Accepting evidence is not dogmatic

Update: I have decided to restore this post with some minor edits. I will write more about my decision to do so in another post, since I think the topic of self censorship in terms of the social structure of academia is an interesting topic.


I’m frustrated. As I talked about before, I’m working on my NSF Graduate Fellowship proposal. Part of this process is getting a ton of students and professors to critique your paper. I honestly shouldn’t be too annoyed, because overall the reviews of my proposal have been very good. But a critique that I got from many – but not the majority of – my reviewers happens to be a major pet peeve of mine.

I was too “dogmatic.”

The offending part was the opening paragraphs of my personal statement. I’ll post it here for full disclosure:

            “College was a bit of a culture shock for me. I grew up in a nurturing environment that embraced science – Bill Nye the Science Guy was the program of choice, and competing in Science Olympiad was cool. But when I moved a tad farther south into the heartland of Indiana for my undergraduate education at Purdue University, I quickly realized this was not a universal truth. The attitude toward evolution was terrible amongst non-scientists on campus. One of the local churches was a major donor to the infamous Creation Museum in Kentucky, activists handed out anti-evolution tracts on the main quad, and anti-evolution letters in the campus newspaper were commonplace. I was shocked to learn that even many of my fellow biology majors did not accept evolution.

The fact that so many people didn’t share my fascination with evolutionary theory troubled me on a personal level. This wasn’t simply someone disagreeing with how I earned a paycheck: Learning about evolution was the key event that led me to adopt a skeptical, naturalistic worldview. I felt like people were rejecting the ideals that shape my humanist ethics. I wanted others to understand my feelings of awe as I contemplate the universe, or how lucky I feel to have evolved the necessary traits to contemplate the universe in the first place. I quickly learned that many of these people still valued science, but never had the opportunity to become educated about evolution.

That realization motivated my passion for science communication and mentoring. […]”

Now, I’m not claiming that’s perfect. It’s a draft that can obviously still do with some tweaking. And I realize I have to walk on egg shells and be politically correct if I actually want to get funded. It doesn’t matter if I’m being honest or if I’m technically right if I happen to get three Christian biologists who read this as a belligerent attack against their belief. Which is apparently how it came off to my reviewers.

Fine. Whatever. I don’t read it that way, but I guess I can see how you can read it to be negative. I thought I was being as diplomatic as I could possibly be, but apparently it’s still not diplomatic enough – I’ll have to change some of the wording.

If we would have stopped at “This could potentially be interpreted negatively,” I would not have been writing this post. But it didn’t. Some of my reviewers, including a professor, insisted that I was “dogmatic,” and “wanted people to believe in evolution just because that’s what you happen to believe in.” That rejecting evolution isn’t a “terrible” attitude. That I shouldn’t be “shocked” that some biology majors don’t believe in evolution, because not everyone has to be like me. That wanting to help people learn about evolution means I thought they were stupid.

That I came off as, I quote, “Dawkins-esque.”

I think that was supposed to be negative remark, but I took it as a compliment.

I fumed the whole bus ride home, wishing I could have responded then and there – but a meeting for a review of your work is not the place for a philosophical debate. But these are things I hear over and over – not just from professors and classmates I like and respect who accept evolution but think I’m too “dogmatic” about promoting it. Because they’re so common, I feel that it’s important that I address those types of ideas here.

1. Wanting people to adopt an evidence-based view of the universe is not dogmatic. In fact, it’s the very opposite of dogma. I want people to be able to change their minds when confronted with new evidence. Admitting you were wrong is one of the most intellectually honest things you can do. The only “dogmatic” thing about living in reality is that some things are true, and some things are not. You don’t get to flap your arms and start flying through the air just because you wish that was the way the universe works.

2. I don’t want people to “believe in evolution because that’s what I believe in.” I want people to accept evolution because there’s an insurmountable mountain of evidence supporting it. This isn’t a subjective opinion that’s up for debate. I’m not forcing people to think that chocolate ice cream with peanut butter swirls is the best flavor (though it totally is). To deny evolution is either based on ignorance or willful delusion. I know, what mean words. That doesn’t make them less true. People have either not learned about evolution or not had it explained to them well, or they’re people who go and build Creation Museums and think people walked with dinosaurs because of their religious convictions. There may be less hope at getting the latter to accept evolution, but being a science educator is important to me, and I want to tackle the “ignorance” side of that equation.

In my future draft, I plan to explicitly say that I accept evolution because of that mountain of evidence. I thought that would be self-evident to biologist NSF reviewers, but might as well be safe…

3. Rejecting evolution is certainly a “terrible” attitude. Again, why should we pat people on the back for ignoring scientific facts?

4. We don’t give chemistry degrees to people who believe in alchemy. We don’t give aerospace engineering degrees to people who think planes are held up by fairies. We don’t give geology degrees to people who think the Earth is made of chocolate pudding.  But we have no problem giving biology degrees to people who think an invisible supernatural being created life, despite it having as much evidence as Puddingology. I should feel shocked that people who reject the fundamental concepts of their field can still successfully earn a degree.

5. I don’t think that everyone who rejects evolution is stupid. I do, however, think they are wrong. Those things are not equivalent. And when ignorance – the lack of information – is the cause of their rejection, that can be fixed. And should be fixed – but apparently it’s dogmatic to think people should be educated.

Why do I even need to have this discussion? Why, if I had proposed educating people about gravity or plate tectonics, would there have been no debate? Why would any other drive to educate be seen as positive, rather than dogmatic? Why are we expected to roll over and simply accept that some people are going to ignore the fact of evolution?

Because religion is protected in our culture. Telling someone they’re wrong is “dogmatic” if it’s contradicting their religious beliefs even if, you know, they’re wrong. Mincing words and avoiding hurt feelings is more important than education and reality.

Religion does not deserve this special status. We don’t have to tiptoe around, pretending the universe bends to their wishes when all of the evidence says otherwise.

Of course, I have to wonder if this whole “dogmatic” thing came up because later in my personal statement I mention my involvement with some secular organizations. They were relevent – I talk about various pro-science events we’ve done, and the organizational and leadership skills I’ve gained from them. Or if it came up because these people aren’t reading my proposal in a vacuum – they all know I’m a strident, outspoken atheist in my free time. Even if I don’t say that in my proposal and I mince words as much as possible, that knowledge still colors their interpretation. Without the atheism side, would my drive to educate about evolution have been a problem? Did my classmates who mentioned teaching students about evolution in their applications get called dogmatic?

I hate that I even have to wonder about it.

An intro to the neutral theory of evolution

From a top donor:

“I’d like you to write a blog entry (primer) about neutral theory aimed at the layperson.”

Okay, I’m not going to lie. I’ve been secretly hoping someone would bump this question out of the top ten, mainly because neutral theory is kind of boring and vaguely confusing and hard enough to explain while using biology buzzwords. It’s even harder to explain when you only have 30 minutes to write about it and it’s supposed to be targeting non-biologists. When I shared this question with some fellow genetics grad students, the general response was “Ewwwww.”

But I will try my best!

When most people think about evolution, they think of adaptations. Something in the environment puts selective pressure on a certain trait, and organisms with that trait are more “fit” (reproduce more). For example, rabbits that live in snowy climates are more likely to survive (and reproduce) if they have white fur that helps them blend into the snow. If a mutation randomly arises that make their fur white, or just lighter, that rabbit has an advantage over the other rabbits – the dark brown ones are going to be the first ones that are eaten.

There are lots of examples of adaptive evolution through natural selection, and people know them more because they make good stories. The most famous example of evolution, Darwin’s finches, is a case of adaptive evolution.

But not all evolution takes place because of natural selection. Evolution is at its simplest defined as the change in allele frequencies over time. That’s where neutral theory comes in. Neutral theory states that most evolutionary changes are the result of random drift of neutral mutants.

