The Ugly Story of Texas Curriculum Standards

This shit drives me up the wall.  When, when, when are we going to learn this:

….scientifically illiterate boards of education should leave the curriculum to educators and scientists who know what constitutes a sound education. (italics are mine)

Speaking as someone who sees those high school kids when they get to college, and med school- I’m begging state boards of education members to know the limits of their expertise, to keep their personal beliefs to themselves, to stop using their position of power to evangelize in PUBLIC SCHOOL SCIENCE CLASS, and generally to knock off the nonsense and let those kids learn some actual SCIENCE in science class.

It would do these kids a huge favor, and make my job easier.


40 thoughts on “The Ugly Story of Texas Curriculum Standards

  1. Amen sister!

    No seriously though, how disappointing! I really thought that they could get it through in a scientifically informed format this time around…looks like the fight’s not over yet though, so here’s hoping.

    I can totally sympathize with you as an educator. I did my bachelor’s degree at a SLAC with a fantastic biology program and Christian ties…attracted a lot of students from the Bible belt who had been completely disinformed throughout their entire education. It was just unbelieveable. I remember one student in my ecology class who wanted to go to med school. But she failed the class because she flatly refused to answer a major essay question on the final about evolution. The prof said, “look, you can believe whatever you want. I probably won’t be able to change your mind about that. If you’re going to insist that 2+2=5, what else caould I possibly say to change your mind? But you do have to demonstrate to me that as a biology major you understand the concepts that the rest of field hold to be true. If you don’t answer the question, then I have no way of knowing if you understand the material.” She refused – I don’t know if somebody told her she’d go to hell for even entertaining the notion of what. She was otherwise a really bright girl but needless to say, with a failing grade on her transcript sh didn’t get into med school. Hope it was worth it to her and all the people who told her throughout her life that evolution is lie invented by the devil.

    We need to stop letting people do our students such a tremendous disservice. It’s just sad.

  2. This is seriously scary stuff. The US is a country with one of the biggest and most powerful economies in the world, whose scientists pump out some of the most amazing discoveries and whose people come from every corner, culture and religion on the planet … yet there are dipshit, over-zealous, freakazoid Christians who insist that the indisputable scientific evidence of evolution is wrong and that a fantastically entertaining piece of fiction should be an integral part of SCIENCE education.

    What’s next? Are these people going to insist that English classes study the bible so that everyone can get to hear the word of god?


  3. That’s just astounding! If that shit is to be promoted, I would agree with one of the arguments in that second article that (a) the classes be electives only and (2) students are exposed to the Koran, Hebrew texts and other religious writings in addition to the Christian bible. I’m all for separation of church and state but if a class on religion is to be offered in schools, it must cover a multitude of faiths and objectively examine their respective histories/controversies rather than just as a class in brainwashing/indoctrination.

    Sometimes I wonder if I’m living in the Twilight Zone or some strange Bizarro Universe.

  4. I totally thought we were done with this topic. All this does is cheat students out of an education. Just from a literary perspective, a liberal education should at least touch on mythic stories, but in science class? At best it’s gross delusion, at worst it’s state sponsored religious indoctrination.

  5. on that Texas low note…
    please click the link and vote for “only evolution”

    the poll is on the bottom of the page

    When it was first put up on PZ’s page, the numbers were ugly. Crash the poll for the kids’ futures!

  6. Matthew- We should be done with this topic, it’s sad. Considering all the $$ that taxpayers had to shell out in Pennsylvania to deal with the legal fallout if this nonsense in that state- you’d think Texas republicans would at least be thinking about this. Alas.

    JC- I voted, … now everyone else move on over there and vote!!

  7. So I really don’t mean to be a nay-sayer or act like I know the slightest thing about biology, but I think the point of science classes is to open up students to the practice of constructing explanations from persistent inquiry and careful observation. Merely saying “Thus sayeth the theory” does not have a lasting effect on students’ learning. I have encountered several students in my tenure as a physics teacher who, when prompted for an explanation of a physical phenomena using evidence, basically responded “Because Newton said so.” I do not consider such explanations to be consistent with scientific thought and reasoning.

