Pandas and Man at Harvard

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During a break in the Dover Trial, I traveled to historic Cambridge, MA to attend the Fifteenth 1st annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. Visiting Cambridge allowed me to visit several friends at Harvard University, where the Ig Nobels were held. Over the years, Harvard has attracted many famous evolutionary biologists, but also many creationists. Not counting its pilgrim founders, who had no knowledge of the modern scientific method (“methodological naturalism,” as my creationist friends call it nowadays) developed in the 17th century after the puritans fled England, Harvard has been home to a few influential creationists, from Louis Agassiz in the 19th century to modern day Intelligent Design creationists. I had a chance to visit them both on this trip, and you’re welcome to join me on my travels.

Prof. Steve Steve with John Harvard Like many of my countrymen, all trips to Harvard’s campus begin with a “pilgrimage” to John Harvard’s statue. That’s me, but that isn’t John Harvard—there aren’t any extant drawings or paintings of the eponymous Reverend Harvard, so the sculptor Daniel Chester French used as his model a handsome member of the class of 1876. If his pose looks familiar, that because French used the mirror image for his sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial.

Prof. Steve Steve at the Harvard Museum of Natural History

Next stop: the Harvard Museum of Natural History/Museum of Comparative Zoology, my favorites! Not only is this a great museum for kids and adults, it’s actually a working research museum too, providing scholars immediate access to an immense collection of the world’s biodiversity.

The world famous Glass Flowers are also exhibited at the HMNH. These entirely glass creations by the father and son team Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka are startlingly lifelike. Nevertheless, I personally lost interest when I discovered that they did not make any glass bamboo.

Prof. Steve Steve with Prof. James Hanken

James Hanken, director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and Elisabeth Werby, executive director of the HMNH, were very kind to escort me through their wonderful exhibits. Here is Professor Hanken with me and a specimen collected by the MCZ’s founder and first director, Louis Agassiz, in 1865. The jar contains a preserved Pterophyllum scalare (freshwater angelfish) from the Amazon, and the watercolor artwork in the background is by Agassiz’s illustrator Jacques Burkhardt. Other fascinating and priceless museum gems are highlighted in the book The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Prof. Steve Steve in the jaws of a Kronosaurus

The MCZ’s fossil exhibits are unique in their diversity and scale. They seem to have as wide a range of fossil specimens as they do living species. Here I am in the jaws of a Kronosaurus queenslandicus, which lived during the Cretaceous 135 million years ago. Only the skull is visible here—this complete specimen spans the entire room!

Prof. Steve Steve with Huxley's skeleton group

Just two years after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, “Darwin’s bulldog” T.H. Huxley initiated a controversial debate on human evolution by staking a position on the overwhelming similarities between man and apes. Today, 144 years later, Huxley’s arguments about the common ancestry of apes and humans have been confirmed by the discovery of numerous hominid fossils on several continents, and the recent sequencing of the chimpanzee genome. DNA analysis shows that human beings share about 96% of their genome with chimpanzees, the closest living species to humans. Here I am next to an exhibit of “Huxley’s skeleton group” illustrating the structural similarities between modern humans and apes that motivated Huxley.

Prof. Steve Steve with Equus

An incorrect claim frequently made by creationists is that there aren’t transitional fossils predicted by evolution [see Creationist Claim CC200]. Au contraire! I’m standing next to a beautiful transitional sequence of horse fossils that neatly disprove this false assertion. The large horse behind me is a 3 million year old Equus simplicidens from the Pliocene, which is very similar to the modern horse. To the left is a smaller horse, a 17 million year old Parahippus from the Miocene, and to the far left is an even smaller horse, a 30 million year old Mesohippus from the Oligocene. I’m sorry that poor Mesohippus is cut off—these displays are so large that it’s difficult to capture it all. You must visit to see this sequence of transitional fossils for yourselves.

Prof. Steve Steve in the MCZ Mayr Library

This is a portrait of the great evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr hanging in the MCZ’s Mayr Library. Mayr’s long career included both brilliant field work and theoretical studies of evolution. I highly recommend his popular book What Evolution Is, published in 2001 four years before he died at the age of 100. Another incorrect claim frequently made by creationists is that the eye is “too complex” to have evolved (see Creationist Claim CB301). Mayr directly addresses this invalid criticism (as well as a host of others) in this book:

Photosensitive, eyelike organs have developed in the animal series independently at least 40 times, and all the steps from a light-sensitive to the elaborate eyes of vertebrates, cephalopods, and insects are still found in the living species of various taxa (Fig. 10.2). They include intermediate stages and refute the claim that the gradual evolution of a complex eye is unthinkable (Salvini and Mayr 1977).

Prof. Steve Steve with Louis Agassiz

The great naturalist Louis Agassiz made his scientific career by advancing the once controversial hypothesis that a great “ice age” occurred in the past. That’s why the glacially-sculpted Matterhorn from his native Switzerland appears in this youthful portrait of him, which also hangs in the MCZ’s Mayr Library. Agassiz was a strong-willed visionary who established in 1859 with public money the very same Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, intending to “demonstrate God’s master plan for the animals, emphasizing the individual creation of every single species.” That’s right, in 1859, the same year Darwin published his Origin, and as the 1860s wore on and Darwin’s theory of evolution came to be accepted by most scientists, Agassiz, who never gave up his creationism, insisting that species do not change over time, became isolated from the scientific community for his discredited views. Illustrating the antiquated history of Intelligent Design creationism in America, in 1868 Agassiz reported to the Massachusetts legislature that

the great object of our museums should be to exhibit the whole animal kingdom as a manifestation of the Supreme Intellect.

Prof. Steve Steve with S. J. Gould's collections

[Prof. Steve Steve with S. J. Gould's collections

[Prof. Steve Steve with S. J. Gould's collections

The MCZ’s basement is filled with carefully archived specimens from throughout the world. Field collections from the eminent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould fill many large high-tech storage containers. As you may know, the NCSE’s “Project Steve” is named in his honor, not mine! People sometimes confuse that because coincidentally my first and last names are Steve too.

A zoologist friend once told me that to be happy, one should study a warm water animal. Steve appeared to have a version of this philosophy himself: these are clam fossils he collected from caves in Bermuda and Aruba. Those field notes are in his handwriting.

Prof. Steve Steve with Steven Pinker

Prof. Steve Steve and Pinker cheering on the Red Sox

I sure build up a thirst after an afternoon at the museum! I head over to John Harvard’s Brew House to have a drink with more “Project Steve” Steves, Steven Pinker and Steven Thomas Smith. Pinker is the renowned evolutionary psychologist, who is also a member of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists, which I found somewhat curious because he is in fact mostly hairless. Smith is a signal processing engineer who stumbled upon Intelligent Design creationism when a Google search uncovered information theory being hilariously misrepresented in the magazine First Things.

Did I mention that I’m a huge Sox fan? As we discussed events at the recent ID trial in Dover, PA and goings on at Harvard’s campus, we also cheered on my favorite baseball team’s playoff bid. Unfortunately, the dynasty must wait until next year.

Prof. Steve Steve at the Ig Nobel Prizes

Next evening, the Ig Nobel prizes, which every year “honor” outstanding accomplishments that cannot or should not be reproduced. In 1999 the Kansas School Board received an Ig Nobel prize in Science Education

for mandating that children should not believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution any more than they believe in Newton’s theory of gravitation, Faraday’s and Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism, or Pasteur’s theory that germs cause disease.

Though scientific facts like evolution and religious faith are not necessarily incompatible, science does discredit some religious beliefs, like creationism, and supports others like the essential equality of all human beings, as well as “the discovery that black holes fulfill all the technical requirements to be the location of hell,” as recognized by the 2001 Ig Nobel prize in astrophysics.

My favorite occurrence this year wasn’t a prize, it was the fact that Harvard professor Roy Glauber, the Ig Nobel’s official stage sweeper (much paper debris must be removed throughout the event) could not fulfill his sweeping duties this year because he was in Sweden accepting his own Nobel Prize in physics this year. Really.

Prof. Steve Steve with Robert Wilson

In addition to sweepers, the Ig Nobel ceremony includes many real Nobel laureates as “authority figures” and dignitaries, including Robert Wilson, the co-discoverer of the Big Bang’s cosmic microwave radiation, for which he received his Nobel Prize in Physics (1978). I’m shown standing here with Professor Wilson, who wishes me good luck ridiculing the Intelligent Design creationists. Amazingly, many creationists also deny the Big Bang. Now admittedly evolution is perhaps more difficult to visualize, occurring as it does over large populations and long time scales, but you can look at a picture of the Big Bang, taken by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe in 2003.

Prof. Steve Steve at Quincy House

One last stop before I must depart. In his book The Republican War on Science, Chris Mooney reveals that George Gilder ‘61/62 and Bruce K. Chapman ‘62 of the Discovery Institute had been roommates at Harvard College. A few years after they graduated, they published the prescient book of political analysis The Party That Lost Its Head, wherein they warn:

In recent years, the Republicans as a party have been alienating intellectuals deliberately, as a matter of taste and strategy.

I’m visiting the Quincy House yard where Gilder and Chapman resided together as undergraduates before they fell victim to the very warning they delivered almost 40 years ago. I’d like to thank Quincy House residents Tom Wooten ‘08 and Zach Widbin ‘08 for helping me hold up these weighty tomes, which are much too heavy for my feeble thumbs. Pondering the example of their forebears Gilder and Chapman, who knows what addle-headed nonsense these two bright sophomores will burden our country with when they make their own way in the world?

Harvard Medical School Postcard

I’m off! Next time I return, I hope to explore the compelling evidence for ID at Harvard Medical School’s Warren Anatomical Museum. Until then, you may examine this intelligently designed hand from their extraordinarily unique collection.

20 Comments

Is it just me or has the good professor grown in size, well that’s what you get for drinking at too many pubs!

What an excellent report!

Harvard?! Pshaw. I though Prof. Steve Steve had better taste than that.

A little question. Does Owen Gingrich from Harvard qualify as a creationist or not? He is a devout Christian of an evangelical sort.

Is he a creationist and of what sort?

What about Asa Gray and his friend Dana from Yale?

Also this summer I showed evol biologists from Harvard round N Wales to see where Darwin went to do his geology with the rev Adam Sedgwick, an evangelical Anglican clergyman and prof of geology at the real Cambridge and the one who did so much to sort out the whole of the Lower Palaeozoic. I am afraid I have the same three letter prefix as Sedgwick and have similar beliefs to Gingerich. Am I a creationist even though Answers in Genesis say I am not!

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My Beloved and Darling wife, Daughter #1, and I were visiting some of the museums last August. (Daughter #1 is an art historian, so we had to go to those museums first.) I wasn’t able to arrange a visit to the Ernst Mayr Library, but I at least got my photo taken next to the sign.

I’m terribly envious of Prof. Steve Steve.

fusilier James 2:24

Re “As you may know, the NCSE’s “Project Steve” is named in his honor, not mine! People sometimes confuse that because coincidentally my first and last names are Steve too.”

Coincidence? Why do I have a strong suspicion that Prof. Steve Steve’s name might have been intelligently designed?

(Heh heh.)

Henry

certainly Louis Aggasiz was a creationist and one of Darwins most vocal opponents (along with Richard Owen and Lord Kelvin). If I’m not mistaken Aggasiz tried to recreate Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos to prove him wrong. Evidently nothing came of that voyage publication-wise and Aggasiz died soon thereafter. Speaking of Darwin in the Galapagos an article was published in the October issue of Diversion Magazine (www.diversion.com) about Harriet one of the 3 galapagos tortoises collected by Darwin and brought back to England and given to his friend John Wickham who retired from the navy and moved to Brisbane bringing them with him. Harriet had several homes in Australia including Steve Irwin’s parents reptile park. She just celebrated her (estimated) 175th birthday at the Australia Zoo. I hate to think what prof. Steve Steve will look like at age 175. TPFD.

When you return to the Medical Museum I have to recommend the exhibit devoted to the skull of Phineas Gage and the 3 foot railroad spike which passed through it. The experience made Gage very irritable and profane during the remaining years of his life.

This has nothing to do with evolution. But very interesting just the same!

the pro from dover Wrote:

If I’m not mistaken Aggasiz tried to recreate Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos to prove him wrong. Evidently nothing came of that voyage publication-wise and Aggasiz died soon thereafter.

Yes; Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay about Agassiz’s trip, Agassiz in the Galapagos, which appears in his book Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes.

Though the mother panda Mei Xiang is a special friend of mine, I would like to assure readers of this blog that 235 days ago I was immersed in my research.

But Prof. Steve Steve, aren’t you an expert on Panda fertility?

It’s probly all that bamboo in his diet…

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When you return to the Medical Museum I have to recommend the exhibit devoted to the skull of Phineas Gage and the 3 foot railroad spike which passed through it. The experience made Gage very irritable and profane during the remaining years of his life.

Well, who the hell can blame him? If *I* had an iron bar through *my* head, I think it would make *me* pretty damn irate, too. ;>

I’ve graduated mathematics in Serbia and would like to be Steve Steve’s ( how many persons are you really? Is some case of split - personality involved with this name? ;) ) PhD student in Psychology, particularly interested in research of baby panda’s behavior after the “no bamboo in museum” trauma!

Amazing marine pictures! You got the eye and apparently the brain too! Keep up the diversity!

Nice journey your brother actually took a vacation to Florida and Disney world a few years ago. As a fellow panda he learned much and was so happy to read the details of your journey.

I´m crazy about this Panda..OMG he actually got wasted with The Steven Pinker..OMG OMG!!!I envy u so much!!! :P

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This page contains a single entry by Prof. Steve Steve published on October 13, 2005 12:18 AM.

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