Edit: A reader informed me that the first source I cited (christwire.org) was actually a satirical site. How embarrassing! I’ve since updated the post with a legitimate example. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how one looks at things) it took me approximately 5 seconds to find it.
There’s a persistent belief in creationist circles that the theory of evolution is a house of cards that will collapse if an astute, open-minded person just looks at it hard enough. To facilitate this process, creationists pass around lists of questions which they are certain evolutionists “can’t answer.” The questions emphasized vary from group to group, but the suggested tactic is the same: publicly confront an evolutionist, ideally a professor or teacher, and confound him or her with questions that will expose the structural weaknesses of the theory. From Creation Today:
NOTE TO STUDENTS: Make a copy of this challenge to evolutionists and ask your teacher or professor to give you answers to these questions. If they cannot, you have a right to be skeptical that what they are teaching about evolution is true. Also, give copies to your fellow students so that they, too, will be aware that there are huge flaws in the theory of evolution. It is still a theory, not a “fact.
The questions from the source above include things like:
What are the odds that the evolutionary process, proceeding by random changes, would produce human beings, plus millions of species of animals, birds, fish and insects, all with symmetrical features, i.e., one side being a mirror image of the other? We take symmetry in all these creatures for granted, but is that a reasonable outcome for a random process?
Where are the trillions of fossils of such true transitional forms?
What are the odds that, of the millions of species of animals, birds, fish and insects, a male of each species developed at the same time and in the same place as a female of the same species, so that the species could propagate? Why are there two sexes anyhow?
Of course, anyone who has taken a high school introductory biology course should be able to answer questions like these (or point out exactly how they are flawed.) I say “should be able”, but unfortunately that is not always the case. This semester I taught an introductory university course in physical anthropology* in which we intensively studied human evolution, beginning with basic concepts in genetics and evolutionary theory and finishing with an overview of the hominin fossil record. (I used Clark Spencer Larsen’s “Our Origins” as the textbook). I discovered early in the semester that about half the class was not well prepared for this material: many knew absolutely nothing about human evolution, and a sizable number knew very little about evolution in general. It’s not the students’ fault. Science education in Kansas (where I teach) has been under attack for some time by a coalition of religious groups trying to prevent the teaching of evolution in public high schools, and I suspect that my students’ lack of preparation might be at least partially attributable to this. But that’s a subject of another, longer post in the future.
Regardless of how little they know coming in to the course, I want my students to walk out of the classroom with a solid knowledge of how evolution works. In five years’ time, they may have forgotten the morphological differences between the teeth of Australopithecus afarensis and Homo erectus , or the phylogenetic relationships of Denisovans to Neandertals and H. sapiens as inferred from ancient genomes (although I hope they don’t!), but if they have a basic understanding of how evolution works as a process, they should be able to understand the significance of new fossil or genetic discoveries. Similarly, if they understand the difference between science and pseudoscience, they should be able to evaluate factual claims. The difficulty for me was figuring out how to present these ideas when the course is already jam-packed with information the students needed to learn in order to advance.
So I tried something new. One of the questions that some creationists (and people who simply don’t know a lot about evolution) frequently ask to challenge evolution is: “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” (I see this question asked every single day on Twitter, thanks to the account of @TakeThatDarwin who retweets creationists). In the past I’ve simply rolled my eyes at how ridiculous the question is–in fact, several groups like Answers in Genesis, strongly urge their readership not to use it–but I recently realized that it nicely gets at some very serious and common misunderstandings about evolution. I decided to experiment with using it to further students’ critical thinking.
I gave this question to students to answer several times throughout the course. First, I used it as a means of (anonymously) assessing their knowledge about evolution as a process early in the course. About a fourth of the class gave confused answers to it, and another fourth could answer it partially but without sufficient detail. After we had gone through basic concepts of evolutionary theory, genetics, and primate phylogenies (but before we got into the hominin fossil record), I made it the subject of an in-class discussion, so students could learn from each other’s answers. At that point, they had the basic tools to answer the question, and those who participated in the discussion were able to answer it in some detail. Finally, as a means of reinforcing students’ knowledge at the end of the course, I gave it as the last extra credit question on the final exam. Nearly everyone who chose to answer this question received full credit.
I was looking for two parts in their response: 1. A recognition that we did not evolve from monkeys–or other living primates– but instead share a common primate ancestor. (Bonus points for recognizing that the category ‘monkey’ is paraphyletic and is a colloquial term, not a scientific taxon). 2. An understanding that evolution doesn’t work in a linear fashion, with one species replacing the last. There are many good analogies to use in teaching this concept; I like to use the analogy of a family tree: that is, I and my sister are both descended from the same parents, yet we exist at the same time.
This approach allowed the class to confront some of the major misconceptions of evolution, including the idea that modern animals transform into other kinds of modern animals, that there is a predetermined “order” to evolution, and that evolution is a “finished” process. It served as a platform to discuss several important concepts: adaptations, natural selection, heredity, and that evolution occurs in populations, not individuals. I saw a distinct progression in students’ reasoning on this question over the course of the semester, and I think that it proved to be pretty useful in the end.
Another approach I used to supplement the textbook (because the findings were so new they weren’t in the textbook) was to show students two video clips offering two very different perspectives on the newest hominin fossil, Homo naledi. The first was by Kent Hovind (I started at 9 minutes in, and we watched for about 10 minutes or so).
The second was by National Geographic, and included clips from paleoanthropologist Lee Berger who discovered H. naledi.
I asked students to identify two or three testable claims presented in each video, and think about what kinds of evidence would be needed to test these claims. This sparked a very lively and (I think) helpful discussion in class which covered radiometric dating methods and their limitations, how to interpret clues about behavior from the fossil record, and a brief discussion on how fossil discoveries are portrayed in the media. We ended by discussing how new information about human ancestors–derived from fossils, archaeology, and genetics– is evaluated by the scientific community.
