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Evolution, History and Society

Perspectives from a Third Career

I will admit that I really enjoy TEDTalks, Carl Zimmer’s recent critique notwithstanding. Here’s a good example (albeit one I’m unlikely to show in class).

It’s summertime again, and once again I am not participating in the Summer Reading Program. I did once in the past, and it was actually an enjoyable (although ultimately frustrated) experience. However, in the subsequent three years, I have thought about it and then opted out. Why? I do think the idea is sound – find a book that faculty, staff and incoming students can read in common and use it as the basis for building academic community. Alas, in my experience, that is not what happens. There are at least two underlying flaws in the common approach used, one which has been commented on extensively, the other one less so.

  1. Choice of Book. The National Association of Scholars, an organization with which I have many differences, releases a report every year entitled Beach Books: What do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside of Class?. Their major thesis, with which I disagree, is that the choices made are based not on quality or literary merit, but rather on political and social content. Quite honestly, that doesn’t bother me – indeed as a scientist who thinks a lot about the societal impact of science, the fact that Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the most commonly selected book in 2011. The NAS report rather contemptuously dismisses the book in stating that “Readers will come
    away from the book having learned new things, but the writing itself is journalistic,
    not intellectual.” I take issue with that statement; to the contrary I think the book raises profound questions that could be used to provoke discussions across many disciplines – biology, political science, sociology, history, and on and on.

    But setting aside the political agenda inherent in the report, there are two features of the report worthy of note. First, it makes the point that there is a bias towards recently published work, often (as is the case at Miami University) that the expectation is that the author will speak at Freshman Convocation. So much for Mark Twain. But most importantly, the NAS did their homework and reported the data – what books were used at a total of 245 colleges and universities in 2011. They break them out in a number of ways (some of them based on political content and thus of questionable objective significance), but the most interesting is their summary of most commonly used books – I’ve extracted it here. I leave the reader to judge this list, but I’ll state my conclusion succinctly – other than Skloot’s book, there is only one that I have read or will read on my own (The Help), and while that is a fine book, it hardly ranks with the great literature of the world. And note also – despite the explosion in high quality science writing of the past few years, that genre is noticeable by its near complete absence (my sophomore students in Evolution loved Neil Shubin’s My Inner Fish, as well as other books on a list I compiled, but these are nowhere to be seen).

    The NAS also provides its own list of recommended books. I’ve extracted both their criteria for making the recommendations, as well as the list that resulted here. I think you’ll find the contrast obvious – I certainly did. And in the interest of providing data (albeit somewhat subjective), I have read (and benefited from) 15 of the 46 recommended books, and I feel guilty about not having read many of the others. And some institutions do buck the trends – Cornell’s program has included such titles as The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, Antigone, and Frankenstein (although recent selections may be regressing towards the mean),

    There are other problems in the selection process, one of which is, in my view an excessive concern that the reading will be “too hard”, either for students or (unbelievably) for faculty. I witnessed this first hand at Miami; when in 2008 we used James Bennett’s Beyond UFO’s, an outstanding popular introduction to the astronomy of the solar system, a commonly heard criticism was that it was “too hard”, and that it “contained too much science”. The critics apparently had their impact; the next year the book was Taylor Mali’s What Learning Leaves, a 75 page collection of entertaining but (in my view) rather superficial “slam” poems loosely related to “education”. The book could easily be read in less than an hour, and students had the opportunity not to read it at all, but rather to watch the admittedly highly entertaining Mr. Mali perform them on YouTube.

    So the bottom line on the selection question? Too focused on the recent, a tendency towards the superficial, and lacking in scientific content.

  2. How the books are used Then there is the question as to what is done with the book. At Miami (and at many places), the author speaks, the students break out into faculty-led discussions, and that is basically the end of it. There is no ongoing curricular component associated with it, and there is a complete lack of any sort of assessment of what the students gained from the experience. Indeed, the one time I facilitated a section, when we asked how many had even read the book, about two hands (out of 20) went up. When we asked about reading at least a chapter, a few more did, but one young man asked if reading part of a chapter counted! But of course, that was that science book, which was “too hard”, even for faculty.

    So how do we deal with this? We know that students resist reading, but is that a reason to make it easier for them? I don’t think so; rather, I’d suggest go to the effort to truly incorporate it into our first year programs, and that there be real negative consequences (like grades of F) for students who chose not to make the required effort. I was pleased to discover, by way of a manuscript I reviewed (quite favorably, I would add) that this is what happens at Beloit College. In the fall of 2011, the College used Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World, a history of the 19th century cholera epidemic in London and its role (via the identification of the source on infection as the Broad Street Pump). John Jungck then incorporated it into his mathematics class; his paper describing how he did so can be accessed here. After I reviewed the paper, I read the book and was thrilled by it; on reflection, however, I did not nominate it for use at Miami, in that it was clear to me that given the superficial nature of our program, we could not possibly do it justice. More on the Beloit First Year Initiative is here.

