May 9, 2004 - May 15, 2004 Archives

The process of reviewing the Kansas state science standards started this week, and already contention has arisen over the selection of members of the review committee. (See here for a news story.) Board members have nominated one (or in some cases more) people they would like to be on the committee along with those selected directly by the Department of Education. Given that at least four of the ten Board members are supporters of “revisiting” the issue of evolution, we can anticipate, I think, that Kansas may once again be a focus national interest in the evolution/creationism issue.

Furthermore, as noted in my previous post on Kansas here, Board of Education elections are this summer and fall and there is a possibility that the creationists will gain a majority. The architect of the 1999 standards, Steve Abrams, is still on the BOE, John Calvert and other IDnet members are still in Kansas, and other creationists from 1999 are still politically active in the state.

Therefore, in preparation for this, I would like to take a quick look at what has happened since the first time Kansas became infamous for its science standards, and then look at what we might expect this time around. In this post, I will summarize briefly what happened in Kansas in 1999, what has happened in other states since then, and, most importantly, what we might expect to happen in 2004. I offer this both for the benefit of those of you in Kansas who will directly involved and for those of you who should be preparing for when the anti-evolution movement comes to your neighborhood. (P.S. If you would like to get involved with Kansas Citizens for Science, please visit KCFS and send us an email.)

So now let’s look at the situation.

Well our first poll is over and the majority of the five hundred and nine votes cast say that giant pandas are not bears: 28% yes, 62% no, and 10% dunno. I hate to say it, but the majority is wrong.

Giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) form the most basal branch of the bear family. The figure below shows the relationship of the bears to the rest of the extant order Carnivoria (Mammalia). It is the composite of two maximum parsimony phylogenies, Figures 1 and 8 of Bininda-Emonds et al. (1999), derived from data present in scientific literature. The scale of the tree is millions of years before present and was derived from data in Tables 2 and 9 of Bininda-Emonds et al. (1999).

The giant panda first appears in the fossil record about 3 million years ago during the Early Pleistocene. It had a wide distribution in the Pleistocene ranging from Myanmar to eastern China and as far north as Beijing (Schaller et al. 1985 p11 ). The giant panda lineage branched off from the other bears around 22 million years ago (Bininda-Emonds et al. 1999). It has been suggested that the giant panda is a descendent of Agriarctos, a “small, bearlike animal of the Ursavus lineage from the mid-Miocene in Europe” and the last surviving member of Ursidae subfamily, Agriotherinnae (Schaller et al. 1985 p229).

On April 26, 2004 I received an email message which is reproduced here in its entirety:

Dr. Perakh, I recently picked up a copy of your Unintelligent Design and wanted to alert you to some errors. As a brief introduction, I am a graduate student in Astronomy and have followed the intelligent design movement for several years. I find debunking such creationist claims an entertaining mental exercise and overwhelmingly approve of the purpose of your book. On pages 173-178, you discuss Hugh Ross’s treatment of thermodynamics in a cosmological setting. You correctly point out that Ross’s treatment is not overwhelming rigorous–however, his claim that the universe cools because it is expanding is correct.

Reed Cartwright is correct about how the Lemon test ought to be applied--and of course he's right about the real intent of the authors of the law in question. What I find interesting about the law is its careful, even scrupulous avoidance of the teaching of religion.

The Discovery Institute has issued a press release about the Alabama “Academic Freedom Act”. As is customary, they applaud the efforts of anti-evolution activists to corrupt American education. This bill seeks to empower any teacher in the state of Alabama “to present scientific information pertaining to the full range of scientific views concerning biological or physical origins in any curricula or course of learning.”

Before I turn to the press release, I want to address the bill itself. First off, Alabama Citizens for Science Education has both an educational analysis and a legal analysis of an earlier version of the “Academic Freedom Act.” The National Center for Science Education also has information on the legislation.

Now on the question of constitutionality of this law, the Lemon Test–from Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) and modified in Agostini v. Felton (1997)–holds that for a law to satisfy the establishment clause of the US Constitution:

Two previous entries on this blog by John Lynch have discussed the scientific output (or lack thereof) of two intelligent design superstars, Jonathan Wells and Michael Behe. Despite claims that both of these ID supporters are actively engaged in research, Lynch documents that they have published little or no scientific research in the last six years. Now let's look at the record of another one of ID's superstars, William Dembski.

Mother Nature

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Dame Nature!

What is the "maternal instinct"? Does it even exist? There is a stereotype of the ideal mother as someone who expresses unconditional love, who sacrifices all for her children, and who is ferocious and unstinting in defense of her children. Women who compromise on this behavior, who express some reservations and perhaps some self-interest, may be labeled "bad mothers" or perhaps even worse, "feminists".

If self-sacrifice is the ideal maternal characteristic, though, then we should be asking our women to aspire to this biological pinnacle of mother love:

The prize for "extreme maternal care" goes to one of the various matriphagous (yes, it means mother-eating) spiders. After laying her eggs, an Australian social spider (Diaea ergandros) continues to store nutrients in a new batch of eggs—odd, oversized eggs, far too large to pass through her oviducts, and lacking genetic instructions. Since she breeds only once, what are they for?

These eggs are for eating, not laying. But to be eaten by whom? As the spiderlings mature and begin to mill about, the mother becomes strangely subdued. She starts to turn mushy—but in a liquefying rather than a sentimental way. As her tissue melts, her ravenous young literally suck her up, starting with her legs and eventually devouring the protein-rich eggs dissolving within her.

That story is from Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's Mother Nature, a book that discusses the meaning of motherhood and how it fits into biology and natural selection. I think we'd all agree that it is a little creepy, and perhaps too extreme—we should expect human mothers to love their children unconditionally, but carving off bits of flesh to make their sandwiches would probably be a bit much.

There are alternatives in the continuum of maternal commitment. Hrdy's book makes the point that motherhood is far, far more complex than any caricature of a blind maternal extinct can encompass. Being a mother is a difficult and pragmatic affair, and the lesson of biology is that Nature is solidly pro-choice...or that the answers are never simple and straightforward.

Continue reading "Mother Nature" (on Pharyngula)

In a recent news release, the Discovery Institute trumpets the results of two new surveys conducted by Arnold Steinberg & Associates. These surveys appear to follow along the same lines as an earlier Zogby International survey conducted for the DI.

In both Steinberg surveys and the Zogby survey, respondents were asked whether public school biology teachers should “Teach the scientific evidence for and against [Darwin’s theory of evolution]” or “Teach only the scientific evidence for it.” In all three polls, between seventy and eighty persent of those responding selected the first answer. This question is a very nice example of a question that is intelligently designed to produce the answer that the people commissioning the survey wanted to hear.

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