Saturday, January 24, 2004

Cracraft on Creationism From the latest issue of BioScience, the official publication of the American Insititute of Biological Sciences, comes this excellent editorial about the menace of Creationism.

Cracraft mentions that there is some good news-one recent poll has shown for the first time that more than half (53%) of people now accept the reality of human evolution. That was news to me. It is a welcome development.

Inidentally, Joel Cracraft is an evolutionary biologist who has worked closely with Niles Eldredge (co-creator, with Stephen Jay Gould, of punctuated equilibrium). He was an early champion of cladistics in paleontology, which at the time was a new approach to studying questions in that subject. Briefly, cladists argue that paleontology should not be devoted to resolving specific lines of ancestor-descendent relations. Rather, paleontology should resolve questions of relative relatedness. In other words, instead of arguing that pile of bones A is a direct descendent of pile of bones B, they should argue that pile of bones A and pile of bones B shared a common ancestor more recently than either one did with pile of bones C. The techniques used in cladistic analysis are far more mathematical than in traditional paleontology, so, for obvious reasons, I find it rather appealing.

Cladistics, which started out as an unpopular view held by a minority of scientists is now the mainstream view of paleontologists. It earned its place in the mainstream by producing results in the lab. It did not earn its place by lobbying politicians to have its views taught in science classrooms.

People like Cracraft, Gould and Eldredge are proof that you can have a long and happy career in science even if you dissent from the mainstream views of evolutionary biology. The difference between them and the ID folks is that they didn't stop with mere dissent. They took the trouble of knowing what the hell they were talking about!

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