Shop Forum More Submit  Join Login
Most Americans are familiar with the idea that despite the overwhelming, convincing and elegant evidence for evolution, a surprising number of people still don't buy it. Things aren't much better in many European countries. It's still remarkably easy to find people who believe that creationism or "intelligent design" should be taught in science classes, and that evolution and creationism should be given equal time. The new movement to discuss the "strengths and weaknesses" would be fine if it were pointing out evolution’s weaknesses as would be inherent in any scientific theory, but creationists' efforts at this have instead often resulted in recycling the same tired old arguments that have been appearing in creationist books for decades. Creationists and intelligent design proponents consistently profess that intelligent design has equal footing as a theory, and that its specific tenets (such as irreducible complexity) ought to be discussed and examined in science classes and often at the university level as well.

Despite the unshakable proof of evolution as a basic theory - and the ever-increasing evidence for its specifics - the last decade has not seen much change in the public's perception of the debate. In 2001, a Gallup poll indicated that a little over one third of Americans believed the basic principle of Darwinian evolution is "supported well by evidence". More shocking, though, is how many Americans believed that "God created humans in their present form": a whopping 45%. In 2004, these numbers hadn't changed.

A similar poll was conducted in 2009 to celebrate Darwin's 200th birthday, and the numbers had changed depressingly little. In almost a decade, the percentage of people who believe in evolution as a well-supported theory has risen to 39%. That's eight years of intense research, mounting evidence, increasing standards for education, many new publications, public awareness, public debates with brilliant scientists and speakers, documentaries and movies and books - and a 4% increase is all there is to show for it, which may be little more than statistical noise anyway.

How can this be? What are we doing wrong?

I have noticed what might be a new recent trend in the scientific community's attempts to combat this concern. I'm currently taking an upper-level evolution course at my college, one of the last courses I need to graduate. Unlike other evolution-related college courses I've taken in the past, this one has a specific part of the curriculum that's oriented towards teaching us about the creationism debate. Not, I should point out, teaching us about creationism as a theory the way that the school boards in Texas want, but teaching us about the basics of the conflict in order to, I presume, give us adequate ammunition against the other side. I noticed this trend arising last year, too, when one of my science professors informed the class that he was teaching a new course soon entitled something like "Evolution for teachers", the point of which was to specifically educate teachers on how to handle the inevitable topic of creationism in high school biology. And indeed, it seems like high school teachers' prevailing ambivalence, uncertainty, and sometimes downright fear of discussing evolution in the classroom may be contributing to the overall pattern of this problem.

In my own class, at least, opinions on this approach have so far been mixed. Many students have been complaining that we shouldn't be wasting valuable class time learning about this garbage, when there's such an enormous wealth of information to be gained from learning about the pure science and history of evolutionary theory. Many of them simply don't care about Duane Gish and Michael Behe, and many of them find the whole debate unbelievably ridiculous to begin with. The sentiments expressed run the gamut from "why should I care about this?" to "do we need to learn about how to combat flat earthers, too?" The professor's perspective seems to be that by teaching the students the basic tenets of the debate, he's better equipping us for dealing with creationists in the real world, in the realm of education and the public.

This month's question is: Do you think that educating students and teachers about how to deal with creationists in an academic setting is going to make a difference to the public's perception of evolution in general? And if not, what do you think is the best method for combating creationism, since little else seems to be working?

It's too soon for me to have much of an opinion on this at the moment, since learning specifically about creationist debates in college classes is a relatively new phenomenon to me. I do, however, hope that it will be at least somewhat successful over time - it's a very sad thing to imagine that another decade will see another mere 4% increase in the public's acceptance of evolution.
In late November of this year, NASA released an announcement that in a few days, they were going to hold a conference to discuss “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.”  A lot of sources, such as this article at Examiner.com, were hoping that the news which was going to be announced at the conference was that they’d actually discovered life on other planets.  No such luck, but the actual news was still pretty interesting: according to the paper which was published in the Journal Science, a bacterium has been discovered which is able to use arsenic in place of phosphorous.  These bacteria exists in a lake in California which was previously believed to have such high concentrations of arsenic that any life would not be able to survive there.  But according to the paper, to these bacteria arsenic is not poison; it’s actually food.