While I’m on break, in addition to catching up on all the writing I didn’t have time for during the semester (how do people stay on top of all of this?), I’m looking for more materials that would be good for these kinds of exercises in critical thinking. I just found the Institute for Creation Research’s document summarizing the “scientific” case against evolution, and I think that there are some very useful instances of misconceptions that could work well as the basis for student research and discussion. For example, the following statement could serve as a useful starting point for students to think critically about taxonomy, evo-devo, and both early and later primate fossil records:
Fossil discoveries can muddle over attempts to construct simple evolutionary trees — fossils from key periods are often not intermediates, but rather hodge podges of defining features of many different groups. . . . Generally, it seems that major groups are not assembled in a simple linear or progressive manner — new features are often “cut and pasted” on different groups at different times.11
As far as ape/human intermediates are concerned, the same is true, although anthropologists have been eagerly searching for them for many years. Many have been proposed, but each has been rejected in turn.
But I’d like to find more. To any professors who teach evolution who read this blog, I want to ask: In addition to assigned readings, traditional lectures, and labs, what approaches do you use for teaching on the fundamentals of human evolution (or evolutionary theory)? Do you do something similar?
To anyone else who reads this blog, I want to ask: How did you first learn about evolution, and human evolution in particular? Have you ever changed your mind on the subject? If so, what caused you to change your mind?
*Regular readers of my blog may have noticed a precipitous drop in the frequency of postings over the last few months. This is why.
I first learned about evolution from my father , who explained Darwin’s theory to me – in a simple fashion. It made sense to me unlike the the biblical tale of creation which struck me as being silly if one tried to accept it at face value. Everything I’ve studied since then has reinforced my belief in evolution and shown how out of touch with reality the creationists’ view can be.
For me, the most persuasive arguments have come from molecular biology (probably not surprising since I consider myself molecular biologist). The fact that by and large, those species considered to be most closely related by physical anthropology/comparative anatomy have the the highest sequence homology and as things go become less related, the homology goes down is the strongest argument that I know. At the the base of the argument, we all (prokaryota, eukaryota, and archea), all share the same genetic code and utilize the same amino acids. You can also add in the presence of vestigial organs and the strange anatomy of various animals (why does the recurrent laryngeal nerve go to the aortic arch/subclavian artery only to run back up to the larynx-4.5 meters in the giraffe?
To me this argues of a god extremely prone to mistakes and with very little imagination, and is an extremely crappy engineer (why did he put a sewage treatment plant in the middle of a great recreational area?), or an evolutionary process that worked with what it had and cobbled together something good enough to pass the genes on to the next generation. Then again, I’m a great believer in Occam’s razor.
My favorite example of parallel evolution is the human retina being ‘wired’ backwards, with the nerves (and I think blood vessels) in front of the optical sensors, whereas the octopus eye is wired the opposite way in a more logical fashion. Intelligently designed? I think not.
I have the impression that you are a good an conscientious teacher (as well as all the rest).
Surely the most dogmatic creationist nutter would be persuaded.
Kansas is very lucky to have you.
Jennifer , believing in evolution is like believing the dictionary came about by an explosion in a printing press.
There has never been a transitional fossil , a dog turning into a cat etc . And how can you have or get something without nothing , there was a time when there was no matter , isn’t it one of the laws of thermodynamics . There wasn’t anything or matter to start the big bang , so it’s impossible .
Think about this, the earth is the perfect distance from the sun any further and we would freeze to death , any closer and we burn up , you’re telling me that is random chance and not a thought out design by a mind superior to ours.
I leave you with psalm 14 : 1 NIV bible .
“There has never been a transitional fossil , a dog turning into a cat etc .”
Perhaps you should first learn the definitions of the words before you use them. Try learning some basic high school biology.
You never addressed the simple points I made . You try to impress everyone with all the unnecessary complicated nonsense . You remind me of 1 Cor 8 : 1 and Col 2 : 4 [ NIV] bible .
I’ve addressed your points regarding transitional fossils in a post above, bill. I’ll be happy to address other points as well, such as your misapprehension that evolutionary mechanisms are in any way analogous to ‘explosions in a printing press’ if you like, but I suggest we instead stick to clearing up your mistaken belief that transitional fossil don’t exist or that evolution predicts we should observe cats turning into dogs first.
For example, to address you misapprehension that the earth is somehow ‘the perfect distance from the sun’ for life to exist, there’s actually quite a lot of wiggle room. Recall that the earth’s orbit is elliptical rather than circular and the distance to the sun varies by more than 3 million miles annually (note also that at the time it’s closest to the sun it’s actually winter in the northern hemisphere, and at the time it’s farthest from the sun it’s actually summer in the northern hemisphere.)
But three million miles is actually pretty inconsequential in terms of allowed variation: the lower boundary for current estimates of the Circumstellar Habitable Zone is 0.5 astronomic units (Zsom, Andras; Seager, Sara; De Wit, Julien (2013). “Towards the Minimum Inner Edge Distance of the Habitable Zone”) suggesting that the distance from the sun could vary by 50% or more in either direction and still allow for the existence of life.
Say we find a solar system orbited by ten planets; some are large, some small, some hot, some cold. The characteristics of a particular planet are in part related to its distance from its sun.
One or two of these planets are compatible with the emergence of life as we know it. If we go looking for life in this system, where should we check first? Though ancient random physical processes “created” this system, our search need not be random – we can focus our attention on any planets which happened to be positioned in such a way as to possess characteristics that would permit life. This doesn’t mean that those, and only those, planets were created specifically to harbor life. Whether some, or any, are life-compatible is a matter of chance.
“You never addressed the simple points I made.”
You never answered the questions I asked you a few months ago:
Why not? Are you not even going to try?
Also, the “simple points” you made just illustrated that you had absolutely no understanding on how evolution works. It is like asking a Ford engineer in 1910 or one of the Wright brothers if they could turn their design experience into a Boeing 787.
I am an engineer, so I know how design evolution works. It is not that difficult. You start with a previous design and tweak it. Some tweaks work, and others do not. Usually if you try to radically turn something into something else, lots of bad things happen. Have you never seen the early 20th century films of those who tried to make flying machines by just randomly adding stuff? (check out the first few minutes of the movie Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 hours 11 minutes).
