Sunday, April 24, 2005

Myers Shows How Its Done

Newspaper op-ed columns typically run from between 600-1000 words. In that short amount of space it is very difficult to say anything sensible about evolutionary biology (or any other branch of science, for that matter).

Unencumbered by empirical content, ID, by contrast, is easily summarized in so small a space.

As a result I sometimes find myself frustrated by pro-evolution op-eds in newspapers. They always seem vague, and some of their precious space is invariably given over to banalities about science and religion. If you have ever tried to respond to a 2,000 word article in a 500 word letter to the editor, you know about this kind of frustration.

P.Z. Myers has an op-ed in today's Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It weighs in at just under 800 words. In that small space he has managed to state a pro-evolution/anti-ID case that is so clear and concise, the rest of us can only weep with envy.

Here are two excerpts:

Intelligent Design (ID) has failed to meet even the minimal standards of evidence and scholarship we should expect of the science we teach our children. Teaching it steals time from more vital subjects in which our kids should be grounded.

Science is a conservative process. Most college-level introductory textbooks contain only material that has stood the test of time and has been confirmed independently. ID proponents have not only failed to provide any evidence for their thesis, they aren't even trying. There are no labs doing research on this subject; all the papers the Discovery Institute has tried to publish are exercises in spin, in which they try to distort biology researchers' work to fit their preconceptions. With no established body of results, no current work, and no promising prospects for future research, why should ID be supported? It's a dead end. It is absurd to propose that our kids learn about a subject that no legitimate scientists are pursuing and that has no utility.

And later:

And what is the state of modern evolutionary biology? Thriving, growing, and more productive than ever. To name a few examples, in paleontology within the last year, we've had the amazing discoveries of Homo floresiensis, the Indonesian "hobbit", and remarkable finds from Dmanisi, Georgia. The human genome project, and genome projects analyzing other organisms, has been yielding research dividends as this wealth of data is analyzed from an evolutionary and comparative perspective. We are beginning to tease apart the genetic differences that make human brains different than those of chimpanzees. Molecular studies of protists are revealing the roots of multicellularity. We study oncogenes, genes that when damaged can cause cancers in humans, in nematode worms. Epidemiologists study looming disease threats, such as bird flu and the Marburg virus, using evolutionary principles.

My own discipline of developmental biology has been revolutionized in the last few decades as we've embraced evolution more fully than before; new papers in the rapidly growing field of evo-devo, or evolutionary developmental biology, pile up on my desk faster than I can read them. This is a genuinely exciting time to be studying biology, at a time when new syntheses of various disciplines with the ideas of evolutionary biology are fueling new innovations, new discoveries, and invigorating evolution yet further. When students ask me about the hot fields that promise great careers, I steer them towards evo-devo (and developmental biology in general, of course), bioinformatics, proteomics, and genomics, all fields in which knowledge of evolution is indispensable.

Now go read the whole thing. And if you find yourself writing something for your local paper, aspire to Myers' example.


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