    An evolutionary model can be useful for concepts in biology; however, a design model can also be useful for concepts in biology. It depends what you are trying to do. For instance, strong evolutionary arguments can be made for why humans experience anxiety the way that they do, something very useful for treating anxiety. Similarly, strong design arguments can formulate the basis for artificial components to replace defective components (ie. what is the function of the various components of the knee? How could we design an artificial one?) Moreover, hybrid models can be used in considering how to transition medical techniques from animal to human models. Different models and schema work in different situations. Certainly, some models work better for a different array of situations, but I do think it’s reasonable to encourage students to appreciate the limitations of models.

  8. Academic- I must most vehemently disagree with you.

    The not-so-subtle subtext to ‘intelligent design’ relative to biology class and the central tenet of biology class (which is evolutionary theory and common descent) is not at all related to what you state. It is related only to indoctrinating impressionable students that because a few people uneducated in this area and very religious don’t understand the evidence (or choose not to learn it in the first place) that supports this central tenet of biology, there must be an ‘intelligent designer’ (read GOD).

    We should all be outraged that these people control whether or not our kids learn actual, peer-reviewed and factual evidence in biology class. Period.

    And furthermore, those proponents of ID always lay out this strengths and weaknesses argument- and it is totally, totally false. There is NOT ONE, not a single one- peer reviewed paper that supports intelligent design in any reputable journal. It’s absolutely outrageous that it would be even remotely considered an alternative ‘theory’ equal in footing to evolutionary theory- to be taught in science class.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to get all worked up there, and that’s probably not what you are arguing anyway.

  9. “An evolutionary model can be useful for concepts in biology; however, a design model can also be useful for concepts in biology.”

    I don’t think anyone is refuting the fact that “thinking from deign” can in some situations be beneficial, particularly in light of the examples yo describe.

    However, with regard to evolution specifically, natural selection is simply a far more powerful model than the argument from design. In particular – and ironically given the Discovery Institute’s continuous ranting about irreducible complexity – natural selection provides a far better explanation for emergent complexity. Where the argument from design dismisses the problem with a hand wave towards God and the ultimate unfalsifiable hypothesis, the biologist can demonstrate specific examples of how a seemingly complex phenomena arose by virtue of being able to perform a variety of different advantageous functions at each stage of it’s evolution. Irreducible complexity has been blown out of the water by some of the very evidence it initially presented to defend its case (the eye, the flagellum, etc, etc).

    Certainly, a primary objective in the class room is teaching kids to think critically and understand the importance – and limitations – of contemporary models. Personally, I’m all for Intelligent Design being allowed in the classroom as an example of an old discredited and obsolete model being superseded by a superior theory.

    The question is, will conservative religious groups be satisfied with that? No, of course not. There is an agenda at the root of this, and it is not one that holds any stock in “critical thinking”. On the contrary, it is an agenda with a well established loyalty to dogma.

