Why there still are monkeys: lessons learned from teaching evolution in Kansas.

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.

My sister and I came from the same parents, but we're both able to exist at the same time. Here's proof of us existing while we talk about evolution with Joe Silva and Sean Shelby.
My sister and I came from the same parents, but we’re both able to exist at the same time. Here’s evidence of us existing while we talk about evolution with our friends Joe Silva and Sean Shelby.


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.

The Good Fight Part 1: The Fine Art of Talking to People Who Are Wrong

The good fight is that special argument where you know you’re right, and just can’t imagine how anyone could possibly disagree. But they do, even when the disagreement is about something fundamental and irreconcilable. Did we evolve? Is the climate changing? Are vaccines safe? Do I really have to pay my taxes? The answers matter, but so do the arguments. Let’s try to improve them.

This is Part I in a series about how and why we have those difficult conversations, online and in the real world. We’ll explore ways to make them more persuasive, more fun, and more rewarding. For a practical example of where we’re going with this, see my earlier pieceThe Most Important Playground Conversation: How to Persuade a Friend to Vaccinate.  Going forward we’ll focus particularly on arguments with people who have irrational ideas, like anti-vaxers or creationists, but some topics apply in every conversation. This is one of them, because in every conversation you have to remember: you are talking to a person. They are as real, as smart, and as decent as you are. You’re having a conversation, not a battle. That’s the hardest thing to remember for all of us some of the time, and for some of us all of the time.

I was going to start this series by writing about goals and strategies, but then I got bogged down in a conversation on global warming that reminded me of that more fundamental rule. It doesn’t matter what your goal is if you let yourself forget that you’re talking to a real person. Personalizing an argument, making it about the people instead of the issues, poisons conversations. Once you start to think of the conversation as just another blunt object to apply to the other person’s head, you’ve already lost. So what happened, and what can we do about it?

"Alu finds a friend"

Not a friendly conversation.

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We were wrong about Bill Nye

Nye and Ham

Many of us in the scientific community have a longstanding policy not to debate with creationists, in part because doing so gives an unwarranted credibility to their disingenuous arguments. So when Bill Nye chose to debate Ken Ham in the Creation Museum on whether creationism was a viable explanation for life, there was a lot of wincing and predictions that Nye would unintentionally do damage to public perception of evolution. I was also skeptical that this debate would do any good. But I think that most of us scientists had overlooked the fact that Nye is an experienced entertainer as well as science educator–a combination of traits that most of us don’t possess, and one perfect for this venue. Nye did an astounding job at calmly explaining the overwhelming evidence for why creationism (with special attention to Noah’s ark and the flood) simply couldn’t explain the origins and diversity of life on earth. Ham, on the other hand, seemed really flustered and didn’t even make an attempt (beyond trotting out token creation scientists in an attempt to give creationism some legitimacy) to address the questions at hand with evidence. He was completely out of his league, and it showed.

Ken Ham's explanation of evolution
Screenshot of one of Ken Ham’s slides explaining what a non-Young Earth Creationist Christian must believe about God’s plan.

One of the most telling parts of the debate was the question that was asked of both men: “What, if anything, would convince you to change your mind?”

Ham’s answer: “Nothing.”
Nye’s answer: “Evidence.”

I really encourage you to watch the entire debate here, but if you’re not up for three hours of viewing (and I don’t blame you), you can see shorter excerpts and an interview with Nye here.

And here are some other reactions to the debate:




Nye was right to do this debate. Not only did he win with excellent presentation and overwhelming evidence, he managed to convey to viewers the beauty and humility of the scientific process. Nye didn’t have any problem saying to some questions: “I don’t know–but I can’t wait to find out!!!”: the motivation that drives every single scientist when he or she goes to work in the morning. If nothing else but this gets conveyed to the people who watched the debate, I’d still be pretty happy. I don’t know if the people in the Creation auditorium had ever heard the evidence he presented before. (They seem to be proud of their lack of understanding of evolution). I doubt he changed any of their minds, but I can’t help but wonder if some of the people watching the stream went to bed last night with a slightly better understanding of the scientific process. I hope they did.

Is evolution in trouble?

