My talk at AAAS

It was a tremendous honor to be the first speaker at a session on evolution education last February. The session included such luminaries as Ken Miller, Olivia Judson, Neil Shubin, and David Deamer, who each presented a marvelous overview of how evolution illuminates our understanding of biology, from the origins of life to the behavior of beetles, from the workings of the cell to peculiarities of the human body.

While I could not hope to speak with authority matching those great scientists on those particular fields, my opening talk set the stage by showing that, 150 years after the Origin of Species, the teaching of evolution remains controversial, and too few Americans understand the science. As you can see in the 22 minute-long video above, I also defended the thesis that, in claiming that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” Theodosius Dobzhansky actually understated his case: Evolution makes sense of sciences Darwin and Dobzhansky never dreamed of.

Thus, a sound understanding of evolution is not just crucial for biologists of tomorrow, including applied biologists like doctors and biotech workers. Farmers, chemists, cosmologists, and computer engineers all need to understand evolution, as does anyone who hopes to navigate the biotech-rich world of the 21st century.

A few weeks back, I criticized Disco. Inst. fellow Paul Nelson’s misreporting of my talk, and I’ve also criticized his sloppy response to David Deamer’s talk. I’ll post a slidecast of Deamer’s talk in a little while.

Paul has responded to my criticism of his review, and at the risk of descent into navel-gazing pettiness, I feel obliged to reply once again.

Rather than engaging in further discussion about whether, by citing Dobzhansky, I’m instantly responsible for all of his views, I only ask Paul whether his citation of Molie`re carries with it some endorsement of that playwright’s royalist views, or his controversial treatment of religion. Of course not. We judge what argument a person is making not by the things he doesn’t quote from another work, but by those he does quote, and the context in which he does it. To do otherwise would be dishonest.

In any event, that whole diversion has nothing whatsoever to do with my actual talk, as you can verify by watching it.

I’ll put my full (too full, perhaps) reply to him below the fold, since I find his response off-point. In brief, I’ll simply note that he’s now responded twice to my talk, and I still don’t know what he thinks of my central points: that evolution education is under attack, that these attacks are reducing American science literacy, that this lack of science literacy will have serious consequences for our economic and scientific dominance in the 21st century, and that there are a number of things scientists and teachers can do to improve that state of affairs.

To get around the inconvenient fact of what I actually said, Nelson claims that the audience reaction to my talk is better evidence of what I was talking about than what I actually stated. Nelson asserts:

The AAAS audience, given the chance in the Q & A to respond to Rosenau, asked him not about evolution, but about intelligent design (ID) and “creationism.”

One question concerned the supposedly creationist views of ABC News medical correspondent Dr. Timothy Johnson, and what could be done about that problem. Another question, from National Academy of Sciences representative Jay Labov, addressed what Labov saw as the relative weakness of the NCSE pro-evolution public relations campaign, compared with effectiveness of the ID slogan “Teach the controversy.”

In short, no one asked about the science of evolution.

First, as one can see by watching the talk, I did not set out to speak on “the science of evolution,” I spoke about the state of evolution education, and what can be done to improve public understanding of evolution. The question about ABC News was not about the creationist views of its medical correspondent per se, but about the generally poor quality of reporting on scientific issues, and what can be done to address that. Yes, this touches on creationism, but I’d hardly call it a question “about intelligent design (ID) and ‘creationism,'” let alone of evidence that the talk was about theology.

Nelson’s account of Jay Labov’s question seems off-the-mark to me as well. My recollection, and my summary in the talk (which Jay agreed with at the time), was that he was asking how we as defenders of science might be more effective at countering creationist propaganda, in particular that where creationists can speak with one voice and one catchphrase, scientists aren’t similarly disciplined. NCSE has collected hundreds of statements from scientific, religious, educational, and civil liberties groups, but in political fights, that leaves us seeming divided, while opponents of accurate science education seem united and on message.

This might be characterized as a question about creationism and therefore theology, but to do so would miss the point. Creationism is not the only situation where this disconnect applies. Global warming deniers do the same thing, choosing one talking point and letting scientists issue numerous statements expressing the view widely accepted based on the scientific evidence. The same thing happens with anti-vaccine activists, whose singular focus has led to a broad public misunderstanding of the overwhelming evidence that there is no link between autism and vaccinations. Scientists are generally bad at speaking en masse, and that makes things politically difficult.

I think my answer to Jay’s question addresses these and other issues of anti-science activism, though not as succinctly as I might’ve liked. The way to find what the scientific community says is to look at the published scientific literature. Speaking of which, how’s that monograph coming, Paul?

As to the substance of my talk, Nelson continues to ignore my discussion of the state of public understanding of evolution, but I suspect that our differences there are quite fundamental. I’m troubled that so many American’s reject the foundation of modern science, and Paul is, it seems, not. The question of America’s standing in the race for the biotechnology innovations which will dominate the 21st century economy and geopolitics should concern anyone, but apparently Paul is unphased.

