What is natural selection? What is evolution? Georgia Purdom of Answers in Genesis does not seem to know which is which.

Definitions are important. A prerequisite of virtually any rational discussion is agreement on a common terminology. Without common terms there may be little meaningful dialogue. Changing or obscuring definitions however is a time-honored tactic used by creationists to wriggle out of an intellectual position they find undesirable.

Georgia Purdom, PhD, of the creationist ministry Answers in Genesis promotes erroneous definitions of evolution so that she may accept obvious examples of natural selection without having to also accept that natural selection is a mechanism of biological evolution. The tactic is not of her own invention but one employed by generations of hardcore creationists unwilling to concede the reality of evolution even in the smallest of doses. In some circles, one’s creationist bona fides are apparently tarnished by the admission that natural selection is indeed a mechanism underlying even the slightest evolutionary change[1].

When faced with undeniable, empirical examples of natural selection in action the dedicated creationist’s only escape is to change the definitions of natural selection or evolution or both. Purdom has done this in videos, public lectures, in print and in blog posts and while I’m uncertain as to whether these misrepresentations are borne out of deliberation or ignorance the effect is the same, namely to confuse her audience and make scientists appear to be the ones who are equivocating and inventing sliding definitions. In fact they are not. The real definitions of both natural selection and evolution are entirely unequivocal.

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Speaking out against climate change denial in West Virginia

Consideration of the Next Generation Science Standards by the West Virginia Board of Education (WVBOE)  led to the surreptitious introduction of climate change denial language by one board member, Wade Linger. Thankfully, concerned educators, scientists, environmental activists and parents in West Virginia showed up before the board, wrote letters of support for sound science education and were successful in getting this language reversed from the standards. Since the last public hearing on the standards on January 14 the WVBOE received more than 7,000 comments during the intervening 30-day public comment period forcing the board to delay their final vote on the standards.

I was invited to submit an account of the incident in the Reports of the National Center for Science Education. My conclusion is that climate change denial and creationism have much in common. Both are assaults on reason that deliberately sow doubt of science, scientists and our scientific institutions to devalue scholarship and intellectualism in favor of narrow, ideological interests and neither have a place in the public classroom.

Read my commentary by clicking on the link below and let me know what you think.

Mays Jr., H. L. 2015. Speaking out against climate change denial in West Virginia. Reports of the National Center for Science Education. 35(2):2.1-2.11.

 

In Praise of Ridicule: Our last weapon against the unintelligible.

It’s embarrassing how long it’s been since I contributed to my blog. The day-to-day life of actually being a scientist (plus being a museum curator, plus some teaching here and there) gets in the way of coming up with content to present science to the general public. But, sometimes a little inspiration comes along and coupled with yet another snow day there’s an opportunity to say something new on the blog. This time that inspiration came from watching last night’s debate between Bill Nye The Science Guy and Answers in Genesis CEO Ken Ham.

For me this was a little painful to watch. I have been thinking about the evolution/creation debate for almost 40 years. I grew up in an evangelical Christian household and was taught that the Bible was literal history. However, I also had an inexplicable interest in the natural world. Inexplicable in that no one in my family was a professional scientist or even carried much of a casual interest in science. My folks strongly encouraged my education as a means to an end but they didn’t exactly encourage me to dive too deep into learning about nature for its own sake. At least they didn’t have a curiosity so deep as to be unsatisfied with a Biblical answer. That’s not to say I didn’t have a loving supportive family, I did, and thankfully still do. But, even as a child Sunday school for me bought up a lot of questions that everyone around me seemed spectacularly uninterested in resolving in any way other than “God did it”. As someone who always wanted a house full of various critters, the Biblical story of Noah’s ark was by far my favorite in the Bible, however, for someone who also knew roughly just how many different varieties of critters are out there, not to mention plants, fungi, bacteria, it certainly came with a lot of unresolved baggage (Bill Nye’s arguments from biogeography and biodiversity were among the most effective of last night’s debate). Unpacking that baggage and learning more about the differences between the explanations for the diversity of nature provided by science and those provided by faith, folk tales and mythology put me on the course to be an evolutionary biologist.
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What’s so natural about nature?

Birders have long maintained highly effective communication networks. A sighting of a rare bird will rapidly spread among hardcore birders and scores of onlookers will flock, pun intended, to the best finds. Nearly universal access to the Internet has kicked these networks into overdrive. Now, within minutes of a rare find georeferenced coordinates and digital photos will be disseminated to websites, listservs, cell phones, twitter feeds and Facebook pages. This is the practice known as “chasing” birds brought into the 21st century.