So, if I were to sum up the current state of these programs, I would do so with two words – “wasted opportunity”. By focusing on recent work by living authors, we deprive ourselves of most of the rich canon of world literature. By catering to student’s aversion to reading, we trivialize the process. And by minimizing science in these programs, not only do we do an injustice to the field, but we perpetuate the stereotype of science, for both students and faculty, as that hard stuff that only weirdos care about. Taken together, it means that I will continue to find alternative ways to occupy my summer months.

Have others had different experiences with these programs? If so, feel free to comment. However, I fear that if the trends continue, these programs will do little to enhance students’ academic experiences and will continue to provide fuel to those who (mistakenly, I submit) decry the “liberal bias” and “political correctness” they see as pervasive in American higher education.

Robert Green Ingersoll

Posted by admin on May 28, 2012
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I’m currently at my favorite place in the world – at our family summer home on Seneca Lake in Geneva, NY. This area has many treasures to explore, but one I found several years ago that made a lasting impression was the Robert Green Ingersoll Museum, at his birthplace in Dresden, NY. To be honest, prior to finding the museum, I had never heard of Ingersoll; I was surprised to learn that he was one of the most popular orators of the late 19th century, and that he was an outspoken critic of religion and advocate for the secular. When Jerry Coyne posted his series of Mencken quotes, it reminded me of Ingersoll and prompted me to do some web snooping for his writings.

Granted, Ingersoll lacked the language skills of Mencken; but as he was primarily an orator rather than a writer, we was if anything more outspoken; for example:

“We cannot depend on what are called “inspired books,” or the religions of the world. These religions are based on the supernatural, and according to them we are under obligation to worship and obey some supernatural being, or beings. All these religions are inconsistent with intellectual liberty. They are the enemies of thought, of investigation, of mental honesty. They destroy the manliness of man. They promise eternal rewards for belief, for credulity, for what they call faith.” (from What Would You Substitute for the Bible as a Moral Guide?, date unknown)

On God and the Constitution:

“In 1776 our fathers endeavored to retire the gods from politics. They declared that “all governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This was a contradiction of the then political ideas of the world; it was, as many believed, an act of pure blasphemy — a renunciation of the Deity. It was in fact a declaration of the independence of the earth. It was a notice to all churches and priests that thereafter mankind would govern and protect themselves. Politically it tore down every altar and denied the authority of every “sacred book,” and appealed from the Providence of God to the Providence of Man. Those who promulgated the Declaration adopted a Constitution for the great Republic.” (God in the Constitution, 1890)

Robert Ingersoll was an enthusiastic atheist, who delighted in pointing out inconsistencies and demonstrable falsehoods in the Bible. Here he is commenting on the fourth day of creation:

“According to the sacred records God created, on the first day, the heaven and the earth, “moved upon the face of the waters,” and made the light. On the second day he made the firmament or the “expanse” and divided the waters. On the third day he gathered the waters into seas, let the dry land appear and caused the earth to bring forth grass, herbs and fruit trees, and on the fourth day he made the sun, moon and stars and set them in the firmament of heaven to give light upon the earth. This division of labor is very striking. The work of the other days is as nothing when compared with that of the fourth. Is it possible that it required the same time and labor to make the grass, herbs and fruit trees, that it did to fill with countless constellations the infinite expanse of space?” Some Mistakes of Moses, 1879

Ingersoll’s complete writings are available here. I can just about guarantee you will find something that will either delight you or aggravate you – there is no middle ground.


Posted by admin on May 28, 2012
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The subtitle of this site comes from a former colleague of mine, Dale Johnson of the University of South Florida. Like me, his first career was primarily as a researcher; also like me he went over to the dark side as an administrator and then returned to productive work as a teacher.

My current professional life revolves around the areas of Genetics and Evolution; I maintain separate web sites for teaching-related materials. I decided to establish this one as a repository for more political and whimsical thoughts. I’ll try to keep them focused on the scientific (i. e. no rants about upcoming elections and the like), but I may or may not succeed. At any rate, I will post comments occasionally; in addition I’ll add links and feeds as I run across them. Where comments are open, they are more than welcome (although they will be monitored, and anything verging on the troll-like will be rejected).

