CSU Fresno professor of chemistry (emeritus!) George Kauffman is among the most-published fellas in the Central Valley, and in today's Fresno Bee he has yet another op-ed, this time on the upcoming Darwin Day celebrations.

Unfortunately, while Dr. Kauffman praises Darwin's influence, and identifies some things going on outside of Fresno, he fails to either explain the science or publicize any of the local events devoted to a discussion of the science. One can only hope that the Biology Department will get another piece in the Bee prior to Feb. 12th to address those concerns, but I worry that our efforts to reach out to the community will be defined by this gentleman's polemic. Kauffman seems less interested in Darwin or in evolution, than in explaining his opposition to creationism:

Paleontologist Kevin Padian's expert witness testimony at the 2005 Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trial (tinyurl.com/2nlgar) destroys creationism's false assertions of critical gaps in the fossil record. Judge John E. Jones III decided, "The evidence demonstrates that [intelligent design] is nothing less than the progeny of creationism.The overwhelming evidence established that [intelligent design] is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.

Nevertheless, creationists who want religious ideas taught as scientific fact in public schools continue to hide their true aims under ever-changing guises. Despite President Obama's promise, "We will restore science to its rightful place," creationism is still alive in the United States, and, according to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which drafted a resolution. "The Dangers of Creationism in Education" (tinyurl.com/2knrqy), is on the rise in Europe. The resolution concludes, "There is absolutely no doubt that evolution is a central theory for our understanding of the Universe and of life on Earth. Creationism in any of its forms, such as 'intelligent design,' is not based on facts, does not use any scientific reasoning, and its contents are pathetically inadequate for science classes."

Evolution is as much a scientific fact as the existence of atoms or the orbiting of Earth around the Sun, which were once theories. Yet creationists continue to play on the uncertainties shown by some citizens. Rather than wasting time and effort pursuing the impossible task of trying to convince creationists of the falsity of their changing positions, educators would do better to concentrate on enlightening those persons who are uncertain but still have open minds.

There may be no better way to celebrate Darwin's anniversary than to inform them of the incontrovertible evidence for evolution and to convince policymakers not to accede to creationist proposals.

Well, darn. While Kaufman's piece has some good things to commend it (notably several links to on-line sources for more info), the emphasis at the end leaves much to be desired. I wouldn't have written up a 'Darwin Day' piece that mentions some variant of 'creationism' 11 times, almost as many times (13) as 'evolution.' In fact, I wouldn't have mentioned 'creationism' at all, precisely because it has no scientific standing. Instead, I would've acknowledged that there are diversity of religious views on the topic of origins, but that many people from all walks of life have made their peace with evolution, and be done with it.

My caution on this point has to do with the fact that the purpose of 'Darwin Day' is to celebrate a great scientist's contribution to science and culture, rather than to provoke another exchange in the so-called 'Fish Wars'. Doubtless, no matter what we evolution enthusiasts say, there will be flack from the other side, but Kauffman's piece can be arguably said to have fired a preemptive strike toward the pews, whom Kauffman evidently feels are not worthy of engagment, anyway, since changing their minds is (in his words) an 'impossible task.'

No, sorry, Dr. Kauffman, but you are wrong. It is not an 'impossible task'. I know for a fact that people with deeply-seated creationist views can come to a place where their religious understanding is honored without placing them on a collision course with science education. But it takes tact and sympathy on the part of evolution's advocates to reach that point, not an upfront declaration that such folk are benighted and without hope.

Now, there is a time and a place for everything. Anyone who knows me will know that I agree whole-heartedly with the fact that legitimate science education has from time to time required public engagement. Creationism in all of its forms, whether called 'creation science' or 'intelligent design', has failed to pass muster as science with the scientific community.

Unfortunately, the courts are the wrong place to adjudicate what science should be taught in the public schools. There is no guarantee of quality science education in the Constitution. The court's task when such conflicts arise is essentially negative with respect to the exercise of religious speech, rather than positive with respect to science. This reinforces the understandable but false belief held by so many creationists, that they are increasingly besieged by a culture that is hostile to faith. 'Warning shots' aimed at some believers in an op-ed column may make people like Dr. Kaufman feel good about themselves, but they also unnecessarily narrow the possibility of dialogue. Evolution remains enshrined in the textbooks and defended by the courts, but misunderstood and mistrusted in the public square. Not exactly the best publicity for Charles Darwin!

Worse, the lack of respectful engagement leads to the real problem---which is not that creationism occasionally leaks into the curriculum, but that still so many teachers either omit, distort or truncate any discussion of evolution. I have said previously that much of the resistance to evolution education is not inherently religious or related to any particular understanding of scripture, but is instead conceptual in nature. These latter problems can not be addressed by eliminating any and all references to a Creator in the public schools. They require a renewed commitment to teaching the depth and breadth of evolutionary biology, first to the next generation of public school science teachers, and then students, and then their communities.


6 3 5, 0 0 0, 0 0 0 years ago . . . .

...sponges (which are animals) existed.

Or so infers a group led by Gordon Love (UC Riverside), as published in the Feb. 5th edition of Nature. You can read about it here, and here. The short version is that signature steroid compounds characteristic of the cell membranes of desmosponges have been isolated from pre-Cambrian strata found while doing petroleum industry-funded research in Oman.

