Tag Archives: evolution

Tweeting the life of the mind

Academic colleagues of mine who are only slightly or not at all involved with social media often ask me why I do it, while those of us who are involved often seem to find ourselves defending or proselytizing (see special essay series…). Yet one of the most important reasons for me is that it gets me out of the ivory tower for a bit of fresh air.

My Twitter feed is only maybe 20% historians of science and medicine. I follow and am followed by scientists, journalists, novelists, biotech executives and marketing types. I’m pretty sure my feed has a better racial and gender mix than my university, as well as a wider spectrum of political views and commitments. In short, Twitter broadens me.

Another reason I do it, though, is community service. I think that we who stroll the groves of Academe have a duty to get out and engage with the wider world somehow. One of my colleagues does political work in Latin America. Another raises consciousness about climate change. Yet another helped break the story about North Carolina’s official eugenic sterilization program—a story that led to an official apology from the state and reparations to at least some of the victims’ families. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a place in the Academy for the dreaming scholar, alone with her books, researching esoterica. Supporting the gathering of knowledge for its own sake strikes me as a pretty good use of money. But those of us who are moved to do so can help keep the life of the mind vital and relevant by getting out and getting our hands dirty.

Regular Genotopia readers know that fighting genetic determinism is among my main causes. “Gene-for” explanations have a way of supporting the status quo, reinforcing existing power hierarchies, blaming the victim. When social problems are explained away with genetics, it tends to divert attention from environmental solutions. It lends an aura of power and inevitability to racism, sexism, and homophobia. The genetic determinist says, Black/Hispanic/poor people are innately less intelligent; why bother fixing the schools? Such arguments have been around in almost exactly the same form for a century or more. More data doesn’t seem to make a dent. Among the public, the popularity of genetic determinist thinking stems mainly from our desire for simple explanations and from the cultural authority of science. When scientists do it, it’s mostly because when all you’ve got is a sequencer, everything looks like a gene.

And yet lots of people use this kind of language without having insidious political ideologies. It’s easy, it’s ubiquitous, we’re conditioned to think this way. But when we use determinist language, inadvertently or not, we’re making real social change more difficult. So when I see such language in the popular press or in the scientific literature, I call it out—gently if I think it’s accidental, with a bit of a bite if I don’t.

My daily dose of determinism last Friday was in a piece by the science writer Greg Jenner. If you don’t know him, he does the BBC’s “Horrible Histories” and is the author, most recently, of the brand new book, A Million Years in a Day. He writes about science and history in a jokey, easily accessible way and has a large following, in several different media. The piece, published on his blog and tweeted by @erocdrah, was about the acquisition of language. It brought together data on the evolution of linguistic ability in Homo sapiens and other data on the absence of language in people with autism. I choked on one sentence, fairly far down in the piece, where he discussed evidence from the gene FOXP2, a potent gene that has been implicated in language—it has even been called “the Twitter gene.” Jenner wrote,

“Why can homo sapiens speak so eloquently, yet Neanderthals possibly couldn’t? The likeliest cause is genetics.”

This looked like a job for Anti-Genetic Determinism Man.

I tweeted that I wished he wouldn’t write sentences like that, and followed up with a respectful compliment to show that I wasn’t a troll. What followed was among the most rewarding experiences I’ve had on social media. I’ve storified the conversation:

After this exchange, Jenner sent me a direct message saying that he always wanted to avoid deterministic language and was happy to hear any other suggestions I had for how to improve the piece. I had to sign off for the evening though, and by the time I got back to it he’d already made his own edits. Not only did he change the offending sentence but he added several other tweaks to make sure it was clear that a trait as complex as speech does not—cannot—have a single cause. Here are the key paragraphs:

Why can homo sapiens speak so eloquently, yet Neanderthals possibly couldn’t? One factor is perhaps genetics. In 1990, scientists were introduced to the KE family (a label applied to protect their identity), who were three generations of Londoners struggling with an unusual medical condition. About half of them lacked fine motor control over their facial muscles, lips and tongues – making their speech unintelligibly slurred – and they also found grammar highly problematic. We now know that this family carried a faulty version of a gene called FOXP2 that regulates the expression of other genes, and seems to be crucial to speech. In fact, when given the human version in a recent experiment, the squeaks of mice dropped to a strange baritone sound. Admittedly, it’s not as if the rodents suddenly stood up on their hind legs and quoted the romantic poetry of William Wordsworth, but it’s still remarkable.

