Thursday, March 19, 2009

There are good reasons to subject the theory of evolution to critical thinking

Please encourage the Texas State Board of Education to vote unanimously to teach strengths and weaknesses of evolution. I believe the well-meaning efforts of groups like the 21st Century Science Coalition are instead misleading. I agree with some of their positions, but am disappointed by their false portrayal of critical thinking as something that DOESN'T require teaching of strengths and weaknesses. In reality, the coalition is asking Texans to cling to 19th and 20th Century hypotheses that use things like the fossil record as evidence for molecules-to-man evolution.

An example of real 21st Century science is the mounting evidence against the idea of molecular clocks. Scientists look at differences in genes along with fossil evidence to determine when two species diverged from a common ancestor. For the human species, scientists use molecular clocks to predict the date of "Mitochondrial Eve", our Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA) that supposedly originated in Africa.

Molecular clocks came into use in the 1960s. In the 1990 edition of Biology by Neil Campbell, an age between 200,000 and 400,000 years is given for "Eve" (p. 669). Moving ahead to 2004, we find in the 10th edition of Biology by Starr and Taggart that Eve is now only 100,000 to 200,000 years old (p. 471). The fact that the estimates were cut in half, on top of the huge error involved (50%), would make any reasonable scientist question molecular clocks.

And they do. As we entered the 21st century, we saw F.J. Ayala's paper titled "Molecular Clock Mirages". And then there's F. Chang's study using genealogy and statistics to predict an MRCA of less than 1,000 years ago. Chang began with an overly-simplified model, so over the next few years he added to it, and in 2003 colleague D. Rohde published research revealing an MRCA of between 2,000 and 5,000 years ago. And molecular clock skeptics Thorne and Wolpoff voiced their opinions in the 2003 Human Evolution Special Issue of Scientific American, flatly stating "putting aside the idea of a molecular clock, one can interpret the genetic data in a much more reasonable way." (p. 52).

In 2004, Rohde, Chang, and Olson published their latest findings in Nature, and their findings shift the MRCA from Africa to somewhere in Asia. In 2006, world renowned evolutionary biologist Thomas Cavalier-Smith stated in a paper "Evolution is not evenly paced and there are no real molecular clocks."

In 2008, a paper by Matsen and Evans tried to tie genetics with the genealogy of Rohde and others, and they simply concluded genetic diversity is related to the number of descendants, confirming the ability of Rohde and other's model to explain the human diversity we see today as resulting from a very recent ancestor.

This crash course in 21st century science may be a bit confusing, but the reason for that is not just the complex mathematics involved, but the basic fact that confusion exists over what happened in the past. To add to the confusion, in 2008 fossil collectors discovered a human footprint alongside that of a dinosaur providing evidence for the coexistence of humans and dinosaurs.

The truth is, there will ALWAYS be confusion about what happened in the past because we cannot go back and verify it. Not only that, scientists believe up to 99.9% of the species that ever existed may be missing from the fossil record. On top of that, genetic mutations are almost always neutral (see "neutral theory") or harmful, rarely beneficial, and never has a gene been observed to mutate and create a new and beneficial function. And finally, as Professor Jerry Coyne said on page 17 of Why Evolution is True, "By predictions, I don't mean that Darwinism can predict how things will evolve in the future."

Evolution is weak when it comes to explaining the past, present and future. It tries to explain itself by looking at similarities, but says our understanding of differences "remains murky at best" (see p. 13 of Unit 9 in Rediscovering Biology). As such, its status in Texas Biology textbooks should be weak. At the very least, teach the weaknesses. And please consider asking the SBOE to have a special session, rewriting the Biology TEKS to remove sections on origins and "macroevolution", and replacing them with a more modern coverage of genetics and ecosystem management. 19th century science has had its turn long enough.


British grade-school chaos: Mother's fury after son is sent to different school despite 36 others being closer to home

A boy has been placed at a primary school an hour's drive from his home - even though 36 other schools are closer. Robbie Cowley missed out on his chosen school and then found that all the others near his home were oversubscribed too. From September, the four-year-old will have to make an eight-mile journey across Oxford every weekday morning.

His mother, Tracey Richen, said she was devastated at losing out on Larkrise school because both she and Robbie's elder sister had been pupils there. She had even paid 1,500 pounds for her son to attend a foundation class at the primary. The 32-year-old midwife said: 'Larkrise is a really special family school where we know all the teachers and staff. 'But sending him so far away is ridiculous as I'll lose my job if I'm late every morning going through the traffic.

'All the teachers at the school really like Robbie so they just can't understand the decision. Robbie's made loads of friends since doing a foundation unit there so it's unfair to make him move elsewhere.' Robbie has been given a place at Botley Primary, which has some of the worst results in Oxfordshire. The school is 3.7 miles from his Headington home as the crow flies but requires an eight-mile drive around the centre of Oxford.

The 36 oversubscribed schools are within 3.7 miles of the family home. Miss Richen might have got Robbie a place at one of them, but she was so sure Robbie would go to Larkrise, she left blank the second and third choices. She added: 'This is very disrupting for Robbie because he was all set to go to Larkrise. Now he faces having to go to a school which is alien to him. 'I really hate the idea of him going to a school where he won't know anyone and miles away from any of the other pupils.'

She and her partner Kevin Cowley, Robbie's 39-year-old father, plan to appeal against the decision but the process could take months. They will not find out the result until a few weeks before term starts. John Mitchell, a spokesman for Oxfordshire County Council, said: 'We have immense sympathy for any parents who find themselves in this position. 'But schools have a finite capacity and there will always be occasions that some schools will be oversubscribed.' Councils last week informed the parents of 92,000 children that they had missed out on their first choice of secondary school.


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