For the many folk who left various comments on this post. I was, frankly, overwhelmed to get this many comments in such a short time. (James Earl Jones voice) "Such is the POWER of Pharyngula!"

Anyway, I can't respond individually to all of them, but I'll try to hit the highlights.

First of all, to those whose messages were essentially ones of affirmation, thanks very much! Dr. C, Johnnie Canuck, Mike Haubrich, wfr, Craig Messerman, Haki, Laurie and especially my fellow Molly winner Brownian, your encouragement is much appreciated!

Second, to commenters like Johnnie Canuck, Anonymous, Sarniaskeptic who suggested that I might be welcome sometime in the future in the camp of atheists, well, I kind of doubt (heh) that will ever happen. I am a believer, and while faith and reason are definitely not the same thing, my convictions motivate me to value the gift of reason, the practice of science and the defense of science education. But I do appreciate the sentiment. My standing offer to all non-believers and skeptics is to accept them where they are at, to listen with an open mind and to offer real friendship that is not contingent upon sharing the same belief in Big Sky Daddy.

Third, to djarm67, AIGBusted, Tim and others who are out there in various media attempting to promote science education: good for you! I hope that you notice that I've invited criticism and suggestions on how to improve our communication with the general public, including (gulp) 'framing.' I encourage you to pursue this in an active way, developing networks for mutual advice and support.

Fourth, to the many religious and former religious who identified their own belief system, and/or shared their take on how they reconcile or otherwise handle conflicts relating to science and faith, I have this observation: talking about the meaning of Darwin's work is very much like talking about ourselves. Most of us have a tendency to see what we want to see in the sage of Down House, and so perusing the many comments in this vein was, for me, very much like walking through a house of mirrors.

Finally, to the brave souls (especially Nick!) who offered me detailed suggestions as to what part of my public act needs work, thanks very much. I will respond to those comments in detail in a future post.




Following my posting about my encounter with Mayor (and new talk-radio host) Alan Autry, I've had a flurry of visitors, comments and (mostly) constructive criticism. It's been most appreciated!

However, here's an example of criticism that didn't appear publicly on my blog, but it's too delicious not to share, with some feedback. This is another example of the sort of email PZ Myers regularly gets, which is to say (to put it mildly) misdirected anxiety, formatted in the increasingly-notorious Comic Sans font. I hope that my attempts at setting the letter-writer straight are not as Comical, in appearance or otherwise!

Interesting dissembling on your part - your contention that humans are special is only part of the true and complete naturalist position that all life is special - just as special as humans.

Actually, I believe I pointed out that human beings have a special responsibility to the rest of life, inasmuch as we are conscious, aware of the consequences of our actions, etc. E.O. Wilson has made this argument explicit in his book The Creation. In doing so, I didn't reference biology alone. I mentioned the fact that scripture indicates a special role for mankind as the steward of creation. Perhaps you missed that?

You are to be commended for your considerable intellectual prestidigitation - You do not have to implicate capitalism to condemn the political, social and economic effluence of darwinism. Your attempt to deny the political and social implications of darwinism denies the power of words, the influence of science and dangers of misinterpreting the natural world. You are an unwitting tool of the naturalistic ideology.

I do not deny that it is dangerous to misinterpret t
he natural world. Did you miss the part where I said that Margaret Sanger was a poor biologist? History shows that the eugenics movement had a lot more to do with prejudice and social control than science. It also shows that the economic thought of Adam Smith and other 'laissez-faire' thinkers of the early 19th century influenced Darwin's thought and that the caricature of evolution known as 'social Darwinism' was pushed by capitalists (mostly Americans) eager to justify their 'robber baron' economic policies. These examples support the general point I made on the program, which is that evolution has been coopted for ideological purposes by both the right and the left!

Is it too much to ask that evolution be evaluated on the evidence from nature, as opposed to the way the human beings might use (or, in the case of Margaret Sanger, misuse) the concept? Surely you are aware that all manner of people have exploited Christianity for ideological purposes, among them Hitler? I could have turned that fact back against the caller and asked him to repudiate Christianity as a means of showing the absurdity of his argument, but that would've been unnecessarily divisive. I'm trying to get my fellow believers to give evolution a fair shake as science, and that means uncoupling it from ideological commitments in the political or religious sphere.

