Friday, February 22, 2008

Has Carl Woese lost his friggen mind?

Do a Google search for 'Carl Woese and evolution'.

Hes a cool dude! Broke up the Tree of Life into Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukaryotes-- hes a big-wig. Unfortunately, hes not that great with words, so DI Tards LUV to quotemine him. Ah well, lots of scientists arent... um... 'eloquent' or very good at explaining their ideas to the public. But Ive been reading some things Woese has been saying on WIRED blogs recently... troubling things.

It started a couple weeks ago on Darwin Day:

Woese's experience with bacteria led him to look for an evolutionary framework larger than that provided by Darwin and his intellectual descendants. Bacteria -- which may account for up to half of Earth's biomass -- swap genes without reproducing; with millions residing in a teaspoon of seawater, Woese sees them in terms of networked communities rather than individual cells, and interprets their evolutionary history as driven by the non-linear self-organization that's now being studied at all biological scales.

The property is gone in the individual iron atoms, but when they behave collectively, you see the property of the whole. That's a very simple example.

The property is gone in the individual iron atoms, but when they behave collectively, you see the property of the whole. That's a very simple example.
The microbial world is where I work; [saltational evolution] predicts that there should be properties of the collective thing, that arise as the thing collects.

Umm... Yeah. Theyre called biofilms. In virus-word, its 'quasispecies'.

Umm... Im not sure what the hell Woese is talking about from the article, and Woeses own words are no more helpful. But when I read that a couple weeks ago, I brushed it off and thought no more about it.

Now there is a new post up at WIRED, and I will not ignore this shit:

My feeling is that evolution shouldn't be taught at the lower grades. You don't teach quantum mechanics in the grade schools. One has to be quite educated to work with these concepts; what they pass on as evolution in high schools is nothing but repetitious tripe that teeachers don't understand.

I certainly don't want any intrusion of religious ideas in the name of science -- but I don't want this bland soup that's taught as evolution in the name of science, either. It's not science -- it's catechism. Let's hold off until college, then hire some teachers who really know what to teach them. You have to go to the higest levels to find people with an understanding. That whole setup isn't there at all; all that's there is teaching the same old pap for 150 years, modfied by neo-Darwinists but not in an useful way. (typos original)
Oh no he din'int. Is he shitting me? Evolution=Quantum Mechanics?? 'Neo-Darwinism is religion see I used the word catecism'?? Teachers are tards? The 'solution' is not teaching evolution until college???


Id like to see your lesson plan, Carl. Give me *one biology topic* you can teach in a meaningful manner without evolution. You can give kids a list of shit and make them memorize it.
"Hey kids! Heres a list of the parts of a cell! But dont ask where mitochondria come from! And please dont notice animal cells look different from plant cells. I cant tell you why."

"Now its time to learn about ecosystems! This is a desert. This is a rain forest. But please dont ask why different organisms live in different organisms, or how all these organisms interact."

"Today were gonna learn about the oceans! Fish live in oceans! I cant teach you anything about whales though!"
Jesus fucking Christ. Crazy old man.


GaryB said...

I'm not sure you are getting past your seat of the pants reaction and understanding what he is saying.

His complaint is that evolution has to be watered down for young minds, a sort of 'lies to children' in a Pratchettian way, to such a degree that it ends up being a far too simple rendering of the complexity accuracy demands. He is also complaining that the teachers at the level of elementary school are not trained at a deep enough level to pass on that complexity.

He used the word 'catechism' to mean 'learn by rote' not in the sense of religion as you have taken it.

The biggest problem with his comments is the ease with which CrIDers will have creating quote mines.

Anonymous said...

"The biggest problem with his comments is the ease with which CrIDers will have creating quote mines."

If this is the issue, then the taking-out-of-context aspect needs to be countered on the publicity front.

I can see why he'd say that. He's looking for a way to unite or see how Biology connects to physics, not just to Biochemistry that is ubiquitous is Bio and pre-Med curricula, in a similar way (I think) physicists are looking for the "Theory of Everything". His Background is in Math, Physics, and Biophysics, before turning to studying evolution.

Anonymous said...

"He is also complaining that the teachers at the level of elementary school are not trained at a deep enough level to pass on that complexity."

The same thing could be said about all high school level science. High school physics doesn't even come close to representing the complexity of classical mechanics, let alone more advanced subjects.

The key isn't to throw the baby out with the bathwater, it's to improve what we've got. Understanding the basics of biology pretty much requires understanding evolution. It would be like teaching physics but trying to avoid discussing Newton. Sure, the kids won't fully grasp all the subtleties and complexities needed to function as a scientist, but they should be scientifically literate.

Another danger is that a large number of people stand to not be exposed to evolution at all by relegating it only colleges. Most science majors involve a mandatory bio class, but many humanities, business, etc. students may go through an entire undergrad curriculum without even encountering it, at least in a formal setting.

aporeticus said...

Hm. I could have been interested in biology. In high school, we skipped the chapter on evolution. This leads us to, of course, two important problems. One. What kind of pathetic high school biology book has evolution confined to a chapter? Two. Why did we skip it? Well, our biology teacher didn't believe in evolution. We were Christian kids and we all agreed. Boy, biology was boring. All memorization of all the bits and pieces of organisms.

I didn't learn anything real about biology until college. I learned about evolution in geology class. I was a comp sci major and had my choice of sciences. "Boring biology" wasn't one of them.

Well, now that I'm well into my computing career, I read things like "The Ancestor's Tale" with devotion. Evolution is what makes biology work, and that's what makes it interesting.

Would I have gone a different career route had I not taken a neutered evolution-free bio? Hard to say--I have always been quite the computer nerd. Perhaps I could have ended up doing something like bioinformatics, though.

Jay said...

Considering the impressive mental feats specific to children, which usually decay with age, I always thought it would be a pretty good idea to introduce conceptual frameworks like Quantum physics at a younger age.

John Pieret said...

It is always right and proper (if somewhat Utopian) to complain that grade and high school education can and should be better. It is another to suggest that we should, therefore, refrain from teaching anything at all about a subject until university level. Education is necessarily a gradual process of building more sophisticated knowledge on top of more basic understanding. Neither Rome nor an education is built in a day.

Unknown said...

That's just bizarre. I think evolution has to be taught along with the rest of biology. In fact, if one teaches biology at all, it must include evolution. Otherwise, it would be like trying to teach genetics without mentioning biochemistry.

I think Woese knows a lot more about the tree of life than he does about education. I'll pay more attention to his remarks within his area of expertise.

-- HalfMooner

DiscoveredJoys said...

Everything taught in Elementary schools is simplified. It is only as you work your way up the educational organisation that you learn much more complex information - about fewer and fewer subjects.

Personally, I would like to see much more cross discipline teaching especially at the lower levels. Teach the history of the Black Death alongside the epidemiology of the Black Death, the impact on the populations, the impact on architecture, medecine, politics, economy, art and literature. Sure this will be fairly shallow in the early school years, but at least it will teach the inter-relatedness of events and break out of the 'single cause', 'single effect' constraints on thought. A far more powerful lesson.

Anonymous said...

He's totally missing how education works in those statements. You don't teach a first or second grade kid the intricacies of a topic, you teach her the rough basics, oversimplified, inelegant, and not terribly accurate. Then you build on that.

Do we teach calculus in all its glory in primary schools? No.

We teach that 3 - 2 = 1. And then we tell kids, "You can't take a big number away from a little number."

When they've got the concept of 10 - 7 = 3 down pat, then you can start talking about 7 - 10 = -3. They're not going to learn the latter until they've mastered the former.