(newsflash: the Wright brothers did not just design their flyer from nothing, they did wind tunnel tests, they learned how to bend aeronautic surfaces to achieve control in kites… they did actual research — their bicycle shop just gave them the mechanical skill to build the machines)
To get a Boeing 707 you start with jet aircraft engineering data taken from Germany right after WWII, and experience from the reliable Boeing 367, to get the prototype “Dash 80.” This also includes using information learned from the failed de Havilland Comet jet plane that literally broke apart due to metal fatigue from pressurization cycles. And on and on. Just one of many tiny steps that created the flying fleet of airliners that you can now ride as long as you can deal with TSA.
Simply put: your request for one species turning into another is totally unrealistic. This demonstrates you do not understand how genetic traits change over generations, just as you do not understand how any kind of evolution works. You have a dangerously closed mind.
Why do you think that the people who study biology and physics don’t see the things you do? Are they not smart enough? Not pure enough?
“Jennifer , believing in evolution is like believing the dictionary came about by an explosion in a printing press.”
If it’s your strawman misunderstanding of evolution.
“There has never been a transitional fossil”
Every fossil is transitional. Every organism is transitional.
“a dog turning into a cat etc ”
This demonstrates a radical misunderstanding of just about everything regarding evolution.
“And how can you have or get something without nothing , there was a time when there was no matter , isn’t it one of the laws of thermodynamics . There wasn’t anything or matter to start the big bang , so it’s impossible .”
These aren’t questions about evolution, but also show misunderstandings.
“Think about this, the earth is the perfect distance from the sun any further and we would freeze to death , any closer and we burn up , you’re telling me that is random chance”
Why is a hole in the road exactly the right shape to hold the puddle in it?
Notice that all the other planets, which aren’t at distances that support life, don’t have life. It’s not “random chance” that only a planet with the right conditions to produce life does so, it’s basic logic.
“and not a thought out design by a mind superior to ours”
The universe is full of random conditions that aren’t consistent with that. And minds, as we understand them, require brains and other material attributes.
“I leave you with psalm 14 : 1 NIV bible .”
It’s a circular argument of breathtaking intellectual dishonesty.
“Notice that all the other planets, which aren’t at distances that support life, don’t have life.”
Venus actually is just inside the lowest estimate of the CHZ–it’s not compatible with life as we know it because of its distance from the sun but because of the composition of the planet’s atmosphere: its higher global mean temperature in the result of greenhouse effects not closer proximity to the sun.
Autistic quibble. Replace “aren’t at distances” with “don’t have conditions” and the point remains.
The language is part of a direct quote from the post I was replying to–nothing I can do about his choice of words.
So you’re incapable or unwilling to understand what I wrote.
I guess I’m not capable of understanding what your post was intended to communicate–I understood you to be simply objecting to my choice of language. Would you like to clarify that meaning for me?
“There has never been a transitional fossil , a dog turning into a cat etc .”
No theory of evolution states or predicts that we should observe dogs turning into a cats, Bill–really, if you’re going to attack a scientific theory you should first familiarize yourself with what that theory actually says.
As for “there has never been a transitional fossil”, that quite simply is not true. I suspect your problem is that you don’t understand the definition of the term ‘transitional fossil’, which is simply “the fossilized remains of a life form that exhibits traits common to both an ancestral group and its derived descendant group, or which provides information about the transition from one group of species to another group of species”. Transitional fossils have been found in large numbers, entirely consistent with our understanding of how rarely the conditions which allow remains to be preserved as fossils occur in nature.
I suggest you start your reading regarding transitional fossil’s with Roger Cuffey’s 1984 paper “Paleontologic evidence and organic evolution”, which listed references for at least 139 fine-grained species to species transitional fossil sequences.
Note this paper was published by, and Cuffey was a member of, an organization formed by Christian scientists (the American Scientific Affiliation) for the express purpose of identifying and analyzing scientific evidence speaking for and against evolution and special creationism.
Well said, first of all, we know that the universe has a beginning, we also know that many other theories suggest that the earth is not billions of years old, but few millions depending on a scientific findings.
Evolutionists like the idea of billions of years otherwise their “theory” is dead.
How many species the evolutionists claimed in the past that they were extinct and yet turned out to be still with us, worse they even bragged about the fact that the alleged extinct fish coelacanth, according to them it was extinct for 80 million years until it was fished back in 1938.
Why did the evolutionists had to lie, for decades if there was any truth to their “religion” ?
They lied about Piltdown man, Nebraska man, and so on.. the list goes on.
On one hand they claim it’s real and it is a fact, when you ask for evidence they pull the fossils and place an age tag on them of some 400 millions years that way you can’t contradict but how did they know ? Carbon dated it ?
How does the latter work, they carbon date the fossil based on the strata and when asked how do you date the strata it is based on the fossil they found. (yes you heard right, it’s true)
The British museum refused to allow anyone to examine the so called discovery can you believe that? Something that could give answer to the origin of mankind and yet arrogantly they didn’t allow anyone to examine back in the 1912 what
“Charles Dawson (11 July 1864 – 10 August 1916) was a British amateur archaeologist who was credited with and now blamed for discoveries that turned out to be imaginative frauds, climaxing with that of the Piltdown Man (Eoanthropus dawsoni), which he presented in 1912. Dawson was often present at finds in the archaeological digs, or was the finder himself.”
Why did they have to lie and it was not the first time, they still do it, many people who studied evolution, still don’t understand it, because it is not meant to be understood.
What most people call evolution, it is nothing but an adaptation and variation.
The only type if we ought to call it “evolution” is the micro-changes occurring within the same kind.No Macro evolution or any other type of evolution can empirically be studied, observed, tested, Why do they still call it scientific or science ?
Like Bill Pickersgill said above a Dog will always be a DOG.
Never seen a fish stepping out of the water, and their FARM theory is nothing but a legendary theory, I am prepared to believe in the loch ness than in this type of evolution. It’s a scam based on nothing but lies, and deceptions.
Zorg’s comment illustrates graphically the tragedy of the decline and fall of rationality in (50%) of the USA. Back to the 18th century. Luckily we have people like Dr Raff to explain the 21st century.
