Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Evolution Revolution

I have an article about the book Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails) by Paul Strode and Matt Young in the October 8 issue of the Boulder Weekly. The pair are coming to speak at the store this Wednesday, October 14.

On the day the article appeared, I had lunch at the bar of the Walnut Brewery just a block from the bookstore. It was a bitterly cold day that threatened snow. I was rooting on my beloved Phillies in the playoffs against the local nine, the Colorado Rockies. A grizzled elderly man, in a blue fishing hat and a heavy white sweatshirt with a beer in hand moved to the seat next to me from the other end of the bar.

After a moment of small talk, I quickly revealed that I worked at the Boulder Book Store. He became quite excited and told me that he collected first editions of American history books that were written between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.

"These books appeal to all three senses," he said, poking his finger into my knee as he slurped down his chili. I tried to tell him that there were five senses, but I couldn't get a word in. "The sense of sight, the sense of touch and the sense of smell all come alive when you read these books. Those old leather covers have quite an aroma."

He was particularly keen on his biographies. "You know, people didn't make a big deal about Jefferson in those years. There are only a couple of biographies of him compared to at least a dozen of Washington. I guess they didn't think much of Jefferson back then. Of course, those biographies are quite valuable because there are only a couple, and they didn't print many."

I nodded and watched as the Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba hit a two-run shot over the left field fence in Philadelphia. It didn't look like it was going to be the Phillies day, and I had to head back to work. I tried to bid adieu, but the man jabbed his forceful finger back into my thigh.

"The greatest biography of Washington was written by John Marshall," he said.

"The Supreme Court Justice," I replied.

He gazed at me for a moment with something that seemed to border on appreciation. "Yes. It's five volumes. He knew Washington. He had access to his papers. There will never be a better biography written of the man. Why do these revisionist historians keep writing new ones? Why don't they teach Marshall in school?"

I posited that they didn't teach five volumes of anything in school and also that 200-year old history books were almost never used. New information has come to light, I told him. Also, Marshall was a Federalist who fought with Washington, so he just may be favorably biased towards him.

He stared up at the television as the Phillies came to bat against the Rockies' Aaron Cook. It was bright and sunny in Philadelphia, a marvelous day for baseball. We both shivered every time the door to the brewery opened and let in some of the freezing Colorado air. Snow flakes were now lazily falling on the other side of the Walnut's floor-to-ceiling windows. He slowly began to shake his head no. I took the bait.

"Why do you think they don't teach Marshall? I asked.

He leaned back and turned fully towards me. "Because he talks about God. Marshall discusses how religious Washington was and how this nation was founded on Christian principles. People don't want that taught anymore."

"What about deism?" I interjected. He swatted at the air as if an annoying gnat had flown by.

"This was a Christian nation. It was based on the bible. The founders believed in the bible. Now their freedom of religion has been twisted to mean freedom from religion."

I rubbed my forehead and stared longingly at the front door of the restaurant. "Well, you can't have freedom of religion if you don't have freedom from religion," I said. "Look, I would have no problem with it being taught in history classes that the founders based their decisions on the bible and that they were guided by their religion, if it's true. If we can document it."

"Oh, it's true," he said. "These revisionist historians want to just delete all of those things out. People have twisted the constitution around so much that we can't even teach the bible in school anymore."

I stood up in an effort to leave, but I felt his heavy hand on my shoulder. The snow was really coming down outside, and the Rockies seemed to be threatening to score once again off the Phillies' ace, Cole Hamels.

"The bible has no place in school except in a religion class, " I told the old man, trying not to look at the chili stains on the corners of his mouth.

"I'll tell you where the bible should be taught," he responded. "In history class. Secular historians have said the the first five books of the bible are the most accurate history of that time period that we have. Archaeologists have not been able to refute anything in those books."

I stared at him with incredulity. Perhaps I'd heard wrong. Maybe he wasn't talking about the Old Testament. "What time period is that exactly?" I asked.

"From creation to ..."
"You don't believe in evolution," I blurted out.

"That's an adult fairy tale. It's all made up."

Despite having more than enough ammunition to argue with him after my close reading of Why Evolution Works, I had no energy or time for the fight. This guy wouldn't even agree with Intelligent Design, let alone evolution. I shook his hand and told him that I really had to go.

"You think a frog becomes a man?" he yelled at my back as I hurried toward the door, pulling my jacket collar up around my ears. "You think that you can just add a few years, and a frog will turn into a man? That's all it takes is a few extra years."

I exited the brewery, and within 20-feet of the doors was a box dispensing the Boulder Weekly. The cover teased of my article inside, "Local science teacher leads the evolution revolution."

Here's a copy of the article:

A Fairview science teacher’s guide for the anti-creationist

When Fairview High’s Paul Strode was a new science teacher in the early 1990s, he wasn’t ready for the challenge that a student brought to him when he taught evolution.

“In my first year, I had a student plop a stack of (creationist) pamphlets on my desk,” Strode says. “At the time I had no answer for him. I couldn’t answer him when he said that the horse was obviously made for humans to ride. I didn’t have the understanding of evolution or the understanding of how science worked.”

Strode and Colorado School of Mines senior lecturer Matt Young’s new book Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails) addresses the common misconceptions regarding evolution and debunks the flawed ideas of modern-day creationists.

Any teacher or person who reads this engaging treatise will be much better prepared than Strode was as a new teacher when confronted by creationists.

Apparently, there are an awful lot of creationists out there. In a recent Gallup poll done on the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth in February, only 39 percent of Americans said they believed in the theory of evolution. A quarter of the population rejects Darwin’s theories outright, while the rest of America doesn’t seem to care.

