It is coming! We are pleased to announce a significant change in the format of the publication that NCSE distributes to its members. Beginning with volume 31 (the 2011 January/February issue), Reports of the National Center for Science Education will be available on line. All our articles, features, and book reviews will be available in their entirety only through the NCSE website (http://ncse.com).
WILL I STILL RECEIVE RNCSE IN THE MAIL?
Yes. There will still be six issues of RNCSE published each year, but we will be changing the format in several ways. You will continue to read about the work our our staff and members are doing to promote good science education that includes evolution as a fundamental explanation for the history and diversity of life. You will also see members-only features and other materials in the print version.
RNCSE will still feature original articles, features, news analysis, and book reviews, but our print version will contain brief summaries of these contributions. The full text of these items will appear on line. Each printed issue will provide a complete citation for the on-line material and a URL to link directly to the items that interest you.
The printed version of RNCSE will be smaller (about 16 pages). The reduction in the size of the publication will be the result of shortening the original articles, book reviews, and features, which will appear only as brief summaries in the on-line version. What you will see in print will be a review of the main thrust of original contributions, including a recap of the authors’ main points and with specific attention to the authors’ conclusions.
HOW WILL I GET THE ON-LINE MATERIAL?
The on-line articles, features, and book reviews will be available in two ways. You will be able to browse issues of RNCSE as you do today by connecting to the publications page of the NCSE website: http://ncse.com. This will present you with content organized into bimonthly issues as you see today on the NCSE website.
You will also be able to locate materials that interest you by using the URL that will appear with each summary in the new version of RNCSE. This will take you directly to the item that interests you without having to look through the contents of an entire issue to locate it.
WHEN WILL ARTICLES BE AVAILABLE?
Beginning in January 2011, the materials that we will summarize in the print version of RNCSE will appear on line in the first month of the publication date. For example, the publication date of RNCSE volume 31, number 1, will be Jan/Feb 2011. The online material will be available in January, and the printed issue will be available in February. Readers may access the on-line material as soon as it is available; you do not need to wait for the issue to arrive in the mail. You may also subscribe to a publication alert that will e-mail you when new materials are available.
WHAT IF I PREFER TO HAVE ARTICLES ON PAPER?
You have two choices for receiving print versions of the content that we provide on line. First, you can connect directly to the materials that you want to print, download them to your own computer, and then print them to read right away ... or later.
Second, NCSE members are entitled to free document delivery services. You simply tell NCSE which articles you would like to see in print, and we will send you a copy of that article on paper. This service is available to all NCSE members — and only to NCSE members.
WHY IS NCSE CHANGING RNCSE?
NCSE made the decision to change RNCSE for several reasons. The first reason is that putting our content on line allows us to continue the evolution of NCSE publications that reached back to the earliest days of NCSE. We want to provide more content and more variety for our readers. This was the rationale for the original revision of the NCSE publications that combined the older Creation/Evolution journal and NCSE Reports into the RNCSE that you are reading now. The on-line environment allows us to continue to expand the contents both in the type of contributions that we offer you and in the supplemental materials that accompany them. This means more charts, graphs, and photos will be available than we can provide in print — and perhaps even some innovative formats that are impossible to print, such as videos.
Second, the new format will allow each reader to customize the “RNCSE experience” — choosing to read the contributions in each issue in the order that suits you, the reader, and only the items that interest you the most. We also plan to provide a searchable database of all the original material published in NCSE publications, so you can create your own collections of materials on a particular subject, such as “flood geology” or “intelligent design” models.
Finally, this change will allow NCSE to make a more efficient use of your financial contributions. Printing and mailing costs continue to increase, and the publication of RNCSE takes up an increasing proportion of our budget. At the same time, NCSE is called on more and more to provide advice, information, and support to citizens, teachers, students, lawyers, legislators, clergy, and the press whenever opposition to evolution education emerges in communities across the continent and around the world. This change in RNCSE will allow us to devote more of our resources to our primary mission of promoting good science education and evolution education everywhere because it will expand access to the original content of our publications even while lowering the costs of distributing this information.
Our goal is to serve you better with our new publication. Please welcome the new RNCSE in January 2011, and give us your feedback to help us to meet your needs for information on creationism/evolution issues in the future.
Graduates, parents, distinguished faculty and guests ... but especially graduates, because a graduation should be all about you.
The traditional ritual of a commencement speech is to give graduates advice: how to live your lives, what sort of people you should be, how you can build a better America, and so on. Of course, this is the height of presumption, since you have only just met me, and have no reason to conclude that my judgment would be any better than the judgments of your parents, your roommates, your Facebook friends, or some random person off the street. But a graduation is a ritual, and we anthropologists understand ritual, so I’m going to do it anyway.
So what can I tell you in five minutes? I did what anyone would do: I went to my Facebook friends.
My status earlier this week was “Trying to think of something sensible to say to the graduates of Mizzou later this week.” Suggestions from my friends included, “Throwing in a few appropriate Sartre quotes is a good way to grab a young, upand- coming crowd.”
Well, okay, young, up-and-coming crowd, how about:
All human actions are equivalent ... and ... all are on principle doomed to failure.
Well, that’s sure a cheery thought on your graduation day, as you go forth to begin your new lives.
Another suggestion, however, was more useful. “Wear sunscreen.”
This, of course, is from perhaps the most famous commencement address. If you Google “Vonnegut” and “wear sunscreen,” you will see over 20 000 hits. On YouTube alone, there are well over 1000 video versions and satires, including versions in English, Arabic, Portuguese, Swedish, German, and probably many other languages I missed. One features Yoda from Star Wars.
But this most famous commencement address was never given, and wasn’t even written by Kurt Vonnegut. The author Vonnegut’s name somehow got attached to a fantasy commencement speech written by Chicago Tribune journalist Mary Schmich, which took on a life of its own. In addition to the admonition to wear sunscreen, the essay had lots of other good advice, like:
Do one thing every day that scares you.