  10. From my very limited vantage point, the challenges brought forth by the Intelligent Design advocates seemingly have strengthened the arguments of proponents of Evolution. For instance, the complexity of the bacteria flagellum question lead investigators to determine that the 12 or so factors that dictate this structure actually exist in other organisms seen to emerge prior to the bacteria. Questioning the complexity of the human eye offers an amazing lesson about the role of water in controlling vision (and offers some insight as to why my own eyes are so screwed up). If I were teaching biology, I would want to know if there’s a way evolution explains the human clotting process because it seems to require 32 different processes enacted in a certain order. It’s a question, a puzzle, and one I happen to find interesting. I also find the way the human bladder has transitional epithelium cells fascinating. I would be interested in exploring how various scientists explain the presence of such unique tissues. It’s about inquiry and asking questions. And I think if I were teaching high school biology, a reasonable assessment item might involve looking at how scientists explain parts of various biological systems or even whole creatures. For a whole creature, I’m really interested in the hippopotamus. I could go on and on. Why are sheep and mice used to model human systems? What are the limits of ape intelligence studies when it comes to understanding human learning? How do dolphins communicate? I’m more than sure that there’s a plethora of scientific communication that could help me answer my questions. But some of my questions have come from reading some of the challenges from Intelligent Design authors. Reading some of those works sparked my own curiosity about the subject. And honestly, I did not appreciate my high school biology teacher suggesting that atheism is the highest form of spiritual understanding and my high school anatomy teacher suggesting that only Buddhists have a full appreciation for life. (My hometown had a sizable First Nations population, a Jewish synagogue of appreciable size, and an array of Christian churches.)

    And I’ll freely admit that I understand microevolution, but I have challenges with trying to think from how we went from various bacteria to humans. I had 2 class periods about evolution in 10th grade biology. But then again, I also talked with a physics major, who has also taught high school physics, today who told me that, in a large circuit of with power supply and light bulbs, the light bulbs furthest away from the power supply light last. Yet, as a teacher, I personally tried to do everything I could think of to ignite a student’s curiosity where questions just flowed. But I would never accept an explanation of “Well, AUTHOR said so” in a science class.

  11. Allowing the words “intelligent design” in the classroom as an alternative to evolution is a HUGE problem. The gist of evolution is that environment + genotype = phenotype. The environmental conditions shape the morphology of a species over time with respect to the genes contained within the species. When religious nutcases go on about ID, they have NO training in Environmental Science, Genetics, or Morphological Analyses, and they excuse themselves from that training in favor of “I believe in God” or “I read the Bible.” Those nimrods argue over on PZ in circles – it’s truly fascinating to read, and not in a good way. Required reading for all high schoolers: Beak of the Finch.

    Genetics, environmental science, and anatomy/morphology sadly get bypassed in primary schools due to piss-poor training of teachers in science and math, and it becomes MY job as a college professor to teach them the ABCs of science they should have had earlier (what the hell ARE they learning in science class?). And I want to banish the phrase “do you believe in evolution?”…. NO. I STUDY IT!

  12. Academic- I think we agree that “Well, AUTHOR said so” isn’t an appropriate answer about evolutionary theory, common descent or any other scientific tenet. I think we agree that religion does not belong in biology class. But I think you miss a very important point above. ID proponents aren’t questioning the complexity of the human eye as an open ended question out of curiosity (I’m all open for that kind of questioning). They are flatly claiming that because such a structure is complex, it must have been designed by god. Boom. Slam.door.No.More.Questions.

    High school biology teachers and university faculty across the country are resisting the movement for teaching intelligent design or the ‘weaknesses in evolutionary theory’ in their classrooms. Conservative religious activists on state boards of education around the country are furthering this movement and supposed ‘debate within the scientific community’ to allow the incorporation of inaccurate, non-factual and otherwise hokey information in textbooks used by public school students. I think the fact that you had 2 class periods about evolution in 10th grade shows a terrific weakness in our system of teaching biology.

    As for this:

    And I’ll freely admit that I understand microevolution, but I have challenges with trying to think from how we went from various bacteria to humans.

    I only ask why??? I have trouble understanding why people have trouble with common descent. I’m dying for an explanation.

  13. Since you asked, I’ll answer. I have problem with the from various bacteria to humans because, when I’m asked “Where does humankind come from?”, I find the answer “By a chance evolutionary process beginning with a synthesis from 92 basic elements” very morally challenging. Humans are only here because we evolved from pond scum. Why should I respect someone else’s humanity? If it’s all about natural selection and “Survival of the fittest” then why should I stand in the gap of people in poverty, or people who are disabled? Why should I care about the students struggling to learn concepts in my class? If we’re all just a chance derivation from pond scum, then why bother at all? As a narrative describing creation, I find it to be morally challenging.