Gotta love all those carbon-based compounds funding the investigation of other carbon-based compounds by carbon-based life forms....even if this is a silicon-based blog.

If this finding turns out to be robust, this pushes the inception of the Metazoa back another 75 million years, at a minimum, and that would (gasp!) extend the 'Cambrian Explosion' by a similar amount, effectively atomizing what was a bad creationist argument in the first place.

(I will now cross my fingers and hope against hope: is there any argument so wretched, so hopelessly contrary to the available evidence, that it will not be repeated in the pews?)

Returning to the science, this finding would also be consistent with recently-published molecular work that estimates a divergence time for sponges around 650 million years ago. I admit that I'm still a bit skeptical: I'd like to see morphology instead of behavioral traces, but it will be interesting to see how this looks in five years.


I just got an early DVD of the taping I did for Jim Grant's show "Forum for a Better Understanding" on KNXT-Channel 49, in which I debated retired FCC English professor (and ID advocate) Terry Scambray, the first of two programs that use 'Darwin Day' as a springboard for an exchange of views on this topic.

Overall, I thought it went well. The program itself is set to air on the 16th as far as I know. There were a few minor glitches that didn't detract from the exchange in the first segment.

I had some nervous energy which came out in my hands: next time, I'll hold them together. I'm going to try to make more eye contact with both Jim and Terry in the next taping, and maybe do a better job of using my visuals. We mislaid the visual I wanted to use at the top, and I had to improvise with another, and they were a bit slow to put it on the screen. It doesn't look that awkward on the tape, but it really set me back a moment.

I also had a longish pause when trying to dissect Terry's argument on the lack of new genetic information, but it wasn't as long on the tape as it felt, and it actually almost looked as if I had meant to pause that long, instead of (as was the case) being a bit of stalling while I roped by words together. I think the thing that bugs me the most is that I said 'caught up' when meant to say 'cut out' while making an (ahem) 'transitional' statement. It was the nervousness and the perspiration and the tremulous, glavin.

Anyway, I won't claim that I broke much new ground in the topic. I affirmed that essentially Darwin got it right in affirming evolution from a common ancestor, and in his proposed mechanism for that evolutionary change, natural selection. I did audition a brand-new argument that I've been nursing for a few years in response to the claim that natural selection can not provide new genetic information. I think my presentation was clear enough that a middle-school kid could follow my reasoning, so it will be interesting to see what feedback I will get. Other than that, much of what I said is what plenty of others have said over the years in defending science education.

Terry said much that may sound new to some visitors, but it was familar territory. He allowed that natural selection might be a credible explanation for small, local changes like we see today, but felt that Darwin's theory just doesn't match up with his understanding of the fossil record, which apparently to him looks like animals appearing out of thin air, then disappearing again.

In other words, he's plying the familiar territory of 'no transitional forms'. He made much of the fact that organisms, like artifacts from human ingenuity (bicycles, motorcycles, airplanes, etc.) are complex arrays of various features working in concert and expressed disbelief that a transition between a bird and a reptile could be effected by the blind process of natural selection.

I replied that transitional fossils were well-established* , and cited Darwin's prediction of a bird-reptile transition in the Origin being essentially fulfilled two years after the book's production by the discovery of Archaeopteryx. I also alluded to the many recent transitional bird dinosaur specimens recovered from China, and compared Terry's failure to see the obvious transitional sequences to someone who has stills from The Wizard of Oz, and yet doubts that such a film ever existed. No matter how many still images we provide, I suggested, some folk will still say, what about this gap, or that?

He seemed especially scornful of 'punctuated equilibrium' and my observation that the environment clearly supplies information to an organism's development, as if these were both (in his words) 'hand-waving' to detract from the theory's alleged failures. He clearly objected to the idea that the modern theory appears to be a completely natural, undirected process, yet curiously felt that evolution was not a scientific theory, nor did it have any facts to explain why (in his words) 'fish turn into men.' Toward the end, he suggested that the field of paleontology is chock-full of fraud, citing Piltdown Man.

Well....I have a lot of material to work with.

* Pray consider this voluminous list of cephalopod genera, many of which are transitional between nautiloids and ammonoids



Well, if that wasn't the most entertaining Super Bowl ever, I don't know what was. There was a 100-yd. return of a pick. There were two, count 'em, two spectacular corner route catches for scores, one being the difference-maker in the game. There was a safety and a comeback from eleven points down in the fourth quarter. There were two go-ahead scores in the last three minutes. There was an incredible display of elusiveness from the rather sizeable (and not all that fast) Ben Roethlisberger. There were some turnovers, and there were penalties...lots of them, including three personal fouls in a row for the wild Cardinals, whose play veered back and forth between inspired and undisciplined.

So, not the best-played game ever, not even the best-played Super Bowl, but certainly something for everyone. I enjoyed more than I have a right to, given the Cowboys awful showing this year. I'm amazed that they won nine games. Nevermind they lost to the NFC champs in overtime in a game that wrecked their season (that's the one in which Romo's pinkie was fractured), and blew their contest with the Super Bowl champs with a late touchdown. They just, well....(censored)....