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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A Step in the Quadrupedal Direction, part II

The story about the five siblings in Turkey who use quadrupedal locomotion was pretty slow to gain attention, but this Friday (3/17/06) there is supposed to be a BBC documentary about the family and perhaps the accusations of scientific misconduct issues that surround the research. BBC news:

The four sisters and one brother could yield clues to why our ancestors made the transition from four-legged to two-legged animals, says a UK expert.

But Professor Nicholas Humphrey rejects the idea that there is a "gene" for bipedalism, or upright walking.

...

The siblings live with their parents and five other brothers and sisters. They were born with what looks like a form of brain damage.

MRI scans seem to show that they have a form of cerebellar ataxia, which affects balance and coordination.

However, scientists are divided on what caused them to revert to quadrupedalism (walking on all fours).

The method of locomotion used by the Turkish children and by our closest relatives chimpanzees and gorillas, differs in a crucial way, said Professor Humphrey.

I understand that almost nothing is controlled by just one single gene; why would bipedal locomotion be any different? It seems more likely that, if a mutation was involved, it caused the brain damage (cerebral ataxia) and then the siblings learned a gait that works for them. It doesn't necessarily imply anything about our ancestors. But a "bipedal gene" seems utterly ridiculous to me.

I first read the story on World Science, which turns out not to be a tabloid (apologies for the implication). They've been great about posting updates on both the science and the ethical controversy. Their original report gives a link to a video of the quadrupedal humans.



Monday, March 13, 2006

To Be Last Place

When I was growing up in South Carolina, my home state was consistently last in education in the country. Every now and then, we pulled ahead of Mississippi (or was it Alabama?), but I considered this just random fluctuation and not a sign of any progress. The State, a SC newspaper, printed this opinion which in may, in part, explain why the state's education seems irreparably bad:

ONE REASON our state has done such a poor job of educating all our children is that each new governor or Legislature offers up a new approach, and scraps the one that hasn't yet had time to work.

But in 1998, when lawmakers adopted what was then a cutting-edge idea of using a standards-based accountability system to improve education, they vowed to stick to it this time. So they created the Education Oversight Committee, composed mainly of business leaders and ordinary citizens, not politicians. The group's primary purpose was to insulate school reform from the political cycle and to map out and follow a farsighted path to fundamental improvement.

The EOC recommended that schools give equal weight to those apparent "gaps" in evolutionary theory. This is what we get for constructing an education committee of people from the general populace. So they aren't politicians; big deal. They are also not informed and give credence to an unsubstantiated side of a nonexistent debate. Plus, it's the buckle of the bible belt. Business leaders and ordinary citizens alike are going to attack evolutionary theory just because they have been told that the idea contradicts their faith, despite the fact that they don't know the first thing about it. Luckily, the SC State Board of Education has some sense and didn't take the EOC recommendation in their decision last week.

Even if you consider "natural selection" a blasphemous assault on Christianity, you simply cannot argue that teaching other origin-of-life ideas will increase the number of students who graduate from high school, or the SAT scores of those students, or the reading ability of any students.

Think those who reject natural selection are ignorant throwbacks? You still cannot argue that defeating their "critically analyze" language will produce the better-educated workforce we need to attract better jobs, pull up our incomes and make South Carolina a state that's no longer last where we want to be first and first where we want to be last.

The first part of that quote makes a great point. The legislature and EOC running on an ID rampage will only serve to distract from real issues of education. However, introducing concepts of faith into a science classroom is doing a great disservice because it undermines the very idea of critical thinking and the scientific process. And yes, helping the kiddies to develop skills of logical thinking and reasoning will make them better, more informed citizens even outside of science-related fields.

There is no debate to be had over ID vs evolution. There is no controversy in the scientific community as the IDers would have people believe. Big deal if the Discovery Institute collected just over 500 signatures expressing dissent from typical evolutionary theories. The effort was/is entitled "A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism" and it took over 5 years to find people willing to attach their names to it and most of them aren't biologists. To discredit this ridiculous petition, well over 7000 scientists signed a counter-petition, "A Scientific Support for Darwinism," in just four days.

In states that are well-off in terms of educational standing, the people can afford to fight it out if they want. But in states that are hurting already, these non-debates only serve to distract from real issues behind failing pedagogical strategies. Of course, the highest ranking states probably tend to be more liberal and would never dream of entertaining the ID circus in the first place.