In the cathedral of Natural History

So the story goes, at least as Carl Zimmer recounts it, during a debate between Thomas Huxley (a staunch defender of Charles Darwin’s then new Theory of Evolution by means of Natural Selection) and Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce (a staunch opponent of the theory) in the Natural History Museum of Oxford University, Wilberforce asked Huxley whether it was on his mother’s or on his father’s side that he was descended from an ape? To this came Huxley’s apocryphal reply,

“If then . . . the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means and influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.” [Thomas Huxley, 1860, [1] ]

It is, for me, true or not, one of the most famous quotes any defender of the scientific method has ever put to a denier of the conclusions of that method. When I first heard it, it was being read aloud on an audiobook of Carl Zimmer’s “Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea” and sent chills down my spine. Since then, I have never ceased to feel a rush of excitement in both the wit and brevity of this comment. Whether uttered so clearly at the time or not, that is not the point; the point is how much it conveys the conviction of the scientist against the ridicule of the blind skeptic.

Today I visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I missed going there on Monday night, when the workshop I am currently attending (ATLAS Upgrade Workshop) had a reception there. I was far too jet lagged at the time, but today I was able to step away from the workshop and take a quick tour of the Museum. My post-doc, Aidan, happened to be in England over the weekend and remained here with friends this week to be my guide (and also get some work done with me while we’re in the same physical location!). He insisted that I had to see the Museum, and whether or not he realized it he further enticed me by mentioning that the room where the aforementioned debate as held was housed in the building.

This was also timely because there has been an individual in Texas who has been spamming University faculty with emails railing against Evolution and touting Texas HB79 [2], the bill that would violate Federal law and allow for the posting of the Biblical ten commandments in school classrooms (why must people mix religion and science at the strangest of angles?). In one recent exchange with a professor from a Texas university, the spammer offered as an argument that humans cannot have evolved from apes,

Isn’t it amazing that fragile fish and bird-like ones have been preserved in stone in such quantities for the ages? Shouldn’t larger more dense primate bones be as abundant in the fossil record as well? In fact, they are…We have 1,000’s of fossils from a variety of animals; therefore, shouldn’t  the species transitioning from monkey to human with their large bones be amply represented in the fossil record?

The answer to this rhetorical question would be yes, IF humans evolved from monkeys. BUT the fossil record does not support the theory that humans evolved from apes? [sic]

The response displays several classic misunderstandings of what the theory of evolutions tells us about apes and humans, as well as a misunderstanding both of the fossil record and of genetics. In fact, genetics – one of the most powerful tools we have for understanding how and when species shared a common ancestor – isn’t even mentioned in this argument.

A collage of photos showing the fossil record of human evolution on display at the Oxford Museum of Natural History

The Museum of Natural History in Oxford puts that fossil record on display, from apes of various shapes and sizes, to proto-humans, to the modern Homo Sapiens. Varieties of more and more ape-like human species, going back thousands of years, have been found. Evolution doesn’t say that there was an orderly and smooth progression from one to another; rather, it says that we have common ancestors and branched off from those. Neanderthals, of which there is abundant fossil evidence, disappeared from the face of the earth around the time that Cro-Magnon was also running around. Human species reaching back in time to the heart of Africa – Homo Habilis – have been found [3]. Prior to them was Australopithecus, a transitional form between chimpanzee and some of the original human species. Homo and Australopithecus diverged about 2.5 million years ago; chimpanzees and Ardipithecus, the ancestor of Australopithecus, diverged about 5 million years ago. It’s the greatest fossil of all – our molecular DNA composition – that teaches us about when chimpanzees (our closest relative) and humans diverged from a common ancestor. As for classical fossils – well, the earth is a big place and we’ve barely scratched its surface. There is so much waiting for us to discover out there.

And if encyclopedic articles are not your taste, witness the display of fossils in the Museum of Natural History. In a single, long display, they capture snapshots of what we have learned about apes and their variety, and humans and their variety.

Aidan noted something rather profound about this Museum. In stark contrast to American equivalents, Evolution isn’t cautiously presented to you  in a way that doesn’t offend your faith. Here, Evolution is revealed in its fullest glory – plant evolution, animal evolution, human evolution. Body plans of insects – thousands of them – are on display. Bird and fish species, human ancestors, dinosaurs, and all manner of other things are displayed in stunning numbers. To further reveal the humility that we, as a species, should feel, we are reminded how small and fragile our own planet is. A model of the sun sits at one end of the museum, and a model of the earth and moon at the other. They are scaled in size to the proportion of their distance in the museum to the actual distance of the Earth and Sun. From the tiny Earth and Moon, you can look across and see the Sun. From the Sun, you look across and don’t even notice the Earth – it’s too tiny to be seen with the eye. It’s stunning.