Waiting until college to begin teaching evolution is akin to waiting until college to teach about subtraction and negative numbers. The basics still have to be taught first. It doesn't fix the problem he wants fixed, it just delays it for 12 years. You still have to start out with "Mommy bluebird and Daddy bluebird have baby bluebirds and Mommy gives half the genes to make Baby and Daddy gives half the genes to make Baby" just like you'd still have to start with "You can't take a big number away from a small number".

So no, college freshmen don't know all the intricacies of Advanced Calculus, Quantum Mechanics, or Evolutionary theory, but it'd be disastrous to wait until college to start teaching the basics of math or physics or biology. We'd all be in grad school before learning about the Pythagorean theorem and electrons and cell mitosis.

I don't think that's a road we want to go down, and I don't think Dr. Woese has thought this idea through.

Then again, I'm a college freshman, what do I know? I just learned to read "See Dick run. Run Dick, run."

Unknown said...

ERV, I'm teaching biology in a high school and agree with you 100% on this, but when you say "Crazy old man" you can't get upset if he sees your reaction and writes you off as an "Emotional young woman." Save the namecalling for the intentionally dishonest and dogmatic, not for scientists.

That being said, it sucks seeing material for the Tard Factory coming from the mouth of such a distinguished scientist. Let's prove him wrong and shame the reality-deniers.

Tatarize said...

I think Carl has sort of discounted how easy it is to explain Quantum Mechanics. When you deal with really tiny things they end up being really fuzzy and aren't in exactly one place or state aren't composed of matter as we see it today. Then you sort of build off that. Atoms are made of electrons, neutrons, and protons, protons are neutrons and positrons (anti-matter electrons) and neutrons are gluons and half a dozen quarks spinning around (the spinning gives it most of the mass rather than the quarks as E=MC^2).

Frankly, I've made a point to quickly explain what evolution is each time I end up in a debate on the topic. Most people who want to challenge it don't know.

Explaining a Malthusian crunch and the need for any slight edge and how bad mutations go away quickly but good ones are easy preserved and things build off each other and so you can only take steps forward.

And as a computer scientist myself aporeticus, I highly recommend genetic algorithms and genetic programming. Nothing's as fun as watching a computer program evolve a novel solution to a problem, or spending a week pondering why it would evolve that rather than the obvious choice (the answer is always because 'that' is better than the 'obvious choice' for a fairly obscure reason).

Ielyah said...

I'm sorry, but I think he's being quite insulting towards childhood or teenage intelligence. Last time I checked, my college educated bio teacher had very little problem teaching us evolution. And yes it was probably watered down, but that’s how education works, you learn the broad concepts and then slowly zoom in, or the reverse. I think it’s much more to suddenly learn the entirety of a theory without any previous mention... An intro to evolution in grade of high school won’t kill the kids, and probably keeps things a lot more interesting.

The worse part is that DIers will use this as a "lookee a real live scientist agrees with us!!!"

Fred Ross said...

First, Woese hasn't lost his mind, though it may look like it to someone trained as a molecular biologist. He isn't referring to biofilms at all, which are simply a case of (possibly several) species of microbes developing larger physical structure. The quasispecies model is a very particular case of what he is thinking of, that of a single species characterized by N loci which is isolated and homogeneously mixed in its own little world under some applied dynamics. From time to time it's worth taking out your formalisms, putting them next to reality, and giving them a good hard stare. This is what he's doing.

It's not analogous to a theory of everything (which most physicists aren't looking for, despite popular ideas to the contrary). It's just an attempt to rebuild the formalism in such a way that additional questions and structures appear "natural."

Unfortunately, he gets caught in partially constructed formalisms too quickly in his statements.

And he's entirely off base about teaching quantum mechanics. Mott wrote a lovely high school book on quantum mechanics years ago.

Unknown said...

Sheez, I can hardly believe that he can be that stupid.

Kids learn nearly everything by rote in school in the beginning. They're literalistic and have photographic memories, because they don't have enough contextual knowledge to integrate everything. Apparently Woese is content to leave them at their present state, not providing the context they'll need to use at university level.