Whether a Planet of the Apes scenario of articulate chimps might be theoretically possible seems unlikely, as humans have also evolved descended larynxes and the crucially-positioned hyoid bone, both of which are vital components in producing our array of vocal sounds. But the fact remains that our ability to deliver a Shakespearean soliloquy is, in large part, the by-product of a lovely evolutionary accident. Had another gene mutated instead, you and I might possess glow-in-the-dark skin, or blue nipples as long as our index fingers. But, then again, maybe not. We have to be careful with our desires to apply a simplistic determinism to genetics, no matter how tempting it is to say “this is a gene for *insert thing*…”.

Ain’t that fine? That last sentence almost made me cry—and then I’d have had to dab my eyes with my long blue nipples. The entire piece is here. Afterward, Jenner wrote me to thank me for my comments and said he appreciated my expertise. I took care not to lecture, though, and I hope that the respectful tone I tried to strike helped keep him receptive. Pedantry is endemic among academic faculty and is a real barrier to wider engagement.

So. Thanks to Greg Jenner and all smart, skillful journalists who are receptive to a stuffy old professor. Thanks to the scientists who will talk with a humanist and to the private-sector executives who engage with an idealistic egghead. And thanks to everyone else on social media who use that platform, so crammed with idiocy and hate and bunk, to discuss serious ideas with civility and humor.

Strike a blow for (and against) academic freedom

I am in favor of academic freedom. I am opposed to “academic freedom.” 

“America, meet the new creationism-in-sheep’s-clothing: The ‘academic freedom’ bill.” So begins Dana Liebelson on The Week, in an article on the latest version of the anti-science wedge being pushed into our schools. According to the National Center for Science Education, since 2004 more than 50 bills have been proposed that would require biology teachers to present conservative ideologies as science—in particular, the rejection of climate change and Intelligent Design (which I capitalize not to dignify it but to mark it as a dogma, distinct from engineering).

In the introduction to The Panda’s Black Box (Johns Hopkins, 2007), I traced the history of anti-Darwinist efforts and showed that they were getting simultaneously logically weaker and politically more potent. Each iteration, from the Scopes trial on down, has become more science-like and hence more insidious—harder to tell from the real thing. I wrote,

Thus, only vestiges of creationism remain in the public case for anti-Darwinism. On the current trajectory, one can easily imagine an anti-Darwinism so feeble that the Supreme Court cannot ban it. One must not forget that the so-called wedge strategy, the 1998 manifesto produced by the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, is to make anti-Darwinism superficially indistinguishable from science, and thereby to gain access for more strongly theistic doctrines in the public schools. But this fact does not weaken the point: anti-Darwinism today is rhetorically formidable but intellectually anemic.

My point was that anti-science rhetoric has, ironically, become increasingly scientistic—ever more committed to the principle of explaining everything with science—including opposition to particular scientific findings. (Evolution, climate change, and gravity are all both findings and theories—the former in the sense that they are by now incontrovertible; the latter in the sense that they generate predictions and testable hypotheses.) This is their proponents’ strategy for insinuating crackpot ideologies into science classrooms, in order to undermine data they find ideologically inconvenient.

“Academic freedom” is just that kind of feebler anti-Darwinism (and anti-climate change) that I was talking about. Conservatives have appropriated a term that used to be a justification for tenure, mainly bandied around by tweedy academics in their cups at faculty dinner parties, and turned it into a wedge for intelligent design and struthian opposition to the fact that it is getting warmer, perhaps inexorably.