In the past week, Jerry Coyne has made two significant contributions to the global discussion on religion and evolution, both accessible from his blog Why Evolution is True. First, his paper on religion, evolution and social dysfunction has been published in Evolution (a bit of a departure for that staid bastion of the Modern Synthesis) Second, on the same blog, he has treated us to a week of quotes from H. L Mencken, mostly ones dealing with religion and the Scopes Trial.

Let’s talk about Mencken first. His acerbic wit was without peer – I am tempted to fill my Kindle with his collected works, so that I can read them whenever I feel in need of a reality fix. I particularly enjoyed “Mencken Week Day Four”, in which Mencken asks a question that only too rarely gets asked – why are religious opinions given special protection and privilege in American Society? In his words, “There is nothing in religious ideas, as a class, to lift them above other ideas. On the contrary, they are always dubious and often quite silly.” I found this quote to be particularly relevant, given the recent posturing of the Catholic Church regarding birth control and the “threat to their religious freedom” posed by the requirement that they follow the law and make it available to patients in hospitals owned by Vatican, Inc. (see Maureen Dowd’s recent column in the New York Times).

Regarding Coyne’s Evolution Paper, let me start by saying that I agree completely with almost everything in it – if religion is defined as he does, ““those systems of belief that accept and worship the existence of supernatural beings whose actions affect the universe”, then religion is indeed incompatible with evolution, and no amount of accomodationist rationalizing can change that fact. Indeed, Will Provine made that point in his famous (or infamous) 1988 essay, in which he referred to checking one’s brains at the church door (a quote that is usually only paraphrased but is quoted verbatim below).

A thoughtful attorney from San Antonio, Tex., wrote recently to ask, “Is there an intellectually honest Christian evolutionist position? Or do we simply have to check our brains at the church house door?” The answer is, you indeed have to check your brains. Why do scientists publicly deny the implications of modern science, and promulgate the compatibility of religion and science? Wishful thinking, religious training, and intellectual dishonesty are all important factors. (Provine, 1988)

The final part of Jerry’s essay is likely the one that will raise the most hackles, in that he argues that a) to resolve the issue, American society has to become more secular (as has happened in other developed nations), and b) to do so we have to address the social dysfunctionality of our society. Barack Obama got himself into trouble during the 2008 campaign for recognizing this relationship in his “guns and religion” comment, and Jerry’s paper certainly shows the strong correlation that exists between religiosity and social dysfunction. And again, I don’t disagree one bit (either about the relationship or the growing dysfunctionality of American society), but I do have concerns about drawing cause-and-effect conclusions from these data – one could, for example, make the case that religiosity can be the cause of dysfunction, as in theocracies like Iran or Saudi Arabia, or the result of it in countries with high levels of economic and social inequity, like the modern United States. Josh Rosenau goes into these issues in more detail; suffice it to say that the old adage that “correlation does not necessarily imply causation” is particularly germane here.

But there are two final questions with respect to religion that Coyne’s piece leaves hanging. First, is his definition of religion too restrictive? I will leave it to my scholarly colleagues in religious studies to address this more knowledgeably than I ever can, but from my perspective as a birthright (but seriously lapsed) Quaker, the concept that “there is that of God in every person”, which is at the core of the religion, implies (at least to me) something decidedly different from “the existence of a supernatural being whose actions affect the universe”. So is my take on Quakerism correct, or am I really being a secularist taking refuge behind a convenient religious doctrine? I hope the former is correct.

The second question concerns the positive roles religious community can play in society, especially in situations in which social dysfunctionality is extreme. My reason for raising this is that I am currently reading Eric Foner’s wonderful book on Reconstruction in America, and he describes very eloquently the role played by churches in supporting African American society both before and after Emancipation. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that religious communities play similar roles in all societies. If so, then if we move to a more secular society, what will replace them? And more pointedly, what response is possible to those who value their religion not for its overarching doctrine but rather for the support it gives them in their everyday life? If that question can’t be answered, then I would suggest that religiosity, complete with its doctrinal baggage, will persist.

There are lots of other issues that arise, especially when one moves beyond the strict “evolution vs. creationism” perspective and looks at religion and science in a broader context For example, David Campbell and Robert Putnam’s essay “God and Ceasar in America”), recently published in Foreign Affairs (but unfortunately only available to subscribers), provides an excellent overview of the politicization of religion that has occurred as a result of the rise of the Religious Right. With a bit more of an historical stretch, one can go back to the struggle between John Winthrop and Roger Williams over the role of religion in the American polity and realize that these issues are deeply engrained in our national traditions. Thus, however desirable it might be from a scientific (and political) standpoint to promote a more secular path for society, religion is deeply engrained in American society, and while current trends, especially among younger Americans, appears to be moving away from that tradition, it is by no means assured that religiosity is something that we will move beyond any time soon.