God save us from preachers fouling the waters of science

March 25, 2009

Waylon and Willie might have done a great service for the world had they sung, instead, “Mamas, don’t let your children grow up to be preachers./ . . . make ’em be biologists and teachers and such.”

I’m moving my response to a poster, lowerleavell, up from the depths of the thread on this old post, “Why intelligent design shouldn’t bully Texas high school kids.”

Among other things creationists do which I find destructive, they tell people stories about what evolution theory “says,” or what happens in nature, that simply are not true.  Very simply, creationists, especially preachers, paint such a vivid but false view of human nature “according to science,” that a lot of misbehavior can be blamed on the preachers’ convincing people, especially children, that they are supposed to misbehave.

I’ll just let the post speak for itself; Joe’s words are blockquoted, my response set without indentation:

Joe said:

Every presented “truth” has ramifications. If you tell people long enough and dogmatically enough that they are the result of some massive cosmic accident (Dawkins viewpoint) then eventually they’re going to start getting the picture.

We can hope. As Dawkins notes, the picture they should get is that we need to be human to one another, to treat each other well, to defend human rights, to cherish life while we live it. So far, I don’t see a lot of that happening, at least, not enough — and, as I’ve noted earlier, I think it’s because religion gets in the way.

You tell people that humans are simply evolved animals and are surprised when they act accordingly.

Actually, that’s what preachers say — you won’t find a scientist putting it that crudely, or that inaccurately.

We tell people that humans are evolved animals — a true statement, as any physician can tell you — and we tell them that we expect them to act as animals do. You seem to think that would be bad. But anyone who studies animal behavior will tell you that the bravery and altruism of the tiny sparrow defending her nest against marauding crows matches the bravery of any human, anywhere, any time. You seem to think that animals have no sense of morality, but that’s not what we see in nature. You seem to think that humans’ animal morality is bad, but as Darwin noted (in chapter 5 of Descent of Man), the foundation of our evolved morality is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That’s the principal that allowed us to survive as a species, and to thrive. Darwin even went so far as to lay out a scenario for how genes that produced the behaviors could be selected for in natural selection.

Make no mistake: “Animal behavior” is not immoral behavior. We didn’t thrive as a species by stabbing our friends in the back, at least, not until the invention of religion (the story of Cain and Able is a Bible story, remember — you don’t find siblings going after each other to the point of murder much in nature).

Joe, you’re preaching against the Golden Rule. Leave it to a creationist who claims not to be advocating creationism to preach against Christian morality and claim it’s evolution’s fault.

One of my concerns is that creationists — especially people who claim to have a ministry — get this animal morality thing exactly wrong. It only strengthens my feeling that we need to keep such people from innocent children.

It’s preachers who tell children that they’re animals, and that they can act evilly, Joe, not science. Preachers probably don’t even intend to do that, but they get the science dead wrong, they tell the kids that’s what science says . . . what’s a kid to think? Would a preacher lie to them?

I agree we shouldn’t teach immorality to children. Joe, will you join me in keeping Baptist ministers from doing that? You guys should stop telling children that evolution is untrue, that animals are immoral, and that our baser, animal instincts trend toward sin.

Incidentally, that’s not what the Bible says, either. It was Man who sinned, not animals. In your zeal to get evolution, you’ve departed a long ways from what the scriptures say. I’d say it’s time to rethink what you’re doing.

You tell people that they are the evolution of nature and are surprised when they act according to their natural impulses and emotions.

I wish they’d do it more often, rather than substituting the morality of organized religion.

Geese mate for life and look out for each other. Bonobos keep peace with an almost literal “make love, not war” ethic — it protects the children very well. Prairie dogs look out for one another, posting guards to keep everybody safe — they double the guards when their children are out foraging, to double the protection. Musk oxen, tiny things, really, defend their young with the entire herd, sacrificing an adult if necessary to protect the offspring. Gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, elephants, lions, whales and others protect and venerate their aged, the sages who can guide the herd/troupe/pride/pod/clan through difficult times. Throughout the animal kingdom, we find animals as exemplars of behavior, mostly.  Murder is extremely rare in most species.  War is even more rare.

What in the devil is wrong with that morality? Why wouldn’t we want our children to “act as animals?”

You know, if one studies the history of evolution in science, one is struck by the remarkable sterling character of most of the scientists involved. With very few exceptions — Haeckel’s dishonesty and rampant nationalism, Watson’s general unpleasantness — these scientists are paragons of moral behavior. Darwin was a giant of morality, an outstanding, faithful and loving husband, a caring and doting father. Wallace was a pillar, too — except for his dabblings in seances later, a function of his Christian beliefs. Dobzhansky, Wilson, the Grants, Simpson, Gould, Eldredge, Coyne, Myers, Majerus, Kettlewell, Mayr — these are people you would be happy to know, whose morality is generally beyond reproach.