The nameplate commemorating the famous debate.

Near the end of our walk around the top of the museum, we can to the door that leads to the room where Huxley and Wilberforce debated Evolution in front of an audience. I asked Aidan to take a photo of me standing next to the door and the plaque near the door. I drew from my backpack by Amazon Kindle DX, quickly searched the index of books, and brought up “On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin. Here, almost 151 years from the date of this famous debate, I can stand proudly as a scientist, holding one of my many copies of this seminal work, and draw strength from the bravery of scientists like Charles Darwin. He worked for nearly 20 years to understand his observations of the natural world, eventually only publishing because a young scientist named Alfred Wallace  uncovered many of the same conclusions from his own voyages and observations. He did not know the method by which descent with modification worked, but Evolution required the existence of genetics and its foundation – DNA – and the discovery of those things over the next 150 years helped to place a missing piece of the Evolutionary puzzle.

Standing outside the room where Huxley and Wilberforce debated the new Theory of Evolution by means of Natural Selection. I hold in my hand a digital copy of Darwin's book.

I felt only wonder and joy in my exploration of the Museum of Natural History in Oxford. Aidan told me that the modern champion of Evolution, Richard Dawkins, considers this edifice his own kind of cathedral. For all the excitement and lightness of being I felt while exploring the natural wonders inside this building, I can see how that might be true.




Palin, Pawlenty, Science, Creationism

Something on the Sunday talk show, “Meet the Press”, caught my attention. Today’s show was hosted by Tom Brokaw, a  favorite of mine in the news business. He interviewed Gov. Tom Pawlenty of Minnesota, Co-chair of the RNC convention in the Twin Cities. Gov. Pawlenty was acting as a “Vox VP” for the Republican VP nominee, Gov. Sarah Palin. I was only half paying attention to this interview – it seemed to be hitting the same issues that everybody has been raising the last few days – until we got to this:

Brokaw: In the governor’s race she refused to be specific about her views on creationism versus evolution, but, as I understand it, she did say that the two should be taught side-by-side in public schools.

Pawlenty: I saw her comments on it yesterday and I thought they were appropriate . . .  if there are competing theories and they are credible, her view . . . was  . . . allow them . . . both to be presented so students could be exposed to both, or more,  and have a chance to be exposed  . . . to the various theories and make up their own mind.

Brokaw: In the vast scientific community, do you think that creationism has the same weight as evolution and at a time in American education when we are in a crisis when it comes to science there ought to be parallel tracks for creationism  versus evolution in the teaching?

Pawlenty: In the scientific community, it seems that intelligent design is dismissed. Not entirely – there are a lot of scientists who would make the case that it is appropriate to be taught and appropriate to be demonstrated . . . In Minnesota, we’ve taken that as a local decision. I know Gov. Palin has said intelligent design is something that should be taugt along with evolution in the schools . . .

Brokaw:  . . . Given equal weight?

Pawlenty: . . . intelligent design is something which in my view is plausible and credible . . .  and something I personally believe in, but more important from an educational and scientific standpoint it should be decided by local school boards at the local school district level.

(“Meet the Press”, Sunday August 31, 2008. Ellipses indicate text that didn’t change the meaning of the surrounding text, such as verbal pauses or repeated phrases)

I won’t go into my complaints about the specifics here – you’ve probably heard them all before (science is not a democracy of ideas, but a rigorous method by which ideas are included or excluded; there is no evidence for intelligent design, only claims of gaps in the theory of evolution; a theory is not just an idea, it’s an experimentally tested idea that produces new knowledge and new tests; lots of scientists believe lots of wrong things; etc.). I will say this – it was hard to disentangle Pawlenty’s views from Palin’s.

It took me a little work to find something resembling a transcript of the October 2006 Alaska gubernatorial debate. I found an article from the Anchorage Daily News , October 25, 2006 [1], with some of the text of the debate. I found that the specific question asked of the candidates regarding evolution and creationism was this:

Toward the end, moderator Michael Carey . . .  looked to change things up with a pair of curveball questions about religion:

Is it OK for religious leaders to endorse candidates, and should public schools teach alternatives to evolution (such as creationism and intelligent design?)

