Bay Area Biosystematists: 10/15 w/ undergrads. on their research

Gotta love this – education, evolution, science, all rolled into one …

Bay Area Biosystematists Meeting: Thursday, 15 October, 2009

at UC Berkeley, 2063 Valley Life Sciences Bldg.

Undergraduate Research in Evolutionary Biology

This will be a first-time-ever-for-BABS panel discussion led by undergraduates, focused on the research experience for undergraduates in evolutionary biology in the Bay Area. Several undergraduate researchers will speak informally about their research, the path they took to get into research, where they hope to go with it in the future, and what their hopes/fears are. Suggestions on how professors and departments could enhance the process will be featured; this should lead to a productive exchange between undergrads and professional researchers, and a chance for us all to examine this vitally important educational process.

Panel discussants include:
Elaine Fok, UCB (Mishler Lab)
Nairi Hartononi, UCB (Baldwin Lab)
Irene Liao, UCB (Specht Lab)
Brian Mahardja, UCD (May Lab)
Norma Pantoja, UCB (O’Grady Lab)

Schedule and venue:
5:30 – social gathering with beverages and informal pizza dinner:
cost ca. $10, to be collected at door, 2063 Valley Life Sciences Bldg.,
UC Berkeley campus.
7:00 – talk followed by discussion, in same room.

Please email reservations to your host, Gordon Bennett, at by Tuesday, Oct 13th

For a map of campus and view of VLSB, use the link below.

All are welcome, members or not. If you want to join the Biosystematists, a venerable yet exceptionally lively group that provides the only inter-institutional seminar/discussion forum addressing evolutionary topics in the Bay Area, sign up for our mailing list at:

Children’s Science Books from NY Times 5/10/09

Better late than never I guess.  I missed the NY Times Children’s Books section in teh 5/10 Book Review but my mother brought it with her and left it so I am posting a tiny bit about it.

They review/suggest a few books for kids and many of them have a theme related to this blog including:

Is boycotting the right way to deal with anti-evolution sentiment?

Adam Nossiter in the New York Times is reporting that the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) has decided to in essence boycott New Orleans as a site for a future conference. They are doing this in response to a bill passed last year by Louisiana that is considered by many to be a hidden way to introduce religion into scientific teaching (the Times says the bill “allows teachers to “use supplemental textbooks” in the classroom to “help students critique and review scientific theories.”). The SICB wrote a letter to Governor Jindal saying

“It is the firm opinion of S.I.C.B.’s leadership that this law undermines the integrity of science and science education in Louisiana,” 


“The S.I.C.B. leadership could not support New Orleans as our meeting venue because of the official position of the state in weakening science education and specifically attacking evolution in science curricula,” “As scientists, it is our responsibility to oppose anti-science initiatives.”

I note that they are going to hold their meeting in Salt Lake City instead, which at least in regard to science evolution and science education and state policy, is a bit better (e.g.,the Utah State Board of Education has made it clear it supports teaching evolution (see here)).

Along with the letter, a group called the Loiuisiana Coalition for Science has issued a press release saying that the state is “reaping what is sowed” by passing the bill.

So the question I have been asking myself is – is a boycott the right thing to do here? I am not sure. On the one hand, I commend SICB for taking a public action that is more than just words. I think it is pretty clear that this bill was designed as a backdoor way to allow religion beliefs to shape what is taught in public school science classes, which is sad. In response to this, I think scientists should do something more than just say this is a bad idea so at least SICB did something.

On the other hand, a boycott is perhaps a bit extreme and comes with many complications. In many cases, engagement is probably a better strategy. It is ironic in a way for a science group to be taking a George Bush-esque approach to dealing with disagreement. I guess I lean away from the boycott step not because it seems completely wrong, but because it seems a bit premature. Perhaps AICB could have held the conference there and organized a series of public discussion about science teaching. And on top of that they could have made a small contribution to a community that has been really hit hard recently.

Sarah Palin’s Still Dangerous Views on Teaching Evolution

Well, Palin has clearly revised her public position on teaching evolution. In part of her interview with Katie Couric it was addressed (I got the transcript here. )

Couric: Do you believe evolution should be taught as an accepted scientific principle or one of several theories?

Palin: Oh, I think it should be taught as an accepted principle. And, you know, I say that also as the daughter of a school teacher, a science teacher, who has really instilled in me a respect for science. It should be taught in our schools. And I won’t ever deny that I see the hand of God in this beautiful creation that is Earth, especially coming from one of the most beautiful states in the Union and traveling around this country also in this last month. My goodness, just seeing, you know, the beautiful landscape of New Mexico recently. That was just breath taking and seeing the rolling hills in Virginia and all … the beauty that is this Earth, I see the hand of God in that. But that is not part of state policy or a local curriculum in a school district. Science should be taught in science class.

Sounds promising right? I mean, previously, she seemed to be wishy washy on the separation of science and religion and now she seems to be trying to do the right thing. But just when you might have thought the anti-science part of her was winning out, look at her response to the next question:

Couric: Should creationism be allowed to be taught anywhere in public schools?

Palin: Don’t have a problem at all with kids debating all sides of theories, all sides of ideas that they ever – kids do it today whether … it’s on paper, in a curriculum or not. Curriculums also are best left to the local school districts. Instead of Big Brother, federal government telling a district what they can and can’t teach, I would like to see more control taken over by our school boards, by our local schools, and then state government at the most. But federal government, you know, kind of get out of some of this curriculum and let the locals decide what is best for their students.