And highly relevant for today:
Get to know your parents. You never know when they’ll be gone for good.
Be nice to your siblings. They’re your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.
So, “wear sunscreen” is good advice — go read the essay sometime.
Another of my Facebook friends had a suggestion that really resonated with me: Trust your brain. Now you’re talking.
As you heard, I’m a scientist, and I believe strongly that reason, facts, and empirical evidence are essential for making not just scientific decisions, but other decisions as well. How can I encourage you to trust your brain? Well, as I was writing this talk, I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle by a reporter who attended a psychic fair. He wrote:
A whole wonderful building full of miracles. Major credit cards accepted.
The reporter went on to describe these miracles, to wit:
It could be a magic bracelet (results not guaranteed), or a magic stick (your results may vary), or a magic meditation magnet (no refunds).
And indeed, there were people attending the fair who seemed not to be using their brains very much. One purveyor would, for $100, converse with a customer’s dead relatives. As the reporter commented, “her conversation seemed to be a trifle one-sided.”
Trust your brain. It’s useful not just for surviving four years of university, but for deciding lots of things that are important. Like what brand of sunscreen to select, or what policies our elected representatives should follow, or whose fault the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is, as well as whether to believe someone can channel your dead relatives.
Trust your brain. Ask questions when people make claims that sound fishy to you — and perhaps even more importantly, when you agree with them.
Use sunscreen, and use your brains.
Granted, there are times when maybe your brain isn’t the most important part of you. I recently read an analysis of love that explained:
sight, smells, [and] touch [stimulate] the thalamus, which in turn stimulates ... increased heart rate and blood pressure, rapid breathing and flushed skin .... [T]he ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens — both rich in dopamine receptors — become quite active ... A network of mutual interactions among the amygdala, the insula, and various parts of the prefrontal cortex integrates bodily perceptions and cognitive appraisal.
Okay. Knowing the neurological wiring that accompanies making love is very interesting, but I’m not sure that it really improves on the experience itself. So use your brains, but use your heart, too. You’ll be a better functioning organism if you use both. The real trick in this world of ours is realizing that there are times when you need to set aside your gut and your heart and trust your brain — because it’s going to give you a better answer.
And that is my presumptuous advice to you on this most happy day of your graduation, which I am highly honored to share.
Congratulations — and the best of luck to you!
[Delivered as the commencement address to the graduating class at the University of Missouri, Columbia, on May 15, 2010.]
A vestigial structure is a rudimentary biological structure that was not rudimentary in the ancestors of its bearer. Such a structure is interpreted by evolutionary biologists as a vestige of a homologous structure that was more fully functional and often larger in the ancestors of the organism in question. Biologists generally consider the existence of vestigial structures one of the main lines of evidence for evolution (Barton and others 2007; Hall and Hallgrimsson 2009). Creationist authors typically argue against the existence of vestigial structures to discredit the idea of evolution (Dewar 1957; Morris 1974; Glover 1988; Bergman and Howe 1990; Bergman 2000; Menton 2000; Sarfati 2002). However, here I show that vestigial structures exist even within the parameters of the creationist worldview, even though creationists go to great lengths to deny their existence and discredit their importance. Vestigial structures are entirely consistent with the creationist worldview and arguments that their absence refutes evolution should be discarded by creationists.
In this discussion, I will examine two predictions derived from the hypothesis that vestigial structures exist. The first prediction is that creationist arguments against the existence of vestigial structures can be refuted. The second prediction is that examples of vestigial structures can be identified even within the creationist paradigm; that is, that examples of vestigial structures can be identified in organisms for which both the putative ancestor and the putative descendant are recognized by creationists as part of the same “created kind” or baramin.
In creationist technical literature, the term “baramin” refers to an organism that was created by God during the Creation Week that is recorded in the first chapter of Genesis, plus all of its descendants (Siegler 1978; Wood 2002, 2006). Creationists recognize that speciation occurs within baramins, so that a given baramin today includes several populations that mainstream biologists regard as separate species (Siegler 1978; Tyler 1997; Robinson and Cavanaugh 1998; Wood 2006). Among closely related species, morphological and/or genetic continuity and the ability to produce hybrid offspring are considered by creationists to demonstrate inclusion in the same baramin (Siegler 1978; Wood 2002, 2006). According to these criteria, most baramins correspond to families in the taxonomic hierarchies of mainstream biology (Robinson and Cavanaugh 1998; Wood 2002, 2006). For example, creationists consider the cat family (Felidae) a single baramin in which all the members — house cats, bobcats, tigers, lions, and so on — are descended from the ancestral cat population that God created during Creation Week (Robinson and Cavanaugh 1998).
By far the most popular creationist argument against the existence of vestigial structures is that many biological structures that were once considered useless are now known to have a function (Dewar 1957; Morris 1974; Bergman and Howe 1990; Bergman 2000; Menton 2000; Sarfati 2002). This argument is invalid, because it confuses vestigiality with uselessness. A rudimentary structure can have a recognizable function and still be considered vestigial if it is demonstrably a remnant of an ancestrally non-rudimentary structure (Isaak 2007). For example, if it is demonstrated that the rudimentary, spur-like hindlimbs of pythons are derived from non-rudimentary hindlimbs in the ancestors of pythons, then python spurs can be considered vestigial hindlimbs, despite the fact that they have a recognizable function: to spear opponents during dominance contests (Barker and others 1979). By the same token, the rudimentary wings of the cassowary can be considered vestigial if it is demonstrated that they are derived from non-rudimentary wings in cassowary ancestors, despite the fact that cassowaries use their rudimentary wings in threat displays (Davies 2002). While it is true that Darwin (1872) assumed that rudimentary structures are useless, modern biologists do not make this assumption and therefore do not employ uselessness as a criterion for recognizing a vestigial structure. Even so, vestigial structures can often be considered useless with respect to the usual function of their non-rudimentary counterparts. For example, python hindlimbs are useless as organs of locomotion, and cassowary wings are useless as organs of flight. This objection by creationists based on the functionality of these vestigial organs therefore arises from a misunderstanding of the concept of vestigiality.