His only response to what I actually said (as opposed to what people I cited said or what my audience asked) is to claim that my examples of evolution’s economically crucial uses are “either question-begging or irrelevant.” In particular, he thinks that the example I gave in which Taxol was able to be produced in the quantities needed to save many lives because of evolutionary understanding was based on “a phylogenetic hypothesis not even the most doctrinaire young-earth creationist would challenge. If this is ‘evolution,’ then everyone accepts evolution.”

I suspect that he’s right, but this hardly discredits my point. My point was not to “prove” evolution, nor was I worried about having to convince the attendees at the AAAS meeting about the importance of evolution within biology. These are elite scientists, and Paul may well have been the only anti-evolutionist present.

My goal in that section of the talk (as I explain in the talk itself!) was to show that evolution is not just for biology, and not just for biologists. It’s well and good to say that biology majors should study evolution, but my claim is that, especially as biology and biotechnology take center stage in geopolitics and business, students who do not think of themselves as biologists need to know about evolution. In this case, an understanding of the hypothesis of common ancestry led to the commercial availability of a lifesaving drug, not to mention billions of dollars in sales for Bristol Myers. In other cases, an understanding of evolution leads to innovative solutions to engineering problems, or to questions about why our universe is as it is (as opposed to the many other forms it could take), or to how we could produce more food at less cost to consumers or the environment.

This is not offered as a defense of evolution against creationism, but as a defense of teaching evolution. With 30% of teachers getting pressure not to teach evolution, with teachers generally spending less than 2 weeks of class time on this central principle of modern biology, how can we prepare the pharmaceutical chemists of tomorrow to find a way to synthesize the next Taxol? How can we be sure tomorrow’s oncologists are trained to think about the evolutionary process that cancers go through within a single patient? How can we prepare a workforce to compete with that of other nations, nations where understanding of evolution and, of science in general, is much higher than it is in the United States?

My goal, then, was not to use the example of Taxol as a broad defense of evolution against creationism. There are many better examples for that purpose. My goal there was to defend the importance of the general public understanding evolution (as they clearly do not currently). As a defense of evolution against creationism, the example of Taxus phylogeny is certainly imperfect, but not nearly as imperfect as Paul seems to believe. The same techniques scientists use to trace the ancestry of species within the genus Taxus tell us about the relationships of the yews to other conifers. Those same techniques let us locate conifers within the family tree of all plants. The same techniques connect plants to all life, and help us trace back to the last universal common ancestor (though such ancient lineages need special care to trace accurately). This is a remarkable fact, and given the nature of the techniques, it need not be the case. When creationists accept evolution of numerous species of yew, they really are giving away the store, even if they don’t fully realize it.

Nelson’s charge about my application of the term evolution “to the origin of life by some unknown natural pathway” is especially confusing, since I did not discuss the origin of life, and am quite careful to distinguish the two in my conversations. Beyond that, he complains that I equivocate because I use the word “evolution” in reference to different things. Which I do. But evolution is a concept that contains multitudes. Unlike Whitman, though, that multiplicity does not contradict itself. Understanding evolutionary mechanisms helps us trace lineages. The techniques that let us trace the patterns of evolutionary change over short time scales continue to work as you extend them back. The hypothesis of common descent of yews is as testable as the hypothesis that all life shares a common ancestor, and both hypotheses remain strong despite over a century of intensive scrutiny. The scientific community, too, contains multitudes, and they contradict one another as often as they can.

Despite all that effort, all the squabbles and disagreement, evolution remains strong and central to modern biology. In its essentials and in its multiplicity, it remains uncontradicted by the many voices of scientists, whether you listen to official statements of societies, or to the deafening chatter in the scientific literature.

Children need to know that. Efforts to prevent them from knowing that are deeply worrisome. That was my talk’s point. After two lengthy replies to that talk, I still don’t know whether Paul Nelson agrees or disagrees.


  1. #1 Nick (Matzke)
    March 18, 2009

    As Paul Nelson of all people ought to know, there are still a few creationists who accept species fixity. The creationists’ hilarious and self-destroying compromise position of putting the “kind” at about the family level — and thus allowing a really large about of morphological, complexity-increasing, information-producing, adaptation-producing, macroevolutionary, bigger-than-the-human-chimp-difference evolution — only became common in the 1950s. Back then some creationists complained that this move allowed too much evolution and gave away the store. Just keep telling yourself it’s all just microevolution within the kind, Paul!

  2. #2 Nick (Matzke)
    March 18, 2009

    really large about –> really large amout

  3. #3 InkRose
    March 22, 2009

    A very good talk, Josh, with a lot of good points. Obviously Mr. Nelson’s just playing to his preferred audience’s prejudices and past all your points because there’s nothing he can use in those, and needs to spin things to look like his side has support even among such luminaries.

    About the common descent arguments, probably the “deepest” example of common descent (or at least a nod of the head in that direction) was recently mentioned by ERV (, writing about new research that found HIV and a tomato virus, while not in any appreciable way related, use the exact same tool to get past a cell’s defenses. Exact to the point of being interchangeable from tomato virus to HIV and vice versa, across kingdoms.

    I just thought that was a fairly amazing find, and would certainly suggest a common ancestry for all life if we were to rewind the reel far enough back.