years, died in March at age 76. Johnson succeeded the late Samuel Shenton of Dover, England, as head of the often-ridiculed organization, which steadfastly opposed evolution and most of the physics, geology, and astronomy of the past half millennium.

As former NCSE president Bob Schadewald stressed, Charlie was "on the level". He sincerely believed that a literal reading of the Bible required one to recognize that the world is flat. His flamboyant newsletter was contemptuous of fellow creationists who accepted GREASEBALL EARTH THEORY (he tended to capitalize every third word or so) because they were not true biblical literalists. "Greaseball" was his universal term for round-earthers who, he noted, would obviously slide off a spherical earth.

Many creationists resented being lumped with Johnson, but they actually shared his logic and approach to science, relying on scripture as the ultimate authority in science and demanding that "common sense" and direct observation were the only tools needed or even allowed in scholarship. Johnson often showed people a photograph of his wife in Australia, noting that she was standing upright and not hanging upside down by her toes as she would have to have done had the world been a GREASEBALL. He had proof he was eager to share that the sun is 32 miles wide and 3000 miles from earth (just a bit closer than Heaven) and that John Kennedy and his close friend "Nicky" Khrushchev worked together to foment the hoax of a space race and moon landing in order to make a fortune for their friends. (The moon landing was a Hollywood stunt actually filmed near Johnson's trailer home in the Mojave Desert or perhaps in Arizona. It was scripted by Arthur C Clarke.)

The Flat Earth Society traced its roots to the Universal Zetetic Society, founded in England in 1832 by Sir Birley Rowbotham, author of Earth Not a Globe. Robert Schadewald befriended Johnson and his wife Marjory, writing several articles on the movement that illustrated the intellectual history and themes linking the creationist movement with both flat-earth and geocentrist belief (see, for examples, Schadewald's "Looking for lighthouses" in Creation/Evolution 1992; 12 [2]: 1-4 and his "The evolution of Bible-science" in Scientists Confront Creationism, ed. Laurie Godfrey, New York: WW Norton, 1983, 283-99).

Marjory Johnson's death several years ago and a fire that destroyed Society mailing lists and documents to severely limit Johnson's activities in his last years. At his death he was attempting to reconstruct the 2000 names in the FES membership — some of whom (such as this writer) were not believers.

Stanley Weinberg, NCSE Founder, Dies

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Stanley Weinberg, NCSE Founder, Dies
Author(s): 
Eugenie C. Scott
Volume: 
21
Issue: 
3–4
Year: 
2001
Date: 
May–August
Page(s): 
11–13
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Stanley L Weinberg, a founder of NCSE, died in Ottumwa, Iowa, on March 28, 2001. He was 89 years old. He had not been active in NCSE affairs for several years, having suffered from a stroke. Stan is survived by his wife Irene and his two daughters, Ellen and Susan Weinberg.

Stan was born in New York City on August 21, 1911. He received a bachelor's degree in biology from City College of New York in 1933 (cum laude) and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He had graduate training at Columbia, New York University, and the Marine Biological Laboratory, and received a masters degree from Northeast Missouri State University in 1971. He was a high school science teacher in New York from 1935 to 1957, interrupted by World War II, during which he was a captain in the Army Air Corps. After publishing a high school biology textbook, Biology: An Inquiry Into the Nature of Life (Allyn and Bacon), Stan retired to Irene's home town of Ottumwa, Iowa, in 1967.

Among his many awards are the Iowa Academy of Science Distinguished Service Award (1982), election to honorary membership of the National Association of Biology Teachers (1985), the Iowa Intellectual Media Association Intellectual Freedom Award (1987), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award, which he shared in 1987 with Francisco Ayala and Norman Newall. He also received an award from the Friends of Education of the Ottumwa Education Association for his "lifelong commitment to the educational community and defense of legitimate scientific inquiry." He was a fellow of the Iowa Academy of Science and of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science.

Stan's concern with the creation and evolution controversy went back to the early 1970s, when the high school biology textbook he had authored was submitted for adoption in Texas. Because of its strong presentation of evolution, the book was denounced by creationists. His textbook was adopted, but the experience made Stan acutely aware of the importance of the political side of the creation and evolution controversy. continued

During the late 1970s, the "creation science" movement appeared as a national force in science education. In May 1979, the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) published a resolution encouraging school districts and state legislatures to promote "balanced presentation of evolution and scientific creationism" (Impact 1979; 71: 1). Although the ICR stated that "this is a suggested resolution, to be adopted by boards of education, not legislation proposed for enactment as law" (emphasis in original), South Carolinian Paul Ellwanger developed sample legislation to enact the ICR's resolution. Clones of the Ellwanger bill soon began appearing in states all over the country; by March 1981, 15 states had introduced "equal time" bills.