Evolution at its most basic is about as complicated as family relationships, even if these have to be extrapolated into the distant past. Does Woese really have a problem with telling kids why their siblings happen to share many of their own characteristics, or why dogs both differ significantly and have much in common?

Show children ape skeletons and human skeletons side by side, and let them see archaeopteryx skeletons. Hell, I was a creationist child, and I still couldn't help but be concerned that archaeopteryx looked an awfully lot like what one would expect a "primitive" ancestor of birds to look like.

The trouble with Woese is that he's knowledgeable about complex evolutionary issues, and not at all expert at teaching children the basics of science. He's about as useful for telling us what elementary and high school curricula should be like as Dembski is useful for finding out what has been designed.

And of course Woese is not really stupid, he's merely shown to the world that he's got some rather large blind spots, and that he doesn't have enough sense to recognize where these blind spots lie.

Glen Davidson

Unknown said...

You can learn about basic chemistry and physics without touching on quantum mechanics, but you can't do the same with biology and evolution.

And, unlike quantum theory, how natural selection works is pretty easy to understand. Without going hard-core into genetics, it's easy to teach the basic premises of Darwin's theory which shows it to be highly possible (in the kid's mind) and understandable. That one of the qualities that, as Dennett said, makes Darwinian thinking a "universal acid".

Anonymous said...

Here in NZ we've just introduced a new science curriculum - in which evolution takes centre stage from new entrants (kindergartners) onwards. It's simply not true to suggest, as Woese does, that children can't grasp the idea of evolution; you just have to present the information in an age-appropriate manner.

And yes, I agree that this means that teachers must be appropriately trained and resourced to do the job properly!

PS though I'm a first-time poster here I've been lurking for a while - great blog, ERV :-)

John Krehbiel said...

Sadly, many science teachers see their role as teaching a "list of facts" approach to science. And some of them are creationists, or are at least somewhat skeptical of evolution.

ISTM that it is much more important, especially at the elementary level, to show the kids that science in general is based on evidence. Science is portrayed as just one story, verses many others. The basic philosophical foundation of science is vital, but those words scare people off.

Just keep asking "How do you know that?" Make them refer to evidence as the only acceptable argument.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

And, unlike quantum theory, how natural selection works is pretty easy to understand.

Except that on the corresponding sketchy level quantum theory is as easy to understand. Compare "deterministic time propagation of state information, followed by random mixing by interactions with the environment" with "random variation of traits, followed by deterministic natural selection by interactions with the environment under inheritance".

Quite an analogous situation. (And why shouldn't it be, seeing that bayesian inference (a priori probabilities adjusted into a posteriori probabilities) has been suggested as models for both quantum observations as well as for populations genomes "measuring" (adjusted to - "learning of") their environment.)

I think it is catchy to call QM hard to understand. But as evolution it is as non-intuitive, against the workings of our brains adaptations which are used to classic objects (quantum physics) and rigid classifications (biological evolution), as it is pretty easy to understand in simple abstract. And as evolution it has a lot of complicated detail. (Though of course biology with all its mechanisms beats the crap out of QM there.)

Tatarize said...

What's more is that QM is just hard to grasp on a conceptual level early on. But, that's because you're taught science for a couple decades which doesn't integrate QM at a real level. You're taught a bunch of stuff and then QM comes around and everything you're taught has a few exceptions or was pretty naive. If you started with QM and taught the rest of it properly integrated QM wouldn't be "hard" in the least. Nobody's asking them to do the equations just understand the concepts.

Carl Woese is right, we should teach QM in high school (let's assume that's his point).

Anonymous said...

I teach high school science. That means I teach bio, chem and physics for kids aged 11-14 and physics to kids aged 14-18.

When we do the biology parts of the syllabus, every single lesson has some mention of the idea of evolution. I simply wouldnt know how to do otherwise.

At the 14-16 level, the subject of evolution gets a topic of its own, but that is none of my business!