Qualified support for evolution in New York

24 April 2015 § Leave a Comment

The standards for high school biological sciences curricula in New York State are described in The Living Environment Core Curriculum. (“LE Standard,” hereafter) The Living Environment curriculum is Standard 4 in a set of 7 describing the science curriculum in New York State. “Key Idea 3″ in the LE Standard describes the central point instructors in Living Environment courses are supposed to make about evolution.

Individual organisms and species change over time.

There are many ways in which this statement and the associated Performance Indicators fail to describe, even in broad outline, what we know about evolution. For one thing, they almost all concern natural selection. For instance, there is no mention of random drift or historical contingency, or the use of evolution in explaining taxonomy and biodiversity. While this deserves further comment, what I would like to call attention to here are two points at which the LE Standard qualifies support for teaching evolution.

Use of “theory”

Key Idea 3 is further elaborated in the LE Standard as follows.

Evolution is the change of species over time. This theory is the central unifying theme of biology.

The problem here is “theory,” which is widely misunderstood, and which does not appear anywhere else in the LE Standard. Teaching evolution is often attacked on the grounds that scientific knowledge about evolution is “just a theory.” This is not how scientists use “theory,” which, in proper scientific parley, indicates a well-confirmed statement or set of statements of general or universal application, such as Newton’s theory of gravitation, or Einstein’s theory of relativity. Although both of these have been modified with time, no one attributes either to Newton or Einstein as conjectures or guesses. They are understood as describing facts about physical objects derived from initial claims made by Newton and Einstein. Glenn Branch, in a recent blog post, explains the cognitive status of evolutionary biology in depth, and provides some useful links.

The LE Standard ought to state that “The central, unifying theme of biological science is that all living things have relationships of descent with one another.” 

Belief vs. acceptance

Key Idea 3 is also explained with:

According to many scientists, biological evolution occurs through natural selection.

This is the only point in the LE Standard at which the level of support among scientists for a scientific claim is mentioned. Indeed, it would be absurd to preface “Organisms from all kingdoms possess a set of instructions (genes) that determines their characteristics,” the explanation of Key Idea 2, about heredity, with “According to many scientists.” Any scientist that denies this would not be deemed worth of the name. The aim of the LE Standard should be to state what the best scientific evidence provides rational warrant for, which is that evolution has occurred and will continue to do so. Formulating the standard in terms of how many scientists would affirm that evolution occurs by natural selection suggests that there is a parallel between religious belief and acceptance of evolution. This is not the case, as explained in a National Academy of Sciences FAQ.


Believer micro-interview on the March

10 March 2014 § Leave a Comment

At the end of last summer, Nicholas Hune-Brown interviewed me over the phone. I answered his questions—it was more like a discussion really—about the march of progress, as I paced more and more rapidly from one end of the invertebrate paleontology lab at the AMNH to the other end. Nicholas distilled our conversation to its essence, which has been published in the form of a Believer micro-interview. Like so much that’s worth reading, the full interview is protected by a pay wall. A subscription to The Believer costs about as much as buying a single article from Springer or Elsevier, and this is independent journalism, which is well worth supporting. You can read it online, but you’ll want to have the print edition too.

I’m posting this now because I was so nervous about how it would come out that I put off reading it until now.

If anyone thinks I am making too big a deal over the March of Progress image, well, go ahead, because almost everyone gets to think what he or she wants to, which does not, of course, make it right.

March of progress, reloaded

5 March 2014 § Leave a Comment

To compensate for the um, excitement of that last post about project management, I present my readers with this especially striking depiction of the March of Progress image.


[March of Progress image]

There are two central points about this image, generally speaking. First, it represents evolution incorrectly. The figures become more upright towards the right side of the image, which is intended to represent progress towards modern-day human beings. Evolution does not progress, let alone towards us. Second, it’s racist. Portrayals of dark-skinned people as primitive had been a staple of racists since well before the late 1850′s; evolutionary biology simply provides a new context for this representation. It remains offensive; those who think it isn’t aren’t taking it seriously enough. Recall the 2009 controversy over the representation of Barack Obama as a monkey—being shot by police. The Tightrope web site (“It’s not illegal to be white. . . yet”) has a t-shirt using a monkey to represent Obama, and if you really think this isn’t racist, you can show the world by buying one. I point out the scientific problems first to pre-empt the inevitable knee-jerk criticism that political correctness is the motivation for my complaints about the image. Even Grand Wizards and Neo-Nazis should object to this image on scientific grounds, although I doubt that the ignorance and intolerance framing their world view does not promote serious study of evolutionary biology.

This instance is especially outrageous because the March of Progress is a march towards whiteness. Astonishing. It’s not my area of expertise, but is it correct that the 4th and 5th figures from the left have hairstyles more likely to be worn by people of African descent? The rightmost woman has hair not in general natural for a person with black skin, because it is brown.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with evolutionary biology at The Shifting Balance of Factors.