Bergman (2000) argues that a definition of vestigiality based on reduction and not uselessness is meaningless, because biologists do not consider structures vestigial if they have been only slightly reduced. It is correct that biologists do not consider slightly reduced structures vestigial, but Bergman (2000) is incorrect to assume that any degree of reduction is used to label a structure vestigial. Structures are labeled vestigial, based on reduction in size, only if that reduction is extreme. For example, the shortened limbs of a dachshund are not considered vestigial limbs, but the miniscule spurs of a python are. This objection by Bergman (2000) is therefore based on a misunderstanding of the reduction criterion. Bergman (2000) correctly states that the evolutionary history of an organ must be known to determine whether it is vestigial. He then argues against the validity of determinations of vestigiality by claiming that evolutionary histories are not known for most such organs and that their identification as vestigial is based on direct comparison with modern and not fossil examples. That claim shows two errors. First, evolutionary inference does not require direct observation of the history of all structures. Second, the evolutionary histories of vestigial skeletal structures are often well documented by fossil series. For example, in derived tyrannosauroid dinosaurs the third finger is reduced to a metacarpal splint with no phalanges (Lambe 1917), whereas early tyrannosauroids had a complete third finger; the fossil record therefore sufficiently documents the evolutionary history of the tyrannosauroid third finger to determine that in derived tyrannosauroids it is vestigial (Xu and others 2004). This objection by Bergman (2000) is based on the incorrect assumption that fossil series are not used to determine vestigiality.
The above objection by Bergman (2000) is invalid for another reason. In evolutionary studies, a precursor to a rudimentary organ can be deduced by comparison with its non-rudimentary counterparts in close relatives. By the same token, within the creationist paradigm a rudimentary structure in one species must be considered vestigial if the homologous structure is non-rudimentary in other species within the same baramin. In such a case, even a creationist must concede that a rudimentary structure has evolved from a non-rudimentary homolog.
Darwin (1872) and others explain that a biological structure may become vestigial if members of the evolutionary lineage in question stop using it. Some creationists claim that this explanation is Lamarckian and therefore false (see Glover 1988; Bergman and Howe 1990). The term Lamarckian refers to the now-discredited hypothesis, named after the pre-Darwinian biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, that traits acquired by an organism during its lifetime are heritable. An example of a Lamarckian scenario is one in which an organism does not exercise a certain muscle, which then atrophies due to disuse, and the organism’s offspring then inherit an atrophied version of that muscle. Lamarckian scenarios are unrealistic, as witness the fact that the children of amputees are born with their limbs intact. But the creationists’ objection that the disuse explanation of vestigiality is Lamarckian is based on a misinterpretation of the evolutionary scenario described by Darwin and others, which is in fact not Lamarckian. The misinterpretation is understandable, because the evolutionary scenario in question is often described with poor wording, as in the first sentence of this paragraph. This scenario could be better worded thus: if members of an evolutionary lineage cease to use a given organ, then the survival of the lineage will not be compromised if one of its members is born with a heritable mutation that results in the reduction of that organ to a rudimentary state; the descendants of that individual will possess a vestigial organ. This is not a Lamarckian scenario, and the objection that it is one is therefore false. Neither Darwin (1872) nor any modern evolutionary biologist makes the Lamarckian claim that atrophy of an organ due to disuse (for example, withering of a muscle that an individual does not exercise) is heritable.
Clearly, the creationist arguments against the existence of vestigial structures are based on misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions. Even so, these examples of vestigial structures do not necessarily demonstrate that vestigial structures exist within the creationist paradigm, because they relate to taxa that creationist authors have not identified as belonging to a single baramin. Baraminologists (creationist researchers who seek to determine which extant taxa belong to which baramins) have not placed pythons in the same baramin as any fully legged animal, and they have not yet studied cassowaries or tyrannosauroids.
However, examples of vestigial structures do exist within baramins that have been studied by and are recognized by baraminologists. The fossil horse series offers some examples. Creationists once considered fossil members of Equidae (the horse family) to have been created separately from modern horses (Cousins 1971; Gish 1973). However, recent baraminological studies confirm that there is too much morphological continuity between the various fossil and extant members of Equidae to support that interpretation (Garner 1998; Cavanaugh and others 2003; Wood 2005). Today’s creationists therefore consider the fossil horse series a real example of evolution within a single baramin (Garner 1998; Cavanaugh and others 2003; Wood 2005). The fossil record reveals that in the earliest equids each forelimb had four digits, each hindlimb had three digits, the shaft of the ulna extended the full length of the forearm, and the shaft of the fibula extended the full length of the shank (Figure 1). In each forelimb and hindlimb of later fossil equids all digits but number III were lost, and in modern horses thin splints of bone are all that remain of the metacarpal (hand) and metatarsal (foot) bones that supported digits II and IV in each limb. The shafts of the ulna (inner bone of the lower arm) and fibula (outer bone of the lower leg) were progressively reduced in the horse lineage, and in today’s equids they are reduced to tiny spikes (Marsh 1879) (Figure 1). The metacarpal and metatarsal splints of modern equids are vestigial bones, and the ulnar and fibular splints are vestigial shafts of bones. Because these rudimentary skeletal structures are demonstrably derived from non-rudimentary structures in ancestral members of the same baramin, they must be considered vestigial within the creationist paradigm.
|FIGURE 1.Reduction of the digits, ulnar shaft, and fibular shaft to a vestigial state in Equidae, as illustrated by the fossil horse series Orohippus — Merychippus — Pliohippus — Equus. A. left posterolteral view of skeleton of the modern horse Equus, with enlargements of the forelimb (left), knee (upper right), and foot (lower right); in the enlargements, vestigial metacarpals and metatarsals are outlined in black, and arrows indicate the vestigial shaft of the ulna (left) and the fibula (upper right); B. the early fossil horse Orohippus, with arrow in enlargement indicating tip of ulna, showing that it extends all the way to the wrist; C. metacarpus (hand) and phalanges (digits) of Orohippus; D. metacarpus and phalanges of the later fossil horse Merychipuus; E. metacarpus and phalanges of forelimb of the later fossil horse Pliohippus; F. metacarpus and phalanges of the modern horse Equus.|
It should be noted that these vestigial skeletal structures perform useful functions in extant horses, and that they are nonetheless vestigial. The metacarpal and metatarsal splints serve as guides for ligaments, and remnants of the ulna and fibula function as muscle attachment sites (Smythe 1967). Even so, these structures are vestigial because they currently exist in a state of extreme reduction and they are derived from non-rudimentary homologs in ancestral equids.