Zorg, it isn’t “theory” that argues the earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old and the universe roughly 14.5 billion years old, it’s evidence that demonstrates it’s they are that old.
Re: the coelacanth, the two species that are still extant today– Latimeria chalumnae and Latimeria menadoensis are not rempresentative of any of the coelacanth species we find preserved in the fossil record.
Describing them as ‘living fossils’ is a misnomer–what they actually represent is living species who are members of an order (Coelacanthiformes) thought to have become extinct.
Re: Piltdown man, etc. some archeologists lied about their validity. It was other archeologists who rapidly falsified their claims, precisely because they were not consistent with the larger body of evidence. As neither informs our current understanding of evolution mechanisms or human phylogeny, one must ask: did you have a point?
RE: carbon dating, due to the half life of C14 carbon dating is only applicable to samples less than 48,000 years old and again only to organic samples. Anything else is dated by others methods and using other isotopic pairs, such as potassium-argon radio-isochron dating.
“The British museum refused to allow anyone to examine the so called discovery can you believe that?”
What discovery are you referring to here?
“The only type if we ought to call it “evolution” is the micro-changes occurring within the same kind.”
Please provide a scientific definition for the word “kind” as you’re using it here==does it correspond to species? Family? Order? Kingdom?
“No Macro evolution or any other type of evolution can empirically be studied, observed, tested”
This statement is false: we’ve directly observed macroevolution occurring in living populations. Perhaps you’re confused about the definition of macroevolution as the term is used in the biological sciences?
“Macroevolution: evolution on a species level (speciation and extinction) and at higher taxonomic classifications (appearance and disappearance of genuses, families, orders, etc.).” [ Biotech Life Sciences Dictionary]
As we’ve directly observed both speciation and extinction events, by definition we’ve directly observed macro-evolution occurring.
“Dog will always be a DOG.”
You say this as if it’s meaningful–why? First, no theory of evolution requires a change in the genetic composition of a population over generations must result in a phenotypic change as dramatic as a dog becoming something other than a dog for that change to represent evolution, and secondly evolution does not operate at the scale of individual living organizations (i.e., a dog) but as the scale of populations of living organizations (populations of dogs)> As such we should never expect to see a dog become something other than a dog.
Hope you’re having a great day…really appreciated receiving your blog post and have shared it with members of a teaching certificate program that I’m a part of…as part of a class discussion, we reflected on the meaning, source, and ways to address student misconceptions about a variety of subjects, including evolution. Your ideas and point of view will for sure stimulate much quality discussion within our program. Thank you. 🙂
Happy holidays & best wishes, Jafra Thomas
PhD Student, Kinesiology Oregon State University
E-mail sent from Android phone.
Thank you very much! Please let me know how it goes 🙂
Thanks for posting this. I finished a class this last semester about teaching the life sciences and one of the major topics was evolution and why it’s not taught enough/clearly and some obstacles you can expect to run into when teaching it. To be honest it’s a daunting task, perhaps because I was taught evolution fairly recently (in molecular bio) and so it’s still something I’m becoming familiar with and not yet comfortable enough to teach. I’m eager to see what tools others are implementing and wish I could take your course, sounds super interesting!
It’s not an easy subject to teach, and I think that many teachers are afraid of a backlash if they do offer it. Unfortunately, as a result, students are coming in to intro university courses not well prepared for the material. I hope that I can help high school teachers in some capacity with this issue.
You are quite correct in assuming that a) it isn’t easy and b) there is fear of backlash. I teach developmental psychology and general life span studies (grad and undergrad) at an unnamed university. Evolutionary theory in several forms is part of my curriculum. It wasn’t too hard to structure but profoundly difficult to teach, especially to undergrads. They simply lacked the most basic understanding of science and critical thinking. Errant beliefs and strong reinforcement from whatever echo chamber they lived in only made it worse. I was accused of violating rights! The accusations failed on their face of course. While I had no fear of backlash, this last year saw evolutionary theory eliminated as a component of my undergrad classes. Lots of excuses were made but I think the fear of backlash was the deciding factor. Evolution was not eliminated of course, just has been relegated to specific fields and courses. Unfortunately they felt it could be eliminated as a component of my courses. Sigh.
Keep up the good work.
Christwire is a satirical site, like the Onion.
Thank you for letting me know! Totally embarrassed that I didn’t realize it. I’ve updated the post with a different example.
There is a list of questions asked by those who attended by someone from Buzzfeed. Dr. Novella wrote about it:
I don’t teach, and I don’t ‘believe’ in evolution. Rather I ‘think’ that evolution is probably true based on the observable evidence. As the genetic sciences advance, my thought that humans have come up with a verifiable process solidifys. Now, the wonder of science is that everything can be turned on its head. Indeed, there may be explanations in the future that obliterate the theory of evolution, though I don’t think that’s statistically probable. As evolutionary science stands now there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, and I suggest that students can proceed investigating the tremendous achievements we’ve made in understanding our origins. [You can probably tell that I have an issue with the words ‘believe’ and ‘think.’]
I have taught freshman college Reading Comprehension and have used the concept of ‘deep time’ to illustrate how we can locate ourselves on the planetary timeline.With that comes the various ages … of the dinosaurs, mammals, human progenitors, and homo sapiens.I find the idea that homo sapiens are a relatively new species provides a sense of relief to many young people, in that we can understand how little practice we have at being human, and how we might still make serious mistakes in our incomplete understanding of what that means.
Belief is simply assent to a proposition. Beliefs can be justified (to various degrees) or unjustified. To put it plainly, your beliefs about the word “believe” are largely mistaken (though oddly common among scientists, as if they had never bothered to look at the dictionary and were operating dogmatically).
I believe that Booth shot Lincoln, and I have good reasons for doing so. I believe that no Cambrian rabbit fossils will ever be found, and I have good reasons for doing so. People who deny that they have such beliefs are not being intellectually honest.
Why can’t we ask stupid questions as well like if evolution doesn’t exist, why do I get some of my traits from my mother and some from my father? How do creationists explain why kids look like their parents, are predisposed to the same genetic traits like hair loss or height? Isn’t it obvious that every generation has a different frequency of genes than the previous?
