This Worm Has Turned

Imagine that you are a Ph.D. candidate in biology. You aren’t doing anything with charismatic megafauna; your focus is on invertebrates. Worms, really. But you’ve done some work on figuring out how worms move through substrate. It is good work, and you’ve been published in Nature on the topic. That’s all pretty cool.

Then, you find out that your research has been used as a prime exhibit in a political campaign to advance “intelligent design” and “teach the controversy” positions. That’s not cool.

Kelly Dorgan, though, has her own message about the misuse of her work, one that she has sent to the Ohio Board of Education, and that she has graciously given permission to be published here. Read it below the fold.

One would hope that politicians seeking to understand science education would turn to people who know what they are talking about, and avoid propaganda outlets. In Ohio, the propaganda has been dished out in large quantities by SEAO and the Discovery Institute. Fortunately, there are many science faculty at Ohio’s universities who have taken the time to advise non-scientists on the Ohio State Board of Education; they have made themselves available as a resource. There are professional scientific organizations in Ohio whose goal is better science education for students. Between these resources, a politician who wants to get serious about improving science education in Ohio has many choices in getting good advice.

Kelly Dorgan wrote:

Dear Ohio School Board Members:

It has been brought to my attention that my research has been cited by Susan Haverkos on her campaign website [This link is now dead, though Google cache still had it as of 2006/11/09. – WRE] Ms. Haverkos seems to have misunderstood my research and I would like clarify a few points.

Contrary to Ms. Haverkos’ assertions, my work does NOT in any way challenge Darwin’s theory of evolution; in fact, my work on worm burrowing illustrates an outstanding example of convergent evolution. I have found that burrowers across many animal phyla exert forces in similar ways and have evolved to have a wedge shape and/or anatomies allowing exertion of large forces to propagate a crack. Without an understanding of the theory of evolution, I would not be able to explain this similarity across unrelated animals.

Although Darwin is most famous today for his theory of evolution, he spent his life studying biology and observing animals in their natural environments. One of his observations, published in his short book “The formation of vegetable mould through the actions of worms,” was that by burrowing, earthworms mix soil, turning over a patch of dirt amazingly quickly and altering the composition of the dirt. He is known as the ‘father of bioturbation’, the mixing of soils by animals important in both marine and terrestrial environments and still an important area of research because of the implications to carbon burial, nutrient regeneration, and fate of pollutants in marine environments. Darwin’s major contribution was to identify the importance of this process, and to explain the mechanism, he proposed the idea that worms were eating their way through the soil. Because no alternative hypotheses had been proposed until recently, his hypothesis of how worms move has held up for over 100 years. My background in physical ecology enabled me to more closely examine the mechanism of burrowing and to develop a new hypothesis that is supported by data I have collected. My research does not challenge Darwin’s main idea that bioturbation is an important ecological process, but builds on his theory by explaining the mechanics. My work is, if anything, a tribute to Darwin, in advancing a field of research that he started in 1881. As a scientist, I hope that 100 years from now students are still building on my research as I have built on Darwin’s.

I find it very disturbing that my research has been grossly misinterpreted to support the idea of intelligent design. Intelligent design is NOT a testable hypothesis and therefore has no place in science classrooms. Ms. Haverkos points out the importance of challenging theories, which I fully support. However, the way scientists challenge theories is by generating alternative TESTABLE hypotheses and collecting data to TEST those hypotheses. Students of science should certainly be taught to ask questions and to challenge established ideas, but they should be taught to do so using the scientific method. In addition, in order to generate intelligent questions that can advance the field of biology, it is essential to have a basic understanding of the field. The theory of evolution explains a tremendous amount of scientific data and there are currently NO other viable theories to explain those data that withstand scientific tests. Telling students to challenge an established theory without either presenting a testable alternative hypothesis or specifically encouraging students to develop their own testable alternative hypothesis confuses them not only about the theory itself, but about the entire process of doing science.

I hope the Ohio School Board will consider my research for what it is: a significant advance in a field started 125 years ago by Charles Darwin that has no greater relationship to his theory of evolution than does any other branch of biology. Darwin’s theory of evolution is an important component in my research, as it is in most aspects of biology. Natural selection has favored burrowers who are able to move with the least energy used; by understanding the mechanism of burrowing, we are beginning to see the extent of evolutionary convergence toward burrowing efficiency.

Thank you again for your interest in my research and please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or would like to discuss my research further.


Kelly Dorgan Ph.D. Candidate University of Maine School of Marine Sciences