The Darwin Year is almost upon us here in the San Joaquin Valley!

The festivities really kick off on Monday, Feb. 2nd. Dr. Rick Zechman, CSU Fresno Biology Department Chairman and a member of the 'Deepest Green' group of phylogenetic research, will give a presentation for Central Valley Cafe Scientifique.

I was fortunate enough to take a survey course from Dr. Zechman back in 1999 on algal systematics and came away deeply impressed with his enthusiasm for doing science and his approach to the topic. Dr. Zechman's presentation, "Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life", celebrates the 150th anniversay of the publication of the 'Origin of Species'. CSU Fresno provides a proud press release that you can read, right here. Members of the CSU Fresno faculty will be participating in a number of events during this year, and they have even formed a consortium of (heh) 'Darwin's Bulldogs' to help publicize and encourage the public understanding and celebration of evolutionary biology.

This should be an absolutely timely presentation. Dr. Zechman is an expert himself in the very modern and up-to-date business of building phylogenetic trees based upon molecular data to establish the relationships between different taxa, in particular the phylogenetic relationships within the Ulvophyceae. A particularly beautiful and exceptional member of the phylum, Acetabularia, is shown at right: known as the 'mermaid's wineglass', it is one of the larger single-celled organisms on the planet, with specimens reaching 10 centimeters in length.

Anyway, you can check out the Zechman Lab here. Dr. Zechman's personal experience as a phylogenetic researcher will be sure to give a special flavor to his talk, which will begin with the famous tree Darwin sketched in his 1837 notebook, and explores how Darwin's insights have led us to the point where we can use genes to investigate the relationships between all living things, indeed the history of life on Earth.

The talk will begin at 6:30 on Monday evening and will be given at Lucy's Lair, an Ethiopian restaurant that offers a tasty and exotic buffet just for Cafe Scientifique folk. It's located at 10063 Maple Avenue in Fresno, and the embedded link directs you to a map and other information about the event's host. We hope you will join us!

On the following day, I'll be taping the first of a series of programs on Darwin Day and Darwin's influence, often considered notorious by people of faith, for KNXT-Channel 49, which is a local television station operated by the Catholic Diocese of Fresno. I'll be appearing on a program entitled "Forum for a Better Understanding", hosted by Jim Grant. The program is usually dedicated to ecumenical discussions between Catholics and other faiths and often has members of the Interfaith Alliance of Central California (in which I participate) on to represent their faith tradition.

This time, however, Jim has rather graciously and
enthusiastically agreed to sponsor a series of discussions between myself and Terry Scambray, who is a local academic who is sympathetic to intelligent design. Terry and I have previously skirmished in an Oxford-style debate back in 2006 and I'll be giving him another crack at me and my Darwinian enthusiasms. The first 30-minute episode is slated to air sometime on Feb. 16th, and I'll provide more information as I know more. Should be lively!

The Fresno County Academic Decathlon will be at CSU Fresno on Saturday, Feb. 7th, between 9:00 AM and 9:00 PM. There will be many area high schools competing, including a Bullard team that I (of course!) be supporting. The reason this is relevant is because this year the Super Quiz topic is 'Evolutionary Biology'. Students and coaches will check in at the Resident Dining Hall, with the Super Quiz to be played at 3:30 that afternoon.

On the morning of February 11th,* I'll make another appearance on behalf of things Darwinian, this time on The Alan Autry Show. This will be my second appearance on the program, which is broadcast weekdays from 10:00 to 12:00 AM local time on KYNO AM-1300. I'll be taking my 'face for radio' on the road with Dr. Paul Crosbie from CSU Fresno's Biology Department. Dr. Crosbie is a parasitologist, has taught the department's Evolution course, and one of the brains behind 'Darwin's Bulldogs'. Our host, the former mayor of Fresno, is broadly sympathetic to intelligent design and is sure to pose a couple of questions "designed" to test our mettle. If last time is any indication, this should be fun!

On the 12th, as previously mentioned, I'll be attending an evening event sponsored by New Covenant Community Church and the local chapter of Reasons To Believe. As I said to one of my fellow Darwinians, this is my cross to bear. For those not interested in the speculations of creationists, or who don't feel an obligation to attend such, let me commend the following events in and around Fresno:

Darwin Birthday Celebration and Reception

Feb 12th, 2009, 4:00 PM
Downing Planetarium and Museum

Darwin Day Dinner (lecture, "Darwin's Finches")

Feb 12th, 2009, 7:00 PM
Carrow's Restaurant
4280 N. Blackstone (major cross streets: Blackstone and Ashlan)

Darwin's Ideas and the Societal Impact of Evolutionary Biology

Feb 13th, 2009, 3:00 PM
Science II Building, Room 109

There may be more events emerging this month as well, and I'll try to post them as I find info about them. If you don't live in the Fresno area, but you'd be interested in finding a Darwin Day event, have I got a web site for you! Check out Darwin Day Celebration. It has a searchable database of events, and as of this post the list is 371 events in 31 countries. Pretty wild!

* This is subject to change. As it was originally explained to me, the program wanted to focus on Lincoln on the actual bicentennial, but as I wrote this, there was a hint that we could be moved to the 12th. If this changes, I will announce it here.



As a general rule, I don't get homework.