Stan and many other teachers and scientists were concerned about this legislation and began planning how to oppose it. Stan's genius was recognizing the quintessential grassroots nature of both the legislative action and the anti-evolution movement itself. There was, in fact, no national push to promote this legislation — the Ellwanger model legislation circulated privately to individuals and organizations with which Ellwanger was familiar, and grassroots interest took over from there. But anti-evolution sentiment in the American public is easily tapped, and ordinary citizens in at least 26 states approached their legislators to introduce Ellwanger's or Ellwanger-like legislation: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, and West Virginia.

Stan had been a former president of the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), an organization that understandably took the anti-evolution movement very seriously: biology teachers are on the front line in the creationist wars! NABT had been a plaintiff in a 1975 lawsuit in Tennessee regarding the inclusion of creationism in textbooks, and had worked for many years to educate its members about the problems of the teaching of evolution. In 1978, The American Biology Teacher published an article by Stan entitled "Two views on the textbook watchers", in which Stan proposed that teachers and scientists engage in public education about evolution and the nature of science, and also in political action.

Stan's dream was to organize a grassroots network of scientists and teachers who would respond to local creationist initiatives. Many scientists and teachers already independently were engaged in combating state legislative efforts. In a 1980 Bioscience article, Moyer suggested that this network paralleled the Committees of Correspon- dence in the Revolutionary War, colony-wide groups of patriots who shared information (corresponded) about the British and what strategies worked best against them. The citizen network envisioned by Weinberg thus took on the name Committees of Correspondence (CCs).

In July 1980, Stan and Jack A Gerlovich, an Iowa state science consultant, published a letter describing the Iowa CC in Science. Shortly afterwards, several individuals who had independently developed similar grassroots organizations contacted Stan, and the CC network was on its way. A pivotal symposium on "Creationism and Evolution" was held at Rockefeller University in December 1980, organized by the New York Academy of Sciences and a New York teachers' group, the Committee for Scientific Freedom. Speakers included Niles Eldredge, Isaac Asimov, and Stephen Jay Gould. The New York CC was organized, with Eldredge as its first president.

In January 1981, Stan began circulating a newsletter to activists around the country — the "Memorandum to Liaisons for Committees of Correspondence". He wrote, "There is no prescribed form of organization for a Committee of Correspondence. Each CC is fully independent and autonomous. The most usual form will probably be a single CC in each state, with a single liaison." In the early 1970s, the Genetics Society of America and the American Society of Naturalists had solicited names of members willing to support evolution education. This list was made available to Stan and he in turn provided it to state liaisons to help to build the network. NABT also provided names of teachers who were willing to work on the issue.

Stan also promoted the network by asking officers of a number of scientific organizations to inform their members about the existence of the network. These included the Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, the American Association of Biological Sciences, and many others. Many of these scientific organizations responded with small donations — but by and large, Stan supported the CC network in the early years out of his own pocket. The amount of time he devoted to this issue was monumental.

The network of teachers and scientists grew quickly. By March 1981, there were CCs in 17 states; by April, 22; by May, 24; by August, 35; by December, 42. The first national meeting of CC representatives was held at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, DC, on January 3, 1982. (I was there representing the Kentucky organization.) During that meeting, we celebrated the US Supreme Court decision striking down the McLean v Arkansas "equal time for creation science" legislation, but we also realized that the struggle was not over. At that meeting, a committee was formed to investigate setting up a national organization to coordinate the CCs.

This organization came to be called the National Center for Science Education, and it was incorporated in 1983. Stan went to work to raise funds for NCSE, and by the summer of 1986, he had secured $250 000 in start-up funds from Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Esther E and Joseph Klingenstein Fund, the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, the Deer Creek Foundation, and an anonymous foundation. The NCSE Board of Directors instituted a nationwide search for an executive director and hired me in November 1986 to open the national office. In January 1987, the national NCSE office began carrying on Stan Weinberg's dream of coordinating grassroots opposition to creation science and defending evolution education.

The CC network was highly active during the early- to mid- 1980s. Many local issues were resolved, unfortunately resulting in local activist groups' dissolving. By the end of the 1980s, the original CC network had largely faded away, but NCSE continues to carry on Stan's original idea of combating the grassroots nature of creationism with grassroots opposition. Over the years we have seen the formation of ad hoc groups that assemble to combat a particular problem and then dissolve — sometimes only to re-form a few years later, unfortunately! NCSE is a permanent storehouse of information and advice to the activists in the trenches, monitoring the problems of evolution education and creationism. Although the CC network did not work out as Stan had originally planned, his dream of a union of scientists and teachers working together to defend the integrity of science continues. All of us in this effort owe Stan a great deal for his foresight in understanding better than anyone what the real issues were.

