Thursday, January 27, 2005


Friday Cat Blogging

This is Abracadabra, known to her friends as AbbyTabby. Abby is an ocicat, although she doesn't have the ocelot-like spots that gave the breed its name. Ocicats are a mix of Abyssinian, Siamese, and American Shorthair (which provides the tabby bullseye). Apparently what happens in development is that there is a reaction-diffusion process providing the rings, with a separate process that breaks the ring into spots. Abby seems to be homozygous for the recessive, non-functional form of the gene that initiates the second process.

She doesn't know she's a throwback, though. When you get past the wildness that seems to be characteristic of the breed, she's really a very sweet cat.

Saturday, January 22, 2005


Who's At Fault?

In the January 21 issue of Financial Times, Christopher Caldwell writes about "creationism's sly evolution", i.e. Intelligent Design. (Subscription is required.) Caldwell says that
the secular education establishment that is now trying to defend itself against an onslaught of thinly veiled biblical dogma has itself to blame for its vulnerability. Since the 1960s, teachers and administrators have pushed unpopular progressive measures into schools -- from sex education to multiculturalism -- under the guise of "openness", "multiple perspectives", and the idea that course content matters less than "teaching students how to think".
Now, Caldwell says,
evolution's defenders are in the unenviable position of being the side arguing for the exclusion of other viewpoints. Trickier still, the grounds for that exclusion are not clear to common sense. Those who have studied evolution will find it hard to imagine how biology could be seriously studied without it. But defending evolution against some of the specific objections raised by the opponents takes expertise that is beyond the reach of 99 percent of people in a democracy. Those who vote and agitate on both sides of the evolution issue do so not on a scientific basis but on a social or ideological basis. They take sides based on whether they have trust in those experts on which society has conferred its prestige. The fight over Darwin is more than a religious conflict; it is a class conflict being waged with religious terms.
Caldwell mixes up a few things here:

--The people who advocate "multiple perspectives" are not necessarily the people who are advocating the teaching of evolution. There may well be considerable overlap, but each group has its own priorities.

-- The things that students are supposed to have multiple perspectives about are attitudes, not facts. Strictly speaking, of course, mainstream evolutinary theory is a conclusion, not itself a fact; but biologists consider evolution to be,as Stephen Jay Gould said, "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent."

-- I don't think that biology courses hold that "knowing how to think" is more important than content. It is important to know how scientists think about science, but content is vital. Any biology teachers like to comment?

-- Caldwell says that "[t]hose who vote and agitate on both sides of the evolution issue do so not on a scientific basis", but those on the evolution side are often the experts themselves.

He concludes
Susan Jacoby, the author of a history of American secularism, lamented recently that her country had turned away from "an accommodation between science and mainstrean religion, now a fait accompli in the rest of the developed world". But it may be that America is not more superstitious than other advanced countries, just more democratic. What Ms. Jacoby regards as an accomodation looks to the creationists like a capitulation of folk beliefs before expertise. This accommodation may be good for science and salutary for education, but there is nothing that makes it compulsory in a constitutional republic.

Is America's individualism indeed at fault? Do other cultures have more automatic respect for authority?

Or does Caldwell miss an important point? The creationists say that their views are better science than is presented by the evolutionists. I know from my experience on ARN that some people have a different standard for what constitutes evidence. I can't entirely figure that standard out, but they insist on it. Part of it is a refusal to interpolate or extrapolate based on observations, although unfettered ontological speculation is OK.

How about if the biology teacher says that Intelligent Design says that maybe there is a designer, or maybe not; in any event no two versions of ID agree, and nobody can say why their version is better. Then the schools can say "See? We already teach Intelligent Design!"