June 06, 2008

Southern Lawyers and Anti-Evolutionism, or What the Heck Are They Teaching at Samford University?

I wrote a couple of days ago about a lawyer from Baton Rouge, Louisiana who made some wildly illogical incorrect claims about evolutionary theory. This morning there's another example. This time, the person in question isn't quite a lawyer yet. He's a third year law student at the University of Alabama. Previously, he received a degree in biology from Samford University in Birmingham, AL. The motto of this school, according to its website, is "For God, for learning, forever." The student and letter-writer in question is named Christopher Brinson and his letter to the editor appears in the Montgomery Advertiser. Having read the epistle, I'm left with two questions.

First, what is it about Southern lawyers and misunderstandings/mischaracterization of evolutionary theory and knowledge of evolutionary biology in general? They seem to be a particularly vocal group in their opposition to it, yet they don't appear very knowledgeable about these things.

Second, what the heck is being taught as biology at Samford University? The claims that Brinson makes, particularly that "As one progresses in college-level and postgraduate-level study of such evolution, talk of the macroevolution advocated in today's junior high and high school classrooms is rarely mentioned," lead me to believe that he managed to get a degree in biology from this university without learning about evolutionary theory at all. The courses I took relevant to evolutionary biology as an undergraduate certainly contained a good deal of information about speciation, and as a graduate student I'm completely immersed in what Creationist-types routinely refer to as "macroevolution." Speciation of both fungi and insects, in fact, forms the basis for my dissertation work. I literally couldn't research what I'm working on if there weren't both discussion of and evidence for new species — in fact, new genera, subfamilies and families — arising from old ones. Brinson's claims simply don't make sense in the light of current knowledge. How can he be making them at all if a biology degree from Samford University is worth the paper upon which their diplomas are printed?

ALABAMA VOICES: Teach relevant science

By Christopher Brinson

The recent release of the Ben Stein-narrated movie "Expelled" returns many of us to a long-running debate over the place of the theory of Darwinian evolution in our classrooms. Despite what many of the media's "talking heads" say, this is a debate well worth our time to have.
I'm not one of the media's talking heads; I'm a graduate student doing research in evolutionary biology. Nonetheless, I maintain that this isn't a debate worth having because I work with principles of evolutionary theory every day. The debate is a cultural one, a political one, and certainly not a scientific one. It is not a fitting debate in science classrooms, and Expelled is a propaganda piece that never advances any alternative theories; it only raises socio-political objections. That Brinson and other non-biologists (someone seeking a law degree is not a biologist, after all) who already hold positions that Brinson expresses in his letter get riled up by a mockumentary that preaches to the faithful has no bearing whatsoever on the scientific validity of evolutionary theory.
...each species will evolve -- albeit on a microevolutionary scale -- through a "survival of the fittest" type process, which Darwin noticed in his study of the numerous species found on the Galapagos Islands.

Understanding of this concept is valuable to students of genetics in particular, because it can help us understand how to prevent genetic diseases, including various birth defects and cancer.
Already we see the product of inadequate education in biology at work here. Brinson is taking a solely ecological view of evolution and thus relying on an argument not about evolutionary theory as a whole but solely upon natural selection. In truth, all natural selection tells us about genetic diseases is that organisms that have them are less likely to pass on their genetic material to a new generation. It doesn't really tell us anything at all about how these defects arise in the first place. Brinson has it backwards; knowing about natural selection doesn't teach us about genetics; it is genetics that provides an understanding of how natural selection works. One could know nothing at all about the mechanisms of genetics and still have a theory of natural selection, which in fact was the case with Darwin himself and with husbandrymen for thousands of years before him. Genetics clarifies the molecular basis upon which natural selection works. Natural selection itself doesn't tell us a thing about how to prevent cancer and it certainly can't tell us anything about how to prevent genetic disorders aside from telling us that organisms that have them aren't as likely to reproduce as those that don't under most circumstances, so it's better not to try mating them and thereby producing weakened offspring under artificial conditions.
As one progresses in college-level and postgraduate-level study of such evolution, talk of the macroevolution advocated in today's junior high and high school classrooms is rarely mentioned. Why? Because it is honestly not particularly useful for meaningful solutions to our current biological problems that we are researching...
This is simply untrue. It may be true at Samford University, of course, and I feel safe in saying that "macroevolution" isn't taught in the law classes that Brinson is taking, but in the world of valid biology education, Brinson's statement here is simply wrong, as I've noted above.