Before you claim evolution is a fact, first define evolution. The evidence shows species adapt, not that they turn into more complex life forms over time.

Your counter-argument suggests you may still be puzzled about the nature
of evolution. Look: my definition of evolution is the conventional genetic one, in which the frequency of alleles change within a population. One possible consequence of such genetic change is the emergence of a novel population able to breed only with itself and not other populations with which it shares common descent, which then by definition is considered a new species. However, contrary to what you imply there is no requirement that the species must necessarily be more complex, or more ultimately fit in some cosmic sense. In many cases, populations 'lose' previously-acquired 'adaptations', as in the case of blind cave fish.

As for the rest of this comment, it depends on what you me
an by 'evidence'. There is evidence for speciation events at the present time, a well-demonstrated genetic mechanism for change and evidence for the geological time scale. We use inference based on this and other evidence in building our models, and then use those models to direct our investigations, effectively treating them as 'evidence' which we then attempt to falsify.

Your "hope" that all scientists teach science without distortion is delusional and deceptive. You know they don't, you will not admit it.

Oh, sure I will. Why wouldn't I? Scientists are
human beings, and they often let their own biases show both within and without the classroom. Pretty much all teachers will occasionally 'slip up' from time to time without meaning to, including yours truly, and a smaller percentage will actively use their classroom as a 'bully pulpit' for their views. I consider the latter unfortunate and bad pedagogy, whether the teacher is promoting evolution or creation. The real question, though, is not whether a minority will act unwisely, but what are all teachers supposed to teach? Clearly, that should be what the scientific community has negotiated with the local educational establishment through the state. If you don't like it, you should get involved with some part of that equation to effect change. By the way, in my experience instructor bias usually involves creationists departing from their own state's standards.

Your inability to acknowledge a literal Adam and Eve is more deception, as molecular genetics has established the Mitochondral Eve and Y-Chromosomal Adam.

It's not that I'm unable or unwilling, it's just that my views on that are actually rather nuanced and I had only a limited amount of time on the program to make my case for science education. My take is that the 'Adam and Eve' described in Genesis could've represented real people or a composite of the experiences of many people. I did mention that Genesis has multiple sources, and I could've added that as far back as the 4th cent. St. Augustine urged people not to make the mistake of interpreting every passage in Genesis literally.

As far as Mitochondrial Eve and Y-Chromosomal Adam, you are out of your depth there. No one who understands the data actually thinks that Mitochondrial Eve was the first human female or that Y-Chromosomal Adam was the first human male. As such, they do not actually map onto the literal account found in Genesis 2. For one thing, Eve would've lived about 80,000 years before Adam! Please check out the wikipedia article on 'Mitochondrial Eve' and read under 'Misconceptions.'

The fossil record does not support common descent, except in the context of highly punctuated, discontinuous deposition and periodically rapid and static advances wtihout intermediate speciation.

Actually, if you listened to the interview I make the point that the scientific community never claims that any particular fossil find is ancestral to contemporary populations. That observation is consistent with a narrow reading of your comment above, which refers to the technical meaning of 'transitional form', a term which is routinely misread or misrepresented by creationists. Strictly speaking, it is true that the fossil record doesn't 'prove' common descent even in the exceptional cases you reference above. However, the overall pattern of change in the fossil record does support the inference of common descent, and is consistent with the phylogenetic patterns predicted from comparative anatomy and molecular biology.

Your failure to include abiogenesis as part of the discussion is typical darwinian deception and its real fatal flaw. Without acknowledging that naturalists have no clue why or how the sudden, complex biological information system known as DNA/RNA appeared, the only context for supporting natural selection as a method for species' adapation is in the context of the ability of a highly, intelligently designed biological structure to allow for limited speciation and adaptation, emphasis on intelligently designed.

It's not a failure: it's intellectual honesty to point out that abiogenesis can be uncoupled from evolution by natural selection.