I come from a very religious background and I’ve heard several explanations for this. The most common and persuasive one being that creatures evolve within their kind. Genesis says god created “all the fish in the sea, according to their kind” and likewise for birds, land animals, etc. Therefore, humans evolve into better humans over time, cows slowly adapt to be better cows depending on their environment, and so on.
The species never cross, and no new species evolve from other species. I think the concept is referred to as being microevolution vs macroevolution.
Species actually do cross, forming hybrid which may be fertile. It’s actually quite common in plants, and occurs also in vertebrates (e.g.. Savannah cats, grizzly/polar bar crosses called “grolars’, coywolves, etc.)
As for ‘microevolution vs. macroevolution’, these are simply descriptive terms indicating at what taxonomic level evolutionary changes are seen to occur. The scientific definition of macroevloution is simply “any evolutionary change ocurring at or above the taxonomic level of the species (e.g., speciation and extinction events)”, and as we’ve observed both speciation and extinction events occurring in living populations directly by definition we’ve observed macroevolution occurring
Thanks for the post, Jennifer!
The Cautious 60% that Berkman and Plutzer reveal (http://www.life.illinois.edu/evolutionworkshop/Evolution_Workshop/Day_1_files/Science-2011-Berkman-404-5.pdf) to us is probably more like 80 or 90% in Kansas. That’s tough on student learning.
Because you’re at the beginning of this journey into teaching evolutionary theory, a great contact for you is Andrew Martin here at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Andy studies evolutionary and conservation genetics and teaches an evolutionary biology course at CU. I think Andy is at the cutting edge of how to get students to think scientifically about the evolutionary process. Here is a link (http://stripe.colorado.edu/~am/Site/Teaching.html) to his course and all of his materials that he makes available to anyone, especially people like you. And here is the description of the first lecture of the semester–I love his approach:
“Many students have mixed mental models that are a combination of scientific thinking and intuition. It is likely that the intuitive models have been influenced, to a greater or lesser degree, by religious teachings. When confronted with claims about evolution that conflict with a student’s model of the world, students will often discard evidence and fall back on their beliefs. It is important that students grapple with the nature of science that claims without evidence are beliefs or opinions that fall outside the scientific process. Students need to practice making claims on the basis of evidence. This lesson is designed so that students begin to question their intuitive mental models of the world not in a way that is confrontational but in a manner that is wholly embedded in the scientific process.”
Again, I encourage you (and anyone else reading this) to get in touch with Andy for ideas and advice, or just look through and borrow from his materials. Andy will be discussing his strategy for connecting students’ mental models to evidence-based claims as the Keynote Speaker at a meeting in Baltimore in March sponsored by the Ecological Society of America. The meeting is called the Life Discovery Conference (http://www.esa.org/ldc/keynotes/) and is all about teaching and learning biology. Come join us!
Awesome resources, thanks Paul!
Thanks Jennifer. Way back when, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” nailed it for me.
But that’s a discredited view: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recapitulation_theory
It baffles me why evolution is is still considered to be controversial in the USA, when in the rest of the educated world it’s been part of the fabric for so long.
I taught physical anthropology from the same book (actually, Clark Larsen was on my MA committee!) and I used a similar technique to yours – I found bad questions about evolution online and had my students pick them apart. It was really effective! We also read an article on evolutionary psychology and picked that apart as well, just to demonstrate that the thinking can go too far in the other direction (starting from the assumption that social behavior is entirely biological and then looking for evidence to support your assumption). Discussions were always great.
An analogy to the development of new languages often helps. “If American English came from British English, then why do people still speak British English?” Because some people moved and their language developed separately. Likewise a species can be geographically split and one subgroup may change greatly while the other changes little.
“Modern English could not have come from Middle English. Nobody ever witnessed the change. From one day to the next, everyone spoke the same language.” The distinction among different dialects and languages is not clear cut over geography, and even less so over time. Likewise with species. As Dawkins pointed out, if you had a picture of your mother and her mother and her mother, etc, going back millions of years, you would see a great difference between yourself and the ancestor from millions of years ago, yet each child is of the same species as her parent. There is no hard and fast break among species over geography or time.
My birth family is fourth generation Irish-American–if I came from Irishmen why are there still Irishmen in Dublin?
I have a question- FYI I am not a creationist unless a group decides I am the creator; I’ll play creators advocate *so to speak; I know via physics the criterium for ‘law’ is quite strict – Darwin I believe remains a theory; stay w me – I always here creationists attacked ‘not believing’ in Darwinism – if it’s not a law do they have a point? Perhaps in this case forget the counterpoint of Creationism?! Enjoy your blog keep up the good work! 😉™
I’m not sure I quite understand your point, but I’ll do my best. I think that you’re misunderstanding the words “theory” and “law”; they are words with precise meanings when used in science, and those meanings are different than the way we use them in ordinary conversation. In science, a theory is not the same thing as a tentative “guess” or “idea” as we would use it in day to day speech. A scientific theory is a synthesis of a large body of information that offers an explanation for phenomena. It has been tested again and again, is supported by rigorous evidence, and has predictive power. The theory of evolution is just as well supported as the theory of gravity.
A scientific law is an observation of a phenomenon that has been subjected to rigorous testing, but laws don’t provide a mechanistic explanation like a theory does. The laws of thermodynamics are examples of scientific laws.
I really don’t care what my students believe. I want them to understand the process of evolution, and specifically how humans evolved. I want them to learn how the scientific method works, and how it is applied in day to day research into human origins. I want them to develop critical thinking skills so that they can distinguish good science from pseudoscience. What they personally believe about religion is none of my business, and irrelevant to the course.
Ya I realized later that the thought experiment collapsed on itself; yes there are strict criteria/study to be a ‘theory’ and obviously that is not the standard used for creation ‘theory’; and wow I thought Gravity was a law OOOPS – thanx for your response 😬™
No worries-glad I could help clear that up! Thanks for commenting 🙂
There are Newton’s gravitational laws, but actually aren’t quite correct. Theories are explanatory frameworks, and may include laws among other things.
Thx … Makes Sense
“if it’s not a law do they have a point?”
