Archive for Biology

Don McLeroy defends Texas creationists

Posted in Education, Evolution, Texas with tags , , , , , , on October 19, 2008 by airtightnoodle

Today’s issue of the Waco Tribune-Herald features a guest column from Don McLeroy, chairman of the Texas State Board of Education.  McLeroy, as mentioned previously on this blog, is a creationist.

Texas is adopting new science standards. Scientists representing evolutionists and calling themselves the 21st Century Science Coalition say that creationists on the State Board of Education will inject religion into the science classroom. Should they be concerned? No. This will not happen.

They also say that the board will require supernatural explanations to be placed in the curriculum. This will not happen.

First of all, this is the first I’ve ever heard of the 21st Century Science Coalition.  Googling reveals their website, located here.  In any case, I find it interesting that McLeroy singles this one organization out.  This seems to give the appearance that this is one of the only groups out there concerned about this issue, when that couldn’t be further from the truth.  But let’s be fair.  Perhaps they had an editorial in the same paper recently that I missed and McLeroy is simply responding to it.  In any case, let’s be clear: these are not the only people making a fuss.

Regardless, how can McLeroy repeat that “this will not happen”?  What other reasons would creationists have for wanting to have a say in the science TEKS?  And how can he definitively dictate what may or may not happen? 

McLeroy then makes a statement to stun all Biology teachers and evolution supporters across the world:

First, is understanding of evolution “vital” to the understanding of biology? No.

I guess McLeroy isn’t familiar with the famous Dobzhansky article that really sums it all up: “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”.

Next, has evolution been demonstrated to be true beyond any reasonable doubt? No.

Is evolution’s support from the peer-reviewed literature unassailable? No.

If these are the criteria by which evolution has come under assault, then much of science should be suffering under the same scrutiny.  No scientific theory is ever going to be proven to be 100% true.  No theory is safe from criticism and peer review.  That’s the beauty of the scientific method–which, many scientists will agree, HAS shown evolution to be true beyond “reasonable doubt”.

Does evolution have scientific “weaknesses”?

The 21st Century Coalition not only says no but insists that we must strike the weaknesses language from our standards because leaving it in threatens our children’s scientific reasoning.

If we’re not going to apply the same “weaknesses” technique to all other scientific theories, then yes, it certainly does threaten our children’s scientific reasoning.  Our students deserve a 21st century science education, not watered-down science, whether it is biology, astronomy, chemistry, etc.

More about our friend, Tiktaalik

Posted in Evolution with tags , , , , , on October 15, 2008 by airtightnoodle

Tiktaalik roseae

A new study done on the transitional fossil Tiktaalik has revealed more of the intermediate steps by which some marine vertebrates evolved into land animals.

One of the most intriguing findings, scientists said, was the reduction in size of a bony element that, in fish, links the braincase, palate and gills and is associated with underwater feeding and respiration. In more primitive fish, the bony part of what is called the hyomandibula is large and shaped like a boomerang. In this fossil species, the bone was greatly reduced, no bigger than a human thumb.

You can read more in the NY Times.

Ultraconserved regions of DNA–we still have a lot to learn

Posted in Evolution, science with tags , , , , , , , on October 11, 2008 by airtightnoodle

In the news two days ago on Yahoo I read the following article: Mysterious DNA Found to Survive Eons of Evolution.  Basically, scientists have discovered segments of DNA that have survived long periods of evolution though they seem to have no apparent purpose.  The sequences in question are not non-coding or “junk” DNA. 

Since these segments haven’t been lost as a result of natural selection, one would assume they give some important advantage.  However, mice were bred to lack these sections of DNA, and they appeared to be healthy.

The article goes on to discuss potential answers to the puzzle, such as the possibility that these strands code for multiple layers of information or that they might protect against diseases that only rarely strike. 

What leaves me in awe is the fact that despite learning so much over the past few hundred years–and especially the past 60 or so–we still have so much yet to learn!  This article goes to show that science is certainly not stagnant.  Science doesn’t have all the answers about how the natural world works…though it’s still working on it!  🙂

Isolation–not just geographical!

Posted in Evolution with tags , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2008 by airtightnoodle

Researchers working in Africa have reported strong evidence for speciation among cichlid fish in Lake Victoria, based not on geographical isolation, but on how they perceive color.  Interesting!