The former is a hypothesis and a scientific research program, largely in chemistry, heavily speculative in character, whose purpose is to explain the origin of life in natural terms. The latter is a well-supported and powerful scientific theory within biology to explain the diversity and distribution of life over time and space in natural terms. I neither accept or reject abiogenesis, but I strongly affirm the utility and power of evolution by natural selection. If (as you claim) evolution works because the system was intelligently-designed, then eventually we should discover compelling evidence of ID within biology itself. Obviously, the evidence presented so far has failed to persuade the vast majority of biologists, and until it does it won't make it into the scientific curriculum. Again, if you listen to the whole interview, you will hear that I acknowledge that is a possibility---but ID devotees obviously have their work cut out for them on that point.

If you had any understanding of mathematics and physics you would understand there is(are) no known physical force(s) that can explain the sudden appearance of complex biological life forms by naturalistic means, ergo, darwinism presumes life without examining or acknowledging the foundational structure it is based on. This is not science but ideology.

'Darwinism' as you choose to define can be understood to be an ideology, but few scientists use the term as you do, and those who do (usually British) use it as shorthand for 'evolution via natural selection' to distinguish it from other evolutionary scenarios. It is precisely these misunderstandings that lead me to avoid the term. I do not consider myself a 'Darwinist' or even an 'evolutionist' as these imply an ideological commitment that, frankly, I do not have. I have no ax to grind for 'naturalism' or 'materialism' either. I am an evolutionary biologist by training, a high school science teacher by vocation and a Christian (Methodist) by conviction. I admit to not having a Ph.D in math or physics, but I would appreciate it if you would actually learn a little biology (such as with Mitochondrial Eve, above) before you start hurling brickbats of alleged ignorance against me and my colleagues.

This struggle is not about science versus religion, despite how strongly you want it to be to justify the fallacious usurpation of knowledge by the supposedly superior rational intellect: it is about the misuse and abuse of science to inject ideology into the interpretation of naturalistic phenomenon. If you know this and yet persist in constant dissembly and parsing, you are no better than Dawkins and Hutchens. If you do not know this, you are to be pitied.
Congratulations, you are now a darwinian propaganda minister as well as a biology teacher.

You just don't appear to be paying that much attention. In the interview, both the Mayor and I pointed to our common faith. Our point of disagreement was not over whether or not God exists, but how much we think evolutionary theory can actually explain. Neither one of us was trying to force listeners to choose one over the other, so why would you assume that I am attempting to set science against religion? I'm afraid your labels say little about what I actually do for a living, and more about the things that you fear and clearly misunderstand. Again, if you'll recall the interview, I went out of my way to reject the introduction of ideological labels where evolution was concerned. I acknowledged that there were people on both sides of the political landscape who accept evolution, and people on both sides who were skeptical, like my host. And my host, for his part, acknowledged that there were a variety of views within Christianity where evolution is concerned, and we managed to have a civil discussion. At no point did Mayor Autry, who is pro-ID and a conservative Christian, find it necessary to call me names or suggest that I was not sincere. He went out of his way to suggest otherwise up front at the top of the interview. What a pity that you aren't willing to take the high road the Mayor traveled!



Yesterday, out of the clear blue, I got a call from Gail Marshall, former ombudsman of the Fresno Bee, and now working with Fresno's mayor, Alan Autry.

For you non-Fresnans, Autry is not just an ex-Hollywood type, best known for his role as 'Bubba' on the TV series In the Heat of the Night. Autry is also a former NFL quarterback with the Green Bay Packers, a popular two-term mayor of Fresno (he won reelection in 2004 with 72 percent of the vote) who will leave office next year, and (this is the connection with Gail)a local celebrity who is trying his hand at talk radio on KYNO 1300.

Anyway, Gail knew of me due to letters and other pieces I've written over the years to the Fresno Bee sticking up for science education. It turns out that Mayor Autry wanted to chat up evolution and intelligent design (ID), and since I know that Autry is a conservative Christian it came as no surprise that he would be perched on the creationist side of the fence. There was a possibility that if I accepted, that I would be 'set up' with a prepared foe or a bunch of 'straw man' arguments.

