“Understanding Evolution” Website

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A week or so ago, I spent a fascinating weekend attending the 2007 Symposium, “Inscribed in Stone: Evolution and the Fossil Record,” of the Western Interior Paleontological Society [1]. At the keynote address by Donald Prothero of Occidental College, I learned that stasis was more important than I had thought, at least according to paleontologists, and that there was somewhat more friction between paleontologists and evolutionary biologists than I had realized. The next few talks were tutorial, as was Professor Prothero’s, and, I thought, fascinating. Not surprisingly, by Saturday afternoon, the talks became far too narrow for a nonpaleontologist, so I lay low for a while and waited for Judy Scotchmoor’s workshop on “Teaching Evolution” Sunday morning at what seemed like the crack of dawn.

Ms. Scotchmoor is Assistant Director for Education and Public Outreach of the University of California Museum of Paleontology, and she did not disappoint. She began the workshop by dividing the 20 or so participants into teams of three and four, and distributed envelopes containing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Eventually, she let us know that each team had a sample from the same puzzle, but with the edge pieces removed. Our job was to reveal a few pieces at a time and figure out what the puzzle represented. The problem was worse than the blind men and the elephant – each blind man had a single clue, whereas we had a bunch of contradictory clues. Still, as a class, we deduced meaningful statements about the puzzle. The lesson was obvious, and, if this is what paleontologists go through, I for one will admit that paleontology is harder than physics.

Our second assignment was to use three differently sized clips to simulate birds’ beaks, grab some “food” from the floor, and “eat” it by depositing it into a plastic cup. We were two populations, one in a moist climate, and one in a dry, and the food came in three grain sizes, each of which had a different caloric value. By a scoring system that is too complicated to describe here, we decided which birds survived, which reproduced, and which did not survive. After four generations, the gene frequencies between the two populations differed markedly. I heard through the grapevine that one of the birds in the other climate zone had become very aggressive as his food supply dwindled.

Ms. Scotchmoor also led us through what amounted to a cladogram to discern whether a tyrannosaurus is more closely related to a caiman or a parrot. I think you know the answer.

Finally, and my real purpose in writing, Ms. Scotchmoor allowed us to become teachers and introduced us to the Web site, “Understanding Evolution,” and its companion, “Understanding Evolution for Teachers” [2]. This newly revised site is slick, in the laudatory sense of the word, and easy to navigate. For example, the home page lists four links – What is evolution and how does it work? How does evolution impact my life? What is the evidence for evolution? What is the history of evolutionary theory? – as well as a feature on HIV and a link to the teachers’ pages. The four links direct you to a number of Web pages, some off-site.

I followed the link to the teachers’ pages and found tutorials, “explore further” buttons, and lesson plans, including the two that Ms. Scotchmoor had inflicted on us earlier in the morning. The tutorials seemed clear and concise, with splendid color diagrams and drawings.

I am supposed to know something about science and the scientific method, so I ran through the tutorial, “Nature of Science.” You could quibble with some of it; for example, the statement that science is easy to distinguish from nonscience dismisses a whole branch of philosophy of science – and that is the first sentence. But I thought the tutorial did a good job of explaining that science relies on evidence, and an explanation that is not supported by replicable evidence is rejected. (Full disclosure: A philosopher once accused me of being a naïve falsificationist.) There are a few other oversimplifications, such as the claim that scientists do not vote and conclusions are accepted based on evidence, but we have to remember that the lessons are for high-school students, and the tutorials get the gist of the scientific method well. Ms. Scotchmoor outlined upcoming changes to the nature-of-science section and showed us a complicated flow chart to replace the timeworn “hypothesis, experiment or observation, conclusion” method, a method that the Web site notes is an oversimplification anyway.

My favorite of the Lepidoptera is the peppered moth, not that I have ever knowingly seen one, so I searched for “moth” [3]. I was disappointed to see that the authors had fallen for a creationist distortion and thought that the original experiments were somehow flawed because the moths in certain textbook photos had been glued to trees; that’s a little like saying that Cromwell should not have sat still for his famous portrait. A link to Ken Miller’s Web page only partly undoes the damage caused by this distortion [4].

But these are quibbles. The site was a lot of fun to navigate, and I am sure it will be very useful to teachers at all levels.

References.

1.”Inscribed in Stone: Evolution and the Fossil Record,” 2007 Symposium of Western Interior Paleontological Society, Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colo., March 3-4, 2007, http://www.wipsppc.com/symposium-2.html, last accessed March 12, 2007.

2.”Understanding Evolution,” http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/home.php, last accessed March 12, 2007.

3.Matt Young and Ian Musgrave, “Moonshine: Why the Peppered Moth Remains an Icon of Evolution,” Skeptical Inquirer, March-April, 2005, pp. 23-28; available in draft form at http://www.talkdesign.org/faqs/moonshine.htm.

4.Ken Miller, “The Peppered Moth – An Update,” http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/e[…]s/moths.html, written August, 1999, last accessed March 13, 2007.

24 Comments

Sounds really neat. And is so better than reading all the DI/ID garbage…

Last year I did a two-evening course on Evolution for the Layperson at a church in Kansas City, and I used the Evolution 101 website extensively. If anyone is interested, see http://www.kcfs.org/kcfsnews/?page_id=70

I’m going to point out that when paleontologists are talking about “stasis” sensu punkeq, they mean that a fossil species fluctuates within some range of phenotypic variation.

The species isn’t static, the variation of the species is.

Sounds great. I’m glad to see that there are more initiatives taken place as far as communicating science. I took a course in communicating marine science last year and it was pretty interesting (lots of hands-on activities to help teach concepts), although interestingly enough I wasn’t allowed to teach evolution to 5th graders because the principal of the school I was student teaching at didn’t want irate phone calls from offended parents.

My favorite of the Lepidoptera is the peppered moth, not that I have ever knowingly seen one, so I searched for “moth” [3]. I was disappointed to see that the authors had fallen for a creationist distortion and thought that the original experiments were somehow flawed because the moths in certain textbook photos had been glued to trees; that’s a little like saying that Cromwell should not have sat still for his famous portrait. A link to Ken Miller’s Web page only partly undoes the damage caused by this distortion [4].

That’s dim, but it illustrates Rule One: Never ever take a creationist’s word for anything.

Light and dark moths were placed on first a polluted tree then a normal tree to show that just one moth was clearly visible on each tree. As they don’t fly in the day time, whether those moths were glued or not is immaterial. In Kettlewell’s research, no moths were glued. Further: gluing the moths in place is probably a better experimental design anyway, and was done by subsequent researchers - who also found evidence of selective predation.

Reed

“I’m going to point out that when paleontologists are talking about “stasis” sensu punkeq, they mean that a fossil species fluctuates within some range of phenotypic variation.”

Are these genetic changes or purely plastic?

I know this is off topic but is someone going to make an entry about the Yanoconodon fossil recently discovered in China? This fossil confirms evolutionary predictions about the developement of the mammalian middle ear.

You can read about it here. http://www.physorg.com/news93110526.html

The peppered moth “glue” argument has got to be the dumbest argument the creationists trot out, and that’s a tough title to hold. I’ll never forget the first time I had one of them toss that at me. It was my first “Dawkins” moment, as my stunned silence trying to figure out WTF gluing moths to a tree for an illustration had to do with anything was misinterpreted as defeat in the face of an awesome argument. I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around exactly what they think they are proving with this.

If The Glued Moth ™ objection illustrates anything, it is that creationists will grasp anything, tout anything, that promises to overturn evolution, no matter how obviously stupid or evidence-free it is.

I am very sorry, but I forgot to note that the “Teaching Evolution” Web site was developed in conjunction with the National Center for Science Education, which was duly credited in Ms. Scotchmoor’s abstract.

Are these genetic changes or purely plastic?

Well you don’t really know with fossil species, but both genotype and environment contribute to phenotype variation.

Well you don’t really know with fossil species, but both genotype and environment contribute to phenotype variation.

… and we can often make reasonable inferences based on analysis of currently observed traits, in many instances, that would give us a better idea of the strength of the genetic component to a given observed trait in fossils.

I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around exactly what they think they are proving with this.

The logic is that the peppered moth is the only established example of macroevolution, but “it was a hoax”, so macroevolution isn’t established. This shows that evilutionists are hucksters and you can’t believe anything they say – like that the peppered moth isn’t the only established example of “macroevolution” (it isn’t an example at all, since the dark and light moths are the same species), that the experiment wasn’t a hoax, that, even it was, that would have no bearing on the observable fact of evolution through natural selection in the peppered moth, and that numerous other experiments have been done confirming and expanding the original findings.