This basically follows the script of the Intelligent Design supporters who have been pushing for changes in the education curriculum by local school boards. And it is pretty dangerous in my mind. There should be separation of church and state. Period. At the federal level. At the state level. And at the local level. And this is clearly an attempt to circumvent that concept. So – Palin is towing toeing the ID line here pretty closely and who knows who what havoc she would wreak on science in this country if she were elected. McCain-Palin is starting to look more anti-science than Bush-Cheney, hard as that is for scientists to imagine.

See my earlier post on Palin and evolution here.

Follow up to Amy Harmon’s NY Times Story on Evolution

The NY Times published a few letters that are follow ups on Amy Harmon’s excellent story on evolution teaching in Florida.  
Also check out my blog posting about her story which has links to the story and some other information.

Sarah Palin on EvolutionCreationism

Well, it seems McCain has further embraced an anti-science agenda with his pick as Sarah Palin as his running mate.

The Science Bloggers are a bit up in arms over this. I think there is some hope that she/McCain will drift back to the middle on this at some point but they both now seem to fall in the camp of the Intelligent Design supporters. It is the “independent” streak both do seem to show occasionally that gives me hope that if they do get elected, they will not be as tied to the ID supporters as they will be during the election.

Anyway, here are some things I found on the web about Palin’s evolution views:

NewMiner.Com: in response to written questions in a 2002 election …

Q: The education section of the Republican Party of Alaska’s platform states “We support giving Creation Science equal representation with other theories of the origin of life. If evolution is taught, it should be presented as only a theory.” Do you support this position? Why?

A: I support this plank in the Republican Party’s platform. I believe society can have healthy debates on scientific theories, so equal representation of creation and evolution shouldn’t be an offense.

Anchorage Daily News in 2006 reported

The volatile issue of teaching creation science in public schools popped up in the Alaska governor’s race this week when Republican Sarah Palin said she thinks creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the state’s public classrooms.

Palin was answering a question from the moderator near the conclusion of Wednesday night’s televised debate on KAKM Channel 7 when she said, “Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.”

Most other thigns I have seen are rehashing these two stories in some way. If anyone has any other detail I would love to see it.

Examples of blog posts on this issue include:

Update – required evolution reading/ Harmon story/ Mickey Mouse

Yesterday I posted about Amy Harmon’s excellent story in the NY Times about evolution education.  For more on it see my post – Required evolution education reading – Amy Harmon on Florida Evolution teaching
I just wanted to give an update here as I have seen a few postings out there discussing the Mickey Mouse example in the story.  In the story, Harmon described how David Campbell, the Florida high school science teacher uses the evolution of Mickey Mouse as an  example of natural selection.  
From the Times article:

He started with Mickey Mouse.

On the projector, Mr. Campbell placed slides of the cartoon icon: one at his skinny genesis in 1928; one from his 1940 turn as the impish Sorcerer’s Apprentice; and another of the rounded, ingratiating charmer of Mouse Club fame.

“How,” he asked his students, “has Mickey changed?”

Natives of Disney World’s home state, they waved their hands and called out answers.

“His tail gets shorter,” Bryce volunteered.

“Bigger eyes!” someone else shouted.

“He looks happier,” one girl observed. “And cuter.”

Mr. Campbell smiled. “Mickey evolved,” he said. “And Mickey gets cuter because Walt Disney makes more money that way. That is ‘selection.’ ”

Some bloggers have questioned using this example (see john hawks weblog for example as well as Bora’s excellent post about this story here) because it seems more like Intelligent Design than natural selection.  I disagree and wanted to point out that this is a classic Stephen Jay Gould teaching case study which he detailed (see A BIOLOGICAL HOMAGE TO MICKEY MOUSE Stephen Jay Gould).  
In fact, when I was an undergrad at Harvard and was taking Gould’s class, we played around with a cool new computer program called MacClade to track the evolution of Mickey Mouse. Little did I know I would still be using Macclade and its descendants today.

Required evolution education reading – Amy Harmon on Florida Evolution teaching

Amy Harmon has done it again. First it was the series on the “DNA age” which had a suite of interesting pieces on the more personal side of DNA and genomics and won her one of those little pulitzer thingamajiggers. And now she has published a piece on the personal side of evolution education. This piece “A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash“, which I think will be in tomorrow’s Sunday New York Times, is really a must read for all interested in evolution education and evolution in general.

In the article, Harmon details the story of a Florida high school science teacher, David Campbell, and his efforts to teach evolution in a Biology class. I find the whole story fascinating in many ways. First, despite thinking I was paying attention, I was not really aware that Florida now required evolution to be taught in high school biology classes. Harmon details some of the history of how this came to be including how Campbell founded Florida Citizens for Science and helped push for new standards in biology teaching. Campbell’s efforts to put science at the front of science teaching and to keep religious beliefs out is inspiring.

Harmon also details the trials and tribulations of Campbell actually trying to teach about evolution to high school students, many of whom come armed with anti-evolution ideas and literature. And Campbell does a great job with some subtle details — in fact he seems to have a better grasp of evolutionary biology than many active biologists. For example, he does a good job with emphasizing that humans did not evolve from chimps but instead both evolved from a common ancestor. This is something many many biologists do not always get accurately.

I think the whole piece should be required reading for all evolutionary biologists, all biologists, and all science teachers. I confess, Harmon did ask me to glance the piece over a few days to give some feedback on a few sections, so I am perhaps a bit biased. But I am really hoping Harmon stays on this topic and does for evolution what she did for the DNA age, with a whole series on the personal side of things. This is so desperately needed with too much of the debate focusing on an argument about facts and faith and too little about the people in the trenches.

Addendum: Clearly lots of other bloggers liked this.  Here are some: