Category Archives: Education

Evolution, creationism, and US VP Mike Pence

trump walter reed

Mike Pence is a highly intelligent and extremely able trial lawyer, and a committed creationist. As I write, he is one heartbeat (or should we now say one breath?) away from being President of the United States, and in the event that Donald Trump manages to retain power in November, will be his heir apparent. Here is what I wrote about his stated views on creationism and evolution not long after he was sworn in as Vice-President. I hope that four weeks from today all of this will be of historical interest only, and am reposting this in order to help make that happen.

Above: Donald Trump risen from his hospital bed to reveal himself to his followers (Getty Images via Business Insider)

The now Vice-President of the United States stands accused of having said that evolution is “just a theory”; see here and here. No he did not say that. What he did say (full text below, with notes) was far, far worse. Much more detailed, much more closely argued, and much more dangerous. Read the rest of this entry

Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world (review; long)

Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world, Marcia Bjornerud, Princeton University Press, 2018/2020

There are many excellent overviews for the general reader of how life on Earth has changed over time (see, for a recent example, Neil Shubin’s Some Assembly Required, which I reviewed here recently. The history of the Earth itself has not been so well served, and Timefulness; How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, by Marcia Bjornerud, Professor of Geology and environmental Sciences at Lawrence University, is a welcome and timely addition to this badly under-represented genre. [1] The book is beautifully written, in plain language, with complex ideas explained with great simplicity and the use of strikingly appropriate verbal imagery. Behind this transparency of language lies a deep love and knowledge of her subject. The book should appeal to anyone looking for an overview of the Earth as the abode of life, or a perspective on our place in time, and how recklessly we are compressing the tempo of natural change.

The author presents her book as an argument for what she calls timefulness, the perception of ourselves as living in and constrained by time, of time itself as having both extension and texture, of the acceptance of our own mortality, and of our own responsibilities. This she sees as severely lacking in our society. We expect people to know something about distances on the map, but Read the rest of this entry

Relevant again; Why Michael Gove is not fit to lead anything


Gove claiming that EU regulations prevent us from keeping out terrorists. Dylan Martinez via Daily Telegraph

“People in this country have had enough of experts,” said Michael Gove. The experts who tell us that Brexit will be damaging and a no-deal Brexit devastating; that human-caused global warming is a clear and present danger [Correction: Michael Gove does accept the expert consensus on climate change]; that physics teachers know more about physics (and about teaching) than Michael Gove did when telling them what and how to teach and getting it wrong from beginning to end; that actions have consequences; that reality matters.

And so, regretfully, for the third time, why Michael Gove is not fit to lead an Easter egg hunt, let alone a nation on the brink of the most catastrophic decision since 1914.

And since among other things that decision may well force us to submit to whatever trading arrangements the Tramp Administration chooses to impose on us, I would also draw attention to Miles King’s Michael Gove and the American Neoconservatives.

Anyway,here we go again:


Thermodynamics: turbines

The [then] Education Secretary said “What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton’s laws of thermodynamics and Boyle’s law.” [reported here]. He has been widely criticized for this (e.g. here and here), but it’s still worth discussing exactly why what he said is so appallingly wrong, on at least four separate counts. In the unlikely event that Mr. Gove ever reads this, he may learn something. Muddling up the laws of motion with the laws of thermodynamics is bad enough. Muddling up an almost incidental observation, like Boyle’s Law, is even worse, especially when this muddle comes from someone in charge of our educational system [well, not mine actually; I’m glad to say I live in Scotland], and in the very act of his telling teachers and examiners what is, and what is not, important.


