The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Convergence/Skepchicon Day 3: Evolution Mythbusters

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 6, 2010

The final talk I attended at Convergence/Skepchicon was titled “Evolution Mythbusters”, and the panelists included Bug Girl, Greg Laden, Ted Meissner (moderator), and PZ Myers. It was a very wide-ranging discussion of the issues of modern evolutionary science and dealing with creationist nonsense. Check it out…

Evolution Mythbusters

Ted: What are some of our favorite misconceptions regarding evolution?

Bug: I think my favorite one is that “bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly”.  In Jerry Seinfeld’s “Bee Movie” they said that bee’s should not be able to fly, so it must be a miracle.  But this is premised on the assumption that the wings of bees are fixed, whereas in reality they bend & are flexible.

Greg: The misconception that humans evolved from apes or that they didn’t evolve from apes, because they are both correct AND incorrect.  But there’s a new one most people don’t know about, and that’s that behaviors can be genetic.  Behaviors develop in individuals in ways that are mostly determined by the environment and not by your genes.  This relates to gender issues, race, etc.  My issue is that there is a Darwinian theory of behavior.

PZ: This has to do with sex & evolution and the panel last night… here’s what was happening all the time.  People raised their hands and asked “why am I gay?”  And people on the panel were trying to figure this out, whereas the reality is that most of what makes you human (and who you are) comes about purely by chance.  What has been subject to selection in the last few million years?  Our immune system and sexual selection.  And when you analyze the genome further you find a handful of proteins that show signs of selection, and most of them are doing very obscure sort of things.  For example, genes for lactose tolerance show up which show signs of selection.  Otherwise, all this speculation about a “gay gene” doesn’t just work – most of that is the product of chance, not selection.

Ted: One of the question that we frequently have is what is the best evidence you have to present to an evolution dis-believer?

Bug: I actually taught for about 20 years, and I taught freshman biology for a long time.  I also taught a 400 level & graduate course in evolutionary biology, and in all of these courses I had students who were vehement creationists.  So I spent a lot of time teaching about how science works.  My experience as a graduate student is worthless unless it can be put into the larger narrative of evolution.  Basically what I do is give these students space in these courses.  We’re dealing with a worldview which is very tightly enmeshed with the emotional aspect of their lives, and I have to find a good way to approach them.  So I start out talking about how science works in the context of natural causality – you need to think about evidence & repeatability.  Ultimately, it’s a way of knowing and thinking critically about evidence, and it’s a process not just a jumble of facts.

Greg: I think we have to recognize a difference between high school & college.  It’s probably better for a high school teacher to not even touch the religion question.  Good examples are how genes operate, and the fossil record, etc.  My advice is to take the one you know the most about.  You can bring the student up to the point to them seeing the data and then provide the fuller explanation.  Another technique is to address the intellectual history by looking at the natural beauty of life – you can also look at earlier views of the Bible and how there were many (not one) Floods to explain things.  By this analysis, the students can see how – pre 20th century – these historical notions of Flood Geology and creationism were just very silly.  And all this came before genetics – so by that time it can be a pretty devastating critique of creationism.

Ted: This is the “Counter-Creationism Handbook” by Mark Isaak, but what I find delightful about this book is the way in which it is organized.

PZ: Some things I do not consider very interesting to discuss.  If you believe in YEC, you’re a moron.  There was this idea of continuous creationism, and I will point out that if you read Michael Behe’s new book he’s bringing up this idea.  So these old dumb ideas are not dead.

When I have a captive classroom audience, what I like to do is to take a positive approach to evolution and explain genetics & molecular biology to them.  Then the story of evolution just naturally falls out of that.  My favorite example in Isaak’s book is the vitamin C gene – they’ve found in the human genome a gene that can synthesize vitamin C, but it’s broken.  If you push even farther back, you see that chimps can’t synthesize vitamin C.  Chimps and us have the same defect, and when you look at the sequence it’s the same mutation – that says that many millions of years ago this mutation happened and we have inherited it.  That means it must have been evolution, either that or God really was just kind of a dick to mess with us.  So I like to pull together all the data for my students and ask them “How do you explain it?”

Bug: That’s why I front load the whole discussion with how science works.

I think we really underestimate creationists because there is a very real social component to that belief system, so I think it’s kind of a mistake to just dismiss them as stupid.

PZ: What I mean is that when you put all of the evidence for evolution in front of a creationist, and they still deny it.

Greg: Somebody asked me a question about evolution, and I already know what they’re going to ask because they’ve been trained to spew the standard creationist line.  Students like that are not interested in learning anything, and they’re a disciplinary issue because they simply want to tear down evolution.

PZ: First I try to explain to them their error, but if they persist, then I call them stupid.  I say here’s our evidence & explanation, but can they provide something better, and they tend to just hang themselves.

Ted: What is the big challenge in spreading the acceptance of evolution?

Bug: I would probably say the media, because we’ve gone from a society where there was a voice of authority via religion to a marketing-dominated media pushing science in little sound bites.  You can’t really squeeze science into a sound bite.  We’re talking about people (creationists) who are trained in how to win over people via marketing.

Greg: I have to agree.  I don’t’ care about whether or not you “believe” in evolution, I’d just like more people to accept it so that we can get stuff done politically.  The biggest obstacle is that the opposition to evolution is very broad & widespread – every megachurch around here sees more people than there are around this convention.  The problem is that this is a cultural process, and people come in with these preconceptions.

PZ: Plain ol’ religion is the killer.  All you have to do is go through and read through their articles – it’s just terrible.  There is this idea that science is now an authority, and they’re trying to fight that authority.  You find that they’re using religion as a whip to get people to accept their point of view – if you don’t believe them, you’re going to hell.  We don’t have that.  We have the story, the evidence, and the science, but we don’t have the goad – they have the threat that scares people into dis-believing evolution & science.

Ted: What do you find most fascinating about evolution?

Bug: Sex!  You have many kinds of insects that look the same, but they are different species.  One of the things I saw the first entomologist do was cut off the penises of male beetles and put them on another kind to see if they could reproduce (it worked).  There are insects that dance, and if they do the dance wrong they don’t get to have sex & reproduce.  As we get more and more pieces to the puzzle, we see that the sex gets more and more interesting.

Greg: The emergence of very complicated systems due to very simple physical processes.  For example, our inability to synthesize vitamin C has helped lead to our modern military-industrial complex because we need a Navy that is not suffering from scurvy and have to have plantations to grow that stuff.  It’s a 400 year old thing.

PZ: I’m going to talk about zebra fish.  What I’m now interested in is what follows sex – development.  You have this single cell which eventually becomes an entire organism, you have these little bundles of cells which are sitting there, talking to each other, making decisions.  And from that process you get very complicated & complete organisms.

Also, how does evolution work?  You have these genetic changes that affect form, and they also have to affect development.  What’s being switched on and off in the embryo that causes there to be four legs and not six, for example.

Ted: References and resources available for people to teach & spread the news about evolution?

Bug: The NCSE, National Association of biology Teachers, etc.

Greg: My blog.

PZ: Try some of Sean Carroll’s books.  Also Carl Zimmer’s book “By the Water’s Edge”.

Q&A Session follows…

Q: In England they were mushing two human eggs together to make a single fertilized egg.  How would that affect the evolution of humans?

Bug: I think that is related to the field of transgenics.

PZ: Here they take the nucleus of one egg and put it into the nucleus of the other egg.  This can be done with different species.

Greg: If you take all the genes from only a female and put them together, it may not work because the male genes are necessary.

PZ: You can fuse embryos together, like take the embryo for a white mouse & one for a black mouse and put them together, and you end up getting striped mice.

Q: What do you say to creationists just say that evolutionists are simple interpreting the same evidence differently?

PZ: Well, what they’re doing with that (such as in the Creation Museum) is that they are neglecting about 99% of the evidence.  They are being very selective & shallow in their look at the evidence, whereas evolutionists look at all of it.  Essentially, they are lying.

Q: I went to high school in Kansas during that evolution debacle.  During that time, did you see a difference in the students in your class?

Greg: During that time, I would try to focus on some outreach as best I can.  I really told the creationists in my class that if they were going to feel uncomfortable about this material to come see me.  I also tell them their grade depends upon their understanding of evolution, and even if they are just trying to “witness” that has an effect.

Bug: I have had some very bad, and sometimes violent, experiences with this.  This kind of stuff would show up in my evaluations, and they’d say some very nasty things.  I think that some of this is because I’m a woman, because I’ve had students quote the Bible to me about how women should be subservient [reads an example of a weird student evaluation].

So my question for Greg in terms of the gendering is, does it matter who is teaching the class?

Greg: Yes.  I’ve seen the degree to which the person is respected does depend upon their gender, whether they are a professor or a teaching assistant.

Q: What would you guys consider to be an easy, quick definition of evolution I could tell people?  How do you define it?

Greg: It’s a change in allele frequency over time, but that neglects the environmental side.

[I got called upon and mentioned the “Creationist Claims Index” app for the iPhone, iPad, etc]

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