He will be missed, especially by those of us at NCSE.

References

Moyer W. The problem that won't go away. Bioscience 1980 Mar 30; 20 (3): 147.

Weinberg SL. Two views on the textbook watchers. American Biology Teacher 1978 Dec; 40 (9) 541-5, 560.

Ignorance Can Be Funny

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Ignorance Can Be Funny: Anti-evolutionary Tales from an Evolutionary Biologist
Author(s): 
Tim M Berra
Volume: 
21
Issue: 
3–4
Year: 
2001
Date: 
May–August
Page(s): 
14–15
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
I recently gave a public lecture at a small fundamentalist college in Mount Vernon, Ohio. I had been invited to speak about my Australian fish research because a faculty member had heard me give a talk on that subject at the Columbus Zoo and thought that I would be a nice addition to the college's Lecture and Arts Series. The arrangements were made 10 months in advance, and flyers and posters were printed.

But apparently a few weeks before my scheduled lecture, the Lecture and Arts Committee discovered just whom they had invited. Two weeks before the lecture, I received an e-mail informing me that the college has a conservative constituency, heritage, and student body whose views on creation/evolution might be rather divergent from my own. They wanted to hear of my travels and research, but did not want to promote inflammatory dialogue. The committee and administration would offer for sale and signing my new book, A Natural History of Australia (1998), but not my other book, Evolution and the Myth of Creationism (1990) (see p 24). After a few more sentences about courtesy, respect, non-confrontational style, and so on, I was told that if I felt affronted by this or would rather not be placed in a position that compromised my integrity, the college would be willing to pay my full lecture fee whether or not I showed up.

My first reaction was, "Wow! This creates a whole new career path for me! I can threaten to speak at fundamentalist colleges, then accept a fee not to come. Is this a great country or what?" However, I was not about to cancel. I suspected that the evening would hold a few chuckles for me, and it did.

This lecture marked the first time I have ever been introduced with a disclaimer – something to the effect that the views expressed by tonight's speaker do not represent the views of the college or the church. I had not spoken a word yet, and they did not know what I was going to say, but whatever it was, it was not the view of the college. Man, I felt dirty – like a cigarette pack. Maybe I should get a t-shirt with the disclaimer printed on it.

I was then introduced as Professor Emeritus of The Ohio State University, but apparently my department's name, Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, could not be spoken. My Australian book and publication record were mentioned, but not "that other book". My talk was very similar to what is contained in Berra (1997) about megamouth shark and salamanderfish – just what I was asked to cover. My talk was very well received by about 150 people and all my Australian books were sold. Someone produced 3 copies of my evolution book from somewhere, asked me to sign them, and thanked me for writing the book. But such gratitude is not always the rule.

I was doing a book signing at a book store in a shopping mall near Mansfield, Ohio, shortly after Evolution and the Myth of Creationism was published. I was at a table surrounded by piles of my books and a large sign. About an hour into the evening I noticed a middle-aged woman with an enormous beehive hairdo pacing nearby. Eventually she screwed up her courage and came storming over demanding to know what kind of name Berra was. "Are you Jewish?" she screamed. I replied, "No, many names that end in a vowel are of Italian origin. Why do you ask?" She replied that no Christian could write such a book and that she understood why I would be an evolutionist because I had such "apish features". I am not making this up, folks. I was able to paraphrase Huxley's famous retort to the Bishop of Oxford that, if given a choice between a bigot such as her or an ape for an ancestor, I would unhesitatingly choose the ape. This sailed right over the beehive, but I felt very good.

Of course, there are times when the comic mixes with the tragic. One academic quarter, two introductory biology students complained to the dean that I spent too much time on Darwin and evolution. "He even asked us the name of Darwin's dog on a test!" During my annual review, the dean wanted to know what was going on. Why would I do that? Answer: I did not. There was a section of matching questions, with Thomas H Huxley matching with "Darwin's Bulldog". These students were so upset about hearing all this Darwin and evolution stuff that they could not think straight (at least that is the charitable interpretation). By the way, Darwin did own a dog – a white, rough-haired female fox terrier named Polly, originally belonging to his fourth child Henrietta, inherited by him when she married in 1871 and moved out of Down House (Freeman 1978). However, this sort of literalism about Darwin and associated canines would be out of place in a biology curriculum.

References

Berra TM. Evolution and the Myth of Creationism. Stanford (CA): Stanford University Press, 1990.