African Cichlid

African Cichlid

In two related species the females choose mates based on their coloration. In one, found in deeper parts of the lake, the males have red features. In the other, found in shallower waters, the males are blue. What’s more, in some parts of the lake the two aren’t really separate species, but rather are intermixed.

You can read more about it in Nature or in the New York Times.

Texas scientists want religion, politics out of science curriculum

Posted in Education, Texas with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2008 by airtightnoodle

Thanks to Jimpithecus at Science and Religion, I found the following article from the Houston Chronicle regarding the science TEKS. 

A group of Texas scientists are worried that the state board of education will insist on keeping the “strengths and weaknesses” clause in the Texas standards for biology education.  Currently this phrase is not found in the proposal for the new TEKS. 

David Hillis from the University of Texas summed up the feelings of scientists and science educators across the state well by saying:

“We are here to support and promote strong, clear, modern science education in Texas schools,” said David Hillis, professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin. “Texas public schools should be preparing our kids to succeed in the 21st century, not promoting political and ideological agendas that are hostile to a sound science education.”

However, the article also states that:

A panel of experts recently recommended the “strengths and weaknesses” provision remain in astronomy and chemistry but be removed from the updated science curriculum.

Who is this “panel of experts”, and why did they recommend for the provision to remain in certain areas? 

As mentioned previously on this blog, the TEKS will not be voted on until next spring.

More on the proposed TEKS revisions

Posted in Education, Evolution, Texas with tags , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2008 by airtightnoodle

Being that I am short on time and my blog focuses mainly on evolution, I am only going to comment on the TEKS I feel are related to this topic. 

For those unaware, TEKS are the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills.  These are the objectives all teachers must cover in class.  You may view the current Biology TEKS here.  The proposed revisions are found here.

The first two parts of the introduction remain largely the same.  When speaking of systems, a minor revision is found at the end of the paragraph:

These patterns help to make inferences about past events, predict what will happen next and can change over time.

The current statement is:

These patterns help to predict what will happen next and can change over time.

Not a big change, in my opinion.

However, in the proposed revisions, the next paragraph is entirely new:

Science uses observational evidence to make predictions of natural phenomena and to construct testable explanations. If ideas are based upon purported forces outside of nature, they cannot be tested using scientific methods. Scientific explanations are open to testing under different conditions, over time, and by independent scientific researchers. Many theories in science are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially; however, they are subject to continuing refinement as new areas of science emerge or as new technologies enable observations and experiments that were not possible previously (National Academy of Sciences, 2008, pp. 10-11).

Wow, what a bold statement!  And an entirely necessary statement, in my opinion.  Science has nothing to say about forces outside of nature because science examines the NATURAL world.  Science cannot say anything about the existence or nonexistence of God or any intelligent designer, for example.  I really like this addition because it clearly demonstrates that ideas related to the above are not scientific and do not belong in science curriculum.

The current TEKS related specifically to evolution state the following:

(7)  Science concepts. The student knows the theory of biological evolution. The student is expected to:

(A)  identify evidence of change in species using fossils, DNA sequences, anatomical similarities, physiological similarities, and embryology; and

(B)  illustrate the results of natural selection in speciation, diversity, phylogeny, adaptation, behavior, and extinction.

These have been expanded to give a much more detailed explanation of evolution:

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is an explanation for the diversity of life. The student is expected to:
(A) identify how evidence of common ancestry among groups is provided by the fossil record, biogeography, and homologies including anatomical, molecular, physiological, behavioral and developmental;
(B) recognize that natural selection produces change in populations, not individuals; 

(C) describe the elements of natural selection including inherited variation, the potential of a population to produce more offspring than can survive, and a finite supply of environmental resources resulting in differential reproductive success;
(D) recognize the significance of natural selection to adaptation, and to the diversity of species; and
(E) analyze the results of other evolutionary mechanisms including genetic drift, gene flow, mutation, and recombination.

I approve of the expansion, personally.  There is much about evolution that is not currently covered in the TEKS.  This will hold teachers accountable to teach the theory more fully.  Students deserve a good education in the theory, whether they wind up personally believing in it or not.