Buzzwords buzzwords, I know. So let’s take it one step at a time and pretend that we’re looking at a population of unicorns (if we’re pretending, might as well pretend all the way).

Alleles are just two different forms of a gene. Genes are usually hundreds or thousands of basepairs long, but let’s pretend we’re zooming in on three bases in a gene for fur color. If you have the sequence AAA, your fur is white. But if you have AAG, your fur is pink. AAA and AAG are different alleles.

Now let’s say all of the unicorns start as AAA, and then from mutation you get a unicorn who’s AAG. Being pink has no effect on the unicorn. He’s not more likely to get eaten, he doesn’t live longer, he doesn’t have more luck with lady unicorns. It’s a “neutral” mutation because it doesn’t change the unicorn’s fitness.

That’s where random drift comes in. Drift simply refers to the frequency of one allele changing due to random chance. That is, nothing is selecting for pinkness. Maybe that unicorn just happened to have more offspring. Maybe the population underwent a bottleneck and was reduced to just a few unicorns, the pink one happened to survive, and now his pinkness will make up a larger percentage of the population. Maybe a couple of unicorns, including the pink one, happened to get isolated on one side of a river, so that side eventually had a lot of pink unicorns, while the other has a lot of white ones. Through random chance alone, a neutral mutation can grow to high frequency or even reach 100% (what biologists call “becoming fixed in a population.”)

When you get into the mathematics, you assume that random neutral mutations occur at the same rates across individuals. This is how biologists get things like “molecular clocks” where they can tell when two species diverged from each other.

…And I have no idea if that made any sense, but I’m out of time. You have all now been exposed to (a shoddy summary of) evolutionary theory, congratulations. If anyone would like to explain further or correct me in the comments, please do so!
This is post 20 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Why did we evolve to die?

Second donor question (might as well get them out of the way when I’m still awake!):

“I would like you to tackle the question of why there is death in terms of evolution.”

What a good question! I should preface this by saying this isn’t my particular field of research, so I don’t know any relevant studies to cite off the top of my head – but I’ll try to explain death in general evolutionary terms.

So, why do things die? At first glance, it seems counter intuitive. The whole driving force behind evolution is “survival of the fittest” – fittest being those who produce the most viable offspring. Wouldn’t it benefit an organism to live as long as possible, continuously producing more and more offspring?

The roadblock is that organisms are constrained by the laws of physics. When you boil it down to the basics, living things are just really complex molecular structures and chemical reactions. And it takes a lot of energy to keep the entropy or “disorder” of a system from increasing (which is a vast oversimplification of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I know – forgive me). That energy comes from things like the sun (woooo photosynthesis!) or metabolizing food (woooo citric acid cycle!).

Aging is basically the general decay of processes. As you build up more and more errors, things just don’t work as well. And there becomes a point where you make a trade off. Do you expend lots of energy to keep the old structure alive so you can inefficiently reproduce, or do you scrap it and focus on the newly made organisms?

Now, that’s a painfully anthropomorphic view of evolution, but it’s basically how it works. Keeping a decaying organism alive doesn’t significantly increase its fitness. In fact, it can even decrease its fitness! If you’re in an environment where resources are scarce (aka, pretty much every environment), you’re competing with your children for those resources. So resources you use to keep yourself alive could alternatively be going into making grandchildren for you. Sometimes it’s in your best evolutionary interest to die!

I think this can sometimes be an odd concept for humans to grasp, since we’ve recently been able to avoid nature’s typical limitations. Back in our savanna days, we’d usually get eaten or die of disease before aging took place. There was no evolutionary benefit to have mechanisms in place to stave off aging even longer when we’d usually die before getting to that point. Evolution doesn’t care if your joints start hurting or you don’t reproduce as well, because you wouldn’t have been around anyway!

And that’s what differentiates scientists from the rest of people. I find this absolutely fascinating, while I probably just depressed a lot of you by calling you decaying bags of molecules that nature doesn’t care about. Ah well.