Berra TM. Some 20th-century fish discoveries. Environmental Biology of Fishes 1997; 50: 1-12.

Berra TM. A Natural History of Australia. New York: Academic, 1998.

Freeman RB. Charles Darwin: A Companion. Hamden (CT): Dawson/Archon, 1978.

About the Author(s): 
Tim M Berra
Professor Emeritus
Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology
The Ohio State University
Mansfield OH 44906
berra.1@osu.edu

Behe Responds to Shanks and Joplin

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Behe Responds to Shanks and Joplin
Author(s): 
Michael Behe
Volume: 
21
Issue: 
3–4
Year: 
2001
Date: 
May–August
Page(s): 
15
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Shanks and Joplin (RNCSE 2000; 20 [1–2]: 25–30) disputed Michael Behe's irreducible complexity challenge to evolution, arguing that there was at least one way for evolutionary change to accomplish this task. Their article prompted a response from Michael Behe, and a reply from Shanks and Joplin.

In their article "Of mousetraps and men: Behe on biochemistry" (RNCSE 2000; 20 [1–2]: 25–30), which has just come to my attention, Shanks and Joplin appear mistakenly to attribute to me the contention that irreducibly complex biochemical systems must have been created ex nihilo. I have never claimed that. I have no reason to think that a designer could not have used suitably modified pre-existent material. My argument in Darwin's Black Box was directed merely toward the conclusion of design. How the design was effected is a separate and much more difficult question to address. Although creation ex nihilo is a formal possibility, design might have been produced by some other means that involved no discontinuities in natural law, even if the designer is a supernatural being.

One possibility is directed mutations. As noted by Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller in Finding Darwin's God (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), "[t]he indeterminate nature of quantum events would allow a clever and subtle God to influence events in ways that are profound, but scientifically undetectable to us. Those events could include the appearance of mutations..." (p 241). I have no reason to object to that as a route to irreducibly complex systems. I would just note further that such a process amounts to "intelligent design", and that while we may be unable to discern the means by which the design is effected, the resultant design itself may be detected in the structure of the irreducibly complex system.

The core claim of intelligent design theory is quite limited. It says nothing directly about how biological design was produced, who the designer was, whether there has been common descent, or other such questions. Those can be addressed separately. It says only that design can be empirically detected in observable features of physical systems. As an important corollary, it also predicts that mindless processes such as natural selection or the self-organization scenarios favored by Shanks and Joplin will not be demonstrated to be able to produce irreducible systems of the complexity found in cells.

About the Author(s): 

Michael J Behe
Department of Biological Science
Lehigh University
Bethlehem PA 18015
mjb1@lehigh.edu

Shanks and Joplin Reply

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Shanks and Joplin Reply
Author(s): 
Niall Shanks and Karl Joplin
Volume: 
21
Issue: 
3–4
Year: 
2001
Date: 
May–August
Page(s): 
16
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

A traditional Christian explanation of the origin of things is supernatural design and creation ex nihilo. We are grateful for Michael Behe's suggestion that we give consideration to alternative hypotheses concerning design — perhaps through the modification of pre-existing materials. Behe cites Kenneth Miller, who asks us to envision supernatural intelligent design proceeding by some cunning manipulation of events at the quantum level "scientifically undetectable to us."

The qualification that the way design is effected be "scientifically undetectable to us" is crucial. The trouble here is that there is an infinity of alternative design hypotheses (one designer did it, two designers did it, three did it, and so on), and an imaginative theorist could no doubt come up with many design scenarios, all of which are scientifically undetectable to us. Being scientifically undetectable, they are, of course, evidentially ungrounded.

Notwithstanding this, Behe's central claim is that the fact of design (regardless of how it was effected) can be empirically detected in observable features of physical systems. Such features cannot be explained, he contends, on the basis of mindless natural processes. In our earlier essays on Behe's ideas, we introduced the idea of biochemical redundant complexity. A redundantly complex biochemical system is one that contains redundant subsystems — subsystems that can be removed without complete loss of function achieved by the system as a whole. Behe has conceded the existence of redundant complexity (see his "Self-organization and irreducible complexity: A reply to Shanks and Joplin," Philosophy of Science 2000; 67: 155–62).

The admission is crucial. Reduce the redundancy in a redundantly complex system to the point where the further removal of a subsystem causes the system as a whole to lose function completely, and a redundantly complex system has evolved into an irreducibly complex system. Irreducibly complex systems are thus limiting cases of redundantly complex systems. Mutations resulting in gene duplication can give rise to redundancy. Mutations transforming functional genes into pseudogenes can reduce redundancy to the point where a system once manifesting redundant complexity is now irreducibly complex. (An extended discussion of these ideas can be found in our essay, "Behe, biochemistry, and the invisible hand", Philo 2001; 4: 54–67). There is no need for any additional mechanisms and agents, be they supernatural or merely of the space alien variety, that are scientifically undetectable to us. Contrary to Behe, the design hypothesis cannot simply be validated by pointing to physical systems manifesting irreducible complexity.