Young and Strode are alarmed by how many people refuse to accept scientific facts. In the opening pages of Why Evolution Works, they explain how ignorance of the basics of evolution can lead to a health disaster. The overuse of antibiotics, in everything from livestock to fowl to treatment of minor infections has caused many bacteria to evolve into new antibiotic-resistant strains. Most notably, the malaria parasite has grown resistant to quinine and its derivatives.

“Creationism doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” Young said. “Creationism correlates with denying climate change, the Holocaust and that HIV causes AIDS. People don’t believe in a great many things that science has proven to be facts. The result is these people are dangerous. In South Africa, countless people died because the prime minister [Thabo Mbeki] denied the link between HIV and AIDS.”

Why Evolution Works uses a thorough explanation of how science works to help dismantle the arguments against evolution. It seems like something any halfway-educated person should know (how hypotheses, experimentation, observations and theories fit together), yet in Young’s and Strode’s hands, it’s a revelation.

“One of the misunderstandings is the process of science. Our explanations change as we learn more about nature,” Strode says. “People think that it’s a weakness. ‘Oh, you’re wrong again.’ We are just gathering more information. Some information confirms your hypothesis, some adds a layer, and some contradicts it. Evolution is one of the most successful theories in all of science.”

Muddying the scientific waters are contemporary creationists that operate under the ruse of Intelligent Design. Writers such as Michael Behe and William Dembski assert that certain structures, like eyes, are too complex to have evolved from simpler systems. Behe admits, unlike many creationists, that earth is billions of years old and that all life has a common ancestor. However, he argues that the universe was “designed” for life.

Young and Strode take on each one of these points and expose the flaws in reasoning behind them. Dembski’s math is questionable and his view of probability is unnecessarily limited. Behe’s contention that the universe is designed is belied by a close examination of three jury-rigged features of human anatomy. The knee is terribly injury-prone, the scrotum is a strange solution to the problem of keeping sperm cool, and the eye is susceptible to glaucoma and cataracts.

“The human knee, the mammalian scrotum, and the vertebrate eye are far from perfect, but rather are merely the best evolution can do given the constraints of developmental genes and structures and functions already in place,” Young and Strode write. “Perhaps better designs could be envisioned, but evolution has had to work with what it had.”

“Intelligent Design is a deliberate attempt to get around the Supreme Court ruling that you can’t teach religion,” Young says. “They don’t make any claims about the identity of the designer. But it’s obvious what they are getting at.”

Although the history of creationism and the lessons in basic science provide great entertainment, the heart of Why Evolution Works is a brief but thorough look into the theory of evolution. Young and Strode look at the theory from several different angles, including the dating of the earth’s beginning, new genetic research and how embryos of different species can show us their common ancestors.

They describe these normally dense scientific topics in short chapters in a conversational tone. Each chapter has a conclusion that summarizes the information and there are several boxes with quirky evolutionary stories.

“I wanted to write a book for the high school level,” Young says. “Our publisher wanted it to be for the college market. We’d like to see everyone read it. We are also aiming the book at the fence-sitters. People who think some of Intelligent Design makes sense. We want to show them that science trumps dogma.”

Why Evolution Works directly addresses the question of whether science and religion can co-exist. Strode and Young tell the story of two brothers-in-law who traveled the path from young earth creationists (they believed the earth was only 10,000 years old and Noah’s flood literally happened) to evolutionists.

Stephen Godfrey was studying to be a paleontologist when he discovered fossilized footprints of animals in sedimentary rocks. If all the fossils were deposited during Noah’s flood, how could footprints exist? His brother-in-law, Christopher Smith, changed his mind while taking a course on the interpretation of the Old Testament. He began to see the bible’s Genesis chapter as poetry and not as literal history. Godfrey and Smith maintain their Christian beliefs.

However, many fundamentalist Christians would probably find Young’s and Strode’s words chilling as they try to reconcile their beliefs. “Any belief, religious or other, that denies known scientific fact is seriously in need of reconsideration,” they write. “Religion and science are not incompatible, but some religious beliefs are at odds with facts and need to be reevaluated. Unhappily, rather than reevaluate their beliefs, proponents of such religious beliefs have set forward the pseudo-scientific claims that are a major concern of this book.”

Researching and writing Why Evolution Works has helped solidify Strode’s own understanding of the issues that he deals with as a high school teacher.
“I recently had a parent at Boulder High School who said, ‘I heard you teach biology with evolution. Do you teach other theories? Like creationism.’ I said, ‘I teach science. If you are interested I have a book coming out on the subject.”

For More Info:Paul Strode and Matt Young will sign and speak about Why Evolution Works at the Boulder Book Store on Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. 1107 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-447-2074.


lady t said...

I think you handled that awkward conversation just fine there,Kash. It amazes me that people in this country refuse to accept separation of church and state(which the Founding Fathers insisted upon as one of the tenets of our nation) when it applies to education and is meant to protect their rights as well.

In my opinion,science class should not discuss religion and religion needs to stay away from science-if folks want their kids to learn about creationism,that's what Sunday school(or your religion of choice's equivalent)is for. Religion and science are a bad combination,as history has shown thru out the ages,like peanut butter and dynamite.

Toronto realtor said...

Hi. Nice story with the old man. I like the part when he is speaking about the old books which he collected. That is exactly what makes me excited when I read old books which I have got from my grandmother. The sense of sight, the sense of touch and the sense of smell all come alive... You are skilled writer.

Take care,

PK said...

Good post. Your encounter with the geezer was exceptionally well-told and I like your fine review of the book. Creationism is not science, nor is it true, but I can understand its appeal -- it's a great story. Sad that so many cannot celebrate its epic poetry rather than cling to its supposed factuality.