No, because they’re failing to understand the scientific meanings of the terms “law”, “hypothesis” and “theory” and have come to the erroneous conclusion that somehow theories, upon acquiring enough evidentiary support over time to be proven true somehow ‘graduate’ to become laws.
That isn’t the case: laws, hypotheses and theories are all entirely different entities.
A scientific law describes what has always been observed to occur in a particular, limited and strictly defined instance, most frequently in the form of a mathematical expression. They represent postulates, not something that has been successfully proven true.
Hypotheses are proposed explanations addressing a limited body of evidence which are testable and serve as starting points for further investigation.
Scientific theories are unifying, self-consistent, comprehensive, falsifiable and tentative explanatory models of natural processes or phenomena derived exclusively from corroborated hypotheses.
So to offer an example from physics, we have both laws of gravity (such as the inverse square law, which states the force of gravitational attraction between two masses varies inversely with the change in distance between them) and also have a theory of gravity (how that attractive force arises as the result of bodies possessing mass causing the curvature of localized space-time.)
Yes Jennifer certainly explained that; I do not think it warrants a hostile debate – seems your verbiage is a bit on the offensive- In some respects I understand HWVR Jennifer makes an excellent point in focusing on the scientific method/approach used by Darwin. I suppose I’m lucky coming from a Jewish background we are certainly allowed to question and ‘not believe’ w/o spiritual or cultural punishment. I am able to have a scientific discussion and respect others beliefs.
I fail to see how anything I’ve posted could be interpreted as hostile or offensive, reformed. What in my posts are you taking exception to?
I am a minister’s son, raised to believe in God and told the creation story in the Bible. Then at a young age I learned of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are obviously real, but not in the Bible. I began to question the creation story and asked my father about it. He told me that it is a story, written down after being passed down for millenia verbally. He told me that the Bible I was reading was a translation from another language, and from another culture. The six days of creation really translated to six periods of time and no one knows the length of those periods.
What I learned was not to take things at face value but to dig deeper. I also learned it doesn’t matter if noah built an ark or if God was really tired on the seventh day. Maybe he just felt like goofing off for awhile. The Bible is a manual for morality.
Most importantly I learned to separate Church and science.
I believe evolution is the best theory going to explain how our world came to be. “Creationism” is not science; it is a feeble attempt to reconcile religion with our scientific world. The Bible is to teach us how to live in that world.
Anyway, that’s my story, my opinion, and how I keep peace in my mind.
I really like your explanation on how religion and science differ. Coming from a religious family as well, I understand that it can be difficult to reconcile the two but I think you hit it right on the head.
Tim, science backs up the bible and vice versa . For example the body’s main source of fuel is complex carbs [ grains] a scientific fact which the bible affirms Zech 9 : 17 NIV bible . In the book of Job it talks about the earth being round” way before” this was understood , how can anyone explain that one .
Creationism is science, no species has evolved into another totally different species , which disproves evolution . There are transformations inside each species.
One of the laws of thermodynamics is life has to beget life , there was a point were there was no life or matter , there has to be the unknown 1st great cause [ God] .
“In the book of Job it talks about the earth being round” way before” this was understood , how can anyone explain that one .”
The shape of this planet was known by the ancient Greeks, and definitely before the time that story was written, revised and translated. The original story was not written in English, and may not have contained that phrase.
“Creationism is science, no species has evolved into another totally different species , which disproves evolution”
No, that statement proves you have no clue about the subject of biology, and even the basic definition of “evolution.” The way you are using the word one would expect that Henry Ford and the Wright brothers would have been able to design, build and fly a Boeing 787 by 1920.
“One of the laws of thermodynamics is life has to beget life , there was a point were there was no life or matter , there has to be the unknown 1st great cause”
Again you show you do not understand science, especially what the laws of thermodynamics include. For instance they hold only for closed systems, not systems where external energy is being applied. Go outside during the day, notice the bright ball of light in the sky. That is the star that our planet rotates around, the Sun. It has been bombarding our planet with energy for billions of years long before the planet was complete, long before there was running water, and long before there were amino acids, long before the first DNA/RNA molecules.
Your “flawless” bible has God creating light before creating the sun. That is impossible.
You never answered the questions I asked you a few months ago:
Why not? Are you not even going to try?
“Creationism is science”
What testable predictions do special creation models offer, which would allow them to be falsified? If it isn’t falsifiable, it isn’t a scientific model.
“no species has evolved into another totally different species, which disproves evolution.”
This is quite simply false: we’ve observed speciation events. Consider the dramatic example of multiple speciation events which occurred in populations of mus musculus domesticus as the result of Robertsonian fusions altering karyotype number, reported in “Chromosomes and speciation in Mus musculus domesticus”, E. Capanna, R. Castigli, Cytogenetic and Genome Research 2004;105:375-384, resulting in five different new species populations arising by descent from a common ancestral population, all reproductively isolated from one another.
And NO law of thermodynamics addresses biological reproduction or states that life must beget life: the four laws of thermodynamics instead describe the behavior of fundamental physical properties like temperature, energy and entropy which characterize thermodynamic systems.
BibleBill, the gist of my point is that the Bible is not a scientific study of life or creation. In fact, it isn’t the scientific study on anything. The Old Testament is an historic account of the Jewish people and their relationship with God. There is much wisdom there but not science.
You are correct in stating that “no species has evolved into another totally different species”. My understanding of evolution is that evolution would also agree. Throw a bunch of legos into a room, then send some kids in to make stuff. Tell them to make something that can get to the other side of the room without leaving the ground. After an hour or so replace the kids with different ones. You will notice that some already built objects will change (evolve) . Rinse and repeat. The legos are the basic building blocks of nature (genes, proteins, etc.) The kids are what causes change, over time. Constraints (natural laws) are the size and shape of the legos, gravity. The impetus (reason for being) is to get to the other side of the room.
Of course this is a simplistic example, but the point is that life evolves in parallel as well as in series, starting from the basic building blocks of life. We’re all just different constructions.
As to the laws of thermodynamics, I’ve actually studied them, as in college. It has been a while, but I don’t remember anything about “life has to beget life”. Thermodynamics is about how, in a closed system, matter and energy is conserved, causing changes in temperature as energy is applied to that matter.