About the Author(s): 

Niall Shanks
Department of Philosophy
East Tennessee State University
Johnson City TN 37614

Karl H Joplin
Department of Biological Sciences
East Tennessee State University
Johnson City TN 37614

Review: Death of a Rat

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
21
Year: 
2001
Issue: 
3–4
Date: 
May–August
Page(s): 
38–39
Reviewer: 
Michael Zimmerman, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
Death of a Rat
Author(s): 
William D Stansfield
Amherst (NY): Prometheus Books, 2000. 360 pages.
In his Death of a Rat, William D Stansfield, an emeritus professor of biology at California Polytechnic State University, takes us on a grand tour of science, focusing mostly on the ethical, political, and sociological considerations that are all too often overlooked by others. While doing so, he provides a glimpse into the process of scientific discovery as well as into a number of the personalities who have been responsible for some of our greatest advances and some of our most embarrassing moments.

In his tour, Stansfield ranges widely, presenting chapters on such topics as the discovery of the structure of DNA, the dance-language theory of honeybees, self-deception and outright fraud in scientific investigations, and the role of luck and serendipity in the discovery process. As with most whirlwind tours, there is only time to examine the highlights; just when it might make sense to begin to look behind the scenes, the group moves on to view the next masterpiece. While frustrating to readers who have visited some of these topics on their own, Stansfield's strategy is fully appropriate for the first-time visitor to the land of science. Indeed, many such visitors might well become captivated enough that they will want to return on their own to delve more deeply.

Stansfield selects his topics as much for the morals they furnish as for their scientific importance. His detailed account of Watson and Crick's discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA is a paean to the value of scientific teamwork. Although this particular interlude nicely exemplifies the competitive nature of science as well, it is clear that by working together and using the research of others, Watson and Crick were able to discover the structure of DNA sooner than would have been possible had they been working separately. As a stop on the tour for the uninitiated, this is powerful stuff. Unfortunately, since virtually the only source Stansfield uses is Watson's classic 1968 book The Double Helix (although he cites the 1980 edition), most scientifically literate readers will not find anything new.

Similarly, in his chapter discussing the impact that politics can have on science, Stansfield makes several wonderful choices in deciding to feature three exemplary situations: Galileo's run-in with the Church; TD Lysenko's control of Russian genetics and the subsequent demise of Russian agriculture; and the growth of 20th-century "creation science". In each case, the general structure of the argument is presented, the importance of keeping scientific inquiry free from political control is articulated, and the appetite of the lay reader is whetted before Stansfield moves his tour party on to focus on the next issue worthy of consideration. Again, for those who have made some version of this trip before, because of his limited array of sources, there is not much fresh information or insight. The Galileo material is largely a précis of Owen Gingerich's 1982 Scientific American article, the Lysenko work a summary of Zhores Medvedev's wonderful 1971 book The Rise and Fall of TD Lysenko, and the critique of creationism a far too brief rehash of Tim Berra's 1990 book Evolution and the Myth of Creationism.

A discussion of fraud and the self-correcting nature of science wisely touches on Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer's early-20th-century "documentation" of some of Lamarck's ideas about the inheritance of acquired characteristics as well as on the contemporaneous Piltdown hoax in England. Because all of the Kammerer material comes from Arthur Koestler's provocative 1971 book, The Case of the Midwife Toad, and the Piltdown information is drawn solely from Ronald Miller's 1972 book The Piltdown Men and a chapter in Stephen Jay Gould's 1980 The Panda's Thumb, those well-versed in the genre will find nothing they have not previously encountered.

Minor tour stops include a recap of the cold fusion affair, summaries of the discovery of the causes of yellow fever, scurvy, and HIV, a sketch of the discovery of penicillin, and a synopsis of the claims of homeopathy, among many others. All are entertaining and informative but none is particularly insightful.

As with most tour books, Death of a Rat provides an intelligent, if fairly superficial, overview of what can be expected to be seen. If it serves to attract tourists to the attractions described, it should be viewed as a success, and the fact that it is not a book for the more seasoned traveler should not be held against it.

About the Author(s): 
Michael Zimmerman
Office of the Dean
College of Letters and Science
University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh
Oshkosh WI 54901
mz@uwosh.edu