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.

Trowelblazing: Women in archeology (response to a comment on Victoria Herridge’s blog posting)

21 June 2013 § Leave a Comment

In an article entitled “Trowelblazers: In search of the female Indiana Jones,” Victoria Herridge writes about Dorothy Garrod’s 1930′s archeological work. The purpose of the article is to highlight Garrod’s gender as a way to discuss the broader issue of women’s participation in archeology. One of the commenters, countertrans, responds in the following way.

I am unsure if i get the point of this article. women have broken every single glass ceiling over the last few decades. we are neck to neck with men when it comes to numerous jobs. I am not one bit surprised that women are doing the same in archeology. in fact a woman was queen to half the world when all these fascinating archaeology was going on. So, this article looks like a shameless self promotion to me. Today when women are breadwinner or co-breadwinner in four out of five families our battle is one of pay equity, paid family/maternity leave and fighting for taking care of our families without the fear of loosing our jobs.

The comment says that women have broken “every single glass ceiling,” which is definitely not true. Nature devotes an entire issue to analysis of gender inequalities in science; the Harvard Crimson describes gender biases among the undergraduates there. Many tech fields have a similar problem. Consider the repeated instances of in-the-open misogyny at tech conferences recently, the latest being the rape joke told by someone from Microsoft, on stage. There is good reason to believe that the differences are not due to intrinsic differences between the genders in analytical reasoning. There is also a question of women’s’ experience. I wish I had scientific literature about this. I think many in academia do not think that women can make a significant contribution, judge them on their attractiveness, and see them as objects of sexual desire. This is a structural feature of the environment; there may be just as many women who treat other women badly as there are men.

Pointing out that a woman is or was a queen is a little funny, because if someone is queen, it follows immediately that the person is a woman, because queens can’t be men. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) More seriously, the gender of a country’s ruler is probably irrelevant to whether there is gender equity in science.

Articles like this one are needed because, as in the case of Indiana Jones, there aren’t any female icons for archeology or in general the study of antiquity. Having such icons (and their real-life counterparts) is important in order to help bring girls and young women into male-dominated fields.

NASA’s astronaut corps is for the first time gender-equal (http://msmagazine.com/blog/2013/06/18/nasas-new-astronauts-reach-gender-parity/). Much of the news media coverage on this reports, in a substantive way, on Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. She’s that iconic role-model.

Now for some real shameless self-promotion: everyone should look up Betsy Bryan and Kara Cooney, archeologists from my graduate alma mater.

I am not entirely guilty of shamelessly promoting myself by responding to a blog comment on my own blog, rather than in the comment thread. I couldn’t log in to the original blog, which is required for posting. I figured that, since I went to the trouble of writing this, it may as well be posted somewhere.

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