Posted by Matt Young on March 15, 2007 09:16 AM

A week or so ago, I spent a fascinating weekend attending the 2007 Symposium, “Inscribed in Stone: Evolution and the Fossil Record,” of the Western Interior Paleontological Society [1]. At the keynote address by Donald Prothero of Occidental College, I learned that stasis was more important than I had thought, at least according to paleontologists, and that there was somewhat more friction between paleontologists and evolutionary biologists than I had realized. The next few talks were tutorial, as was Professor Prothero’s, and, I thought, fascinating. Not surprisingly, by Saturday afternoon, the talks became far too narrow for a nonpaleontologist, so I lay low for a while and waited for Judy Scotchmoor’s workshop on “Teaching Evolution” Sunday morning at what seemed like the crack of dawn.

Ms. Scotchmoor is Assistant Director for Education and Public Outreach of the University of California Museum of Paleontology, and she did not disappoint. She began the workshop by dividing the 20 or so participants into teams of three and four, and distributed envelopes containing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Eventually, she let us know that each team had a sample from the same puzzle, but with the edge pieces removed. Our job was to reveal a few pieces at a time and figure out what the puzzle represented. The problem was worse than the blind men and the elephant – each blind man had a single clue, whereas we had a bunch of contradictory clues. Still, as a class, we deduced meaningful statements about the puzzle. The lesson was obvious, and, if this is what paleontologists go through, I for one will admit that paleontology is harder than physics.

Our second assignment was to use three differently sized clips to simulate birds’ beaks, grab some “food” from the floor, and “eat” it by depositing it into a plastic cup. We were two populations, one in a moist climate, and one in a dry, and the food came in three grain sizes, each of which had a different caloric value. By a scoring system that is too complicated to describe here, we decided which birds survived, which reproduced, and which did not survive. After four generations, the gene frequencies between the two populations differed markedly. I heard through the grapevine that one of the birds in the other climate zone had become very aggressive as his food supply dwindled.

Ms. Scotchmoor also led us through what amounted to a cladogram to discern whether a tyrannosaurus is more closely related to a caiman or a parrot. I think you know the answer.

Finally, and my real purpose in writing, Ms. Scotchmoor allowed us to become teachers and introduced us to the Web site, “Understanding Evolution,” and its companion, “Understanding Evolution for Teachers” [2]. This newly revised site is slick, in the laudatory sense of the word, and easy to navigate. For example, the home page lists four links – What is evolution and how does it work? How does evolution impact my life? What is the evidence for evolution? What is the history of evolutionary theory? – as well as a feature on HIV and a link to the teachers’ pages. The four links direct you to a number of Web pages, some off-site.

I followed the link to the teachers’ pages and found tutorials, “explore further” buttons, and lesson plans, including the two that Ms. Scotchmoor had inflicted on us earlier in the morning. The tutorials seemed clear and concise, with splendid color diagrams and drawings.

I am supposed to know something about science and the scientific method, so I ran through the tutorial, “Nature of Science.” You could quibble with some of it; for example, the statement that science is easy to distinguish from nonscience dismisses a whole branch of philosophy of science – and that is the first sentence. But I thought the tutorial did a good job of explaining that science relies on evidence, and an explanation that is not supported by replicable evidence is rejected. (Full disclosure: A philosopher once accused me of being a naïve falsificationist.) There are a few other oversimplifications, such as the claim that scientists do not vote and conclusions are accepted based on evidence, but we have to remember that the lessons are for high-school students, and the tutorials get the gist of the scientific method well. Ms. Scotchmoor outlined upcoming changes to the nature-of-science section and showed us a complicated flow chart to replace the timeworn “hypothesis, experiment or observation, conclusion” method, a method that the Web site notes is an oversimplification anyway.

My favorite of the Lepidoptera is the peppered moth, not that I have ever knowingly seen one, so I searched for “moth” [3]. I was disappointed to see that the authors had fallen for a creationist distortion and thought that the original experiments were somehow flawed because the moths in certain textbook photos had been glued to trees; that’s a little like saying that Cromwell should not have sat still for his famous portrait. A link to Ken Miller’s Web page only partly undoes the damage caused by this distortion [4].

But these are quibbles. The site was a lot of fun to navigate, and I am sure it will be very useful to teachers at all levels.

References.

1.“Inscribed in Stone: Evolution and the Fossil Record,” 2007 Symposium of Western Interior Paleontological Society, Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colo., March 3-4, 2007, http://www.wipsppc.com/symposium-2.html, last accessed March 12, 2007.

2.“Understanding Evolution,” http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/home.ph…, last accessed March 12, 2007.

3.Matt Young and Ian Musgrave, “Moonshine: Why the Peppered Moth Remains an Icon of Evolution,” Skeptical Inquirer, March-April, 2005, pp. 23-28; available in draft form at http://www.talkdesign.org/faqs/moonshine.htm.

4.Ken Miller, “The Peppered Moth – An Update,“ http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/Moths/mot…, written August, 1999, last accessed March 13, 2007.