Newton’s Laws: sailing ships

Okay, from the top. Newton’s laws; Gove probably meant (if he meant anything) Newton’s laws of motion, but he may also have been thinking of Newton’s law (note singular) of gravity. [I went on to summarise both Newton’s laws, and Newton’s law, and to explain how the combination of these explained the hitherto mysterious phenomenon of planetary motion and related it to the motion of falling bodies on Earth; an intellectual achievement not equalled until Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity]

But what about the laws of thermodynamics? These weren’t discovered until the 19th century, the century of the steam engine… [I briefly described them]

If you don’t immediately realize that Newton’s laws and the laws of thermodynamics belong to different stages of technology, the age of sail as opposed to the age of steam, and to different levels of scientific understanding, the individual and macroscopic as opposed to the statistical and submicroscopic, then you don’t know what you’re talking about. Gove’s blunder has been compared to confusing Shakespeare with Dickens. It is far, far worse than that. It is – I am at a loss for an adequate simile. All I can say is that it is as bad as confusing Newton’s laws with the laws of thermodynamics, and I can’t say worse than that.

And regarding Gove’s description of Boyle’s Law as “basic”, I had this to say:

He [Gove] has been justly mocked for confusing Newton’s laws with the laws of thermodynamics. But the kind of ignorance involved in describing Boyle’s Law as a “basic scientific principle” is far more damaging.

Disclosure: I taught Boyle’s Law for over 40 years, and it gets three index entries in my book, From Stars to Stalagmites.

Bottom line: Boyle’s Law is not basic. It is a secondary consequence of the kinetic theory of gases, which is basic. The difference is enormous, and matters. Anyone who thinks that Boyle’s Law is a principle doesn’t know what a principle is. (So Gove doesn’t know what a principle is? That figures.)

Mathematically, the Law is simply stated, which may be why Mr Gove thinks it is basic: volume is inversely proportional to pressure, which gives you a nice simple equation (P x V = a constant) that even a Cabinet Minister can understand. But on its own, it is of no educational value whatsoever. It only acquires value if you put it in its context [in the kinetic theory of gases], but this involves a concept of education that seems to be beyond his understanding…

Educationally, context is everything, the key to understanding and to making that understanding worthwhile. A person who decries the study of context is unfit for involvement with education.

Even at Cabinet level.

And, I would now add, completely unfit for making major decisions in these interesting times.

Steam turbine blade Siemens via Wikipedia. Sailing ship image from Pirate King website

Teaching evolution in Kentucky, 2: The Case of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

The thing about teaching is we are never sure we are making a difference.

Jim Krupa takes evolution as his central theme when he teaches biology to non-majors at the University of Kentucky, where the students are most unlikely to have heard about evolution in school, but may well have been warned about its wickedness in church. With his permission, I am posting an article that he wrote in Orion Magazine describing his experiences. The first part dealt with the challenges he faces. This second part describes his response, which centres on a discussion of the nature of scientific reasoning, followed by the case study (described in greater detail[1]in’s American Biology Teacher), and concludes with a discussion of outcomes. Notice how many misconceptions Jim demolishes on the way, including confusion about the  role of theory in science, the curious but widespread belief that evolution science is without practical application, and (particularly important in his local context) the claim that accepting evolution is incompatible with religion.

Jim teaches, and touches the lives of, 1800 students a year – enough, over time, to flip a good few school districts and make a real difference to the cultural climate of the State. And we can be sure that his students will have plenty to talk about with their friends.

Defending Darwin (continued)

By James Krupa


The (now-extinct) Ivory-build Woodpecker, central to Prof Krupa’s case study

ONCE I LAY DOWN the basics of science, I introduce the Darwinian theories of evolution. Charles Darwin was by no means the first or only to put forth evolution; others came before him including his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who wrote about descent with modification. Later, while Charles was amassing evidence in England for natural selection, one of the most eloquent scientific theories ever, Alfred Russel Wallace was also developing the same theory during his travels in Indonesia. But it was Charles Darwin alone who advanced the theory of descent with modification, with his bold idea that all species belong to the same tree of life and thus share a common ancestor. He also gave us sexual selection theory, which explains how evolution is shaped by competition for mates as well as choice of mates. Too often only natural selection and descent with modification are emphasized in introductory biology classes. I also cover Darwin’s theories of gradualism (including the nuance of punctuated equilibrium); descent from a common ancestor; multiplication of species; and sexual selection. I emphasize that five of the theories explain the patterns of evolution, while natural and sexual selection are the mechanisms that drive evolution. Read the rest of this entry

Teaching evolution to creationists in Kentucky (by one who does it for a living)

Evolution and scientific logic lie at the heart of Prof Jim Krupa’s award-winning biology course at the University of Kentucky, conveyed by a mixture of story-telling, the Socratic method, and student engagement in a case study close to his heart as a naturalist. Jim has kindly agreed to let me post his article in Orion Magazine. The first part (here) describes the  hostile cultural environment in which he is working, why evolution is at the core of his teaching, and how he begins his course by clearing away semantic nonsense, and analysing the concept of scientific theory.

You will find more detail about this in one of his articles in The American Biology Teacher [1]. Jim uses the National Academies definition of a scientific theory as well-attested by observation, but, as he explains there, he is well aware of its limitations, and  anatomises “the” theory of evolution into its separate independent components, before bringing them to bear on the case study that I will be describing the second part of this two-part series.

Defending Darwin

By James Krupa

I’M OFTEN ASKED what I do for a living. My answer, that I am a professor at the University of Kentucky, inevitably prompts a second question: “What do you teach?” Responding to such a question should be easy and invite polite conversation, but I usually brace for a negative reaction. At least half the time the person flinches with disapproval when I answer “evolution,” and often the conversation simply terminates once the “e-word” has been spoken. Occasionally, someone will retort: “But there is no evidence for evolution.” Or insist: “It’s just a theory, so why teach it?”


University of Kentucky library building

At this point I should walk away, but the educator in me can’t. I generally take the bait, explaining that evolution is an established fact and the foundation of all biology. If in a feisty mood, I’ll leave them with this caution: the fewer who understand evolution, the more who will die. Sometimes, when a person is still keen to prove me wrong, I’m more than happy to share with him an avalanche of evidence demonstrating I’m not.

Some colleagues ask why I bother, as if I’m the one who’s the provocateur. I remind them that evolution is the foundation of our science, and we simply can’t shy away from explaining it. We don’t avoid using the “g-word” when talking about gravitational theory, nor do we avoid the “c-word” when talking about cell theory. So why avoid talking about evolution, let alone defending it? After all, as a biologist, the mission of advancing evolution education is the most important aspect of my job.

an institution steeped in the history of defending evolution education

TO TEACH EVOLUTION at the University of Kentucky is to teach at an institution steeped in the history of defending evolution education. The first effort to pass an anti-evolution law (led by William Jennings Bryan) happened in Kentucky in 1921. It proposed making the teaching of evolution illegal. The university’s president at that time, Frank McVey, saw this bill as a threat to academic freedom. Three faculty members—William Funkhouser, a zoologist; Arthur Miller, a geologist who taught evolution; and Glanville Terrell, a philosopher—joined McVey in the battle to prevent the bill from becoming law. They put their jobs on the line. Through their efforts, the anti-evolution bill was defeated by a forty-two to forty-one vote in the state legislature. Consequently, the movement turned its attention toward Tennessee.

File:Funkhouser building.jpg

The Funkhouser building. Funkhouser, then Professor of Zoology, was among those who successfully campaigned against a 1921 State bill that wold have made the teaching of evolution illegal.

John Thomas Scopes was a student at the University of Kentucky then and watched the efforts of his three favorite teachers and President McVey. The reason the “Scopes Monkey Trial” occurred several years later in Dayton, Tennessee—where Scopes was a substitute teacher and volunteered to be prosecuted—was in good part due to the influence of his mentors, particularly Funkhouser. As Scopes writes in his memoir, Center of the Storm: “Teachers rather than subject matter rekindled my interest in science. Dr. Funkhouser . . . was a man without airs [who] taught zoology so flawlessly that there was no need to cram for the final examination; at the end of the term there was a thorough, fundamental grasp of the subject in bold relief in the student’s mind, where Funkhouser had left it.”

I was originally reluctant to take my job at the university when offered it twenty years ago. It required teaching three sections of non-majors biology classes, with three hundred students per section, and as many as eighteen hundred students each year. I wasn’t particularly keen on lecturing to an auditorium of students whose interest in biology was questionable given that the class was a freshman requirement.

Then I heard an interview with the renowned evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson in which he addressed why, as a senior professor—and one of the most famous biologists in the world—he continued to teach non-majors biology at Harvard. Wilson explained that non-majors biology is the most important science class that one could teach. He felt many of the future leaders of this nation would take the class, and that this was the last chance to convey to them an appreciation for biology and science. Moved by Wilson’s words, and with the knowledge that William Funkhouser once held the job I was now contemplating, I accepted the position. The need to do well was unnerving, however, considering that if I failed as a teacher, a future Scopes might leave my class uninspired.

I quickly came to the conclusion that, since evolution is the foundation upon which all biology rests, it should be taught at the beginning of a course, and as a recurring theme throughout the semester.

I realized early on that many instructors teach introductory biology classes incorrectly. Too often evolution is the last section to be taught, an autonomous unit at the end of the semester. I quickly came to the conclusion that, since evolution is the foundation upon which all biology rests, it should be taught at the beginning of a course, and as a recurring theme throughout the semester. As the renowned geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” In other words, how else can we explain why the DNA of chimps and humans is nearly 99 percent identical, and that the blood and muscle proteins of chimps and humans are nearly identical as well? Why are these same proteins slightly less similar to gorillas and orangu­tans, while much less similar to goldfish? Only evolution can shed light on these questions: we humans are great apes; we and the other great apes (gibbons, chimps, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans) all evolved from a common ancestor.

Soon, every topic and lecture in my class was built on an evolutionary foundation and explained from an evolutionary perspective. My basic biology for non-majors became evolution for non-majors. It didn’t take long before I started to hear from a vocal minority of students who strongly objected: “I am very offended by your lectures on evolution! Those who believe in creation are not ignorant of science! You had no right to try and force evolution on us. Your job was to teach it as a theory and not as a fact that all smart people believe in!!” And: “Evolution is not a proven fact. It should not be taught as if it is. It cannot be observed in any quantitative form and, therefore, isn’t really science.”

We live in a nation where public acceptance of evolution is the second lowest of thirty-four developed countries, just ahead of Turkey. Roughly half of Americans reject some aspect of evolution, believe the earth is less than ten thousand years old, and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Where I live, many believe evolution to be synonymous with atheism, and there are those who strongly feel I am teaching heresy to thousands of students. A local pastor, whom I’ve never met, wrote an article in The University Christian complaining that, not only was I teaching evolution and ignoring creationism, I was teaching it as a non-Christian, alternative religion.

There are students who enroll in my courses and already accept evolution. Although not yet particularly knowledgeable on the subject, they are eager to learn more. Then there are the students whose minds are already sealed shut to the possibility that evolution exists, but need to take my class to fulfill a college requirement. And then there are the students who have no opinion one way or the other but are open-minded. These are the students I most hope to reach by presenting them with convincing and overwhelming evidence without offending or alienating them.

a question I’ve heard many times: “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”

Some students take offense very easily. During one lecture, a student asked a question I’ve heard many times: “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” My response was and is always the same: we didn’t evolve from monkeys. Humans and monkeys evolved from a common ancestor. One ancestral population evolved in one direction toward modern-day monkeys, while another evolved toward humans. The explanation clicked for most students, but not all, so I tried another. I asked the students to consider this: Catholics are the oldest Christian denomination, and so if Protestants evolved from Catholics, why are there still Catholics? Some students laughed, some found it a clarifying example, and others were clearly offended. Two days later, a student walked down to the lectern after class and informed me that I was wrong about Catholics. He said Baptists were the first Christians and that this is clearly explained in the Bible. His mother told him so. I asked where this was explained in the Bible. He glared at me and said, “John the Baptist, duh!” and then walked away.

a biology colleague asked … if I would be teaching evolution as a theory or a fact.

To truly understand evolution, you must first understand science. Unfortunately, one of the most misused words today is also one of the most important to science: theory. Many incorrectly see theory as the opposite of fact. The National Academy of Sciences provides concise definitions of these critical words: A fact is a scientific explanation that has been tested and confirmed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing it; a theory is a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence generating testable and falsifiable predictions.

In science, something can be both theory and fact. We know the existence of pathogens is a fact; germ theory provides testable explanations concerning the nature of disease. We know the existence of cells is a fact, and that cell theory provides testable explanations of how cells function. Similarly, we know evolution is a fact, and that evolutionary theories explain biological patterns and mechanisms. The late Stephen Jay Gould said it best: “Evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts.”

Theory is the most powerful and important tool science has, but nonscientists have perverted and diluted the word to mean a hunch, notion, or idea. Thus, all too many people interpret the phrase “evolutionary theory” to mean “evolutionary hunch.”

Not surprisingly, I spend the first week of class differentiating theory from fact, as well as defining other critical terms. But I’m appalled by some of my colleagues who, despite being scientists, do not understand the meaning of theory. As I was preparing to teach a sophomore evolution class a few years ago, a biology colleague asked how I was going to approach teaching evolution. Specifically, he asked if I would be teaching evolution as a theory or a fact. “I will teach evolution as both theory and fact,” I said, trying hard to conceal my frustration. No matter. My colleague simply walked away, likely questioning my competence to teach the class.

Hear a conversation with James J. Krupa about his experience teaching evolution.

Read the rest of this entry

Why Michael Gove is not fit to lead anything

Reposting because relevant

Primate's Progress

GoveThere are mistakes due to ignorance. There are mistakes due to misunderstanding. And finally, there are mistakes that show ignorance, misunderstanding, complacency, and arrogance.

The news that Michael Gove wants to lead the country sent me back to what I wrote about him almost exactly 3 years ago. He was, of course, talking through his hat, and we all do that from time to time. But he did this while telling the rest of us, in his then capacity of Education Secretary, what to do and how to teach. Now it may not matter that Michael Gove has only a limited grasp of physics (actually, I think it does, when the physics of climate change underlie the most important single challenge facing us), but it matters enormously that a would-be future Prime Minister considers his ignorance a qualification.

Anyway, here is the gist of what I wrote back then

View original post 640 more words

The Scopes “Monkey trial”, Part 2: Evidence, Confrontation, Resolution, Consequences

This weekend sees the 93rd anniversary of the Scopes Trial, and I am reposting this and its companion piece to celebrate.

I would point out two things. One is that the actual William Jennings Bryan was nothing like the ogre of Inherit the Wind, which was an allegory of McCarthyism. The other is how remarkably well the scientific evidence has stood up to almost a century of examination. There is even a mention, based on serological evidence, of how closely related whales are to hoofed land animals.

Primate's Progress

Darrow: Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?

Bryan: No, sir; I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.

Both sides, I will argue, were long-term loses in this exchange. But why were such matters being discussed in Tennessee court of law in the first place?

Part 1: the story so far: An extraordinary case indeed, where a school teacher, with the encouragement of his own superintendent, volunteers to go on trial in the State court for the crime of teaching from the State’s approved textbook, and where that same superintendent will be the first witness called against him. And where a mere misdemeanour case, with a maximum penalty of $500, could attract the participation of William Jennings Bryan, former US Secretary of State, and Clarence Darrow, America’s most famous trial lawyer and an agnostic.

BillySundayPreaching Billy Sunday preaching

In the run-up to the case, we even have the…

View original post 4,796 more words

The Scopes “Monkey trial”, Part 1: Issues, Fact, and Fiction

This weekend sees the 93rd anniversary of the Scopes Trial, and I am reposting this and its companion piece to celebrate.