Contrast that with the greats of religion — Calvin burned his friend Servetus at the stake. Luther was a rabid anti-semite. Various popes robbed, murdered and fornicated. Rasputin led the Russian court to debauchery and villiany. The occasional Billy Graham is an exception among preachers, it too often appears. We lost count of the famous preachers who were caught with their pants down and their hands on the wallets of their friends.

If evolution produced evil, wouldn’t we see that in its greatest exponents? Instead, we see the opposite — evolutionists living lives of saints, churchmen living lives of evil.

There’s a parable about the fruit of a poisoned tree. Do you know it?

You say that evolution is not immoral and in and of itself it may not be – but what is presented to people can contribute to dramatic ramifications, which is what I’m saying.

Evolution is immoral only when presented, inaccurately and basely, by preachers.

It’s not science, it’s not the study of evolution, and it’s not studying science in school that is the problem here.

You’re making a great case for licensing preachers, insisting on standards, and checking their work. I think I can see where the problem is, from your presentation.

How would you propose to fix it, without taking the pro-ignorance route?

Up-to-the-minute reports from the science ramparts — today’s evolution hearings

March 25, 2009

If you’re not thinking of Edward R. Murrow’s reports from the roof of the building in London as the bombs fell, you’re not aware of how grave things are in Texas.

The Texas Freedom Network is live-blogging the hearings in Austin, before the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE).  Testimony of a sort is being offered on whether to force Texas kids to study false claims of scientific error about evolution.

Steve Schafersman of Texas Citizens for Science is live-blogging, too, here at EvoSphere.

Schafersman listed several ways you can keep up with the hearings:

I will be live blogging the Texas State Board of Education meeting of 2009 March 25-27 in this column. This includes the hearing devoted to public testimony beginning at 12:00 noon on Wednesday, March 25. I will stay through the final vote on Friday, March 27.

Go to the following webpages for further information:

State Board of Education

March 25-26 SBOE Meeting Agenda

March 25 Public Hearing with Testimony, 12:00 noon

State Board rules for Public Testimony

Current Science TEKS as revised in 2009 January

For the live audio feed, go to http://www.tea.state.tx.us/ for the link.

Four Stone Hearth #63: Bathing in the warm waters of ancient knowledge

March 25, 2009

Welcome to the 63rd edition of Four Stone Hearth (4SH), the only blog carnival on the planet dedicated entirely to the four stone foundations of modern anthropology. We’re happy to invite readers in for a soak at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub.

It’s spring, and in spring a young anthropologist’s fancy turns to thoughts of . . . grading papers, maybe love, getting ready to dig over the summer, finishing up the term, love, getting the snow tires off the car, the Texas State Board of Education, if not love then maybe a good dinner companion, finishing the paper up for publication (where?), how to finance next semester, how to stretch the grant, love in the future, where to get the next grant . . . almost everything but submitting entries to that history and social studies guy at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub.

Need some cowboy coffee?

Need some cowboy coffee?

Interesting entries this edition, but in onesies and twosies, not by dozens.  Trusting that the enterprise is blessed by the patron saints (St. Damasus I, or St. Helen, for archaeologists; is there a patron saint for anthropology or linguistics? In a pinch we can just invoke St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers and authors), we push on.

The Four Stone Hearth name pays homage to four areas of anthro:  Archaeology, socio-cultural anthropology, bio-physical anthropology and linguistic anthropology.  Shorter form: What humans did, and a bit of what we do.

So, grab a cup of cowboy coffee (the favorite of diggers and backpackers, and sheep herders).  In no particular order, and in no particular theme, here’s what caught our fancies over the past couple of weeks:

Globalization — love it or hate it — how does it really affect us? The Spitoon comments on newly-published research that reveals people are choosing mates from farther abroad than before. At least, that’s what our genes show.  People don’t marry people from their own village so much.  Unanswered:  How does this affect human evolution?

Digital Archaeology: Colleen Morgan at Middle Savagery, demonstrates the clash between the earthen and the electronic — she spoke on a panel at SXSW (“South By Southwest”), the massive, hip music conference and riot in Austin, Texas.  Topic:  The Real Technology of Indiana Jones.  It starts out with a promising description:  “Archaeologists no longer rely on whips and fedoras . . .”  The panel also featured Bernard Frischer of the University of Virginia, and Adam Rabinowitz, University of Texas at Austin.  “Notes and tweets” from the panel.

Cover to Goldschmidts book, The Bridge to Humanity, Oxford Press

Cover to Goldschmidt's book, The Bridge to Humanity, Oxford Press

Does morality have any connection to evolution — Appropriate for the opening day of hearings and voting on Texas public school science standards, Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology looks at the evolution of altruism, with a review and commentary on Walter Goldschmidt’s book, The Bridge to Humanity. Goldschmidt notes that selfish genes don’t explain everything, and that there’s probably a good function to a baby’s being very cute.  (Goldschmidt must hang out at our PTA meetings:  “It’s a good thing the kid’s so cute, or he’d have been dead long ago.”)  “Affect hunger” is not a common phrase in daily conversations, and it deserves a solid explanation.  Altruism cannot form naturally, many education officials in Texas believe, and so they oppose teaching evolution in public schools.  They’ll be too busy to read this article before they vote on Friday — but they should read it, and maybe the book, too.

