February 13, 2008

Dallas Ellis: Icon of Creationist Idiocy

In looking over various reports from Monday's public comment meetings regarding the proposed new Florida science standards, I ran across the image and caption below in the Orlando Sentinel:

The article, Evolution backers, opponents make points at Orlando hearing, reiterates the quote by Dallas Ellis as he stood there waving his oranges about in public:
Dallas Ellis, another Panhandle resident, also urged rejection of the new evolution standards. He held up two oranges and said, "I have irrefutable evidence that they are related to somebody's pets."
Granted, the article contained a number of markedly ignorant comments by Creationists and any one of them could be slapped on a blog entry to demonstrate how foolish these people sound in light of both scientific knowledge and legal precedents. A comment by Debra Walker, chair of the Monroe County school board, sums it up very well:
...Debra Walker, chairman of the Monroe County School Board, urged passage of the new standards as is. She said the current "political meltdown over Darwinian theory" was proof that too many people had received a poor-quality science education.
It's nice to hear someone from a Florida school board make such a remark. It would have been even better had it come from someone on a North Florida board (Monroe County is in the extreme south). Still, the Monroe school board has passed a resolution in favor of the new standards. More boards need to do that.

But back to Dallas Ellis, there's an irony here that his own deep, dark well of ignorance about modern biology prevents him from seeing. There is a tremendous amount of evidence that those oranges he's holding up are related to someone's pets! He's absolutely correct, although he doesn't know it and so flaunts his fruits in an effort to ridicule that which he doesn't understand.

Animals and plants are very distant relatives. The split between the two occurs far, far back in deep evolutionary time, but both kingdoms are eukaryotes, meaning that they have phospholipid membrane-bound cellular structures (organelles), unlike prokaryotes (bacteria and cyanobacteria) and archaea (strange extremophiles). That's about it, though. Animals (as well as fungi) are Opisthokonts (cells with a single flagellum), which are in turn a taxon within the unikonts. Plants, on the other hand, have cells without flagella (aside from a few primitive and debatable forms that produce flagellated gametes). The plants and unikonts split over 1.5 billion years ago, so the animals and plants we now see are very distant relatives indeed.

Nonetheless, morphological, biochemical and molecular analysis all support the very thing that Dallas Ellis has chosen to ridicule — that oranges really are related to the animals that we keep as pets. A very basic phylogenetic tree is available for those who can better understand this graphically. Starting here, click on the link on the three-branched tree for Eukaryotes and keep drilling. There are plenty of resources linked from there that will help those, like Dallas Ellis, who don't understand how all of this works but who, unlike Dallas Ellis, are willing to learn about it and haven't dedicated themselves to preventing others from learning. That all of this evidence leads to a knowledge that contradicts the religious views of some literalist Baptists in North Florida who don't know enough about evolutionary biology to know that they're being ironic shouldn't even enter the picture in these considerations.

What Ellis is doing is a play straight out of the Scopes Monkey Trial of the early part of last century. He's deliberately (or perhaps out of a limited vocabulary) conflating the sense of the word "related" as applied to phylogenetics with its colloquial use in describing members of a human family. He's intimating that we crazy "Darwinists" think that a particular human is as closely related to apes as a particular human is to her grandfather. He thinks he's being clever about it by using fruits and pets, but the message is exactly the same. I would defy Ellis and those who hold the same viewpoint as he to find a single biologist who agrees with that idea and thinks it should be taught, even in the case of Ellis' own genealogy. In short, he's either an ignoramus or a liar.

The photo of Ellis is, to my mind, iconic. It's the kind of image that I hope will show up in books discussing the history of science that will be published in coming centuries. The caption will likely read, "Some people with very oddly shaped heads once waved citrus in the air in an attempt to ward off the advance of human knowledge, a force they considered contrary to their religion and therefore the work of demonic spirits." Perhaps in the distant future, a few generations from now, Dallas Ellis will have achieved immortality — as a cautionary example of just how ridiculous we humans can make ourselves look when we do stupid stunts in public places in order to voice strong opinions on subjects about which we haven't the first hint of knowledge.

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