But yours truly, publicity whore for science, turning down an offer to fence with the mayor of Fresno? Not hardly! Damn the torpedoes and any potential ideological mine fields, and full speed ahead! So it was that yesterday, between 10:00 and 11:00 PST, I went on the program:

Autry began with a folksy bit of sly mockery in which he discussed his 'cousin' the stromatolite, showing again that the real concern of many conservative Christians is the claim of common descent. We had one caller, who seemed to be animated by pro-life convictions and had bought into the idea that evolution was somehow responsible for the 'eugenics' of a Margaret Sanger or the atrocities of the Third Reich. I dispatched that with a full well-aimed thrusts and hopefully without sounding too aroused or anxious, and then had a rather pleasant, if not terribly edifying exchange of views with my host.

My overall impression was that we covered a lot of ground fairly quickly and that there were no obvious stumbles on my part. I tried to use my appreciation for some of Autry's interests in a positive way to build empathy between myself and the mayor's audience. I did encounter some misleading arguments or assumptions in conversation, but I thought that these were held honestly and did my best to address them, and I thought the Mayor treated me fairly when I did.

Toward the end, His Honor detoured into what was clearly the main concern, which is common descent and squaring it with the Genesis account. I declined to get into theological specifics, simply pointing out that educated Christians have long known that there are multiple sources within the text, but honor both. I'm not sure if whether or not I happened to be a Christian played any role in the invitation to appear, but there can be no doubt that it helped keep things civil. No minds were changed in the broadcast booth, but perhaps a few misconceptions about evolution were aired and dispelled out in the ether. I would do this again if asked, though I would hope to focus more time on the science and less on the personal beliefs of this or that. But as they say, baby steps.

You can listen to the audio with Quicktime by downloading this mp3 file here. A word of warning: I had trouble listening to the whole thing with ITunes. Also a piece of disclosure: the image of Autry waving through the window doesn't due the mayor justice, but I didn't have time to take a lot of shots. The picture of me has been retouched to make me look more attractive, but as usual it didn't work. As the joke goes, I have a face for radio....


Hey, this post is getting a lot of traffic from all sides of the aisle! How about leaving me a comment? Identify where you stand on this business, and then tell me what you wished I would've said or what could've been better explained/defended, etc......I would love to hear people's thoughts and I invite criticism!



My union, the Fresno Teachers Association, has made quite a stink over the last two election cycles about the compensation package given to my boss, Superintendent Michael Hanson. The former head of the union, a hardball-playing, take-no-prisoners guy named Larry Moore, won election to the FUSD Board, beating out an incumbent who was sponsored by the local (conservative) political establishment, including the Lincoln Club's Michael Der Manouel and (conservative) talk-radio legend Ray Appleton. Why did Moore win? In part because of the criticism of (former) board member Manuel Nunez, who signed off on Hanson's generous contract....which, incidentally, is not that out of line with big-district contracts elsewhere.

Now, with both Moore and incumbent Supe critic Carol Mills poised to form a new voting bloc on the Board, Dr. Hanson seems prepared to undercut that criticism of his tenure by forgoing a already-agreed-upon pay increase and bonus pay, to the tune of about $42,000.

This is, frankly, a brilliant move. The moment his critics seize upon his contract, Hanson can point out his own sacrifice and unfavorably contrast the unwillingness of union members like yours truly to consider adjustments in their salary schedule or benefits in a time of economic crisis. I have no doubt that such rhetoric is in the works, with the massive state budget cuts projected. Not that I think the Supe will actually move to roll such back right away: the district, under his leadership, has a surplus that is about three times what is mandated by law, giving them a temporary cushion....and another talking point to throw back at Board Member-elect Moore, who constantly has carped about the size of the district's reserves.

I may not agree with the Superintendent on everything, but you have to admit, the guy knows how to sell his message. He's bright, bold, and he knows what he wants to do. It would be a shame if that ability is wasted, and that larger vision lost in skirmishes over personality or past grievances or a football player who shouldn't be allowed on the field, as seems about to happen.

I want the district to succeed.....in raising standards, and graduating more kids, and modernizing the facilities. I just don't want that success to be achieved at the expense of my profession.