This is post 7 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

My very own Creation Museum

Speaking of evolution denial in the Pacific Northwest, apparently someone thought I missed the creationist craziness from back home. They went and build me my very own creation museum, this time in Idaho! How…thoughtful.
What is the Northwest “Science” Museum?

What is the Vision?

The vision for this museum is to present a “Natural History” museum from a Biblical point of view. This museum would display similar exhibits to the well known natural history museums (i.e. Denver Museum of Nature and Science, American Museum of Natural History, Chicago Field Museum) but interpreted from a Biblical world view.

What is the purpose?

To lead people to a better understanding of God by viewing His creation. To show that creation science can explain the evidence we see in the world around us and that it is not just religion. The Museum is devoted to understanding and explaining origins, history and our present world as revealed by scientific discovery interpreted through the worldview of Biblical truth.

What is the Mission?

To share the everlasting gospel through God’s creation with people here in Treasure Valley, the entire Northwest, the entire United States, and regions beyond.

And of course, it has a fascination with dinosaurs:

Seriously, with all the dinosaur-loving creationists do, you’d think Jesus was martyred by velociraptor attack instead of a crucifix. Or was a velociraptor.

Honestly, it makes as much sense as what these “museums” are teaching.

(Via Friendly Atheist)

This is post 5 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

I’ve lost my appetite for Dick’s

Now that I have your attention…Dick’s Drive-In is a burger chain in Seattle. There’s one right by my house, and I was pestered incessantly to try it when I first moved here. I’m not sure what the fuss is about, because it’s woefully mediocre. I have a feeling it’s typical drunk food (in which case it would probably taste much better) or the product of years of childhood nostalgia. When I say I don’t really like Dick’s, Seattlites get kind of offended.

After they’re done giggling.

But now I have another reason to dislike Dick’s, not just because of their crummy cheeseburgers or stale fries or tiny (though undeniably delicious) milkshakes. James Spady, the owner of Dick’s, is also on the Board of Directors of the Discovery Institute, the Intelligent Design pedaling, evolution hating, intellectually dishonest shame of Seattle. Lovely.

Oh well. I didn’t need much more motivation other than taste to avoid Dick’s. Seriously, if I want cheap delicious food, why would I even walk past Rancho Bravos to get to Dick’s? Now I have even more motivation to stick to Mexican.

This is post 4 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Neanderthals and the beauty of science

A common creationist debating tactic is to sneer at science, saying something like “It changes all of the time! Scientists can never make up their mind, and often times they’re wrong! Why would you want to trust something that admits it could be wrong?”
And my response is usually to laugh, because that’s precisely what makes science so wonderful. We don’t stick with some dogmatic book even when faced with mountains of contrary evidence. We’re constantly trying to figure out where we’re wrong, so we inch closer and closer to an understanding of reality that’s based on…well, reality. Finding out we were wrong and correcting that mistake is the beauty of science.

I bring this up because a recent news story illustrates this perfectly to me. You may have seen the story circulating that non-African humans are part Neanderthal. Yes, some Neanderthals and Homo sapiens interbred back in the day!

At first I was a little confused, because I thought we had established this in May of 2010 when the Neanderthal genome paper by Svante Paabo’s group came out. But this new paper serves as a confirmation of that work, since it avoids one of the main criticisms of the study – that the human and Neanderthal DNA were cross contaminating each other. This new research only looked at human DNA, and compared it to the Neanderthal sequence. What they found was that about 9% of the X chromosome has a Neanderthal origin in non-African humans.

But if I go back to just April of 2010, everything was different. I was taking my 500 level Evolution class at Purdue, about to graduate. Our final project included downloading mitochondrial DNA sequences of humans, Neanderthals, and other apes to determine if humans and Neanderthals had interbred. From that data alone, the conclusion was an obvious “no.” And that’s what all prior knowledge had said up until that point.

I remember one of the last questions on the project being to explain how new information could potentially change this viewpoint. We needed the whole genome before we could definitively say Neanderthals and humans didn’t interbreed! Mitochondrial DNA is only a tiny part of the whole genome. We need more information because we’re so closely related. And what if only Neanderthal males were the ones mating with humans? Then no Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA would be passed on at all!