    A tribal creation narrative I’m familiar with is from the Alaskan peoples. Basically they maintain that the animals, guided by the raven, agreed to allow man to exist in his environment by offering themselves to allow man’s survival. Given that I don’t doubt my interdependence on other people and complex ecosystems, I think this creation narrative provides some motive to respect the environment.

    I find the Genesis assertion that men and women are created in the image and likeness of God strongly informs my moral ethic to the point where I do everything in my power to manifest some of the implications of that spiritual assertion.

    I’m not saying that everyone thinks as I do nor do I expect anyone to think like I do. I find myself taking great exception with an understanding of humanity that restricts us to our mind. I personally view people as a union of mind, body, and spirit while respecting that other individuals view people differently. I’m sure some biologists would rail at my thoughts about the implications of the evolutionary creation narrative. I can imagine a biologist asking me the question “Doesn’t the fact that so many chance processes to create you inspire awe in you?!?!?!?” And my straight-faced answer is no, such a thought does not inspire awe to me. But, for me, I can see God at work in things that I understand simultaneously within things I don’t understand. I don’t have the tendency to invoke God when I reach the end of my knowledge.

    So that’s probably a longer answer than you were looking for, but it’s how I see things.

  14. Academic- I appreciate your answer. For myself, all morality is not derived from religion… and it makes no difference to me how I arrived here (after 4.9 billion years or in 6 literal days)- or what is written in Genesis- in how I treat others. None. But now that you brought that up, I’m wondering whether non-human animals that live in closely knit communities and are altruistic toward each other all have religions??

    But, for me, I can see God at work in things that I understand simultaneously within things I don’t understand. I don’t have the tendency to invoke God when I reach the end of my knowledge.

    Some people would say that God is what we use to explain what we don’t yet understand.

  15. What about the notion of State’s rights in this? After all, we don’t really have nationalized education. Some state wants to turn its kids into idiots, so be it.

  16. Personally, I think we should have a nationalized education… but you will probably turn out 10 reasons why that’s a bad idea now. But seriously- 1. Texas kids don’t just stay in Texas, and 2. Texas is a huge buyer of science textbooks- so in some part what happens there gets reflected in textbooks that get used elsewhere. 3. This isn’t a battle that’s just being fought in some religion crazed southern state that we can write off-… aaahhem. Pennsylvania, Kansas…

  17. …Some people would say that God is what we use to explain what we don’t yet understand….

    And I tried to make it very clear that I am not of the same mind with those individuals.

    In response to your question, I don’t know how you could design an inquiry to test your question about non-human animals. From my understanding, much of our contemporary understanding on the diversity of religions tends towards looking at the continued use of similar artifacts, namely inscribed relics such as paintings, carvings, and texts. But then again, I’m not an anthropologist either.

    But honestly, the refusal of my high school life science teachers to allow any space towards thinking not consistent with their personal religious convictions (atheism and Buddhism) reduced my willingness to engage in life sciences research. My experience with high school life sciences basically fell under the type of “Thus sayeth EVOLUTION” with absolutely zero space to question it. They were much more concerned about getting to the next section of the textbook. But 10th grade biology had a requirement for a science fair project and introduced me to the scientific community. So it wasn’t all bad. 🙂

  18. Academic, I do agree with you that high school teachers are woefully inadequate and unprepared for teaching biology. And like you pointed out, not all folks use God to explain away things they don’t understand.

    What I see and hear all too often is strange ‘arguments’ against evolution. In fact, microevolution is one of them. From my point of view, it’s like asking a non-mechanic how a car works. The non-mechanic throws out terms like gas, piston, oil, filter, engine, radiator, carburetor, etc but there’s no ability to see the connections or disconnections to the concept of how the car works! If something should happen on the side of the road where the car won’t go/work, gas is the default explanation (like microevolution is the default for anti-evolution) but no one checked the tank or understands how to read the gas gauge. It totally boggles my mind. But as a teacher, I see this all. the. time. It’s word recognition disguised as an argument. indoctrination. parroting what someone else said (or the Bible). instead of actually going through the steps needed to understand the concepts beyond the terms.