We live in an age of science and it is natural to try to explain everything. Forcing science onto the Bible, however, is divisive and presents Christians as ignorant.
A scriptural account rather a historic account, as many of the events ‘documented’ in the bible (such as a catastrophic global flood) demonstrably did not occur.
I agree a global flood didn’t occur, but from the perspective of those experiencing it, their “world” was destroyed. I would say that history from a truly global perspective is a relatively new phenomenon. This is a case of taking the bible, a translation of a translation, too literally.
I used the word “historic” loosely, I admit. Maybe, “references historical events and people” is more appropriate. Ironically, only true scientific method (not pseudo-science) can validate the historical events.
I say, use the right tool for the job. Use the Bible for spiritual enrichment, not science. Don’t cut down a tree with a spoon.
Some other statements I didn’t take time to address:
“You are correct in stating that “no species has evolved into another totally different species”.”
No, he’s not. We’ve directly observed new species populations arising from previously existing populations in the wild—I’ve offered one example of such above.
“My understanding of evolution is that evolution would also agree. Throw a bunch of legos into a room, then send some kids in to make stuff. Tell them to make something that can get to the other side of the room without leaving the ground.”
This doesn’t model evolutionary processes, I’m afraid: it fails with the instruction “Tell them to make something that can get to the other side of the room without leaving the ground.” Evolution doesn’t operate in a goal oriented manner to achieve a preferred and predetermined outcome. Bacterial flagellum did not evolve to solve a problem with locomotion, any more than eyes evolved to solve a problem with sensory perception.
Having been an educator and lived all my life in Utah, I’ve had nearly fifty years to observe the “controversy” on the subject of teaching evolution (many teachers here ignore the issue, perhaps wisely; I’m going to have to query my teenage daughter on her understandings, now that I think about it, since she’s planning a teaching career).
The predominant religion looms large here, of course, and right now I’m witnessing a debate elsewhere between a molecular biologist I’ve become close friends with, and a number of “apologists” who not only insist the Earth is six thousand years old, but are also proponents of “hyper-diffusionism,” another subject Jennifer and Deborah have utterly laid to waste. Okay, the “scientific analysis” is “proven that no credible evidence exists so far for such claims, and solid scientific findings exist that should consign them to the realm of unwarranted speculation.” Sadly, those cranks have the backing of a U.S. Senator here as well as a member of the Osmond family, and in the political arena I find myself borrowing from my literature studies: “The only character in Elizabethan drama who always tells the truth is the Fool.”
Okay, let’s switch to some actual history: In 2005, a federal judge ruled “Intelligent Design was ‘thinly disguised Creationism’ and therefore a ‘religious viewpoint.'” As such, it has no place in the science curriculum; note that finding doesn’t amount to “censorship,” since proponents are free to teach it in philosophy courses and such.
That molecular biologist friend–whom I’ve done editing work for, including a major contribution to a peer-reviewed work on global human migration–has told he me he’s given up arguing with such sorts, and I understand his frustration. Their tactics consist entirely of recycled “talking points,” straw man tactics, and outright prevarications; the plain truth is they seek obfuscation and not illumination and use the ensuing chaos, drama, and confusion to deliver their sermons.
My favorite answer to the “no transitional species” claim is to point to the “monotremes,” the echidna and platypus, which lay eggs–like birds and reptiles–don’t have a placenta, even though they’re mammals, and nurse their young from modified sweat glands on their bodies rather than actual mammaries.
Of course if I’d taught that in a classroom here, I’d be hauled up on charges of “talking about b**bs.”
And course, I’d have to plead guilty, even though I usually allude to the political variety and not the pectoral… Anybody have a “less sexist” suggestion for this one?
I confess I used a version of “design evolution” (which is a real thing in engineering, architecture, etc) to show that one does not go from one thing to a completely other thing without going through some step. I know when people do it, it is a goal driven process.
It is kind of like using the example of the reducible mousetrap. It is just used to show that there are functional predecessors, just not the same functions. Which is a way to help explain the evolution of the flagella were random tweaks of previous simpler components that had other functions.
The point is that evolution is often bit by bit… not a complete immediate rearrangement of everything. That would require magic that ignores physics… which exists only in our imagination.
We read through The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean in my Evolution class as a supplement. It’s got a great look at how genetics and evolution intermingle and is pretty easy to digest. As you know, a lot of this happens here in Texas as well, although I’ve heard Kansas is it’s own beast. Good luck!
I don’t remember a time when I absolutely refused to accept evolution. I vaguely recall asking my mom, who was a minister’s daughter, how creationism could account for the evolution of the human species when I was young – maybe elementary or middle school age; though she couldn’t give me a clear answer neither did she insist one or the other was the only explanation. It was probably in high school biology that I came to understand the basic idea that we are not directly descended from apes, but that there was a gradual change over millions of years. A college zoology course – learning about the phylogenetic tree, allopatric and sympatric speciation – cemented my understanding.
I’m a biology major and your blog has served as a supplement to my understanding on several occasions (in fact I have mentioned it to my professor). I wish I could take your classes! Are there courses you would suggest I look into?
you wriite a blog worth reading. i was wondering why so few posts lately, but i see u got a GOOD REASON for slacking off the posts now. keep up the good work. i hope u get time to make more posts, but your offline work is very important too.
I am a reader of your blog, even that I am not a teacher or a researcher. Plus, I am from Italy (so, sorry for my english).
To answer your questions, I first learned about evolution in middle school (I think there isn’t a perfect match in USA-Italy school course), 12-13 years old. And then again in high school, 16-17 years old. I was lucky to have two very good teachers and I never had any doubts about evolution.
I don’t remember a distinction in teaching between “evolution” and “human evolution”.
But even before I read/use small science books for kids (dinosaurs, birds, big cats, etc…) so the issue wasn’t totally new for me.
Never change my mind about the topic.
I was born into a fundamentalist family and grew up in a fundamentalist Christian school and then attended a Fundamentalist Christian University. I grew up with a huge love for science, but certainly also bought into all the arguments that creationists give. The sect that I grew up in would be more in the ilk of Ken Ham and AIG.