Other cases exist in which the vestigiality of a structure can be deduced by comparison with close relatives without reference to fossils. For example, the family Columbidae includes flying pigeons and doves with unreduced wings, as well as flightless dodos and solitaires with miniscule wings (Figure 2). The family Columbidae is identified by creationists as a single baramin (More 1998), and molecular phylogenetic analysis confirms that the dodo and solitaire are phylogenetically nested deeply within the family and are descended from flying columbid ancestors (Shapiro and others 2009). Therefore, the extremely reduced wings of dodos and solitaires are derived from the flying wings of ancestral columbids and so must be considered vestigial within the creationist paradigm.
|FIGURE 2. Reduction of the wing to a vestigial state in some members of the bird family Columbidae, as illustrated by comparison between the unreduced wings of the Rock Dove (Columba livia> and the vestigial wings of the Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) A. Rock Dove; B. Dodo.|
In some cases, a single genus contains some species with an unreduced version of a given structure as well as species with a vestigial version. The cave salamanders Eurycea rathbuni and Eurycea tridentifera have strongly reduced, nonfunctional eyes, while other species of the genus Eurycea that do not live in caves have unreduced, functional eyes (Petranka 1998). In some species of the Australian lizard genus Hemiergis the forelimb and hindlimb both have five full digits, while in other species the outer digits are reduced to metacarpal and metatarsal splints with no finger bones (Choquenot and Greer 1989) (Figure 3B). Within the African lizard genus Tetradactylus is a morphologically continuous series of species of which some possess complete, unreduced limbs; some possess limbs that are drastically reduced nubs without digits; and others have lost the limbs altogether (Berger-Dell’mour 1985) (Figure 3A). Within the African lizard genus Scelotes is another series of species with a similar spectrum of degrees of limb loss (Branch 1998; Whiting and others 2003), and the same is true for the Australian lizard genus Lerista (Greer 1990). No baraminological study has yet been carried out on Eurycea, Hemiergis, Tetradactylus, Scelotes, or Lerista, but because recognized baramins usually correspond to taxa above the genus level (Robinson and Cavanaugh 1998; Wood 2002, 2006) it is doubtful that today any creationist would place members of the same genus in different baramins. Therefore, within the creationist paradigm the eyes of E rathbuni and E tridentifera are vestigial, as are the reduced fingers of the relevant members of Hemiergis and the extremely reduced limbs of the relevant members of Tetradactylus, Scelotes, and Lerista.
|FIGURE 3. Reduction of limbs and digits to a vestigial state in lizards, as illustrated by comparison between member os the same genus. A. Dorsal views of hindlimbs of members of the genus Tetradactylus, showing a species with full limbs (T seps: top), a species with reduced limbs (T tetradactylus: bottom left), and a species with vestigial limbs (T africanus: bottom right); modified from Berger-Dell'mour (1985). B. Hands (left) and feet (right) of Hemiergis initialis (top) and H quadrilineatum (bottom), showing vestigial condition of outer digits in H quadrilineatum; modified from Choquenot and Greer (1989).|
All objections to the existence of vestigial organs are demonstrably invalid, and there are numerous examples of vestigial structures within groups of organisms recognized by creationists as baramins. Thus there is no evidence to falsify the predictions of the hypothesis that vestigial structures exist within the creationist paradigm.
Creationist authors have long maintained that heritable change and speciation occur within baramins (Siegler 1978; Robinson and Cavanaugh 1998; Wood 2002, 2006). Here I have shown that this process sometimes gives rise to incontrovertibly vestigial structures and that their existence is consistent with the creationist paradigm. Creationists should therefore cease to claim that vestigial structures do not exist. That claim should be removed from the arsenal of anti-evolution arguments, because even within the creationist paradigm it is false.
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Berger-Dell’mour HAE. 1985. The lizard genus Tetradactylus: a model case of an evolutionary process. In: Schuchmann KL, ed. Proceedings of the International Symposium on African Vertebrates: Systematics, Phylogeny and Evolutionary Ecology. Bonn: Zoologisches Forschungsinstitut und Museum Alexander Koenig. p 495–510.
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It is of course a wonderful thing to receive an honorary degree from the University of Missouri, an institution that many years ago I called home.
I’m extremely grateful to all of the people who supported my candidacy for this high honor, particularly Frank Schmidt.
At the NCSE, we focus on two subjects: the nature of science and evolution. The US stands out among developed (and even some underdeveloped) nations with a high rate of rejection of the idea that living things have had common ancestors, and that the earth and universe are ancient and have changed over time. Only about half of Americans accept the idea that evolution has occurred, whereas the percentage of scientists who accept this is over 95%. Scientists vigorously debate details about how evolution occurred, not whether. Nonetheless, there has for over fifty years been a growing movement to try to persuade our fellow citizens that what is routinely taught at the university level in astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology is without a scientific foundation.
The question I am most frequently asked is “Why do we have this problem (of creationism) here in the US and they don’t have it elsewhere?” The second most frequently asked question is “if humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?” The third question — after someone gets to know me — is “How did you end up in this job, anyway?”