Now, I don’t usually chase birds. It isn’t because I don’t want to necessarily, but more so because I never seem to be afforded the time. But, when I heard of a Hooded Crane (Grus monacha) found with wintering Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) and Whooping Cranes (Grus americana) at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Meigs County, Tennessee I decided maybe it was worth the chase. I’ve seen Japanese or Red-crowned Crane (Grus japonensis) in Japan and Taiwan and many Sandhill Cranes but I’ve never seen a Whooping Crane or a Hooded Crane so there was the chance for hitting a double on this trip. Plus, with the holiday break I had a nature-obsessed 6-year old boy out of school and in need of a little adventure. So, a 5 hour drive south on I-75 and we are at Hiwassee, and the trip didn’t disappoint; eagles, turkey, bluebirds, kingfishers, waterfowl, and many, many cranes, almost ridiculous numbers of cranes. Hiwassee is home to thousands of Sandhill Cranes whiling away the winter on a steady diet of East Tennessee corn. The Sandhills are typically accompanied by a couple of Whooping Cranes every year and, as of December 13th of this year, one very disorientated Hooded Crane, who should be spending the winter in Japan or China and returning to breeding ground in the Russian Far East in the spring. Needless to say this Hooded Crane was more than a little off course!

 Three species of crane at Hiwassee Refuge; Sandhill (grey), Whooping (white) and Hooded (black with white neck)

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Natural History Collections in the 21st Century

The first step in wisdom is to know the things themselves” -Linnaeus (1735) quoted from Judith Winston’s book Describing Species (1999)

The word museum has its origins in the Greek mouseion, meaning “the place of the Muses”. In natural history museums the Muses take the shape of the stunning diversity of the natural world. Since the very origins of mankind’s cultural development we have collected objects of natural history. For nearly three centuries we have erected these “places of the Muses” to study and publicly display these collections. Here is where the Muses of nature, Linnaeus’ “the things themselves”, reside and their secrets unlocked by generations of dedicated, and perhaps slightly mad, scientists and natural historians. Natural history museums and their collections have been at the heart of numerous scientific discoveries that have shaped our understanding of the world and our place in it.

What does the public think of natural history collections?

But, in the public imagination a natural history museum is often thought of as a stuffy place with old bones, rocks and stuffed animal skins, some of which are shown off to the public to satisfy an afternoon’s curiosity. I think an anachronistic view of a natural history museum prevails, a view where natural history collections are viewed with the mild curiosity we typically have for any esoteric pursuit. As a curator who happily tours the public through the collections at my home institution I get, “Why are there hundreds of dead mice in this drawer?” or “What use does anyone possibly have for jars of dead toads?”. It is as if they have walked onto an episode of A&E’s Hoarders except that instead of rooms consisting of disorganized piles of clothes populated by semi-feral cats they are surrounded by cabinets filled with the various remains of dead plants and animals (with maybe some fungi thrown in for good measure). It completely baffles most people as to why anyone would want to have piles upon piles of dead plants and animals. Their first thought tends to be surely there must be money in it. These things must be rare and carry some monetary value. When they are told that for most specimens they can’t be bought and sold in the marketplace and therefore really have no economic value they are really puzzled. “All this junk and it isn’t worth anything? You can’t sell it?” Well, yes and no, some things there is a market for, shell, fossil and insect collections for example, but for others, bird specimens, trade is mostly illegal. Suffice it to say that value in natural history collections is not measured on a monetary scale as say an art collection would be, a fact that frustrates insurance adjusters looking to tag a value on a natural hisotry collection in the only way we have seemed to value anything. I think it is way easier for people to wrap their heads around an art museum than a natural history museum precisely because of this clear monetary value placed on works of art. So, why do we have natural history collections and the museums that house them?
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My TEDxCincy Xperience

On October 7, 2010 I was proud to take part in the first TEDxCincy Conference at the Aronoff Center for the Arts in downtown Cincinnati. I joined 18 other speakers talking about everything from corporate culture to new media to inner city violence to personal encounters with wildlife to high tech tools in the study of Cincinnati's history. I spoke about the revolution in the life sciences created by the widening availability of next generation DNA sequencing. Now that a little time is past and I've got some other things out of the way in the lab I can sit back and reflect on the experience.
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A leg up, and a neck up, on the competition

ResearchBlogging.orgGiraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) at the the Cincinnati ZooOK, let’s face it giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) are just plain cool. Tall and lanky Manute Bols of the animal world covered in spots. In addition to being high on the list of must-see animals on an African safari, giraffes have served as poster children for evolution. Long before Darwin, that other evolutionist, the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, speculated that the long-necked giraffe was descended from shorter-necked ancestors. According to Lamarck, all that stretching to get to juicy, tree-top leaves changed their necks in ways that they then passed on to their offspring.

The giraffe lives in dry, desert places, without herbage, so that it is obliged to browse on the leaves of trees, and is continually forced to reach up to them. It results from this habit, continued for a long time in all the individuals of its species, that its fore limbs have become so elongated that the giraffe, without raising itself erect on its hind legs, raises its head and reaches six meters high (almost twenty feet).” Lamarck on giraffes taken from Alpheus Spring Packard. 1901. Lamarck, the founder of evolution: his life and work with translations of his writings on organic evolution. Longmans, Green and Co.