As far as the "biological problems we're researching," who is "we," exactly? Brinson certainly isn't researching any biological problems at all. Not all researchers are involved in solving problems about human genetic conditions, either. As I've mentioned, the problems I'm working on are specifically about how two groups of organisms affect each other's evolutionary histories and so have shaped the forms in which we find them today. Is Brinson suggesting that understanding such things shouldn't be researched? If he's saying that there's no "macroevolution" (e.g., evolutionary change above the level of population genetic structure), I can easily enough demonstrate that he's wrong with a tiny glimpse from my own work.

Beetle evolutionThe rather cartoonish and crude diagram to the right is a simple, unrooted, parsimony-based tree I've constructed based upon the 18S rDNA of beetles in the Tenebrionidae that I collected from GenBank using BLAST. I then aligned them using ClustalW and MacClade and reconstructed the tree using PHYLIP. There's an error in attribution of one of the sequences that has a small impact on the structure of the tree — this is just a quick-and-dirty reconstruction that I used to look at the monophyly of subfamilies — but it demonstrates the evolutionary history and relatedness of not only different species of Tenebrionidae, but of genera, tribes and subfamilies thereof. Many of the insects in this tree are very different from one another, both in terms of morphology and behavior, but one can see in a broad sense how these clades of organisms arose. Brinson is saying that "macroevolution" isn't discussed at the postgraduate level and isn't a useful concept for research. I'm a bit unclear on the term, so I'll leave it as a question; is what I'm showing here an example of "macroevolution" based on evidence other than fossils? Is it not useful in understanding how diversity arose in a specific instance and so applicable to a further understanding of how the evolution of two entirely different groups of organisms might have affected one another?

I can only conclude that Brinson doesn't know what he's talking about. His argument seems to be based on his personal experience at Samford University, not on any knowledge of universities in general nor upon any first-hand knowledge of research.
However, in the classrooms of our seventh and 10th grades, the theory of evolution is not taught in the form in which it is indisputably occurs. Instead, it is taught as some sort of mechanism for explaining how all life forms on this great Earth were created and how we as human beings came into existence.

This itself is not useful and not sound science. One of the most basic laws of biology is that life cannot arise from non-life. Further, there is very little hard evidence that large-scale evolution of species ever occurred.

All we have is the fossil record, which does indeed offer evidence that many of our species are closely related. But this does not prove that each evolved into the other...
The first sentence of that first paragraph doesn't parse very well, but Brinson seems to be saying that evolution is a mechanism. In fact, evolution is a number of different mechanisms that all work differently but have cumulative effects, one such effect being the diversification of organisms. It is taught as the means by which life forms, including humans, that we see today came into existence, and that's because every shred of evidence ever found supports it. As I've already shown, Brinson is rather ignorant if he thinks that "all we have is the fossil record." To date, I haven't touched a fossil and don't expect that they will be a major part of the data that I gather for my own work. That's not a problem at all, because we have plenty of other evidence and I'm in the process right now of looking at that evidence and testing it empirically. Believe me, if I find anything that appears to negate some part of evolutionary theory, you'll be hearing about it. So far, no such thing has occurred. It's possible that it will, but it's not at all likely. Far more likely, I'll be applying evolutionary principles and not contradicting them. I'm certainly open to the possibility of discovering something entirely new, though, and thereby revolutionizing biology. Wish me luck, eh?