Keep in mind these are the PROPOSED revisions.  These will not be voted on for several months.  Stay tuned.

Federal court sides with UC in evolution dispute

Posted in Evolution with tags , , , , , , , on October 5, 2008 by airtightnoodle

As mentioned previously on my blog, UC Berkeley was threatened with a lawsuit over its wonderful educational evolution website. 

Recently, on October 3, it was reported that a federal court sided with UC over the dispute, stating that the couple trying to sue the school lacked legal standing to file a lawsuit. 

You can read more about it here.

Two things being related does not imply direct descent

Posted in Evolution with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2008 by airtightnoodle

Hmm, that almost sounds like the title of some creationist/ID argument against evolution!  However, for those creationists/IDers out there, it is not.  Don’t be too disappointed, but really, what did you expect from me?

I came across a creationist blog here on WordPress by a fellow/lady of the name thebibleistheotherside.  In the following post, thebibleistheotherside discusses how whale fossils are deceptive, don’t show the relationships evolutionists believe they show, etc. 

Thebibleistheotherside states in the post that:

DNA samples were taken, and the result suggested the hippo (which eats plants) evolved into a meat-eating whale.

Thebibleistheotherside clearly says here that hippos, not a relative or ancestor of hippos, evolved into whales.  This implies that whales directly descended from hippos.

Of course, this is not what evolutionary biologists believe or teach.  Rather, genetic studies have shown that whales and hippos are closely related–the whales evolved from an ancestor to hippos.  I pointed this out to thebibleistheotherside in the comments on the post.

Yet thebibleistheotherside continues to equate the two.  He/she even goes on to quote Phil Gingerich of the University of Michigan, who clearly demonstrates on his own website that he does, of course, believe hippos and whales are related, but not that whales descended directly from hippos.

Thebibleistheotherside either clearly does not understand the difference between the two, or is being purposely deceptive to create a straw-man argument.

I don’t know which I’d prefer; on the one hand, it might be somewhat comforting for this person to be purposely deceptive, because it would show that their brain is working properly.  On the other hand, I can’t stand to witness Christians being purposely deceptive, as it gives all Christians a bad reputation.

Either way, it is disturbing indeed.

First draft of Texas science standards (TEKS) available online

Posted in Education, Evolution with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2008 by airtightnoodle

The first draft of the newly proposed science TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) is now available for viewing online.  You can view the proposals here.

Keep checking the site as supposedly they will soon be asking for input on these proposed TEKS.

Sometimes science teachers can’t even teach evolution properly

Posted in Evolution with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2008 by airtightnoodle

Now, all teachers make mistakes.  Don’t get me wrong.  We’re just as fallible as everyone else.

On a message board when discussing different activities for teaching evolution, someone replied with the following:

From what I understand, evolution theories boils down to carbon dating and genetic profiling. There are plenty of videos on this. Record History channel’s “Evolve” for a start and the hosts start linking the past and present. Everyone knows about how the Big Bang theory is currently winning the theory war from the expand and contract theory. Talk about the spectrometers and how the far away galaxies are flying away exponentially.
But of course, you kinda have to talk that these are all just theories as opposed to laws as while some parts of the hypothesis are proven time and time again, there are other parts that cannot be tested at the moment.

I’m trying REALLY hard not to be judgmental.  I don’t know EVERYTHING about science–even the kind of science taught at the high school level.  For example, I’m fairly weak with physics.  I’m certified to teach it, but if I was ever asked to do so, I’d probably run screaming. 

However, the above shows a lack of understanding not just about evolution, but about the very nature of science.

“Boiling down” to carbon dating?  Has this person never learned about relative and absolute dating?  Have they never heard of ice cores, tree rings, geologic strata, and the various other radiometric dating methods out there BESIDES carbon dating? 

And what’s with mentioning the Big Bang?  This person is making the same mistake most creationists do–confusing origins of the universe with evolution, or how life changes over time. 

And the part about mentioning that these are “just theories”–that’s the part that really kills me.  As I’ve written about before, there seems to be a lack of understanding in the general public about what a “theory” means in the science world.  Apparently there is a lack of understanding to some extent in education as well.  That is scary, indeed.