For my remarks tonight, I thought I would talk about that third question and tell you a little bit about how I got into this rather peculiar line of work of mine. It starts here, after all, because it was at the University of Missouri that I first was introduced to something called “creation science.” One day, in 1971, my professor, Jim Gavan, handed me a stack of small, brightly colored, slick paper pamphlets from the Institute for Creation Research. “Here,” he said, “Take a look at these. It’s called ‘creation science’.”
Wow. Here I was studying to be a scientist, and here were people calling themselves scientists, but we sure weren’t seeing the world the same way. Creationists claimed to be looking at the same data as mainstream scientists, but were concluding that all living things had appeared in their present form, at one time, a few thousand years ago. I and the rest of science was concluding that living things had branched off from common ancestors over scarcely imaginable stretches of time.
They were concluding that the entire planet had been covered by water, and that all the present-day geological features of earth had been determined by this flood and its aftermath. I couldn’t see any evidence for this at all, and much evidence against it. Why were we coming up with such different conclusions? The data sometimes were the same (although I found many errors in creationist literature), but the biggest differences were in philosophy of science and the approach to problem solving.
I began collecting creation science literature as an interesting problem in the philosophy of science — and because of course it was just inherently interesting. Due to the pressures of graduate school and later my first teaching job at the University of Kentucky, I wasn’t able to pursue it especially deeply, but students would occasionally bring up the topic. I would tell them that even if proponents of creation science claimed they were doing science, one cannot claim that one is doing science if one is doing something very different from what scientists are doing. Creation science was a good foil to use to teach students about the nature of science. Nowadays, “intelligent design” — a more recent form of creation science — can be used in the same way.
As executive director of the National Center for Science Education, I regularly encounter the public’s misunderstanding of the most basic elements of science. I deal with people who nod in agreement with a typical creationist statement that “neither evolution nor creationism is scientific because no one was there to observe it.” I deal with a public that agrees with creation scientists stating that “evolution isn’t scientific because evolutionists are always changing their minds,” and perhaps most disappointing, with people who contend, “well, if science is a search for truth, why can’t we just tell students ‘God did it’ in science class?” All of these are misunderstandings of what science is all about, which gets us into the question of what is science, and of course the fundamental question of what do you teach in a high school science class.
Of course, philosophers of science vigorously debate the definition of science, but at the level that the public understands these issues, their concerns are more like debating the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Doubtless to the frustration of my colleagues in the philosophy of science, my job requires me to simplify — probably beyond what they consider acceptable. But in doing so, I can make a little progress in helping the public to understand why science works, and also why the various creationisms aren’t science. Maybe down the road the nonscientists I encounter can tackle falsification and the demarcation problem; right now, I’d be happy if they understood two basic rules of science that I believe the majority of scientists would agree upon:
Science requires testing of explanations against the empirical world, and requires explanation through only natural causes.
The reason for the restriction of science to natural causes is related to the importance of testing in science. We can only test an idea if we can hold constant some of the variables under consideration. If God is omnipotent, He is unconstrained, and His actions cannot be held constant. As such, any experiment that postulates God as an actor could have any possible outcome. Therefore there is no way to scientifically test explanations that involve God or any other supernatural force. We are stuck with using only natural causes in science, because those are the only ones we can test. If we ever invent a theometer, maybe then we will be able to test hypotheses involving God.
And that is why creationism isn’t scientific, despite the claims of its proponents. It ultimately invokes the direct hand of God to specially create, whether Adam and Eve, or the bacterial flagellum, and whether true or not, invoking God cannot be deemed science. Furthermore, in my study of creationism, it became clear that the way they carried out their “science” was fundamentally flawed. Starting with a conclusion (God specially created) and looking for evidence to confirm it, is not doing science. And confusing students about what is science and what is outside of science is educational malpractice.
My interest in creationism changed from a casual concern about philosophy of science the year after I left Missouri. In October 1975, Jim Gavan unwisely accepted an invitation to debate the ICR’s Duane Gish. Gish had skillfully-honed debate skills that were highly effective in persuading the public that evolution was shaky science, and that folks should really consider his “scientific alternative”. I and some of my Kentucky students drove from Lexington to Missouri to attend the debate, and it was an eye-opener.
I counted thirteen buses from local church groups parked outside the huge auditorium, and after seeing the enthusiasm with which the audience received Gish and his message, the cold water of the social and political reality of this movement hit me for the first time. It was no longer just an academic exercise. People were taking this pseudoscience very seriously.
The late Jim Gavan was an excellent scientist, a former president of the American Association of Physical Anthropology, a smart and articulate man well-grounded in philosophy of science. He had done his homework: he had studied creationist literature for several months, and came as prepared as anyone could be expected to be. Clearly, his scientific arguments were superior, but judged from the perspective of who won the hearts and minds of the people, the folksy, jocular Gish mopped him up.
So I realized that there was a heck of a lot more in this creationism and evolution business than just the academic issues. I went back to Lexington and my job of teaching evolution to college students with a new appreciation of a growing movement that had as its goal the undermining of my professional discipline, to say nothing of the scientific point of view. But still — there were papers to publish, and a high teaching load, and I was still learning my job, so I didn’t take an active role in the controversy quite yet.
My true baptism into realizing the depth and extent of the social and political importance of the creation science movement came in 1980 in Lexington, Kentucky, when the “Citizens for Balanced Teaching of Origins” approached the Lexington school board to request that creation science be introduced into the curriculum. Because I had collected creationist literature over the years, I became a focal point for the opposition to this effort. I learned a lot: lessons I have applied in my current job. Scientists of course are major stakeholders in this controversy, but we are not alone, nor do we succeed alone.
Teachers are concerned about maintaining professional standards, and parents want their children to get a decent science education. People who care about church and state separation are very concerned about the teaching of creationism in science class. But stakeholders often not recognized are members of the mainstream clergy, who do not want someone else’s religion (biblical literalism) taught Monday through Friday and then have to straighten out their congregants on the weekend. In my experience, evolution is more likely to be taught in Catholic schools than in public ones.