For now, academic freedom bills have not done well in state legislatures. The NCSE lists only two out of the 51 attempts as successful (Tennessee and Louisiana). But six such bills have already been proposed in 2013—more than in all of 2012—which suggests a ramping up of the effort.

I will say that I think that the climate change debate and anti-Darwinism in all its 31 flavors ought to be taught in school—but not in science class. They belong in the humanities curriculum, as part of an effort to teach the social context of science. Teaching this stuff as if it were science hamstrings good teachers by diverting precious class time from the real thing—which harms our students. However, there is no doubt that these are real controversies. They are social and cultural controversies that use science as their weapons. The existence of “academic freedom” bills is a potent argument for teaching our children not just a scientific approach to science but also a humanistic approach to science.

In social studies or a history of science or STS (science and technology studies) class, bring it on: let’s teach the controversy. But leave them out of science class, for chrissakes.

 

Rocinante Rides Again: Intelligent Design Redux

Over at The Loom, the science writer Carl Zimmer is taking a turn at bat against the creationists. In a thoughtful, nicely written 4-part series, he recounts his experience trying to engage Intelligent Design advocate David Klinghoffer and pin him down on the evidence for his view, and provides an excellent summary of some of the chromosomal evidence for our evolutionary split from the higher apes. Zimmer is characteristically succinct, clear, and entertaining, but he’s tilting at windmills: The argument isn’t really about science.

Zimmer has been asking for even a shred of actual evidence that evolution can’t have happened, and of course the folks at The BioLogic Institute (the new entity of the Discovery Institute) are hemming, heeing, and hawing–cherry-picking quotes from 10 year old papers, masking data behind paywalls, twisting and massaging facts until they seem to say what they want them to. It’s like trying to talk seriously to a 9 year-old playground bully: they’re interested only in winning the argument, not in serious inquiry, and they use any rhetorical technique they need to do so.

As I argued in The Panda’s Black Box, this is just what you’d expect. The ID movement is patently an offspring of American creationism (which Ron Numbers shows irrefutably in his superb history, The Creationists). The last time we saw these folks was in Dover, PA, in 2006. But there is a new ID text, Science and Human Originsand the ID folks are shilling it. It may seem strange that this would pop up now, of all times. We’ve never had more evidence for evolution and human origins. But such moments are always when we have a new wave of anti-evolutionism. Also, the country’s political center has never been farther right. Although it claims to deal in the realm of scientific evidence, ID is one of the things that science doesn’t explain (or in this case, explain away). Intelligent Design is not about evidence.

How can that be, given all the scientific “evidence” they throw around? I mean that ID is about the cultural authority of science, not about science itself. It’s about fear of the godless Dawkinsian world Darwinists advocate, and about the dominance of science–and especially biology–in our world today. The IDers use science to fight science–they have taken up the weapon of their “oppressors” because they too recognize that science is the most powerful weapon today. Intelligent Design is superficially scientific anti-science–a tacit, ironic vindication of the power of the scientific worldview.

I actually have some sympathy for that view—and that sympathy makes my small intestine clench, because I disagree with the IDers on just about every point of policy and social theory. I do not agree with the means the IDers employ and I certainly don’t agree with the worldview they espouse (however coyly). I’m as godless as they come.

But I too have a critique of science and particularly biomedicine as the dominant cultural force in our society. Science has an enormous amount of power in our society–rightwingnuts notwithstanding–and I take part of my job to be being nervous about that. Science and technology have done much to improve our quality of life, but it does not have a good track record as a basis for social policy. So I defend science against irrationality, but I criticize its cultural hegemony. Dissent is the sincerest form of  cheerleading.

We should stop engaging the IDers on issues of science. They’re not interested in sincere inquiry–it’s bound to be fruitless. And it’s not what the argument is about, anyway. What we need to worry about is that textbook. If the rightwingnuts get their way and teach American children their medieval worldview, their other great concern–the Decline of America–will only accelerate. America will be to Europe and Asia what Mississippi and Kansas are to America.

The way to disarm the IDers is to dismount Rocinante and contextualize this movement. History, not science, provides the explanation.