Saturday, March 27, 2010

The illusion of difference

Racialist "scientists" sometimes defend their ideas about the reality of human races by invoking the "it's so obvious" argument. Look at the photo below, they might say, and you can tell immediately which person has African ancestry and which has European ancestry:

And of course it is pretty obvious that, statistically speaking, the Reverend Gary Davis, on the left, is more likely to have recent African ancestors, while the little girl on the right is more likely to have recent European ancestry.  It was sudden confrontations with people who looked and behaved very different from themselves that led Europeans to develop their ideas about "racial" differences. In the age of European exploration and conquest, Europeans for the first time boarded sailing vessels, sailed away from people who were familiar, and after long sea voyages were suddenly faced with people who were maximally unfamiliar. This experience of human diversity led to Linnaeus's taxonomic classification of humans into four distinct groups and, a few years later, Blumenbach's elaboration of five categories.

The problem, as we now know, is that the nature of biological variation does not favor the division of species into discrete subcategories (subspecies, or races). Biological traits display clinal distribution, as shown by the gradual increase in frequency of the B blood type allele as we move east across Eurasia.

The same is true for traits that we think of as diagnostic of human "races," such as skin color. There is no clear division between "black" and "white" skin colors; instead, skin color varies clinally with skin tending to be darker near the Equator and gradually becoming lighter in populations that are located farther and farther from the Equator.

We can get an idea of how this looks on actual people by examining portraits from (left to right) Scandinavia, Spain, Morocco, and Nigeria.

The concept of "races" as discrete categories is as bogus for humans as it is for any other wide-spread species, such as Puma concolor (a.k.a. cougar, mountain lion, panther, etc.). This is a fact that is increasingly accepted by biologists, but still denied by race-affirmers like J. Philippe Rushton, who divides humans into three categories: mongoloid, negroid, and caucasoid and then attributes different behavioral traits to these groups. But more about this in a future post.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Educational malpractice at Liberty University

The internet news site Common Dreams carried an article recently about a group of students from Liberty University visiting the Smithsonian Institution. Students at LU are encouraged to fit natural history, and especially biological evolution, into the fantasy religion-based creationist biblical literalism advocated by the school's founder, the late fundamentalist evangelist Jerry Falwell. And, as an Indonesian fundamentalist Islamic saying goes, "when faith and facts conflict, faith wins."

Illustrating how faith wins over facts, LU students scoffed at the Smithsonian's model of a 210 million year old rat-sized creature hypothesized to be the common ancestor of all mammals. First, there's no way a ratty-looking thing could ever become a human being. Second, the 210 million year window for this to happen violates the young earth creationism taught at LU, which is based on arithmetical gymnastics of Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) who calculated that God created Everything on October 23, 4004 BC, making the Earth only around 6,000 years old.

Further reinforcing the triumph of faith over facts, Marcus Ross, an Assistant Professor of Geology at LU, made this comment about Adam and Eve:
"I feel they were real people, they were the first people."
OK, then. But there's a problem. "I feel..." is not a legitimate way to introduce a scientific proposition. "The evidence suggests..." would be more appropriate. But for these folks, evidence is not required. In fact, evidence that conflicts with "faith," which really means unquestioning obedience, is ignored, disparaged, ridiculed, tossed aside. It doesn't matter that the evidence suggests that there really never was, at any single point in time, a "first woman" or "first man." When evidence conflicts with faith, faith wins.

Anyway, I was intrigued by this article, so I went online to look for course descriptions at Liberty University. After all, LU is accredited by the same agency as my school, the University of North Florida.  I found a course called History of Life, and here are the description and "rationale" for that course:
An interdisciplinary study of the origin and history of life in the universe. Faculty of the Center for Creation Studies will draw from science, religion, history, and philosophy in presenting the evidence and arguments for creation and against evolution. This course is required for all Liberty students. 

This course is designed to instill in our students a clear understanding of the relationship between science and Scripture as it pertains to the study of origins. In particular, it is designed to help students develop a clear and consistent Biblical creationist worldview and defend it.
Wow. The "History of Life" is essentially a course designed to show students how to ignore almost everything we know about the history of life in favor of a rambling collection of myths written down by some Middle Eastern nomads centuries before anyone even knew that life on Earth is carbon-based. And just to drive the point home, here are the course's "measurable learning outcomes" (at least they have the academic assessment jargon down pat):

A. Students should be able to discuss and contrast creation science and evolution worldviews.
B. Students should be able to discuss the creation science view from Biblical accounts and rebut creation compromise views. 
C. Students should be able to discuss the theories of natural selection and evolution. 
D. Students should be able to discuss scientific evidences in support of a recent creation. 
E. Students should be able to discuss the evidence of the fossil record and its implications of origins. 
F. Students should be able to discuss evidence for the unique creation of man. 
G. Students should be able to discuss evidence for creation using concepts such as irreducible complexity. 
H. Students should be able to discuss the importance of the Biblical creation message in understanding major doctrines and application for personal evangelism.
Why is this "educational malpractice," as I suggested in the title of this post? It's malpractice because this university's faculty are lying to their students, just as egregiously as if, in an astronomy class, they taught them that the Sun revolves around the Earth. And, by the way, this would be true even if the lies were not based on religious dogma.

The empirical, objectively valid facts about the history of life on Earth, the falsifiable hypotheses that scientists create to describe and explain those facts, and the theories that result when related  unfalsified hypotheses converge on the explanation of some set of those facts, cannot be evaluated by what's in the Bible, any more than they can be evaluated by what's in Lord of the Rings.

I believe that the accrediting agency should put Liberty University's program in biology on probation until those who teach in that program stop lying to their students.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Florida Governor Charlie Crist does not like atheists!

And if you want to get an idea of how much he doesn't like them, read this personal account by one who tried to talk to him. (Thanks to PZ Myers at Pharyngula.)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

What evidence?

NIH Director Francis Collins was just on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR, talking mostly about genetic testing and its benefits for medicine, and so on. Pretty sensible stuff. But then, the host asked about his religious belief. Collins replied that although he was an atheist as a graduate student, he decided at some point to pay attention to "spiritual" matters that he had been ignoring. I can't quote him exactly (I was driving to campus) but he gave the impression that he researched the question and came to the conclusion that the "evidence" (his word) pointed to the existence of god.

What I want to know is: exactly what "evidence" could he have found? Of course, the host did not ask; we are brainwashed into holding "people of faith" to be so fragile that they should not be challenged, poor things.