Sunday, February 24, 2008

More on Carl Woese

10 years ago:

The status of biological instruction, especially in the high schools, disturbs Woese. "Biology is poorly taught in general at the high school level," he says, referring to the polarization of evolution by the scientifically heterodox. "Scientifically, the matter is simple. The essence of biology is evolution, and biology should be taught from an evolutionary perspective. Yet, although evolution is covered to some extent in high school biology courses, it bears the scarlet letter and is taught in a guarded fashion, embalmed in caveats. The reason for this is obvious, as are the pressures on textbook publishers."

Woese removes himself from the "politically cathected" evolution vs. creationism issue. "I like my science pure. I don't see any fundamental contradiction between science in the big view and religion in the big view."

Woese believes biology itself has ironically locked arms with the creationists in putting negative pressure on biologic instruction. "It comes from within the core of biology itself," he says. "Biology today is structured about the molecular paradigm. Molecular biology, which derives from classical physics doesn't see evolution as basic, that it's an almost trivial collection of 'historical accidents'.

"I am not at peace with the state of biology today," he says. "It is in a revolutionary mode, and the revolution needs some guidance of the kind it is not receiving. The way we teach biology is not right. Evolution should be the centerpiece."



I mean, its appeaserery, but its fine. So why the weird switch? Maybe someone else has, erm, 'Flew' over the cuckoos nest? Or maybe Brandon Keim didnt report, ah, accurately?


In any case, you all really should read the rest of the article the above quote came from. Its a lesson in how paradigm shifts in biology really occur (PARADIGM!!!!). Woes had an idea. He was shunned for his idea. He didnt found a 'think tank.' He didnt push to get his ideas in high school textbooks. He didnt go on country-wide-church speaking tours telling radical Christians that microbiologists were Nazis who hate Jesus.

He kept doing research anyway, building evidence to support his claims.

Scientists are slaves to data. We must go where the evidence leads us. And Woeses data smacked biologists over the head: Archaea are real*.

* Archaea have their own viruses too, but thats a whole nother story :P


Ian said...

Yeah, sadly, I was thinking "flew" myself...

The Factician said...

Hmm... I had been thinking something quite different.

If one arrives at the position that it is impossible to teach evolution properly in high school (due to the pressures of a fairly boisterous group of fundie parents), you're left with a few unpalatable possibilites.

1) Fight the fundies tooth and nail. I'm sure this gets to be tiring and repetitive. Woese is an old dude. He's seen this going on for decades.

2) Teach a watered down version of evolution. This is what is currently done. Even many biologists have a very poor understanding of evolution as a result of bad ideas placed in their heads at young impressionable age.

3) Abandon evolution entirely to be taught at an older age in college, where fundies tend to lose anyway (fundies lose to beer, they lose to sex and they lose to education).

It appears to me that Woese has gone with 3. I tend to think we should go with 1, but I can see how one could become very, very tired of arguing with the fundies.

Just a thought...

BaldApe said...

He certainly is on to something when he talks about the biology curriculum and reductionism. My students are expected to be able to describe protein synthesis, but are not expected to know that a chicken is not a mammal.

I have long suspected that this approach is partly to appease the cdesign proponentstists. Much of the intuitively obvious support for evolution is in the observation that related forms develop in more similar ways than unrelated forms. (birds wings vs. bats wings, vs insect wings, for instance) If you never teach how they are related, the complete integrated picture disappears.

Jon said...

Think tanks..


Gary said...

@the factician

You echo my own thoughts.

I don't believe Woese is correct in choosing door number 3 but I don't think he is pulling a 'Flew'.

If creationists are given free reign, later attempts to recover from their nonsense will be much more difficult. Their crap has to be countered now and the best place to do that is in the education system.

King Aardvark said...

So let me get this straight: it's impossible to adequately teach biology in elementary school/high school due to political pressures, teaching limitations, etc, so lets give up until college? Dude, most people don't even go to college, let alone take college biology. Does he advocate having an entire population completely unaware of evolution altogether and a small marginalized group of ivory tower biologists? It doesn't make any sense.

The Factician said...

king aardvark,

Most people don't understand how microchips work, either.

I don't agree with Woese's sentiment, but I can see why someone might want to triage evolution until college. Better that it get taught properly at least once (to a small set of students) than to poison the well with them in high school, and then try to repair that damage later. That's the argument as I've had it presented to me. I don't totally agree with it, but I can see where it comes from.

King Aardvark said...

There's a difference between evolution and microships:

-when people don't have a clue about microchips they think it has something to do with electrons.

-when people don't have a clue about evolution they think God did it, then they go out and vote for fundie politicians.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

As a high school biology teacher, I can assure you that even if evolution is taught accurately and throughly as the centerpiece of the curriculum, a substantial number of students will leave your course with the same misconceptions. The patina of religious disapproval attached to what in many student's minds is a belief system ('Darwinism') means that they will fail to critically examine their preconceptions, even those which have no direct bearing on their cherished beliefs.

For example, consider the fact that individuals don't evolve, populations do. You can say this until you are blue in the face, and many kids will eventually 'get it', but I know from experience some don't. Former students of mine, students who earned above-average grades, will later tell me in frank confidence that they know evolution is false because no one's seen a fish become a dog, or some such.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

If one arrives at the position that it is impossible to teach evolution properly in high school (due to the pressures of a fairly boisterous group of fundie parents), you're left with a few unpalatable possibilites.

Actually, in my experience, if you just stick to your guns, you will win. The law is on our side, and even the most fanatical will eventually realize that attempts to intimidate teachers aren't worth the negative backlash.

Of course, you'll find it a lot easier to win if you undermine the negatives by challenging the faithful in their own lair. It is an interesting fact that very few churches actually want to openly sanction attacks against the public schools. If I had some fundy parents going after me personally for what I teach, I would find their church and I would go see their pastor and appeal to their better nature. If that didn't work, I would show up on Sunday morning and identify myself as an aggrieved teacher and human being. And, in fact, I have in the past 'crashed the party' at churches which are having pro-ID, anti-evolutionist propaganda events.

Now, no one's ever pointed a gun at me or escorted me off the premises. The fact is, most religious people don't want to pick a fight. If you show up and put a human face on the matter, they won't accept evolution of course, but in all likelihood they will feel pressured to see if their actions are what Jesus would do. Plant the seed of doubt about their tactics and you will win.

BWE said...

The statement reflects mostly a perspective from a bubble the way I see it. Education is a bit haphazard even in the best scenarios. Each teacher brings their own experiences to the classroom and the idea that ideas are too complicated for students misses the reality of education altogether. Until around 14 or 15 years old, kids don't have the necessary background to weigh pretty much any idea against some objective standardized reality. They are learning to discover. Microscopes, trips to investigate in the real world, visits from practicing scientists and the like serve to spark curiosity and the desire to learn. Hopefully, some basic facts get in there too.