In Lexington, we formed a coalition of scientists, teachers, civil libertarians, parents, and clergy, and after over a year of controversy, we persuaded the Lexington Board of Education to reject the proposal to bring creation science into the curriculum — by a scant 3–2 margin. The fact that the mainstream clergy stood up and announced that they thought evolution should be taught in school, and that they preferred to teach creation their own way, thank you very much, swung the community and thus the elected school board members to our side.
What happened in Lexington has happened in community after community across the US, and — I’m happy to say — when my staff and I can get input into the situation, the evolution side more often than not prevails. But the creationism controversy is not a problem that will be solved merely by throwing science at it. Of course, creationists — whether traditional creation science proponents or “intelligent design” proponents — contend that their views are supported by science and thus should be taught in science class, a point that has often been, and continually needs to be, refuted.
Scientists are the best equipped to make the point. Showing that evolution is solid science, and that creationism is unscientific is necessary — but insufficient. Ironically, the most effective argument creationists have used over the years is not a scientific one at all, but the “fairness” argument: that it is only “fair” to “teach both” — as if there were only two choices. Of course, even within Christianity there are a half dozen varieties of creationism, and if we add other world religions — much less Native American and other tribal society versions of creation — we quickly escalate into the thousands. “Both” indeed.
Yet fairness is an important part of American culture, and appeals to fairness and democracy have a resonance beyond the appropriateness of their application to science. Science is not a democratic process; it’s a meritocracy. We keep the ideas that work, and discard the ideas that don’t. If I’m speaking to a group of biologists I’ll sometimes joke, “How many of you would vote in Lamarckism over natural selection?” and almost all the hands go up! But however much nicer it would be for the diversity of life to be caused by Lamarckian processes allowing for the inheritance of acquired characteristics, rather than the painful, wasteful, and brutal process of natural selection, we have to go with how the world works, rather than how we’d like it to work.
In Missouri, you have had legislation introduced over the years which attempts to capitalize on this American enthusiasm for fairness to both sides. Bills once stressed giving equal time to creation science, and more recently, to “intelligent design”. Within the last decade, the focus has shifted to bills that direct teachers to “critically analyze” (read: criticize) evolution, or to teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution. We call this the “evidence against evolution” strategy, and it arose from a dissent from a Supreme Court decision that I won’t bother you with here. But the purpose of these bills in Missouri and elsewhere is to encourage teachers to cast doubt on the validity of evolution, and to introduce creationism through the back door.
And ultimately, what we are talking about with the creationism/evolution controversy is “what do you teach in a high school science class?” And clearly, what you should teach, sensibly enough, is science. Not something outside of science, like a religious idea, no matter how popular it is.
Of course, it’s impossible to teach all of science. What a high school teacher does is take the consensus view of science and choose from the topics that are most important for a beginning learner. The skill of a pre-college teacher is figuring out how to break down these topics into a sequence of learning so that a young person can build an understanding of the science that would allow additional study.
What the creationists want is for us to abandon the consensus view of science and introduce materials into the curriculum which are not only outside of the consensus, but not even science at all. Ironically, although anti-evolutionists are quick to accuse opponents of unfairness, theirs is ultimately the most unfair position. It miseducates students and handicaps them for further understanding of science.
Those of us concerned about public science literacy should indeed be concerned about the attacks upon evolution, because fundamentally such attacks are attacks on science itself. And if the United States loses its scientific superiority, it can hardly expect to maintain its international superiority in agriculture, medicine, energy, or any of the many other areas which science informs.
I also would hope you would be concerned that many young people are not learning one of the most profound discoveries in human history: the genetic connection between human beings and all other living things on the planet. And the more that evolution teaches us about the connections among all living creatures, from the simplest singlecelled organism to creatures capable of leaving the planet itself, the more we will understand how very precious life is, and hopefully, we will apply these lessons to preserving and enhancing our lives and those of the organisms with which we share our planet.
Evolution is an important scientific idea. It’s too bad so many students are not being allowed to learn it in our public schools.
[Delivered at the University of Missouri, Columbia, on May 15, 2010.]
Peter Wellnhofer holds the distinction of having been the pre-eminent world authority on both Archaeopteryx and the pterosaurs for over 30 years, a distinction enjoyed by few scholars on comparable fossil organisms. This semi-popular, lavishly illustrated, and copiously documented book is the crowning achievement of his work on Archaeopteryx. It comes at an auspicious time, given the Darwin celebrations of 2009 and the role that the world’s most famous fossil bird has played in evolutionary theory.
For the readers of NCSE, it should first be said that the “controversy” that Archaeopteryx has traditionally played in the creationist literature (including the more recent instars of the “intelligent design” movement) is not his subject. Wellnhofer feels that NCSE takes care of that very well, which is a real compliment to our organization. This frees him to explore the science of Archaeopteryx. Wellnhofer’s approach is fundamentally historical: the background of the story, each specimen, each paleobiological problem, is treated historically and comprehensively. Wellnhofer is in a very good position to do this, because he has surveyed the historical literature in the field for 40 years. His survey reminds us that few ideas are really new, and that even though the internet can bring us scads of recent articles on any subject, this is no excuse for lack of scholarship in ferreting out and reading the older literature. Of course, some of this literature is obscure, not widely accessible, so it is good to have it brought to our attention.
Wellnhofer begins with the town and region of Solnhofen, Bavaria, whence all ten of the skeletal specimens as well as the original feather have come. He situates Solnhofen in its historical, cultural, geographical, and geological context, presenting information that will be unfamiliar to most American readers. The famous Solnhofen limestones, which have been quarried for millennia, represent the bottom of an ancient, relatively quiescent, anoxic lagoon where critters in various stages of decomposition settled and were buried. Occasionally they died in their tracks there, like the fossil crabs that wandered in and found the poisonous environment not to their liking. This also prevented a lot of scavenging and other post mortem biotic destruction of the specimens, and thereby improved fossilization potential.
