Always ethereal, always eclectic, I write as the mood strikes, when there intrigue reveals itself. Usually that means something controversial or adventure of some sort.

I've tried really hard to be unprovocative, but have as yet been unsuccessful.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Thank God for Darwin

In celebration of the upcoming 200th anniversary of Darwin's Birthday, today we had a conference at the UW, celebrating all the wonder of evolution and a man who changed biology, science, and all of life, born 200 years ago. As I begin volunteering for the Geology Museum, I had the pleasure today of assisting at the big event. And don't forget to celebrate this Sunday, on Evolution Sunday, where pastors across the nation (along with some rabbis) are preaching on the compatibility of science and religion and the theological beauty of evolution. Check here for a church or synagogue near you.

Most of the day involved sitting at the Teaching Table, providing information to people for the mid-day seminar on teaching evolution. Throughout the two floors were small exhibits, where I could talk with a table on the philosophy of evolution (similar to my own table), look at replicas of skulls from our genus and Australopithecus (though sadly, no H. floresiensis, the newly discovered minature human species, or hobbits), and ask for more clarification on cladistics (a field of taxonomy that is now dominant but was in its infancy when I was studying biology in undergrad). I learned that crocodiles are now not birds anymore, but are only your average reptile, and birds are now completely dinosaurs, as there are too many wingless dinosaurs with feathers- meaning of course that there is no longer a meaninful line between reptiles and birds. But I also learned that there are problems with cladistics, too- it is more precise than traditional Linnean taxonomy, but not without its own form of guesswork.

My table was on teaching evolution, so I got to share with people some of my experiences teaching, and some of the difficulties I had with a recalcitrant administration trying to block science. (For those unaware, I left a former position because the school began teaching official mandatory classes in Intelligent Design, and it undermined all scientific authority I had in the classroom, so that the students weren't sure what to believe and no longer accepted scientific reasoning as true. Additionally, my very presence became the justification for the classes, as they were now teaching "both sides". Yes. I'm one of those who lost my job for teaching evolution.) I had some really great conversations about how to communicate evolution to those of religious faith, not predisposed to the theory. After an hour I realized something better, and drove home to pick up some books to lay out and share with people, of good pedagological tools for teaching evolution.
  1. A book that is sadly no longer published, but which I read when working at the Seattle Aquarium: How Whales Walked Into The Sea. One of the very few out there that describes evolution accurately and with beautiful illustrations, at an elementary-junior high level. See my full review.
  2. The Tree of Life, a beautifully illustrated book on the life of Darwin, for junior high students. See my full review.
  3. Defending Evolution, a great book for teaching methods with practical exercises for studying evolution. See my full review.
  4. The Counter-Creationism Handbook, a handbook I wish I'd had when I was teaching, but found only just after I left. It contains every Literal Creationist argument you're likely to run into in the classroom, and many you won't- with the appropriate scientific responses. See my full review.
  5. Why Intelligent Design Fails, a good book if you want to start to go on the offense. See my full review.
  6. Finding Darwin's God, one of the first of an emerging genre to explore the relationship between theology and religion, and advocate a positive relationship where one can fully embrace the Christian faith and evolution as well. Good to recommend to a student of faith who's main difficulty with the Theory is religion, or to read to understand how to positively approach these students. See my full review. Despite my own personal beliefs, I was in no way recommending these books for religious persuasion of conference participants, as much as to help convince students of the truth of evolution.
  7. For the student who is more into predestination, or who wants to go a good deal deeper into theology, I recommend God After Darwin. Haught argues that evolution makes full sense only in the light of Christianity; and Christianity is only understandable fully in the light of evolution. Excellent for the recalcitrant student who won't accept evolution because her faith tells her it's wrong. See my full review.
  8. I used to teach in a Muslim country, and so would also get Muslim students who wouldn't accept evolution because of their faith. As far as I know, there's only one book out there that addresses this issue- Creation And/Or Evolution: An Islamic Perspective. See my full review.
  9. Of course, there are many other good books out there along these lines. Some of them can be found at my Amazon List, Books Reflecting Christ's Presence in Evolution.
And behind my table there were conferences going on continuously, and I popped in from time to time to listen. Some of the more interesting topics were:
  1. On dogs and their emotions, and how closely they often emulate our emotional facial expressions, but also differing in certain ways. A particularly delightful image was a child all smiles hugging a dog's neck with her arms. She's a primate, and her eyes are crinkly with joy. The dog is a canine, and doesn't like hugging, so the white's of his eyes are showing and the mouth is drawn back in fear response. This is a classic fear response that we share with dogs- head drawn back, eyes big, corners of the mouth drawn back slightly.
  2. Bottlenecks are when a species or population go through a narrowing, so that most of the individuals are killed off. This of course substantially reduces the genetic diversity. The talk was on how this relates to declining populations of nearly all major species on the planet. Even though they might not be extinct, since most of them are going through bottlenecks, ther genetic diversity will be substantially reduced, meaning they won't be able to respond as well to new threats- like Global Warming, Ozone reduction, and pollution.
  3. The one talk I listened to for the entire hour was on the health of our oceans, by Dr. Jeremy Jackson of Scripps Institute. Basically, our oceans are about ten times worse off than we thought. Ten years ago, we were looking at about 100-150 Dead Zones- areas that have so little oxygen that only bacteria and jellies live there. Now there are 400. The primary fishery in North America, cod, has been overfished to below sustainable levels. But we are continuing to fish it, because we project that without any habitat stress in the future, it would naturally rebound. Of course, not only us, but also the climate are putting substantial stress on the fish. It is not just cod, but nearly every marine species that is being stressed beyond hope for recovery. The acidity of the oceans are increasing substantially, effecting everything from coral to plankton. The coral provide a basis for the food chain, and more coral are destroyed in one year in the Indian Ocean than all the trees we have cut down. The plankton skeletons are being destroyed by the acidity through the Greenhouse Effect, which means that that last great food source predicted in Soylent Green won't even be an option- our world will be worse off than predicted in environmental catastrophe movies. And the good news is that, if we act now, to reduce pollution and carbon emissions significantly within the next 35 years, our oceans will be able to recover in the next 1000 years. The bad news is we will probably not act in time.

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