I note that the question DOES NOT say “should public school science class” teach alternatives to evolution, but just “public schools”. I’ve not had a problem with the idea of teaching such things in a current events class, or even something like a comparative religion class. Those would be very valuable, putting creationism and intelligent design in their social context (since they lack a scientific one). One of the debaters, Andrew Halcro, answered as if he recognized the difference between teaching the idea in public school and teaching it in the science classroom:

HALCRO: “I think anything that is religious-based in, in concept, you know, really should, needs to be taught in the proper channel – philosophy, sociology . . . I don’t think it should be taught as a science.”

Former AK Governor Tony Knowles, another debater in the forum, sounded less informed on the issues but delivered one central point in the argument:

KNOWLES: “… The answer is no. The reason why is we don’t want politics in our science. We actually want more science in our politics . . . We don’t want to just teach all things because it may be politically correct. We want to teach the best science there is, and there is overwhelming evidence, there’s almost incontrovertible evidence that evolution is the science that, that we know . . . And that’s what we should always teach, to never compromise on the principals just because it’s politically popular.”

I can see why he lost – he sounds pretty unsure on, at least, this issue. I presume this must have affected him in other issues. His central point – more science in politics and less politics in science – is a good point, bordering on a sound bite, but he didn’t quite drive it home.  Halcro was, at least, to the point.

Gov. Palin’s response was also direct and to her point:

PALIN: Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information . . . Healthy debate is so important and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both . . . And, you know, I say this, too, as the daughter of a science teacher. Growing up with being so privileged and blessed to be given a lot of information on, on both sides of the subject — creationism and evolution . . . It’s been a healthy foundation for me. But don’t be afraid of information and let kids debate both sides.”

She makes no distinction between science class and other classes, just goes straight for the “teach both” argument. She also doesn’t make any statements about credibility or plausibility, like Pawlenty does. She makes the classic argument that avoiding intelligent design is keeping information from our children. It suggests she’s misunderstood that science is a process of vetting ideas, and that you have to teach that process. Science is not a conclusion, it is a process. ID represents an excellent case of an idea not only unvetted, but proposing no test that can vet it in the first place – a classic non-scientific idea. You ave to equip students with good science methods first, before asking them to go and differentiate between a testable and an untestable idea.

If controversy like this – between a non-scientific idea and a scientifically established principle – is a foundation of her thinking, I do worry about how her decision-making process is informed.


Witless: A Critique of Coulter’s “Godless”

Last year, right-wing pundit and flapping head Ann Coulter published a book entitled “Godless”. In it, she raised yet again the tired accusations that all Democrats are godless politicians, hell-bent (is that the right phrase?) on creating a society that crushes religion out of every private life. Sigh. Of course, she takes the obligatory pot-shot at evolution, to somehow justify that people on the left of the moral and political spectrum infuse godlessness in both thought and deed.

Last year, I hadn’t the energy to do more than skim through this sad waste of ink and paper – I was still tired from Santorum’s “It Takes a Family” rant on science education. Tonight, I stumbled upon a scathing criticism of Coulter’s anti-evolution regurgitation on a site affiliated with “Skeptic” magazine. Have a look:

It’s a bit long, but worth it. My favorite passage is this one:

First, the validity of a
scientific theory does not hinge upon how it has been interpreted by
German dictators. And second, a scientific theory is not an ideology;
it aims at explaining nature, not telling us what to do. Evolutionary
biology did not oblige Hitler to kill Jews any more than nuclear
physics mandates Kim Jong-Il to acquire the atomic bomb. And the theory
of gravity does not require that you go jump off a bridge.

Amen to that. Science is not a holy scripture. It is a method. By that method, we learn about the world as it is, not as we want it to be.

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Physics Today weighs in on the “Evolution Wars”

This month’s issue of Physics Today contains an article entitled “Evolution Wars Show No Sign of Abating”: It’s free on the web, for all you non-subscribers (and I know there are just a few of you!). It’s a nice, but (as usual) scary, overview of this confusing mess into which the U.S. has gotten itself.

I got to thinking. What happens if you take a bunch of randomly cut paper shapes and throw them repeatedly onto the floor. Then, snap a picture of the pattern they make. Take the photos – say, 100 – and show them to a random set of Americans. Ask them the question, “Which of these patterns was designed by an artist?” Determine what fraction of people say that they see design in any of them. That would be a very interesting experiment.

Intelligent design advocates always say they can see, touch, and smell the design in nature. I agree that the laws of nature create order from relative disorder, and that understanding those laws is critical. But I don’t ascribe them to a designer. However, they never argue that. They argue that micro-motor assemblies in cells are evidence of design. I wonder if it’s just that they’ve had their noses in too close to the petri dish, and every complex structure that’s the result of thousands or millions of years of selection makes them see the shadows of design?