    I’m sad that students think memorization and rote repetition is learning. I’m sad teachers won’t expand their knowledge for the sake of their students. And I’m sad that religion is seen often as a counter to evolution, because I know of plenty of religious folks who hold that their study of evolution allows them to see the patterns that their creator made. They truly believe that the study of evolution is the study of their creator. Evolution is a pattern and process, and learning leads to a deeper knowledge of their creator and how to preserve biodiversity and ongoing speciation processes.

    I always refer people to the Harvard Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology website
    Please click around and see for yourself what the study of evolution is actually about. It incorporates all kinds of science… development, ecology, biodiversity, paleontology, genetics, molecular and cellular biology.

  19. religion and science are not mutually exclusive. I am an evolutionary biology grad student and I believe in God. One has nothing to do with the other. Scientific hypotheses (including evolution!) can be falsified; religious beliefs can not. they are two completely different types of explanations and neither should pass itself off as the other. So, keep your religion out of my science classroom (and off my body on another note) and I won’t come preach Darwin in your church. Deal?

  20. People who suggest that but for God they would have no morals really, really frighten me. WTF kind of person are you that cannot find any intrinsic or selfdetermined value in moral or ethical behavior? Common descent from pond scum is meaningless- we express a multitude of behaviors not shared by bacteria!

  21. Social Darwinism reflects a real historical movement. People ascribed to both positive and negative eugenics trying to breed a better humanity. To assert that there is a subject matter domain that is intrinsically “science” (or math, or history, or religion, or language) reflects a lot of either/or thinking. Science cannot be value free (and you could take your pick of critical theorists from a variety of lenses to support such a claim).

    And there are constantly challenges to scientific thinking about the universe. How did all of the matter in the universe condense into a single point (Big Bang)? Why do we have the array of the physical constants that we have supporting human life rather uniquely on Earth? How did these parameters arise if controlled by random probabilities? Do we have an infinite amount of universes?

    And then I have friends who say that human actions have drastically reduced the process of natural selection instead favoring human selection. If human selection becomes the driver of biological changes, what might be the moral and ethical implications of such a system? Do morals and ethics belong in the field of science or the fields of philosophy? As an engineer (to finally be able to give an example from my own field), how do I respond to strong moral dilemmas associated with various design processes? I generally don’t support explicit instruction in morality within a public school system, but I think we are totally deceiving ourselves if we run away from a discussion of moral and ethical significance when the issues present themselves.

  22. “By a chance evolutionary process beginning with a synthesis from 92 basic elements” very morally challenging.”

    Why? These things have been hashed out at length. As it is, it is not at all hard to understand how we have developed both an innate, if complex, moral compass in addition to the sufficient capacity for abstract thought to appeal to reason and generate social contracts.

    “Humans are only here because we evolved from pond scum. Why should I respect someone else’s humanity?”

    Because you are descended from a line of humans that have survived by virtue of cooperation and mutual protection, and as a result you have an innate predisposition to develop the same. It is not a complete code out of the box, but the basic mechanisms are in place when you are born that can subsequently be tweaked and honed by the immediate social environment. You are, by all means, free to attempt to divest yourself of this moral compass – it’s an interesting experiment to try – but I guarantee you’ll find it harder than you think (there’s purpose behind the fact that dehumanisation is so often a prerequisite for killing, whether in homicide, war, or genocide). The only human that has actual need of an objective, external and dogmatically enforced moral compass is the sociopath.

    “If it’s all about natural selection and “Survival of the fittest” then why should I stand in the gap of people in poverty, or people who are disabled?… If we’re all just a chance derivation from pond scum, then why bother at all?”

    Why not? Or rather, why would the addition of a deity into this process suddenly imbue everything with a sense of meaning? Try thinking along those lines without lapsing into circular reasoning. The answer for why, regardless of origin story, it is generally (but not always) useful to behave altruistically is that such behaviour has a thorough stabilizing effect on human interactions and societies. It develops trust. No trust, no society, no tribe, no cooperation. It really isn’t hard to see why a species that had to carve its niche out in a world inhabited by animals much larger and more vicious than it would learn the art of cooperation. It’s not an unlikely story judging by the number of species that have evolved a similar propensity towards cooperation independently of those among the primates (e.g. those among the canid family, and my personal favourites, the meerkats etc).

  23. I never said that you had to agree with how I see things, but I find it odd that this conversation has been about getting me to consent with your point of view in order for my perspective to be validated. But people like me scare you, reflect a religious lunatic, and someone ill-suited for scientific thinking.

    So, I’m seeing the BOOM. Slam.Door.No.More.Questions. from exactly the other side. Or if questions are permitted, I must assent to your answers.

    This conversation has mirrored a consistent pattern of interaction with life sciences researchers almost verbatim. I find it ironic that the patterns of interaction with social science researchers differ significantly with a much greater willingness to discuss a variety of influences.

  24. Scientific hypotheses (including evolution!) can be falsified; religious beliefs can not.

    For me, it’s this sort of statement that I have trouble dealing with. From my perspective as a scientist, scientific principles are based on known facts; hypotheses are based on known scientific principles and the known data that are available at that time; religious beliefs are based on one’s faith that certain principles hold true based on previous testimony.

    All scientific findings can be falsified but it’s rare to find an ongoing conspiracy in the scientific community that continues to perpetuate false data across generations. Religious belief and faith are of an intangible, unquantifiable (is this even a word?) nature and can be bent and twisted by persons in power to suit the situation or generation.

    Combining the principles of science and faith into one area of study just isn’t possible. I’m not saying they’re mutually exclusive, just that you can’t argue the importance of fact and observation in science and then turn around and say that an omnipotent power had a hand in designing the organisms, principles, whatever without also proving it with cold, hard facts.

  25. What about the notion of State’s rights in this? After all, we don’t really have nationalized education. Some state wants to turn its kids into idiots, so be it.
    I want to agree with you. I like the idea of states competing for educational systems. However, the problem is state sponsored endorsement of religion, which is arguably a federal issue. I would have less of a problem if the district or state were simply putting together a shoddy curriculum, but this is a blatant attempt to insert a religious agenda into the science class room.

  26. Academic-

    So, I’m seeing the BOOM. Slam.Door.No.More.Questions.

    I don’t think that’s quite a fair characterization of what is going in this thread. No one (including me) has questioned your right to see things as you do, and I think the comment thread has been very civilized. I question my own personal beliefs all the time, and wouldn’t ever encourage anyone not to question theirs. On scientific matters, I look at the evidence- I don’t want anyone to ‘believe’ anything- I want them to look closely at the peer-reviewed evidence and realize it is overwhelmingly in favor of evolutionary theory. It’s just a landslide in one direction.

    And, although I enjoy your participation and comments on this blog as valuable to the discussion, I honestly am not invested in whether you consent to my point of view- what I do care about, and what we have gotten away from in this thread is the teaching of religion in biology class (and ID is religion dressed up in a different name)- forced on an entire state because of a few misguided, scientifically illiterate, religiously dogmatic individuals who make the state standards. Teaching kids that a ‘controversy’ exists, when the biology community (the expert community on the subject) does NOT actually see a controversy and the weight of the evidence is strictly on one side- is, frankly, absurd, and it takes away from time that could be spent teaching kids actual biology.

  27. “But honestly, the refusal of my high school life science teachers to allow any space towards thinking not consistent with their personal religious convictions (atheism and Buddhism) reduced my willingness to engage in life sciences research.”

    You won’t find any argument from me that there isn’t a severe deficiency in the science curriculum inre critical thinking and argumentation. The current content-based pedagogy is a disaster, and that DrDra’s has recently felt compelled to discuss the basics of writing very much reflects that fact.

    But I’d like to address your reservations about evolution. If you are serious about discussing the matter, you will have to lay out your position a little more clearly. So far, you have registered you uneasiness about the theory for what are fair, if slightly ambiguous moral reasons. Firstly, what is it about common descent that you feel deprives you as a moral agent in the world? Secondly, what is the simplest form of the argument that the presence of a divine creator makes up for this apparent deficiency in a materialistic morality?

  28. “DSKS… I always learn something from your comments… which I like FYI!”

    It’s nice to know I’m paying it forward, because most of my opinions on these sorts of topics have largely been shaped by engaging (or, in many cases, getting totally schooled by) other bloggers and commenters around the old interweb.

  29. Academic, I could give a rat’s ass if you consent with my position. I was simply pointing out what DSKSLFLASSS:LS:S:LSSS
    did much more eloquently. God is absolutely irrelevant to moral or ethical behavior. If someone has trouble understanding how anyone can behave in what are currently valued as humane ways in the absence of external threats and prohibitions, well, the rest of us may view that person as being a sociopath.

    But I suppose we should put a fine point on it. Do you or do you not believe that humans who do not believe in any God are capable of “good”, “moral” and/or “ethical” behavior?

  30. Ironically my resistance to common ancestry stems from the same sort of logic that leads me to resist the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary: where does the process stop? So we came from ape-like creatures. Where did ape-like creatures come from? Where did those creatures come from? Where did that group of creatures come from? If we’re at the point of saying that things were constructed from various elements, how did those elements come together in a sustainable fashion? I remember the report in my high school biology class about the simulated Earth’s atmosphere producing some interesting compounds, but that’s the only piece of evidence I was presented regarding this topic about elemental synthesis. I still don’t see how such a process is sustainable. Moreover, many animals present today do not seem to be transitional in the common ancestors piece. Coupled with research about human migration patterns and recent reports of roughly three “races” of humans, I am personally willing to accept that God created the heavens and the earth through a rather mysterious process. I see a lot of things through the eyes of mystery; but there are only so many mysteries that I can inquire about at once. If people want to figure out the details of this mysterious process by which God created things, then that’s their prerogative. Dr. Francis Collins is probably one of the best known people investigating these sorts of questions and is trying to show harmony between these different ideas. Good on him; personally I’m interested in other sorts of questions.

    Atheism reflects one of the newer systems of religious belief. I think it arouse after the Industrial Revolution, but I’ve never studied the exact history in connecting the dates exactly. But I think that there also seems to be a general shift in assigning authority previously reserved to God to other sources but that people still work within similar guiding frameworks. So yes, I think that humans who do not believe in any god are capable of being moral persons. From the point of negation, I also think that power of hypocrisy severely inhibits some people who believe in a god from actually acting as if what they believe were true.

    But for me, my faith (which has not been named in this comment thread) forms an integral part of who I am. It’s not peripheral. My faith has lead me to make radically different choices than the choices strongly encouraged by any of my communities of origin and provides significant motivation for why I do what I do.

    I’ve also been thinking on some of the ways comments have been raised in class. What if a high school student in a biology class asks a question saying that he or she does not think that evolution can be true because of the complexity of human life? The teacher questions the student and finds out that the student has read a book on Intelligent Design which sparked the student’s question. Does the teacher say “That book has absolutely no scientific grounding and is absolute insanity” or “What sort of experiment could we test to evaluate the claims made by that author?” Knowing some of the cultural climate in Texas, I find it difficult to believe that a student would not raise these questions.

    High school students just getting started look for information in a variety of sources for a variety of reasons. I remember teaching a 9th grade class where we were required to show Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” Even though I do not dispute the idea of global warming, I do take strong issue with the way Al Gore presents his arguments in this film. So in my 9th grade class, we talked about the pieces of a scientifically sound argument and places where the movie succeeds, comes close to success, and fails.

  31. lemme get this straight. You are weaseling on your original assertion with respect to “pond scum” and respecting others’ humanity by suggesting atheism is a religion? That’s some mighty fast tap dancing. Because you were not talking about “authority”, you were talking about a Divine authority.

    And even IF a nonbeliever bases their moral behavior on a rich intellectual tradition this does not equate at ALL with behaving well “because Kant said so” or some such parallel with religion. Nor does it account for run-of-the-mill non-intellectual atheists who have arrived at their moral and ethical behavior through their own good sense and that of their parents and communities, sense which may have been informed by religious traditions, for that matter. Being informed by religious traditions is still a very far cry from behaving well only because of religious prescriptions and threats of eternal damnation or whatthefuckever punishment features in your particular cult.

  32. Academic-

    Sorry, but atheism is not a religious belief. The definition of a religious belief can be found here… but just to quote

    ‘ Religious belief refers to a mental state in which faith is placed in a creed related to the supernatural, sacred, or divine. Such a state may relate to:
    1. the existence, characteristics and worship of a deity or deities;
    2. divine intervention in the universe and human life; or
    3. values and practices centered on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
    In contrast to other belief systems, religious beliefs are usually codified.
    While the term “religious belief” is often considered to have the same meaning as religion, the latter term usually deals with both ideas and practices. Religious belief can be seen as a focus exclusively on ideas.’

    Nor is atheism a ‘religion’ as the definition of religion is:
    1. a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
    b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
    2. The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
    3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
    4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

  33. Academic,
    It seems that your main beef is with abiogenesis, not common descent. If you can ignore the inflammatory title, I recommend reading this Scientific American editorial, which covers some of these misunderstandings.

    Abiogenesis is a fun thing to ponder in terms of chemistry and physics, but it’s currently not something biologists (or chemists and physicist for that matter) spend a lot of time on.

    Clearly, you’re interested in some of the Big Questions. You are probably aware that one of the main challenges inre answering the Big Questions is actually knowing how to frame those questions in the first place. You talk about what came before this and before that, and in doing so betray the fact that your epistemology is limited to your experience living in a 3D world (which itself is only fully perceived by you via some neurological trickery) trudging relentlessly along an arrow of time. To use a popular analogy, that’s like the Square in flatland pondering the nature of the universe based on his own humble little 2D world, unaware that floating three feet from him along an axis perpendicular to that plane is a Sphere shaking its head in sympathy. Believe me, if M-theory (which is actually a hypothesis, but there) is anything close to be a true approximation of the universe(s), then the question of what came before and what’s coming after is rendered somewhat redundant. What do we replace that question with? If we really live in a universe floating througg some pandimensional ether on a magical membrane with little bits of cosmic fluff stuck on the back, I reckon we’ve got bigger problems than figuring out the The Big Bang and Consciousness.

    “Atheism reflects one of the newer systems of religious belief.”

    Atheism and extreme forms of Deism (which in climates where atheism was punishable by death are hard to separate) have a much longer history that you think (see Diagoras of Melos, who by all accounts made Richard Dawkins look positively pedestrian in the latter’s own objections to theism).

  34. Regarding abiogenesis, I think one of Stanley Miller’s post-docs re-analyzed the tubes that Miller made way back in the 50’s (which most of us who work in a lab should find utterly amazing that he not only saved the vials, but that they were all still properly labeled 60 years later). There was a recent Nature article about it. I’m sure it would be easy to hunt down if you’re interested.

    But, you’re right. It’s not related to the vast majority of biological investigation. I think it’s more of an armchair debate.

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