The bulk of the book concentrates on descriptions, historical accounts, and illustrations of the Archaeopteryx specimens themselves. It is wonderful to have these clear, straightforward descriptions in one place, laid out in simple language with both color photos and concise illustrations. All of these characteristics have been hallmarks of Wellnhofer’s work throughout his career, and they should be emulated by all paleontologists. He also provides a comparative table of measurements, all the more reliable for being taken by a single expert researcher.
The final part of the book concerns various issues that have historically involved the Archaeopteryx specimens. How many species are really present? (One) What is the correct nomenclature? (Archaeopteryx lithographica) ... and so on. These questions seem to have easy answers, but they are historically complex. Other questions are less easy to answer. Wellnhofer bends over backward to be open-minded, although some of the more recent literature has rather settled many of these. He is also not much of a cladist, so he does not situate Archaeopteryx into nested sets of shared derived characteristics that demonstrate its phylogenetic position (perhaps to the relief of many readers). On the other hand, his literature review is admirably complete, with the exception of some of the most recent works.
One of the most poignant aspects of the book is Wellnhofer’s description of how the friable, easily separated layers of Solnhofen limestones (the Fäulen) are cleared away as rubble, because they can’t serve as building or lithographic stone (the Flinze). How many irreplaceable fossils, he wonders, are destroyed by this process? And this is echoed in his afterword, which laments that in Bavaria there is no law to protect the destruction or private sale of such specimens, a problem that has touched several of the ten current skeletal specimens of Archaeopteryx.
Obviously, paleontologists, ornithologists, and fossil fanciers will want this book, but it should also be on the shelves of public and school libraries, because it lays out in clear and unbiased detail the facts that surround the world’s most famous fossil and a true icon of evolution. No one is likely to replace this book’s scholarship or its production quality for a very long time, so it should be bought and cherished for the future.
Oxford paleobiologist Martin Brasier’s new book, Darwin’s Lost World, is first of all a recounting of his own research history, beginning with a 1970 trip to study the modern reef environments of Barbuda and continuing with expeditions to far-flung localities in China, Mongolia, Siberia, Oman, Newfoundland, and Scotland. At the same time, it is a documentation of Brasier’s role in investigating one of most intensely studied episodes in earth history, the roughly 100-million–year period that culminated in the appearance of recognizable animal life, including such familiar fossils as brachiopods, trilobites, and snails. This culmination is the so-called Cambrian explosion.
At the time of Darwin’s writing of the Origin of Species, there was little or no evidence of fossils prior to the earliest Cambrian strata, making it seem as though complex animal fossils had appeared suddenly worldwide. In the first edition of the Origin, while recounting the difficulties in his theory associated with the imperfections of the geological record, Darwin confessed:
if my theory be true, it is indisputable that before the lowest Silurian was deposited, long periods elapsed as long as, or probably longer than the whole interval from the Silurian age to the present day; and that during these vast, yet quite unknown periods of time, the world swarmed with living creatures. To the question why we do not find records of these vast primordial periods, I can give no satisfactory answer.
(At the time, the Silurian encompassed what we now call the Cambrian.)
Readers of RNCSE are aware that this 150-year–old conundrum is still considered state-of-the-art science by many in the creationist community. For example, the acting chair of the Texas state board of education, Don McLeroy, in his failed confirmation hearing before the Texas Senate on May 28, 2009, stated that the sudden appearance of phyla in the Cambrian explosion is evidence from the fossil record against evolution.
But research over the past 50 years has conclusively shown that Darwin’s “lost world” did indeed exist and that the explosion was not really so sudden. The history of life on earth has now been documented for about three billion years prior to the Cambrian. Many of the critical discoveries of Precambrian life and their interpretation are entertainingly recounted in Andrew Knoll’s Life on a Young Planet (Princeton [NJ]: Princeton University Press, 2003), which I highly recommend. The current book focuses on the last part of the Precambrian, the recently established Ediacaran Period (630–542 million years ago) and the succeeding Early Cambrian Epoch (542–513 million years ago). This is the period during which complex multicellular life, including animal life, became established.
Reading Brasier’s book will introduce readers to many of the key localities and discoveries, as well as provide glimpses of many of the major investigators, of Ediacaran and early Cambrian life. The well-known animals of the Burgess Shale — often offered as exemplars of the Cambrian radiation — are about 505 million years old and thus actually postdate the radiation, which was pretty much over by 520 million years ago.
Older still are the Ediacaran fossils, best known from places such as Australia, Newfoundland, Russia, and England, but clearly occurring worldwide. What is not clear is exactly what these forms were; opinions range from the earliest representatives of familiar animal groups to a separate and extinct group of multicellular organisms. Brasier’s own opinion is that they were ancestral to sponges, ctenophores, and jellyfish, living mostly by absorbing nutrients from the water.
One of the ongoing disputes in the field of Precambrian–Cambrian research is when major animal groups first appeared. Paleontologists mostly place originations conservatively at or about their first appearances in the fossil record. Others also use “molecular clocks” based on estimates of the rates of genetic change between groups and calibrated with the fossil record. These clocks have almost always placed the origin of animal groups well before their first appearance, with the lack of fossils being explained as a failure of preservation. Brasier dismisses such explanations as based on what he terms “Lyell’s hunch” — the hope that we lack the fossil ancestors because they have not been found yet. In contrast, Brasier argues that fossil preservation in the late Precambrian was better than it was later in earth history, so that if these early forms were present, we should have found them by now.
The book is illustrated with the author’s own photos and line drawings. It is also enlivened by his sense of humor. I especially liked the “MOFAOTYOF principle”, which stands for “my oldest fossils are older than your oldest fossils” and represents the excitement, attendant publicity, and as Brasier stresses, the necessity for concrete evidence when the oldest member of a fossil group is first discovered and published.