While discovering a bacterium that can use arsenic instead of phosphorous isn’t as big a deal as discovering life on other planets, what it can tell us is what life on other planets could be like.  Life on earth is made up primarily of six elements—carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus—and until now, it was believed that life could not survive without any one of these six.  But if the conclusions of this paper are correct, then the need of any life form to have all six of these elements is not a hard and fast rule.  And if life can survive on earth without all of six of these elements, then presumably it could also exist on planets where some of these elements are not available at all.  Some people have even speculated that these bacteria could belong to a “shadow biosphere”, a lineage of life which arose independently of all other life on earth, although what’s more likely is that these bacteria are related to all other bacteria and have just acquired this ability as a special adaptation.

You’ll notice I said “if the conclusions of this paper are correct”.  The most important question being asked at this point is: are they?  After the initial burst of positive press which uncritically reported the study’s conclusions, there was a large backlash of scientists criticizing the original study for lack of rigor.  Some of the critical responses are discussed in this article from Wired, and one of the critical responses themselves is here.  If there are any molecular biologists in this group, I would be interested to know what they think of this study and its criticisms, and whether the study’s original authors or its critics are more likely to be correct.  But for people like me, who just know about paleontology, evolutionary biology and psychometrics, the most that can be determined from this is that the conclusions of this study cannot be considered a certainty until more independent groups of researchers have reproduced the original study’s results.

An equally relevant question, which is easier for non-specialists to discuss, is whether this incident reveals any problems with the way science journalism works.  What normally happens when a paper is about to be published is that the information being presented in it is under “embargo”, meaning that it’s kept secret until the paper is published, in order to prevent other scientists from trying to get a jump on this information and publishing it before the original authors do.  Obviously, when a paper is under embargo, nobody is going to be publishing criticism of it yet.  However, while the information about these bacteria was still under embargo, the authors showed it to a select group of journalists so that news articles about this discovery could be prepared in advance and published alongside the paper.

Before writing their articles, some of these journalists went to other experts to get a “second opinion” about the paper’s conclusions.  But since the experts they went to hadn’t read the paper (after all, it was still under embargo), the journalists were not able to get much of a sense of the possible flaws in the paper’s conclusions, hence the lack of any criticism of the study’s conclusions in the first news stories that appeared about it.  When you combine this with the way that NASA created hype for this story with their press release from November which made it sound as though the news might involve actual aliens, you have a situation where because of the secrecy of the embargo system, the authors of this paper are able to make sure it receives as much positive publicity as possible, while minimizing the negative publicity.

At least, they managed to minimize it at first.  By now, the negative backlash in the blogsphere has become pretty strong, especially from the blogs of other experts in molecular biology.  New studies and papers criticizing the original study’s conclusions are likely to be published at some point, although they haven’t yet.  And in the meantime, a new issue has come up:  the question of whether blogs written by experts should be taken seriously in the scientific community, or whether scientific discourse should be limited to peer-reviewed journals.  The authors of the original study have been of the opinion that only peer-reviewed criticism of their study is worth responding to, while the critics believe that it shouldn’t matter where criticism is published, as long as it’s written by known experts in the field.  Two different perspectives about this are here (arguing against the importance of criticism in blogs) and here (arguing in favor of it).

There are a lot of different elements of this issue, so there are several different things I’m interested in having people’s opinions about. What’s your opinion about all of this, including both the original study and the controversy over it?  Is the embargo system and science journalism being misused?  And should discussion that happens in blogs be taken seriously in the scientific community?

One thing that I’ve been feeling more and more strongly over the past few years is that science journalism is very often garbage.  It isn’t always, but the examples of science journalists who report research in an accurate and informative manner—especially about complex or controversial topics—are so rare that they always stand out to me as a surprise when they happen.  One of the best recent examples of the failure of science journalism is described in this post by David Orr, about the number of news sources which have been claiming that Triceratops never existed.  If Triceratops and Torosaurus were actually the same animal, as is suggested by the new study discussed in these articles, then it’s the name Torosaurus which would have to be abandoned, because Triceratops was named first and that name therefore has priority.  The original paper makes it quite clear that it’s the status of Torosaurus which is in jeopardy, not Triceratops.  So why have so many journalists been claiming that “Triceratops never existed”?  Are they too ignorant of paleontology to understand the conclusions of the paper, or are they deliberately sacrificing accuracy for the sake of an attention-grabbing headline?  There’s no way to tell for sure, but it’s probably some of both.