Martin Rundkvist at Aardvarchaeology offers a lighter but critical note, on putting ice cream sticks in museums. Archaeological museum weirdness.  What should a museum be?  In the past 14 months I’ve had the pleasure of spending time (on someone else’s dime!) at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, and at the greatly expanded museum and visitor center at Mount Vernon, Virginia, George Washington’s estate.  In these places there is a concerted effort to make museums more informative, more inviting, and more focused on education missions.  Both museums feature multimedia presentations designed to kick off anyone’s visit with a punch, holographic images in Springfield, and theater seats that kick and get snowed on at Mount Vernon.

Tuamatuan Conception of the Cosmos, by Paiore. Inspiration for Margaret Meads fieldwork in American Samoa.  Running After Antelope

Tuamatuan Conception of the Cosmos, by Paiore. Inspiration for Margaret Mead's fieldwork in American Samoa. Running After Antelope

RafRaf Girls notes that someone is collecting images used to illustrate anthropology, linguistics and social theory.  It’s a form of on-line museum, and Martin’s concerns are well directed:  How much of this stuff should be preserved, especially if the preservation perpetuates odd ideas or misinformation?  Browse the images, see for yourself.  Nice to know it’s there, if you need it.   (Is all this stuff from Running After Antelope?)

Again at Neuroanthropology, Daniel Lende offers what a reader in comments calls “the best damn article on alcoholism” in “The Insidious, Elusive Becoming:  Addiction in Four Steps.” I thought it ironic that the post is illustrated with a diagram showing how to tie the famous knot, the bowline, in four steps.  Every Girl Scout and Boy Scout knows the bowline is the “lifesaving knot,” a knot that is used to tie loops used to hoist people from danger.  The bowline will not slip, and so will not suffocate the victim upon lifting.  Addiction is no bowline.  Falling into addiction involves four steps Lende outlines, basing the title on a line from Caroline Knapp’s Drinking:  A Love Story.

But we do know much more about the process of becoming than we used to. Here I will outline four important factors that shape the terrible becoming – vulnerability, training, intention, and meaning. My focus will be on understanding the subjective transformations, and I will use Knapp’s own words and experiences to help us grasp how this happens. In a forthcoming post, I will address a core biological process—competitive plasticity—that acts as the complement to this description, a process that has also helped me see the interactions in new light.

A Primate of Modern Aspect (formerly Zinjanthropus?) offers what I thought to be a fascinating story about studying the inner ears of fossilized primates, “Navigating the Bony Labyrinth.” It’s a continued exercise in pulling paleontology out of the usually-imagined realm of dusty reconstructions in badly-lighted corners of musty museums.

Fossil primates can pose some especially interesting questions to a paleoprimatologist.  Because they live in trees, many different kinds of locomotion are possible.  We can look at limb proportions to see if the little guys were clinging to vertical supports and then leaping from them, or perhaps walking on top of thick, horizontal branches, or maybe even swinging below these brances.   We can look at the shape of the scapula to see whether the animal kept its arms underneath itself or used them to reach out to the side or above itself.  We can look at the fingers to see if they were grasping branches or balancing above them.  In species known only from cranial bones, we can also look at the ear bones to see how these guys positioned themselves while in the trees.

It’s spring, I know, and we are hopeful.  Politics and war push on, however, and they push into the fields of science we love. Some things we would like to confine to dusty corners of musty museums, like war.

Afarensis notes that the coup d’etat in Madagascar threatens lemurs in the forests of the island.

It’s on the fringes of blogging, but well worth knowing about:  San Diego City Beat tells a story of guerrilla archaeology, beating the construction of the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico to get a dig done, “Hush hush archaeology.”

It’s spring, and students in American schools look forward (ha!) to the standardized tests they must take under the New Regime.  I was interested to see Kris Hirst has started a weekly quiz, this week about bog bodies — just the sort of stuff I need for my classroom to take out the tension and get kids to think.  Now, if only it were on PowerPoint, or in a form I could just print off to open a class . . .

Wish us luck here in Texas this week.  Science standards, especially evolution studies, are on the grill before the State Board of Education, where creationists hold sway. If  you know someone in Texas, you may want to persuade them to call their representative on the state board.  No scientist is an island, as John Donne would have said had he thought a bit longer about it.  How Texas goes will affect us all.

Four Stone Hearth #64 returns to the hands of people who know a bit about the topic, at Quiche Moraine.

Thanks for reading.  Remember to send your nominations for the next edition to Quiche Moraine, or to Martin.

Friends of Four Stone Hearth, sites that link to this edition (if you’ve linked and I missed it, please note it in the comments):

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