Along comes Darwin who bought into the idea that living things can change over time but didn’t buy into Lamarck’s mechanism for evolution. For Darwin the evolution of the giraffe’s elongated neck was due to selection. From the standpoint of Darwin’s natural selection individuals in ancestral giraffe populations varied in some intrinsic and immutable way, at least immutable in the lifetime of an individual. These ancestral giraffes not only varied in leg and neck length but they also varied in their propensity to survive and contribute offspring to the population. Variation in survival and reproduction was in turn correlated to some variation in physical traits. Proto-giraffes that survived and successfully bred (one usually is necessary for the other) then passed on their intrinsic “legginess” and “neckiness” to their progeny and the population changed over time, generation-by-generation getting a little taller and necks a little longer as selection sieved through that variation in the population that can be passed from parent to offspring. It’s remarkable that Darwin came up with natural selection while knowing next to nothing about exactly how traits were passed from parent to offspring. It wasn’t until nearly a century after Darwin that natural selection was reconciled with the viable model of biological inheritance we call genetics.

But where are we then left with giraffes? Clearly neck and leg length evolved and likely by some sort of Darwinian selection in giraffes. Giraffes’ closest living relatives, the equally cool, West-African forest dwellers, the Okapi (Okapia johnstoni), have comparatively short necks and the fossil record reveals many giraffes with short necks. Modern giraffes are nested in a family tree that therefore points to short-necked ancestors. But, if selection plays a role then what is the agent of that selection? Darwin posed two models of selection; good-ole-fashioned natural selection where predators, the physical environment, competition for food, parasites or some other agent act on survival and reproduction and sexual selection where the agent of selection lies in a species’ own gene pool. In sexual selection the variance in individuals contribution to the population stems from competition for mates, either competition with members of your own sex to access the opposite sex or competition imposed by a choosy opposite sex. These forms of selection, natural and sexual, are basically the same, both involve filtering through available variation to change the population, but in sexual selection the agent of selection lies specifically in competition for mates. Competition for mates can lead some some crazy characteristics, everything from a moose’s antlers to the gaudy flowers of orchids, and maybe giraffes necks?
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Why we get cancer

ResearchBlogging.orgThe short of it...

Creationists often put physicians on a pedestal as the scientists doing the real work in biology, useful work of improving human health and well-being as opposed to the pontificating, abstract work of the evolutionists. But, can we really understand human aliments outside of the light of evolution? Well worn examples of antibiotic resistance vividly illustrate the folly of ignoring evolutionary processes in medicine. Cancer however is another example of evolution in action. Tomislav Domazet-Loso and Diethard Tautz of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in the journal BMC Biology used a technique called phylostratigraphy to trace the origin of the genes associated with cancer to the origins of the cell and the first multicellular animals. The evolution of the first multicellular organisms necessitated a fine balance between the reproduction of individual cells and the evolutionary interests of the multicellular organism. The role of genes involved in cancer is to keep the peace and limit the ability of particular cells to go rogue, curtailing the reproductive success of individual cells in favor of the group. Understanding the evolutionary origin of these ancient genes sheds light on why we get cancer and can light the way to new treatments.

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Back on the horse...

OK, after months of ignoring this web site I'm committing to building it back up. Lots of things have happened since the last update way back in June 09. Trips to Taiwan and China, teaching undergraduate classes from general biology to molecular genetics at local colleges, lots of ongoing collaborative projects in the lab, a new paper published in BMC Evolutionary Biology by my collaborators and I as well as the many new developments across the field of evolutionary biology. Maybe after a few posts I can build a modest audience back up again and start some discussion about the ever developing world of evolutionary biology. Stay tuned...

Plush accommodations

Debate is bouncing around the evolution blogs. The extreme poles in the evolution-creationism debate agree on one thing; namely that one can not be a Christian and accept the modern scientific consensus on biological evolution. However, in recent years several prominent scientists of faith including Ken Miller and Francis Collins have spoken out about their own personal experience in reconciling science and religious convictions. Even agnostic participants in the debate like Florida State University philosopher of science Michael Ruse have taken a position against these polarizing views that evolution necessarily equals atheism. Science and science education organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) have gone to great lengths to counter the creationist claim that evolution is somehow antichristian by frequently emphasizing the views of religious scientists like Collins and Miller, philosophers like Ruse sympathetic to the idea that both faith and science can coexist and religious leaders like Pope John Paul II who see no fundamental conflict between evolution and the central tenets of the Christian faith. These organizations do this for one key reason; to counter the claim by creationists that evolution necessarily leads to atheism.
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