WTF gluing moths to a tree for an illustration had to do with anything

Moths were attached to trees both for illustration and because that was often the only practical way to observe predation. Most creationists who believe it was a hoax are unaware that the hoax claim has been refuted, and if told disbelieve it. That adaptive evolution occurring in the peppered moth is an observed fact, independent of the experiment that merely demonstrated that natural selection of moths occurs through differential bird predation, is unknown to them and/or irrelevant to their thought processes, which don’t operate at the level of making the best inference from the available information, but rather at the level of “attaching moths to trees isn’t natural -> ‘it’ is fake -> ‘it’ is a fraud”.

Laelaps Wrote:

…although interestingly enough I wasn’t allowed to teach evolution to 5th graders because the principal of the school I was student teaching at didn’t want irate phone calls from offended parents.

Can someone tell me again who advocates censorship?

Is it not the most obnoxious double standard ever, that anti-evolution activists are silent, if not approving, about the real censorship in evolution education?

…their thought processes, which don’t operate at the level of making the best inference from the available information, but rather at the level of “attaching moths to trees isn’t natural -> ‘it’ is fake -> ‘it’ is a fraud”.

I don’t think this reflects those thought processes at all. I’d say the thought process is more along the lines of “evolution doesn’t happen, therefore the moth experiment couldn’t have been correct, therefore the experimental results must have been bogus, therefore the experiment was a fraud.”

Seems to me we always need to start with the desperate need to discredit threats to a prima facie wrong set of requirements. “The data cannot possibly indicate what God told me in my heart He doesn’t do. NOW, let’s examine the data to see how we can make it wrong. The more truthiness the better, but really, what matters is the denial itself.” In a way, this process IS the best inference from the available information, given the non-negotiable requirement the inference MUST satisfy.

Hey, scientists have their own non-negotiable requirements - the proposed explanation must pass predictive tests, and cannot fail them. Substitute “God’s Word” for “predictive tests”, and make the data fit. If it does not fit, something must be rejected - either the explanation (for scientists) or the data (for creationists). But *neither* approach permits contradiction.

I don’t think this reflects those thought processes at all.

Hey, you’re entitled to your opinion, wrong as it is.

I’d say the thought process is more along the lines of “evolution doesn’t happen, therefore the moth experiment couldn’t have been correct, therefore the experimental results must have been bogus, therefore the experiment was a fraud.”

If you think really really hard about this, you’ll realize that that isn’t inconsistent with what I wrote, but it isn’t responsive to MarkP’s “WTF gluing moths to a tree for an illustration had to do with anything”, and provides no reason to think that what I wrote isn’t reflective of their thought processes, which involve more than one mode of failure.

I’d say the thought process is more along the lines of “evolution doesn’t happen, therefore the moth experiment couldn’t have been correct, therefore the experimental results must have been bogus, therefore the experiment was a fraud.”

Well, it’s not as simple as that, though I noticed that you didn’t say it was.

Many creationists, and I’d assume IDists (how can you tell the difference, especially since they blur all differences until we point out that they’re essentially creationists?), accept that the evolution seen in the peppered moths may very well occur.

But they can’t answer any number of questions (and answers) given to them and ultimately must rely upon the “fact” that evolutionists are dishonest in these matters. This is why the tired old Piltdown fraud is brought up repeatedly and often, along with the absurd claim that it was concocted in order to “prove evolution” (since we have better intermediates than Piltdown ever was, shouldn’t they finally recognize that the crucial predicted intermediates do exist? No, because if one fossil is fraudulent they all might be—so goes many of those who fault the experiments also bring up), it shows just how biased, and eager for non-existent evidence in favor of evolution, those “evolutionists” really are. Thus, if any of their work can be rubbished, it will be.

So I’d suggest that it is less their systematic denials, which in their minds needn’t extend to microevolution, than it is opportunism that drives the complaints about the peppered moth experiments. They’re willing to use anything, and fraud by any evolutionists serves their propaganda against all of evolution, against any fleeting desires by their congregations to consider the actual evidence. Ultimately it really is about avoiding the evidence prior to any learning of the evidence, and how to make sense of it, that undergirds almost any “discussion of evolution” by IDists/creationists. For the supposed mistakes and frauds excuse them from studying the evolution to which they are emotionally opposed.

One thing that has really struck me in being on these forums is how readily any mistakes they make, and any errors in their argument that we catch, are ignored by IDists/creationists (unless they think they have an answer, that is). I tend to answer them comprehensively, no matter that some on our side dislike such thoroughness, while they only answer whatever they think will make points for themselves, almost without exception. I should mention that this is a normal tendency among humans, however it appears to be taken to extremes by these people. And I’m quite sure that it is because they already either fear or know that there are any number of questions that they can’t answer, and are using supposed error and dishonesty on our side to assuage any pangs of guilt they have for not attending to these matters (though I was never an adult creationist/IDist, I remember this response in others and in myself as a young creationist).

Any fraud that they think they can point out is invaluable to them, then, largely because it discredits the questions they can’t answer, and it helps to void their guilt over not dealing with these questions. Never mind that peppered moth experiments “only demonstrate microevolution”, the idea is that evolutionists just use anything and everything to bolster their “dying paradigm”, and the creationists/IDists won’t pass up any opportunity to “make this point”.

They don’t think like we do, not even as close to us as most on our side imagine that that they do. They really must deny honesty and good science on our side as much as they can. And even if we do shoot down one of their fraudulent claims even in their minds, it doesn’t change this need one little bit (except for a very few—and I’m talking about the true believers now, who are the ones on their side who pay attention to these things), hence they look to the old ones that do work (Piltdown was a fraud, and there haven’t been too many since then) and keep looking for anything else that might discredit our side. For that’s the only way that they can justify themselves in their own minds, by discrediting our side, not by dealing with the evidence in an intellectually honest manner.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/35s39o

I would also add one more point to Glen’s summary. Creationists repeatedly tell their audiences to trust the Bible because it is infallible. Truth by definition must be unchanging. The Bible does not change, but scientists are always changing their minds, and worse, lying. Therefore, because they lie and change their stories, you shouldn’t trust scientists, and can ignore anything they say that contradicts your beliefs. Hence the peppered moth and Piltdown are among the most important tools in the creationist (YEC and ID) tool kit. If you don’t believe me, just spend a few hours perusing Answers in Genesis (if you can stomach it).

PG:

If you think really really hard about this, you’ll realize that that isn’t inconsistent with what I wrote, but it isn’t responsive to MarkP’s “WTF gluing moths to a tree for an illustration had to do with anything”

If you think even harder, you’ll realize that I was answering MarkP directly - gluing moths to a tree has been seized on not because it relates to speciation, but because the motivation is denial, which requires that something be found to be wrong, whether or not it’s wrong, or even relevant. They key to any answer to MarkP’s question is motivation.

(And so we understand, I hope, that to the degree the pepper moth represented a threat to creationists, *something* about it would be found in error, and actually being in error isn’t really important. Creationists would find some way to SAY it was in error, because in the religious world, this is how things come true.)

So my complaint is, you’ve focused on one part of one symptom of denial, and represented it as being “the thought process” itself. No, that’s not “wrong”, anymore than saying the bat striking the ball IS the game of baseball is “wrong”. It simply does a misleadingly myopic job of describing the overall thought process.

Glen:

So I’d suggest that it is less their systematic denials, which in their minds needn’t extend to microevolution, than it is opportunism that drives the complaints about the peppered moth experiments. They’re willing to use anything, and fraud by any evolutionists serves their propaganda against all of evolution, against any fleeting desires by their congregations to consider the actual evidence.

Yes and no. My take on this, is that creationists understand they are appealing to extremely simple and ignorant audiences, unable to grasp subtleties or nuances. But these audiences are perfectly able to understand outright Faking It, which in turn can be claimed and explained easily in small words. The systematic denial lies at the heart of the motivation; cherry-picking sitting ducks (even if dishonestly) is an implementation detail.

Again, I trust we all understand that a creationist CAN NOT “deal with the evidence in an intellectually honest manner”, because this would require that he admit that his deepest beliefs are false. Trapped between his understanding of “God’s Truth” on the one side, and reality on the other, he seeks out the path of least resistance - lie. Just lie. And this gets us back to MarkP’s question. Why focus on gluing moths onto trees? Because some lies are easier to rally around. Hardwired Belief, however preposterous, has become neurologically immutable.

I gave a presentation back in 2000 at Paul Sereno’s “Project Exploration: Making Tracks” workshop…while there, I was told I “had” to sit in on Judy Scotchmoor’s presentation…

…Great class, great concepts (gave me ideas for my own workshops) …she’s fun and informative!