Ideally, I think scientists should write the popular accounts of their research as much as possible.  This would require some skill, since not all scientists know how to make their research understandable to a general audience, but I think it would be worth it.  For one thing, it would avoid the problem with science being misreported like happened with Torosaurus and Triceratops, since I can’t imagine any actual paleontologist making a mistake this stupid.  It wouldn’t avoid the problem of new research being described in a completely uncritical manner regardless of what flaws it might contain, because most scientists probably can’t be counted on to provide criticism of their own research, but it would at least cut down on the ability of scientists to maximize the positive press for their research by exploiting both the hype and the embargo system.

If scientists are writing the popular accounts of their own research, some of the time they’ll be doing so in blogs.  I could really see it going either way about whether that should be regarded as a valid contributions to the scientific community.  On one hand, because of the delay in publication that’s inherent to peer review, blogs can expose shortcomings in research faster than peer-reviewed papers can, as it may be doing in the case of the study about these bacteria.  But on the other hand bloggers, even expert bloggers, can also commit a lot of careless errors which would never make it through peer review.  This is especially the case when an expert in one field tries to criticize research in another field where he has no training, such as an evolutionary biologist criticizing research about IQ.  It could be pretty overwhelming for scientists to be expected to defend their research not only from criticisms that appear in peer-reviewed journals, but also from every criticism that gets posted in a blog.

Either way, though, as more and more scientists begin blogging about their own research and that of others, these blog postings probably will have some effect on the overall opinion of the scientific community.  The criticism of the arsenic bacteria study is a perfect example: even though no criticisms of it have yet appeared in peer-reviewed journals, the scientific community’s skepticism about this study is pretty well-established by now, entirely because of criticism that’s appeared in blogs.  Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it probably can’t be avoided.
Famous scientists often have a tendency to stray from their roots as they get older, especially once they've got a fair number of accomplishments under their belt. This is perfectly understandable in most cases. You spend a couple decades doing the research you're passionate about, maybe publish some ground-breaking research, and you're done. You've done your part, contributed to the annals of science, and you want to live out your years away from the stress of the laboratory. Not all of us can be like Feynman, who taught physics at CalTech up until two weeks before his death. For most scientists, though, quietly passing into obscurity seems preferable, or writing, or picking up a fun and stress-free hobby. What happens when the post-research "hobby" is every bit as stressful as the research, though?

I am, of course, talking about Richard Dawkins. Dawkins has been one of my favorite scientists for many years, and reading his books in my youth was what put me on the road to an interest in evolution and eventually a degree in biology. His early research and writings were incredibly inspiring to me. I found the ways in which he describes and documents the process of evolution in The Blind Watchmaker to be almost breathtakingly beautiful in their simplicity and parsimony. I found this single book more educational in the area of evolution than I had found any science class in school to be up to that point.

After I read this book (my first introduction to Dawkins), I moved onto The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, both of which acted as excellent summaries of some of the most important research Dawkins has done. The selfish gene theory describes the idea that genes work as the most important and smallest units of selection, rather than the organism and the population. This theory built upon an idea by George C. Williams, but Dawkins' writings and research made it truly accessible to the public. The extended phenotype, by contrast, explains the principle that an organism's expressible genetic makeup should be extended to cognitive behaviors, among other things. The classic example is that a beaver's dam might as well, under this theory, be considered every bit as much a part of its genetic makeup as its distinctive tail, its fur, or the protein synthesis of its genetic material. Both of these ideas I found to contribute significantly to my personal understanding of evolution and its intricacies and indeed, to the field of evolutionary biology today as we know it.