Oh, I assign it. I have readings from the textbook that I call, somewhat ham-fistedly, 'Required Assignments" (RA), which essentially just require them to answer questions at the end of that section of the textbook. There are typically 10-12 such questions. Students are graded on whether the work is complete, and whether they are using complete sentences that refer to the original question. Not much of an expectation.

I also have questions embedded in the Labs that typically require them to answer anywhere from 3-10 questions based upon the experience, in the same fashion. We typically use most of the classroom time for the experience of the lab ('gathering the data'), rather than answering questions, so the usual expectation is that they will answer them on their own time, effectively homework. Here I care about more than whether it's in the proper format, and I typically sprinkle a fairly challenging conceptual question in with the easier ones.

I also have Projects, both group and individual, and while I will typically have an 'in-class work day' for such as this, the expectation is that they will have to spend some time at home working on the things.

So, imagine my chagrin when on the most recent unit, I have the following tallies out of 174 students currently on my roster....

  • 25 of the students attempted at least one of the three RA in the unit. That means nearly five out of every six kids did none.

  • 77 of them (less than half) turned in a Project worth almost as much as a test. That means I have nearly one hundred students who haven't turned it in, and it's already one day past the due date.

  • 91 of them (slightly more than half) have turned in the first Lab, which is now two weeks past the due date . . . incredibly, this is true even though I have assigned select kids in each period lunch detention for failing to complete their work, with the threat of Saturday School if they should fail to show.

The level of non-performance is at an all-time low. I normally have between 20-23 percent kids flunk the course each semester. I've been teaching at this school for nine years, and I've come to expect that range of scores so much that if it's a few points high at mid-semester I get nervous and second-guess myself.

Last semester, however, I had 48 percent failure. More than twice as much as my average fail rate just two years ago. Analysis of scores showed that the biggest contributor to the rising tide of 'F' is the failure of students to submit work, especially homework. Nor am I the only one. My colleagues report declining work ethic almost across the board, and often are quick to point out that this seems to be a recent phenomenon. Our AP Bio instructor relayed the fact that in a list-serve nationally with other veteran AP Bio teachers, the hot topic is how the freshmen at their school (the future pool of AP Bio students) seems to have less desire to do higher-level work than in the past, not just leading to declining academic performance but perhaps posing a real threat to the enrollment levels needed at some school sites to justify sections of AP Bio.

What's going on? Is there a pattern here?

I can't prove it, of course, but anecdotally I feel this is the next wave in education: chronic underachievement by a class of young people who have developed differently than past cohorts. Their temptations are greater than when I was in high school, and by and large they are yielding to a mindset, promoted by a media-rich society always willing to take another quarter when they should say, in effect, 'game over.' Students (and to an increasing extent, their parents) really believe that they should always get a 'do-over'....like a video game where you 'die', but get to start over at a preset point where you can presumably immediately try something different other than what got you 'killed'.

Social promotion doubtless contributes to this attitude, as well as a permissive, 'let's-make-sure-we-don't-wreck-their-self-esteem' approach to accountability, but in my experience at least the number of teachers and administrators who model that for students is very small. Most of us are very big on accountability, completing what you start and so forth. So I don't think it's what we're doing at the school sites that is discouraging them from completing homework.

No, it's almost certainly what's going on outside of school that's having the biggest impact. Could one of those things in that regard be video games, computer games, any kind of instant gratification media in which they are encouraged to believe that there is no meaningful penalty for failing to do things right the first time? I am so persuaded.


It's my mommy!

It's my mommy!



Nick Matzke, over at the Panda's Thumb, acknowledges the passing of Michalel Majerus, one of the world's top lepidoperists and arguably the expert on Biston bistularia, the famous peppered moth. Nick says a great deal in his post that is good and which needs to be said about a great scientist, but it's what he says at the beginning that really struck me, because it can be said about quite a few of us, when all is said and done, scientists or otherwise:

This is very hard to understand, as he was quite young and in the midst of a very productive career.

Yes. I agree with Nick.

The character of the natural world is not, and has never been, consistent with most conceptions of deity, including the God of the Bible. The doctrine of the Fall is the most common way in which Christians attempt to address the fact that the world which their Creator has made does not always seem as Yahweh claimed:

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day (Gen 1:31)

Ontological arguments (this is an especially interesting one) quite often assert that imperfect beings (such as ourselves) can not achieve perfection, and yet we obviously can conceptualize entities that are in and of themselves perfect: the sort of circles, for example, that do not exist in nature because they perfectly express an irrational number. These arguments further assert that imperfect beings can not really produce perfection, even conceptually. Thus we imperfect beings can not be said to be the true source of the perfection we conceptualize: it is, some folk maintain, a sign of another realm, defined by the Perfect.

Or maybe not. Maybe it's begging the question, or a sort of self-delusion about the sorts of positive assertions which are possible. Maybe it's logically possible, but does not rise to the level of a proof. Who knows? The armchair philosophers like Stan have fiddled back and forth with this without proving one thing one way or another....kind of like belief and non-belief in general.

Nevertheless, when I conceptualize a Perfect Being, that totem does not have the characteristics that I associate with the natural world. Dawkins makes a similar (but not identical) point with absolutely crystalline brutality:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

And yet, here we poor creatures are, hardly indifferent to each other's suffering, obsessing about good and evil, children of that same universe! Strange!