Point being, Brinson, like the lawyer I wrote about yesterday, seems to be pulling his arguments out of his nethermost orifice. I see no evidence at all that he understands the subjects he's arguing against. Again, I must ask how someone could earn a degree from Samford University without ever learning anything about molecular biology or even speciation.
I could delve further into the weaknesses of macroevolution, but it would require much more space than this article allows. The point is that macroevolution is useful for little more than speculation...
If by "speculation" Brinson means the ability to reconstruct the history of life on earth and gain a better understanding of how organisms might influence one another's history, thereby generating a new and finer comprehension of everything from natural resource management to parasitology, then he has a point. Somehow I don't think that's what he means. Brinson, I fear, doesn't have any grasp of how basic research can be translated into application and probably isn't even aware of the tremendous spectrum of research in the biological sciences.
It will not help the cancer researcher find a cure. It will not help us eliminate some of our worst human defects. It only causes controversy between those who hold certain strong religious beliefs and believe in moral absolutes and those who believe in moral relevancy.
Strange, but Brinson seems to me to be advocating precisely for that controversy. As far as not helping cancer researchers find a cure, it actually can... by helping target for investigation organisms that are likely to produce useful compounds, for example. While my own research has nothing whatsoever to do with finding a cure for cancer, it could ultimately be applied to preserving endangered species that might yield useful therapeutics (I don't know that, of course, but it's possible). There is more to science, of course, than curing diseases. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, I would assert, is a valuable undertaking. Anything that yields a better understanding of the world in which we live can ultimately benefit we humans — and perhaps other organisms with which we share the planet. Their lives, too, are worthwhile, if in different ways from how we think about the value of human life. I don't know about Brinson, but I enjoy cohabiting this globe with other living things and would be quite unhappy if the surface of the earth were covered end-to-end with nothing but people.
If America is to regain its footing as a nation leading the world in science education, our educational system should focus on the most pertinent and cutting-edge science, as well as proven and well-tested laws and theories of biology, chemistry and physics...
News flash for Christopher Brinson; many of them already do. Samford, apparently, didn't.
This starts with making science relevant. Second, debate over controversial scientific theories should be embraced, not thwarted. And finally, our education should ensure that students are able to use and understand the foundations of science, not side-circus issues that only arouse deep passions. Currently that is not the case...
So anything that doesn't cure a disease is a "side-circus?" That's what all of science should be? Most scientists don't research cures for disease, you know. We'll almost certainly never cure AIDS with an efficient semiconductor and high-energy physics is unlikely to yield new treatments for pancreatic cancer. And yes, our educational system should work to insure that students understand the basics of science; Brinson himself provides a good example of the failings in that undertaking, I'm sorry to say. He seems entirely unaware of just how hypotheses are tested, and even how the various principles that are comprised by a theory are tested — something that real scientists must do every day.
I am not saying that evolution should not be taught in public schools. I am saying that the focus should be on microevolution, which allows us to understand much of modern medicine. And on the issue of macroevolution, debate should be encouraged, and it should be robust.
What is this obsession with medicine? Didn't he learn about any other fields of research at Samford, or is the biology program there geared entirely to churning out doctors — and discouraging scientists? I'd love it if someone in an official capacity at that university could explain why one of their graduates seems to have such a narrow view of the full scope of life sciences research. Moreover, how did this person graduate without understanding that "macroevolution" (e.g., speciation) is nothing more than the accumulation of smaller changes at the population level ("microevolution")? How could a biology department so thoroughly fail one of their students that someone who has this in their biographical line at the end of their letter to the editor:
Christopher Brinson... graduated cum laude from Samford University with a degree in biology.
isn't aware of such a basic part of evolutionary theory — one that I heard over and over again while a biology undergraduate at Florida State which, let's face it, isn't exactly an Ivy League school itself?

Brinson's arguments, his whole letter, seems like it must be the product of a profound ignorance of both the research community and of evolutionary biology. Yet on Samford's biology department website, there appears a statement on evolution (strange that they would need such a formal statement to begin with, but there it is) which states in part:
...Evolution, a foundational concept in biology, has been established through empirical evidence, and the consensus of the scientific community is that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of biological diversity. Because an understanding of evolution is critical to the advancement of human health, the preservation of our environment, and an understanding of biological processes, our department strongly supports the teaching of evolution as an essential component of a quality education in the sciences...
If this is the case, how do you wind up with a Christopher Brinson holding a degree in biology, and graduating cum laude, no less?

The motto of Samford makes me a little suspicious, but their department website makes it seem like their biology department is reputable enough. What went wrong here?

EDIT: It seems that Brinson is, indeed, highly motivated by politics, perhaps with a touch of Dominionism thrown in for good measure. A bit of research turns up that he is a former director of collegiate outreach for an organization called Redeem the Vote. A look at their website today reveals headlines such as "Sex and the Sissy" and a diatribe against same-sex marriage, too. The group partners with the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Christian Broadcasting Network and the American Tract Society. Brinson appears to have numerous credentials with the fundamentalist movement. His rather ridiculous letter to the editor is no doubt an "on-target message," given the latest "strengths and weaknesses" strategy being employed by Fundamentalist foot soldiers. His background isn't made clear on the Montgomery Alabama letter, and I suspect he may have gotten a biology degree mainly as a way to make himself seem somewhat credible in making this kind of argument.

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