Somewhere along the line, Dawkins began to seemingly lose interest in developing these fascinating new evolutionary theories, and instead began focusing his attentions on battling with creationists. This, too, was understandable; there's only so much that a prominent evolutionary biologist can do before he comes under attack from representatives of this ever-present movement. Dawkins quickly became known as a sort of poster-boy for the anti-creationists. He certainly knew his material and was indefatigable, so he seemed to make a good opponent for them (despite that they rarely listened to his arguments). As time went on, it seemed that more and more of Dawkins' contributions to society seemed to be centered toward atheism and anti-religion and away from biology. I frankly found this change to be unfortunate. I read all of Dawkins' books as an atheist myself, so it can't simply be a disagreement bias. I was especially disappointed by The God Delusion, which appears to (quite depressingly, by my standards) be often hailed as Dawkins' magnum opus by his fans. I found the book to be terribly flawed and uninteresting, its entire premise of disproving the existence of a god based on the shaky foundation of tearing down Christianity and Islam specifically, while addressing the idea of a non Judeo-Christian god only halfheartedly. Even as a militant atheist at the time I found myself pining for the days of selfish genes and beaver dams after closing this book. What had happened to my favorite biologist? He seemed to have gone from a triumphant master of research and eloquent prose to a frothing-at-the-mouth, always-angry atheist. I was not pleased.

I am aware that he has a new book out, The Greatest Show on Earth, which is centered around evolution. I think this book is completely lackluster compared to his older works, though, simply because it's a rehash, a summary, a synopsis of everything that's been said and done before. In contrast to The Blind Watchmaker, he spends the entirety of the new book laying out the evidence for why evolution is true, rather than why it is beautiful.

This month's question is: Do you think that Dawkins has declined in his writing and focuses? Why or why not?

I obviously think that he has, and not just because I miss the heady, profound experience of traversing the new terrain of his brilliant forays into genetics, evolutionary psychology, and other related fields. I also feel like Dawkins is simply wasting his talents in an area where they're not really doing any good to society. The religious people obviously think he's a worthless heretic, and the atheists agree with and hang on to his every word - but rarely is either side actually learning anything from the experience. Aside from his gifts at eloquence and ability to explain complex ideas in simple terms, Dawkins' other great talent in prose is to be shockingly sharp and caustic in his writing, able to hone in on and tear down an opponent's flawed reasoning. There have been many times when this gift of wit has worked to the benefit and education of many, such as his defending the legitimacy of sociobiology against the deniers, who prefer to think of individual behavior as little more than an aggregate of social tendencies. Dawkins had learned otherwise from the extended phenotypes of his beavers and caddisflies, and his arguments have been constructive and educational to the field of sociobiology. When it comes to atheism and religion, though, I see very little that Dawkins has actually accomplished. He's either preaching to the choir or setting it on fire, and in either case, what have we gained?
It seems that October is most often this group’s month for dealing with weighty topics that have been of importance to the group for a little while.  Last year our October topic was about evolutionary PRATTs, the tendency of some evolution supporters to rely on arguments that are just as faulty as what’s typical of creationists, and the year before that it was about James Watson and whether what happened to him was fair.  This year’s October entry follows the same pattern, covering an issue that has been relevant to this group for a long time, especially recently.

As is stated in the summary on the group’s main page, this group has always had a neutral position towards religion in general.  We neither advocate it nor oppose it, although we obviously oppose religiously-based attacks on science such as creationism.  What this amounts to in terms of our guidelines for submissions is that we’ll accept submissions that display either a pro-religion or anti-religion viewpoint, as long as they’re relevant to evolution.  In general, this group seems to be more popular among atheists than it is among religious people, so we tend to receive more submissions with an atheistic point of view than with religious point of view.  But when we receive submissions related to theistic evolution, as long as they meet the rest of this group’s guidelines, we always accept them also.

In August, this group had its first example of someone leaving the group because they opposed our position about this.  (I won’t say who it was, in case they would prefer that their identity be kept private.)  What they opposed specifically was our having accepted this stamp submitted by Dogss, and the theistic evolution perspective that it portrays.  I suspect that the person who left the group would have been willing to stay if we had removed this stamp from our gallery, but as unfortunate as it is for this group to lose members, we consider our principle about neutrality with regard to religion too important to be willing to change it.

This incident has made me realize something, though:  I don’t think we’ve ever explained why we’ve chosen to take the position about this that we do.  This is something that deserves to be explained, both for the sake of anyone else who might consider leaving the group because of our position about it, and more generally in case there’s anyone else who’s curious about it.

The most basic premise of our position about this is that creationism is much more harmful than Christianity in general.  (I would make a broader statement about all religions, but Christianity is the only one that’s really relevant here, since all of the theistic evolution submissions we’ve received have been Christian-themed.)  I think one of the best explanations I’ve written about the harm which can be done by creationism is one that I posted at Christian Forums here.  This thread was written for the benefit of one specific person who was both a Christian and a creationist, so it’s written to explain how creationism is harmful from a Christian point of view, but most of the problems with creationism that I’ve described there are problems regardless of one’s perspective.  Because the most basic assumption behind creationism is that we must trust a written account (the Bible) more than we trust direct observation—and this is part of the official doctrine of creationist organizations such as Answer in Genesis—the mindset behind creationism interferes with cognitive processes that are vital to many other aspects of life.  And if a person ever does realize through direct or indirect observation that creationism is false, while also having been taught to believe that creationism is essential for salvation, the consequences can be disastrous.

What about Christianity in general?  From the fact that I deconverted from Christianity in 2002, it should be clear that there are certain things about Christianity that I disagree with, and the same is true of most religions in general.  However, what I’ve come to realize over the past eight years is that it’s possible to be a Christian in a way that avoids most of the problem that are often associated with Christianity.  Christians can avoid allowing their religion to interfere with science if they aren’t creationists, Christians can avoid allowing their religion to affect how they treat homosexuals if they believe that the Bible’s prohibition of homosexuality refers only to the type of homosexuality that existed in Roman times (which involved pedophilia), and Christianity does very little harm as long as these sorts of things are avoided.  As I pointed out in my entry from December of last year, under some circumstances religion can even be beneficial, as is demonstrated both by programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and by the central role that Christianity played in the fall of communism in eastern Europe 20 years ago.

Even though Emily and I both personally disagree with Christianity, our position for this group is that in the absence of doctrines such as creationism, Christianity is harmless enough that it would be a waste of effort for us to try and fight it.  And more importantly, if we wish to fight creationism as effectively as possible, we will be able to do this far more effectively if we remain neutral towards Christianity as a whole than if we were to try and fight it also.

There are two reasons for this, and the most obvious is that if we tried to attack all of Christianity, we would be alienating one of our largest and most devoted groups of potential allies.  Worldwide, most Christians are not creationists, and the most vocal opponents of creationism are often the Christian theistic evolutionists who are aware of how harmful creationism is to Christianity.  Kenneth R. Miller is one of the best examples of this.  People like Kenneth Miller attack creationism on grounds that are not only scientific, but also theological, arguing that it’s incorrect to believe that the beginning of Genesis should be interpreted literally.  Atheists tend to overlook this line of reasoning, either because they aren’t familiar enough with Christian theology to argue it convincingly, or because they see no point trying to get Christians to change their interpretation of the Bible when they think Christians ought to abandon the Bible entirely. But for anyone who cares about fighting creationism rather than Christianity in general, this is a line of reasoning that should not be overlooked, which brings me to my second point.

One of the most basic principles of human nature related to debating with creationists is that if you care about convincing a person of something, attacking their entire system of beliefs is not the way to do it.  Most people are far more reluctant to change their entire system of beliefs than they are to change one specific aspect of it, so if people who argue against creationism create the impression that they expect others to abandon Christianity entirely, they’re less likely to succeed.  On the other hand, if it can be explained to a creationist how evolution is compatible with Christian theology, this will make them all that much less resistant to it.  I think this is a very general principle of persuasion:  the less a new idea requires a person to abandon their existing beliefs, and the more it can be shown to be consistent with what they believe already, the more likely they are to accept it.

The classical example of how effective this method of persuasion can be is a scene from the Bible, in which the apostle Paul preaches to the Romans on Mars Hill in Acts 17.  The ancient Romans worshipped dozens of different gods, all of whom they believed had to be offered sacrifices regularly, because gods who did not receive enough sacrifices would get angry and cause misfortune.  The Romans were afraid that they might fail to sacrifice to certain gods because of not knowing about them, so in order to avoid this risk they included an altar labeled “To an unknown god.”  Even though Paul certainly would have disagreed with the Romans’ worshipping multiple gods, he decided that rather than trying to get the Romans to abandon this idea, he had a better chance of convincing them to worship the Christian god if he were to introduce this god to them as the god that they were already worshipping without knowing its identity.  According to acts 17, Paul had a fair amount of success with this method.

The version of Christianity Paul taught to the Romans probably included creationism, although it wasn’t any less scientific than most other ideas about the origin of the world that existed in the first century A.D.  But even though this time the Christian creationists are the ones setting up metaphorical altars based on false beliefs, we can still learn a lot from Paul’s method of dealing with this.

Now that I’ve explained the reasoning behind our group’s policy of neutrality towards religion, here is this month’s question: What do you think of our policy about this?  This policy is such a fundamental part of our group that it’s unlikely we would be willing to change it, but I’m still interested in hearing other people’s viewpoints about it.
The last couple of months have been very prolific ones for paleontology. It's not overly uncommon nowadays for new discoveries in paleo to emerge every week or so, but it is pretty rare for there to be so many downright weird ones so close together. In just the space of a few months, we've had predatory digging behavior, double-sickled dromaeosaurs, two-humped quilled allosaurids, and crazy-frilled ceratopsians. These discoveries have been not only important to our evolving understanding of paleontology and taxonomy, but to our artistic sense of wonderment that dinosaurs tend to conjure as well.

Predatory digging behavior in dinosaurs has been found for the first time in the mid-Cretaceous of southern Utah. This evidence, found completely in the form of trace fossils, consists of fossilized burrows of small mammals that include fossilized scratches and dig-marks of predatory dinosaurs. These claw marks are interpreted to have belonged to dromaeosaurs, so this is the first direct evidence that dromaeosaurs would have dug up their prey occasionally, much as many modern predators do.

Balaur bondoc was a medium-sized dromaeosaurid from an isolated island ecosystem found in what is now Romania. The most striking thing about it was its double sickle claws, one of which was the first toe (hallux in most dinosaurs) having been modified into a loose mimicry of the second toe. Its anatomy was also somewhat bizarre in other ways, including the fact that the third digit on its hands was reduced to nonfunctionality, and more subtle things as well. Its pelvis was more swept-back than in other dromaeosaurs, and its bones shorter, stouter and more fused. This combination of traits has led some paleontologists to suspect that Balaur was actually an herbivore with a body structure somewhat similar to therizinosaurs. The swept-back pelvis would allow more space to be occupied by the gut, and the elongated hallux would be used to support the animal's increased weight, rather than as a weapon. Without skull material from the animal, though, these ideas about its ecological niche remain as mere speculations. I personally await more published analyses of this animal quite eagerly.

Concavenator was a pretty bizarre creature as well. A carcharodontisaurid (a type of allosauroid), Concavenator had two humps on its back, one much taller than the other, much like some kind of freaky toothed camel. The humps consisted of elongated vertebrae spines, in front of and directly behind the hips, respectively. But that's not the main reason this animal has fascinated paleontologists of late - that honor goes to the quill knobs from the bones of its forearms, which indicate that the animal had feather-like structures - probably quills - attached there. If this is the case, it would push back the evolution of feathers in Archosauria by a wide timeframe. However, some paleontologists have doubted this interpretation, claiming that the quill knobs were probably just muscle attachment points on the bone. Again, this awaits further published research.

Kosmoceratops, quite possibly the horniest dinosaur ever discovered, is a new ceratopsian recently described which had a total of 15 spikes on its head. It was described along with Utahceratops, and both came from late Cretaceous Utah. The bizarre frill on Kosmoceratops was probably used more for sexual display than for defense, lending plenty of credence to its status of "horniest dinosaur ever."

This month's question is: Which of these new discoveries do you find most interesting or most significant to paleontology, and why? Though I think all of them are pretty cool, my personal favorite is probably Balaur because of its unusual island autapomorphies and the implications for the possibility of an herbivorous dromaeosaur. Neat stuff!

Recent Journal Entries