What changed my mind was that after college I started to read and talk to people who did understand the science or who did “believe” (I hate that word now) evolution. And often I’d hear things that made me realize that I didn’t really understand evolution. When you grow up as I did you were “taught” evolution, but it was severely controlled. Any concept that was brought up was more or less so that they could then spring board into their own propaganda. So when I started to study it on my own I realized I hadn’t been taught evolution to understand it and actually assimilate the theory rather I was being taught evolution so that I could combat it.
The more I studied the more I realized that they were giving me snapshots. I never was really given the full picture, and even the pieces that I was given were only so that they could follow it up with a blanket to help keep my eyes closed. I felt lied to, frankly, so then I started to dig deeper and realized that actually I was being lied to. In many cases, the strong creationist arguments that I used to hold dear were based on misinformation, mischaracterization or just outright lies. And that was the major turning point for me. Once I realized that a lot of information had been witheld from me and that most of the strong arguments were often misleading or totally wrong, then accepting evolution was a lot easier. I was free to pursue the science and I did with a lot of vigor to fill in the details. Once I did there was no going back.
One thing that I will add. Often when I see people who support evolution talk to creationists they miss the coded words that creationists use to bypass the argument. It is like watching a political debate where the politicians talk past each other winning points by pandering to one group or the other. I found myself yelling at my screen when Ken Ham debated Bill Nye because Ken would go into creationist double speak and Bill didn’t seem aware of the coded messages Ken was sending to the home base. As someone who grew up hearing all of it I feel the best way to try and convince a questioning creationist (i.e. someone at least willing to seek the truth) is to cut right to the core of creationist arguments and expose the fact that they are hollow and without merit. I say questioning creationist, because outside of that, someone who is willing to look at the opposition with an open mind, I don’t think there is much hope of any argument or factual evidence convincing them.
I don’t teach, but my personal understanding of evolution was shaped by reading Stephen Jay Gould’s popular press books on the topic. He introduced the concept of Non-overlapping magisteria to represent the interplay between religion and science.
I believe there are two reasons why many people do not accept evolution. One is that they simply don’t appreciate the immense amount of time involved. As a person I can relate to days, weeks, even years; but decades become more difficult (I’m 65 – where does the time go?). Intellectually I can deal with my own lifetime and appreciate to a degree the gap between today and, say, the Revolutionary War, or the Roman Empire; but ten thousand years, one hundred thousand, one million – it is simply not comprehensible, and A LOT can happen in that amount of time.
The second reason has to do with the way scientists speak of evolution. When they say an organism “adapted” to an environmental change, for example, it sounds to the uneducated as though the organism recognized the need to modify it’s body and deliberately changed. Evolution is the result of random (often pointless or even counter-productive) changes. It is not deliberate and it does not have a goal – it’s a series of fortuitous accidents. The long-term affect can only be seen in hindsight IF those changes were beneficial; otherwise the organism is now extinct.
Why is it that some people are ” hell bent” on changing others minds or ‘proving ones “theory” is superior to another . I could replace all your arguments with catch phrases from a dick measuring contest and the silly nature of all of your arguments wouldn’t be lost .
Anonymous, at present there’s only one theory which addresses the origin of the biologically diverse species populations we observe living today and represented in the fossil record– evolution. The various special creation myths embraced by the world’s religions do not represent theories–they are not tentative, predictive, comprehensive or falsifiable,
In fact, they’re not even explanations: they instead avoid any attempt at crafting a meaningful explanatory model by writing everything off to ‘magic’.
I learned about evolution is secondary grade school (Minnesota, a state that believes science is important) and I, along with other Catholic classmates, asked the priest about it at Release Time. He said that no one knows how long God’s days were, and millions of years could have passed during the days in which He made the Earth and filled it with animals. Our priest said it is possible that God made the animals, intending them to evolve before He made Adam and Eve, and that the hominid ancestor could have evolved into the various ape groups. This evolution stopped short of homo sapiens sapiens, which were created by God. When I think back on that, I realize that was a very progressive answer, and that our priest had thought long and hard on how to meld evolutionary theory and religious creationist theory.
Funny then, isn’t it, how until there was an absolute necessity to craft some kind of apologetic to explain away the fact that physical and other evidence demonstrates the earth is billions rather than thousands of years old and the emergence of the various living species that have existed on earth occurred over a period of time far longer than one week no biblical scholar or religious authority had ever argued that the days of creation described in either of the two creation myths found in Genesis chapter 1 or 2 represented anything other than standard 24 hour periods of time?
Science & Religion are at an intersection so Drive safe::
Imagine that you are separating out of your parental home (remember you are not moving out but just seperating)… The first thing you would do is to find a new lock and key for your portion of that house…
That is what humans did when they seperated out of Chimpansees, they just seperated out their portion of the house and started stuffing it with new Valuables that never existed in the parental house…
Remember now there is a seperated lock & key for we humans, so our new found Valuables could never be shared with the parental house (ie, our parental species the Chimps)…
This is the reason why primitive Monkeys exist along side we developed Humans…!
Experimental: The secure key & the lock which made all the difference is believed to be the IZUMO1 & JUNO protein pair, found on the surface of Sperm & Ovum respectively…
Just take a look at the protein (IZUMO1) on the surface of the sperm… It identifies itself to its counterpart in the Surface of Ovum (JUNO) telling that it belongs to the same species…. This protein pair is the first point of contact when a sperm enters a ovum… and it is species specific… A kind of Key and Lock security to prevent cross species fertilization…
I did check the aa seqs of this pair among all the primates and they Do differ… Even Humans vs Chimps…. yet Human vs Neandertal match perfectly…. Surprisingly aa seq align of Donkeys match with Horses (no wonder there are Hybrids like Mule/Hinny)…
Its my belief that changing the lock and key (aa seq of IZUMO1 & JUNO) did the trick of Speciating Humans away from Chimps and so happened among the different primates…
Following speciation all the new traits that humans developed were never shared with monkeys (thanks to the security offered by IZUMO1 & JUNO)… So monkeys still remain as Monkeys…!