If you think even harder, you’ll realize that I was answering MarkP directly

I don’t have to think hard at all to recognize that as nonsense. According to your formulation, creationists think that every experiment that purportedly supports evolution is a fraud, which is false, while you didn’t respond to MarkP’s question about glue at all, let alone “directly”. But thanks for playing (which is all you’re doing).

gluing moths to a tree has been seized on not because it relates to speciation, but because the motivation is denial

That’s not coherent – the motivation for finding something to seize on can’t be the reason that a specific thing has been seized upon. And as for denial being the motivation for looking for something to seize upon – duh. Like I said, “that isn’t inconsistent with what I wrote” – of course denial plays a role via motivation. But thickheadedness also plays a role.

They key to any answer to MarkP’s question is motivation.

Yes, I realize how badly you want to be right, but “what WTF gluing moths to a tree for an illustration had to do with it is that they are motivated to deny evolution” is plain stupid.

Also, I didn’t say anything about “gluing moths to a tree [having] been seized on […] because it relates to speciation”, I said it was seized on because it sounds, on the surface, like fraud – which, of course, they are motivated to find. Which, really, truly, is transparently obvious to any honest and intelligent person.

So my complaint is, you’ve focused on one part of one symptom of denial, and represented it as being “the thought process” itself. No, that’s not “wrong”

Ahem. I wrote “that isn’t inconsistent with what I wrote … and provides no reason to think that what I wrote isn’t reflective of their thought processes, which involve more than one mode of failure”, whereas you wrote “I don’t think this reflects those thought processes at all”. Not only are you too dishonest to stick to one story when it’s challenged, or to accurately represent what I wrote, but you’re too stupid to go back and look. Just like in the other thread when you completely misrepresented what statement I had called a strawman.

Yes and no. My take on this, is that creationists understand they are appealing to extremely simple and ignorant audiences, unable to grasp subtleties or nuances. But these audiences are perfectly able to understand outright Faking It, which in turn can be claimed and explained easily in small words. The systematic denial lies at the heart of the motivation; cherry-picking sitting ducks (even if dishonestly) is an implementation detail.

Again, I trust we all understand that a creationist CAN NOT “deal with the evidence in an intellectually honest manner”, because this would require that he admit that his deepest beliefs are false. Trapped between his understanding of “God’s Truth” on the one side, and reality on the other, he seeks out the path of least resistance - lie. Just lie. And this gets us back to MarkP’s question. Why focus on gluing moths onto trees? Because some lies are easier to rally around. Hardwired Belief, however preposterous, has become neurologically immutable.

Here you manage to distinguish between “creationists”, who lie, and “extremely simple and ignorant audiences”, who believe the lies. Perhaps, if you think really really really hard, you’ll realize that there’s something a wee bit awry there, and perhaps even what. Here’s a clue: their thought processes … operate at the level of … “attaching moths to trees isn’t natural -> ‘it’ is fake -> ‘it’ is a fraud”. Do you suppose that, just maybe, that might reflect the thought processes of “extremely simple and ignorant audiences” at all? And do you suppose that, just maybe, some memebers of those audiences are, well, gee, creationists? And that some of those creationists may, just possibly, be the ones that MarkP referred to, the ones whose thought processes I commented on? You might want to actually go back and look at the relevant posts before hurting your brain too hard on this.

Not only are you too dishonest to stick to one story when it’s challenged, or to accurately represent what I wrote, but you’re too stupid to go back and look.

Do you really think if you call enough names, you magically become superior? Or don’t you care, so long as you convince yourself you’re superior?

You have correctly identified one piece of bark as belonging to the forest. I pointed out that the bark is not the forest at all. In response, you bray and snort about how your piece of bark is a subset of the forest, therefore it’s dishonest to claim that the bark is not the forest. Is this really the best you can do? Would it help you if I cheerfully agree that your piece of bark is indeed part of the forest, but I think MarkP was asking why anyone would focus on a piece of bark. And we have between us provided two answers: because the bark is easier for creationists to focus on (being both suitably misleading and less abstract), and because the forest as a forest conflicts with Received Doctrine.

Personally, I don’t think either of us suffers from any misunderstanding, nor is there any actual disagreement. There is an issue of thin skin here, but that’s off topic.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on March 15, 2007 9:16 AM.

Hey Dr. Egnor: At Least Galen Dissected Animals, Not Straw Men was the previous entry in this blog.

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