According to a recent article in the Daily Beast by Dr. Karl Giberson, 2013 was a terrible year for evolution for several reasons:

“The year ended with the anti-evolution book Darwin’s Doubt as Amazon’s top seller in the “Paleontology” category. The state of Texas spent much of the year trying to keep the country’s most respected high school biology text out of its public schools. And leading anti-evolutionist and Creation Museum curator Ken Ham made his annual announcement that the “final nail” had been pounded into the coffin of poor Darwin’s beleaguered theory of evolution.
Americans entered 2013 more opposed to evolution than they have been for years, with an amazing 46 percent embracing the notion that “God created humans pretty much in their present form at one time in the last 10,000 years or so.” This number was up a full 6 percent from the prior poll taken in 2010. According to a December 2013 Pew poll, among white evangelical Protestants, a demographic that includes many Republican members of Congress and governors, almost 64 percent reject the idea that humans have evolved.”

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Why does the media want you to believe that we are primate-pig hybrids?

I had a “driveway moment” last night listening to Alex Jones rant about science topics on his radio program. He was obsessed with the hypothesis that humans are the descendents of a primate-pig hybridization. I had heard of it as it first made the rounds back in July, but I assumed that no one would take it seriously and ignored it. But the Daily Mail recently has not only reported it uncritically, it also called Dr. Eugene McCarthy’s evidence for this hypothesis “compelling”. I guess I shouldn’t find that surprising, because the Daily Mail routinely presents quackery as mainstream scientific findings.

What really drew my interest in the subject was the way Alex Jones discussed the news article.

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The Discovery Institute challenged me. Here’s my response.

Casey Luskin, a blogger for the Discovery Institute, recently took issue with my proposal that when reading a scientific paper, one should check the institutional affiliation and credentials of its authors. I believe the part that he particularly objected to was my statement that one might not wish to use the Discovery Institute as a “scientific authority on evolutionary theory.”

Luskin wrote:

“In other words, study a paper carefully, but if the authors work with Discovery Institute, disregard everything they are saying from the outset. That’s the ground rule that comes before any other tips. It’s a great way to keep yourself carefully in the dark about things you know nothing about. And she calls us “agenda-driven”?

Imagine how journal editors would behave if they followed Raff’s advice. Or better yet, imagine what would happen if Raff herself were a journal editor. Someone affiliated with Discovery Institute (or any group friendly to ID) submits a paper, and you immediately toss it in the trash without even taking it seriously. More than a few such editors probably share her philosophy. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the peer-review system, even though of course there are already plenty of reasons to lack such confidence.”

It’s a very telling reaction on his part. Continue reading

Adventures with the Texas State Board of Education

I’ve written before about the ongoing battle to maintain decent science standards in Texas schools, and why this is not just a regional issue, but important for science education in the United States as a whole.

Today I went before the Texas State Board of Education to testify in support of the science textbooks currently under review. They’re all quite good on the subject of evolution, but there’s a chance that the board may require the textbook companies to modify them based on the testimony of their so-called experts (whose anti-evolution opinions can be read here). The outcome is very much in doubt right now.

I came expecting this to be a largely symbolic (though important) gesture, but I was completely wrong. The pro-creationism/Intelligent Design crowd was present in force, and even though they were vastly outnumbered by the science advocates, they were given extra time and friendly questions by some SBOE members, which amplified their voices.
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Creationism in Texas: good news!

If you read my post on Kathy Miller’s recent talk at the Answers in Science event, you’ll recall that the Texas Board of Education is currently reviewing science textbooks for statewide adoption. This is a very important process, as historically creationists have attempted to insert their stupid arguments against evolution into school educational standards and textbooks. Since Texas is the largest buyer of textbooks in the United States, it has a huge influence on what publishers will produce.
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Creationism and Answers in Science: One weekend in Texas (with fossil porn!)

This past week, Houston hosted several major players in both the anti- and pro- evolution camps. The Texas Home School coalition had their annual convention on Aug 1-3, and unfortunately chose to invite Ken Ham as a keynote speaker. Ham has a long history of anti-science, anti-evolution advocacy, including recently criticizing Bill Gates’ “Big History” curriculum for teaching evolution.

In response to Ham’s presence at the convention, several groups, including Houston Atheists, Humanists of Houston and Houston Oasis, organized an “Answers in Science” educational event at the Houston Museum of Natural History.
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