Darwin’s Lost World often assumes too much prior knowledge by the reader. The geologic time scale, for example, is not introduced until p 42. The “Snowball Earth” glaciations are mentioned without explanation on p 96 and are not really discussed until some 90 pages later. I also found his occasional attempts to illustrate a point by arranging the text to resemble a picture or graph to be more irritating than illuminating. A recurring problem is the use of the phrase “Cambrian explosion” to refer to the Cambrian part of this story. As often pointed out by my Berkeley colleague Jere Lipps, the use of the word “explosion” is both a misnomer and misleading. How can something that takes tens of millions of years be an explosion? As a result, you will see many paleontologists using the phrase “Cambrian revolution,” to refer to the profound biological changes occurring during this interval. I prefer the even milder phrase “Cambrian radiation”.
These quibbles notwithstanding, I readily recommend this book as an entertaining introduction to a major field in studying the history of life. It will give you invaluable information for the next time you get asked to explain how evolution explains the Cambrian “explosion”.
Thanks to Jere Lipps and Stephen Dornbos for their comments on this review.
Andrew Parker, evolutionary biologist and Honorary Research Fellow at Green Templeton College at Oxford University, is perhaps best known in scientific circles for his “light-switch theory” (Parker 2003), the proposition that the evolution of vision coupled with predation was an important driver of the “Cambrian Explosion” half a billion years ago. In his new book, The Genesis Enigma: Why The Bible is Scientifically Accurate, Parker joins the ranks of those scientists who are weary of having their faith be represented by anti-evolutionists and having their science claimed by atheists. Parker’s plea is that faith in God and an acceptance of modern science is indeed possible without holding on to a naïve biblical literalism. That is the good part of the Genesis Enigma. Unfortunately, Parker takes on far more than can be sufficiently addressed in his 280-page book, leaving both conservative and progressive Christian readers wholly unconvinced.
Parker’s main premise is that when the book of Genesis is read figuratively, the events appear to match our modern reconstruction of earth history. According to Parker:
when the biblical text is taken literally, it is left in the wake of advancing science. But when it is read figuratively, it not only keeps pace with the hottest science, it precedes or heralds it. (p 130)
In other words, the creation chronology of Genesis describes events that took the scientific community several thousand years to identify and piece together. This then is Parker’s “Genesis Enigma”: how is it that an ancient pre-scientific text could accurately describe the early geological and biological history of earth? Parker sees in this match between scripture and science possible evidence of divine inspiration. This claim alone is complex and controversial enough — and the argument should really have stopped there.
Unfortunately for the coherence of the book, Parker takes it several steps further by seeking to convince the reader that Genesis is not only scientifically accurate but that the entire Bible is historically reliable. The resulting read is an odd mixture of biblical archaeology, paleontology, cosmology, evolutionary biology, and theology, all interspersed with long but superficial reviews of the history of science, many of which actually detract from the main argument.
The book begins with a brief summary of the development of the biblical text, in essence arguing that despite minor copying errors and manuscript variations the version we have today is reliable. Parker’s selective treatment is reminiscent of many popular conservative Christian apologetics books and should leave any reader — believer or nonbeliever — unconvinced. Unfortunately, this section is followed by an equally meager assessment of biblical archaeology. The reader is asked to conclude that the Bible is historically accurate based on a few archaeological discoveries that allegedly corroborate the existence of a handful of biblical sites and figures. However, even a casual glimpse through the latest volumes of the Biblical Archaeology Review makes it clear that the correspondence between actual archaeological discovery and biblical accounts is much more tenuous than Parker would like us to believe.
The heart of the book follows the creation events of the first 25 verses of the book of Genesis based on the King James version. Each event is linked to an actual physical, geological, or biological milestone in the 4.55-billion–year history of the earth. At first, Parker’s figurative reading of the text is relatively straightforward: the creation of light (Genesis 1:3) actually describes the formation of our sun accompanied by the coalescing of the planets and other bodies of the solar system. Parker’s figurative reading begins to take much greater liberties on the third day of creation when he argues that the appearance of “grass, herb, and fruit trees” corresponds with the evolution of photosynthetic life in the oceans.
Continuing this free-spirited reading, the fourth day is characterized not by the creation of the sun, moon, and stars, but by the evolution of sight by the first multicellular animals. In a discussion reminiscent of interpretations by old-earth creationist Hugh Ross that Genesis 1:14–17 describes not the creation but the first visible appearance of stellar objects to an observer on earth, Parker argues that this verse stresses the appearance of sight in animals. He supports this interpretation with a thorough discussion of the seminal impact of vision, his “light-switch theory”, on the evolution of life on earth.
Parker develops this line of reasoning further for Genesis 1:20–21, the creation of abundant life in the oceans. He sees this as a reference to the so-called Cambrian explosion, during which most of the phyla of animals first diversified in the oceans. Parker concludes his analysis with a brief nod to Genesis 1:24–25, seeing in it a description of the evolution of land animals before the final appearance of humans.
Parker’s figurative reading in light of the evolution of vision is interesting and creative. However, it is also a great example of how such approaches are prone to reflect the biases and wishes of the reader rather than the intended meaning of the text. Conservative Christians will criticize Parker for not taking the language of Genesis seriously enough, whereas progressives will ask why he perceives such a need to find congruence between the text and modern science. Experienced science-and-religion readers will also be baffled by the near-complete lack of treatment of previous scholarly works on this subject. If Parker’s goal was to add a new serious voice to the now voluminous creationism/evolution discussion, he should have spent more time discussing contemporary issues relevant to his interpretation.
A central mantra of the anti-evolutionists has long been that atheism and evolution are two sides of the same coin. Parker’s voice as a wellknown and respected scientist and believer aids in dispelling this myth. Unfortunately, it also reinforces another: namely that a Christian cannot accept the findings of modern science without also stretching the bounds of scriptural interpretation to its utmost limit.
Parker A. 2003. In the Blink of an Eye. New York: Basic Books.