I would point out two things. One is that the actual William Jennings Bryan was nothing like the ogre of Inherit the Wind, which was an allegory of McCarthyism. The other is how remarkably well the scientific evidence has stood up to almost a century of examination. There is even a mention, based on serological evidence, of how closely related whales are to hoofed land animals.

Primate's Progress

What is the purpose of this examination?

We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States, and that is all.

DaytonCourthouse Dayton Courthouse today

Inherit the Wind, the prism through which the public sees the Scopes Trial, is a travesty. William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted Scopes, was neither a buffoon nor a biblical literalist but moved by deep concerns that continue to merit attention. He did not protest at the leniency of Scopes’s punishment, but offered to pay the fine out of his own pocket. Nor did he collapse in defeat at the end of the trial, but drove hundreds of miles, and delivered two major speeches, before dying in his sleep a week later. Scopes, on trial for the crime of teaching evolution in Tennessee state school, was never at risk of prison. He was no martyr, but a willing participant…

View original post 4,086 more words

Why historical science is the best kind of science

This is for a planned wide-audience writing project on evolution, in which I pre-empt (rather than respond to) creationists’ counter-arguments, such as their downplaying of historical science. I would greatly value comments on this approach.

There are sciences, such as physics and chemistry, where we can perform experiments. There are other sciences, such as the science of planetary motion (and astronomy in general) where we cannot do this, but we can still carry out repeated observations in well-controlled circumstances, and devise theories with whose help we can make definite predictions. All of these are what I will call rule-seeking sciences. At the other extreme, we have sciences such as palaeontology and much of geology, which one might call historical sciences.1 With these, the aim is not so much to establish general rules, as to unravel and explain the specifics of what happened in the past. It is usual to regard the rule-seeking sciences as the most rigorous, to which the others should defer. This shows a deep misunderstanding of how science works, and, time and time again, when historical and rule-seeking sciences have come into conflict, it is historical science that has triumphed.

Rocks exposed at Grand Canyon, from Proterozoic to Permian. Click to enlarge

A few examples. The rocks clearly show (for detailed arguments, see e.g. here) that the Earth, and by implication the Sun, Read the rest of this entry

Evolution, the Iraqi Translation Project, and science in the Arab World

Translations change the course of civilisations. The translation project begun by Caliph al-Mansour in the 8th century CE, and accelerated under his grandson Harun al-Rashid, made available in Arabic scholarly writings from Greek, Aramaic (Syriac), Persian, and Indian sources, and laid the foundation for the flowering of science and philosophy in the Islamic world during Europe’s Dark Ages. A second translation project, from the 10th century onwards, was in the other direction, from Arabic to Latin. Among its initiators was Gerbert d’Aurillac, the future Pope Sylvester II, and it reached its height in Toledo in Spain where for a while Christianity and Islam came into close contact and where Gerard of Cremona translated al Khwarismi and Avicenna (ibn Sina), as well as Arabic versions of works by Ptolemy and Aristotle. It refreshed Europe’s contact with classical learning, while also conveying what was then current scholarship. It was the pathway through which Christian Europe rediscovered Aristotle, while Avicenna’s clinical expertise is mentioned in the Canterbury Tales. His writings on geology, which I have discussed elsewhere, were among those translated at this time, but originally misattributed to Aristotle.

Avicenna_Expounding_Pharmacy_to_his_Pupils_Wellcome_L0008688L: Avicenna expounding pharmacy to his pupils, from the 15th century “Great Cannon [sic] of Avicenna”; Wellcome Library via Wikimedia. Click to enlarge.

Happily, if belatedly, another translation project is now under way, from English to Arabic, focused largely on science-related topics of general interest, with special attention to evolution.

Why evolution? Not only because of its central role in modern life sciences, but because Read the rest of this entry

%d bloggers like this: