Eldredge on Darwin

Niles Eldredge has a fine essay online on what it means to be a Darwinist (not the term as caricatured by creationists, but merely as someone who respects the work of Darwin while acknowledging the vast increase in understanding evolution since his time). It’s also useful for explaining how creationists distort the concept of punctuated equilibrium.

The creationists of the day got into the act as well. In a clear demonstration of how thoroughly political the creationist movement has always been in the United States, Ronald Reagan told reporters, after addressing a throng of Christian ministers during the 1980 presidential campaign, that evolution “is a theory, a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science and is not yet believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was believed.” The creationist who managed to get to Reagan’s handlers later bragged to me that those scientists in question were none other than Gould and me. The syllogism ran something like this: (1) Darwin said that evolution is slow, steady, and gradual; (2) some scientists say that evolution consists of rapid bursts of change interrupting vastly longer periods of evolutionary stagnation; ergo, (3) some scientists don’t follow Darwin, meaning (4) some scientists oppose evolution. Then, as now, at least in the public domain, “Darwin” is code for “evolution.” The two are virtual synonyms.

Ain’t that the truth. Darwin is not synonymous with evolution, however, which is why I reject the term “Darwinist” myself. But even so, I’m with Eldredge on this matter: Darwin was an excellent writer and scientist, and his work was the foundation for modern biology.

But I never thought the fact that Darwin—from where I stand as a paleontologist—got some of his story wrong somehow made me an anti-Darwinian. For I have admired the man ever since I took my paperback copy of the sixth edition of On the Origin of Species to read while waiting for Louis Leakey to show up and give a lecture on human evolution on the Columbia campus. I had arrived early to get a good seat, and Louis was late—so I got my first real chance to sample Darwin’s prose. I was fearful of the complexity of the great man’s mind, and of the alien nature of his Victorian prose. But I needn’t have worried, for Darwin proved accessible to the readers of his day—even lay readers—and he remains so today.

Self-loathing Coulter

I’ve been hearing about the usual despicable performances of Republicans at CPAC, and in particular the heinous stylings of Ann Coulter, and I have to ‘fess up to considerable outrage fatigue. Then I learned that she was picking on me.

That said, she [Ann Coulter] did not disappoint her fans, coming to the stage under the thumping dance house beats to deliver a string of punch lines. Democrats: “Someday they will find a way to abort all future Boy Scouts.” College professors: “sissified, pussified.” Harvard: “the Soviet Union.” John Kerry: the other “dominant woman in Democratic politics.” Her post-9/11 motto: “Rag head talks tough, rag head faces consequences.” For good measure, she threw in a joke about having Muslims burn down the Supreme Court—with the liberal justices inside.

That’s all extraordinarily vile, but college professors? “Sissified,” of course, is derived from “sister” and means “Of, relating to, or having the characteristics of a sissy; timid, cowardly, or effeminate”. “Pussified” is referring to the female genitalia. She’s trying to insult college professors and Democrats by calling them a bunch of females, but her terms are attempts to insult women.

I don’t get it. Isn’t there a rumor going around that Coulter is actually a woman herself?

P.S. I just had a horrible thought, an idea that would give the Republicans a lock on their base forevermore. If I didn’t know that no right-wingers ever read this site, I wouldn’t even mention it.

CPAC should have Armstrong Williams and LaShawn Barber up on the podium, denouncing the Democrats as a bunch of shiftless Negroes. Oh, how the crowd would roar and eat it up.

Young Darwin

On this fine Darwin Day, I thought I’d just include an excerpt from Janet Browne’s excellent biography of the man, Voyaging(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It does a fine job of telling us a little bit about the human being behind the famous and infamous scientist.

Charles Robert Darwin was born on 12 February 1809, the fifth child of Susanna and Robert Waring Darwin of The Mount, a large Georgian house overlooking the bend in the river with gardens running down to water meadows and the town beyond. In one of those odd coincidences of history, Abraham Lincoln was born on the same day; Tennyson and Gladstone were born a few months later. His father was a prosperous physician, one of three practicing in Shrewsbury, his mother a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of the china company and an influential Staffordshire entrepreneur. They called their infant son “Bobby.”

Into this affluent, forward looking household came Charles Darwin, a dreamy, grey-eyed, thickset child, intent on his own thoughts behind a shock of brown hair, but warm-hearted and loving for all that. He was not good-looking in the conventional sense, for the square boyish face was blighted by a nose inherited from the doctot, almost too adult—”like a farmer,” someone said—for a young boy. Darwin did not grow into his nose until he was much older and was always slightly embarrassed about it, his later jokes revealing a shaky self-image and a lack of confidence in the outer man that made his manners particularly retiring. It was a nose “as big as your fist,” he plaintively wrote to a schoolfriend. Few portraits show him in profile for that reason.

Like his father, and Grandfather Darwin as well, he tended to stammer, having special difficulties with the letter w. There was a prize of sixpence waiting for the day he could manage to say “white wine”: an odd requirement in a teetotal household.

Charles and his son William in 1842

He was so quiet that relatives found it difficult to say anything about his character beyond an appreciative nod towards an exceedingly placid temperament. To them he was a self-sufficient younger, content to wander the country paths around Shrewsbury searching for birds, watching a fishing float for hours from the banks of the Severn, or trailing helpfully after Abberley, the elderly gardner at The Mount, in his well-regulated cycle of horticultural duties.

Both the boy and his childhood appear to have been unremarkable, a point often commented on by friends and relations after he became famous. William Allport Leighton, an early schoolfriend, thought the nine-year-old Darwin entirely ordinary: no obvious candidate for subsequent achievement.

In figure he was bulky and heavy-looking, and did not then manifest any particular powers of mind. He was reserved in manner, & we thought him proud inasmuch as he did not join in any play with the other boys but went directly home from school…. Though reserved in manner he was of a kindly disposition & seemed pleased to do little acts to gratify his fellows—one instance of which was bringing plants from his father’s garden for our little gardens.

Olduvai George has another portrait of young Mr Darwin.

Prairie Home Companion at Morris

So did everyone tune in?

It was a middling show. He said good things about UMM and well, honest things about Morris, so I’m not going to complain about that.

As usual, the gospel music gives me the heebie-jeebies, but I just content myself with the knowledge that I was listening to a pleasant shadow of the richness the composers and musicians would have produced, if only their talent hadn’t been tainted with the rot of religiosity.

I sat next to Skatje, who looked weary with the burden of accompanying a pair of old fogeys to listen to some other old fogies act out skits and music that were even more fogeyish. Ah, the burden of being a teenager…

I’m sure Ken Ham is sincere in his faith…

…and that’s exactly why he is a slimy ass-pimple, a child-abusing freak.

Evangelist Ken Ham smiled at the 2,300 elementary students packed into pews, their faces rapt. With dinosaur puppets and silly cartoons, he was training them to reject much of geology, paleontology and evolutionary biology as a sinister tangle of lies.

“Boys and girls,” Ham said. If a teacher so much as mentions evolution, or the Big Bang, or an era when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, “you put your hand up and you say, ‘Excuse me, were you there?’ Can you remember that?”

2300 children. 2300 young minds poisoned. Nothing new, I know, and I should just get used to it.

But I can’t.

And here’s how Ken Ham gets away with spreading anti-intellectual idiocy.

The children roared their assent.

“Sometimes people will answer, ‘No, but you weren’t there either,’ ” Ham told them. “Then you say, ‘No, I wasn’t, but I know someone who was, and I have his book about the history of the world.’ ” He waved his Bible in the air.

“Who’s the only one who’s always been there?” Ham asked.

“God!” the boys and girls shouted.

“Who’s the only one who knows everything?”


“So who should you always trust, God or the scientists?”

The children answered with a thundering: “God!”

“God.” Once again, I’m going to give good, liberal progressive Christians the vapors and point out that there is the destroyer, the idea that ruins young minds and corrupts education: god. Ham has god on the brain, and he exploits other people who have god on the brain to give him millions of dollars so he can run around the country and put god on the brain of the next generation.

I know. Many of you support science, and you carefully set aside your religious biases when assessing ideas about the world—you’ve managed to find means to cope with this infectious lie. That doesn’t change the ugly fact that it is a lie, a crippling corruption, and that many people don’t even try to sequester their superstitions and cultivate their rational side.

When I hear Christians make excuses for their religion, it’s like hearing smallpox survivors praising their scars. “It didn’t kill me, and these poxy marks add character to my face! Those deadly cases have nothing to do with my own delightful disease.”

So we do nothing. We let the infection simmer along, encouraging our children to get exposed to it, praising it, howling in anger at those who dare to say the obvious and point out that it’s a poison, a mind-killer, vacuous noise and evil nonsense. We let the absurdity flourish.

We know exactly where the vileness grows, in the cesspool of religion, yet we veer away from confronting the source, draining the contagion, eliminating the vector of ignorance.

We encourage it to thrive and it leads to well-meaning parents pressuring their impressionable kids into gulping down the ignorance-laced koolaid.

Emily Maynard, 12, was also delighted with Ham’s presentation. Home-schooled and voraciously curious, she had recently read an encyclopedia for fun — and caught herself almost believing the entry on evolution. “They were explaining about apes standing up, evolving to man, and I could kind of see that’s how it could happen,” she said.

Ham convinced her otherwise. As her mother beamed, Emily repeated Ham’s mantra: “The Bible is the history book of the universe.”

I’m so sorry, Emily.

Ben Watson wasn’t quite as confident. His father, a pastor in Staten Island, N.Y., had let him skip a day of second grade to attend. Ben went to public school, the Rev. Dave Watson explained, “and I thought it would be good for him to get a different perspective” for an upcoming project on Tyrannosaurus rex.

“You going to put in your report that dinosaurs are millions of years old?” Watson, 46, asked his son.

“No…. ” Ben said. He hesitated. “But that’s what my book says…. “

“It’s a lot to think about,” his dad reassured him. “We’ll do more research.”

I’m sorry, Ben.

We let you all down.

My Friday with Darwin

OK, people, this is too cruel. I was gone all day yesterday, traveling to the Twin Cities for this Darwin Day event, and the site gets 37,000 visits. Are you all trying to tell me it’s better when I’m not around to clutter it up? If I take off for a week will traffic climb to Daily Kos-like proportions? (There was a link from fark that might actually explain the sudden surge.)

Anyway, I’ll give a quick summary of what I was up to yesterday.

I started with a 3 hour drive to Minneapolis, which was very exciting. High winds, blowing snow, near whiteout conditions. The weather was bad enough that they canceled public schools in the area.

When I got there, we set up in the Bell Museum auditorium. We had about 50 or 60 people show up.

The first talk was by Mark Borrello, a historian of biology, who gave a very good overview of Darwin’s life.

I’ve put a copy of my talk online (pardon the bloated format: blame Microsoft). Since I don’t use much text in my powerpoint presentations, I’ll give a rough overview of the content here. In my introduction, I pointed out a creationist accusation—that we’re “Darwinian fundamentalists” or “Darwinists”—and a claim—that there is no evidence for evolution. The point of my talk was to show that, much as we respect and admire Darwin as a founding father of an important scientific discipline, his theory has been expanded upon in ways he couldn’t even imagine, and that the addition of new information is an ongoing pursuit. There are major themes in evolutionary research—genetics, molecular biology, bioinformatics, genomics, evo-devo—that simply weren’t even on the horizon in Darwin’s day.

I gave a lightning quick, superficial overview of examples of new developments in evolution.

  • New fossils, new transitional forms in whale and human evolution.
  • Fry et al.‘s work on venom evolution as an example of integrating molecular systematics, analysis of gene expression, and morphology to produce 3 overlapping lines of evidence that support an evolutionary story.
  • Suzuki and Nijhout’s work on laboratory selection in Manduca as an example of observed evolution.
  • Okabe and Graham’s study of parathyroid origins: combining the use of molecular markers and comparative embryology to demonstrate homology of an organ system.
  • Resolving core differences in the body plans of arthropods and chordates, and showing common descent by the shared patterns of Hox gene expression.

My conclusion was to show a pretty squid picture as an example of exotic beauty in nature, and explain that evolution is currently the only explanation that simultaneously explains the diversity and unity of life, and that it is the only explanation we have that is soundly based on the evidence.

The session closed with very short overviews of current research by three biologists in the ecology and evolutionary biology department: R. Ford Denison, Peter Tiffin, and Cynthia Weinig. They were very good, but I think the format was a bit much—after over two hours of talks, it was probably a mistake to put the most technically challenging talks at the very end, when the audience was exhausted.

Finally, I had a short planning discussion about Cafe Scientifique with the Bell Museum organizer, got in my car, cussed out rush hour traffic, got to western Minnesota to discover the roads were still invisible with blowing snow, and got home after a few exciting slides and twirls on powder-covered streets.

Today I’m planning to take it easy, read a bit, and attend the Prairie Home Companion show which will be broadcast live from UMM. You can find out more on the Prairie Home page, listen to it on your local station, and if you’ve got the real audio player, you can listen to it live between 5 and 7 pm Central time today. I doubt very much that he’ll say anything about evolutionary biology or science, but he may poke fun at my university, which is always entertaining.