One year later, and my professor has to totally redo his lesson plans.

And that’s what makes science awesome.

This is post 3 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Attention Seattle science fans!

The Department of Genome Sciences at UW (aka, mine!) is starting its summer public lecture series, Wednesdays at the Genome. Tonight is the first talk on “Recent adventures in human evolution” by Dr. Josh Akey. I did one of my lab rotations with Josh, and I can assure you it’ll be an interesting, fun presentation. Here’s some more info:

The UW Department of Genome Sciences played an important role in determining the sequence of the 3 billion letters of DNA specifying all of our hereditary information and is now one of the leading centers where the human genome is being interpreted and where new technologies for this analysis are being developed.

To share these advances with the public the Department of Genome Sciences hosts a ‘Wednesday Evenings at the Genome’ public lecture series each summer. These exciting discussions assume no background knowledge in genetics or other biological subjects and provide opportunities to chat with our presenters.

Presentations begin at 7:00 pm in the W.H. Foege Building Auditorium (S060) and will be followed by refreshments at 8:00 pm just outside the auditorium.

ADMISSION is free and the public is especially encouraged to attend!


• July 13 – Mike Bamshad – Confessions of the genome: solving rare disease mysteries

• July 20 – Elhanan Borenstein – Meet your tenants: A genomic tour of your inner microbial zoo

• July 27 – Harmit Malik – Paleovirology: ghosts and gifts from ancient infections

Hope you enjoy it!

Miss USA contestants on evolution

Beauty pageants, along with Hooters restaurants, are on my list of Things I Wish Would Drop Off The Face of the Planet. They desperately attempt to market themselves as something more than a superficial patriarchython by including a talent portion (“Look, I can play the piano mediocrely!) and an interview on a hot button issue. But listen to how the contestants answer “Should evolution be taught in schools” and you’ll see education and intelligence is not how you become a state representative (if you can stomach the whole video):

The thing that kills me is how many people think evolution should be taught just because people need to be exposed to different opinions. No, it should be taught because it is true. Graabbaelaelkeellele!!!

The upside to all of this? One of the few very-pro evolution contestants was the winner, with this response:

I was taught evolution in high school. I do believe in it. I’m a huge science geek. […] I like to believe in the big bang theory and, you know, the evolution of humans throughout time.

Maybe there’s some hope after all. Though I don’t blame these women in particular. The US is woefully uneducated when it comes to evolution – they’re just a product of our culture and terrible science standards.

EDIT: Miss Vermont wins at everything (13:00 in):

“I think evolution should be taught in schools because not everybody necessarily has the same religious background, and it’s important to have scientific facts about the world. And we do know that evolution exists, even on a small scale like with people, and with bacteria that are becoming resistant to drugs and what not. So, might as well learn about it.”


Happy Valentine’s Day!

Here’s a photo of me and my date:We met at the Seattle Atheists’ Darwin Day celebration! Once I laid eyes on him, I knew I had to make him mine. Thankfully he only cost a dollar.

Don’t judge.

Anyway, the event was really fun. About 150 people showed up to partake in the cake, games, and other various festivities. I ended up randomly being on the panel because they were one person short and needed an evolutionary biologist who has opinions about the “evolution wars.” I may have an opinion or ten million in that area. It was fun.

But if you’ll excuse me, I have some noodly appendages to go spend quality time with.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Here’s a photo of me and my date:We met at the Seattle Atheists’ Darwin Day celebration! Once I laid eyes on him, I knew I had to make him mine. Thankfully he only cost a dollar.

Don’t judge.

Anyway, the event was really fun. About 150 people showed up to partake in the cake, games, and other various festivities. I ended up randomly being on the panel because they were one person short and needed an evolutionary biologist who has opinions about the “evolution wars.” I may have an opinion or ten million in that area. It was fun.

But if you’ll excuse me, I have some noodly appendages to go spend quality time with.