Is Our Children Learning: Why Yglesias Is Was Wrong About Evolution

Let no one say I won’t call out liberals when they’re idiots about evolution. From the archives:

About a week about Matt Yglesias had a post about evolution where he wrote (italics mine):

Last but not least, nothing whatsoever of practical importance hinges on whether or not life on earth originated as a result of intelligent design. The theory is exceedingly silly pseudo-science, but it doesn’t actually threaten anything. There is, moreoever, no reason to think it’s especially crucial for the average citizen to have an accurate grasp of state-of-the-art biological theory. Most people don’t understand quantum mechanics, general relativity, or any number of other scientific and technical topics and life goes on just fine.

Getting snooty about this just feeds into perceptions of liberalism as fundamentally a snobbish, anti-religious, elitist view while distracting attention from the basically reality that the Republican Party is a front organization for corporate managers that puts on a cloak of social conservatism to disguise what it really does in practice. If you must worry about social conservatives, worry about women’s reproductive rights and basic equality for gays and lesbians. There’s just no there there in the evolution issue.

I was going to let this lie, as Pandagon did a fine job stating why Yglesias was being an idiot (not an IDiot mind you). But the more I think about it, the more I have to respond. Here’s why Yglesias is wrong:

  1. A basic understanding of evolution is important for all people, not just scientists. Here’s one example: antibiotic resistance. The evolution of antibiotic resistance is a problem we can all address, only if we understand how the use of antibiotics selects-as in natural selection-for antibiotic resistant genotypes. I don’t expect people to be able to derive the neutral theory, but this we all must understand. I’m not expecting “an accurate grasp of state-of-the-art biological theory.” But the basics matter.
  2. This is about education, not just politics. My experience has been that students who are exposed to evolutionary biology in high school (and are taught it well) have a much easier time grasping the harder material in college. Why does this matter? Practically, evolutionary biology is the cornerstone of the analysis of genomes and DNA sequence. To the extent that tomorrow’s medical personal have a basic understanding of what to do with all that DNA sequence generated for epidemiological purposes, the better off everyone is (most biology majors go into the medical professions, not academia).
  3. This is about education, not just politics, part deux. Most high school science curricula focus on knowledge acquisition. To a certain extent, this is unavoidable: you have to learn the Krebs cycle-the biological facts are part of the foundation for later study. Evolutionary biology is very different in that the basic foundation is theoretical (not the case studies and examples). Unlike math, it’s a very different way of thinking because there is a strong historical component as well as a good deal of math. For example, there are very few high school courses where one implicitly or explicitly has to compare Aristotlean typological thought with Darwin’s population based approach. That’s good for your brain.
  4. OK, it is partially about politics. As I noted in #1 & #2, evolution is essential in many fields of biology. There’s no doubt in my mind that many of the creationists/IDiots would gladly drag us into another Lysenkoist era. For those who think that this is unrealistic (and Yglesias does), think of all the crazy shit the right wing has done. Twenty years ago, would anyone thought things would be this crazy? (e.g., our insane War on Drugs, massive deficit spending by conservatives, the dominance of the Dominionist right, etc.). Anyone who says that the religious right won’t try to target evolution is simply demonstrating a sorry lack of imagination, particularly when some far right leaders say things like “If you believe God created that baby, it makes it a whole lot harder to get rid of that baby. If you can cause enough doubt on evolution, liberalism will die.” How can Yglesias be so naive?
  5. OK, it is partially about politics, part deux.Conservatives are criticizing other conservatives over their IDiocy. They’re gnawing on each other. How is this a bad thing?
  6. Yglesias is the elitist, not biologists and their supporters. The idea that a basic understanding of the world around us shouldn’t belong to the ‘little people’ is utterly arrogant. Say what you will about us eggheads, at least we think everyone potentially can understand what we’re talking about. His attitude is just more stereotypical political-insider arrogance.
This entry was posted in Creationism, Evolution, The War on Science. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Is Our Children Learning: Why Yglesias Is Was Wrong About Evolution

  1. Derek James says:

    Neither of your first two links seem to be working, and I’d like to follow them up.

  2. Markk says:

    Another example would be DDT and pesticide resistance. Realizing that indiscriminate use of DDT has already produced resistant strains of malaria mosquitoes is ignored when “10’s of millions” of deaths are attributed to lack of use of DDT for example.
    Being general: science accumulates a body of knowledge that informs how the world works. If you ignore major sections of it when you decide things, you will in general make bad decisions – as a person, and as a society. Make enough of them and the institutions of the society will eventually crack. Evolution through natural selection via our genetic processes is such a huge part of the way our world works that ignoring it means very bad choices.
    I made a comment elsewhere on science blogs about how todays merger of powerful experimental techniques and powerful theory are making it a golden age of understanding of genetics and populations of living things. This new knowledge is increasing our understanding of so many things that touch our lives, from athletic performance, to social groups that to ignore the theory at its underpinnings … We can just look around to see the bad choices made in many areas.
    This is like the newspaper guy who said to the poor girl – ignore algebra – not realizing that meant condemning her to get ripped off by things like bad adjustable rate mortgages, rotten pay day loans, and such. Bad background knowledge really does come back to haunt us in tangible ways!

  3. Euan says:

    I think that ID is dangerous because it is an attack on the entire scientific way of thinking. If you can get away with teaching bullshit biology then you can lie about any other teory you don’t like. ID is obviously just a way of sneaking fundamentalist religion into schools.
    On the snobbish, anti-religious ,elitist liberal thing I openly admit I am all of those things and not ashamed at all.

  4. Derek James says:

    Thanks for the links, noncarborundum.

  5. cuchulkhan says:

    The blank slate left are a greater threat to science than creationists. Particulary in relation to cutting edge research on race, sex and intelligence.

  6. cuchulkhan says:

    eg. Bruce Lahn, who did some cutting edge work on recent selection for genes governing brain size in East Asian and European population groups, but not African ones, seems to have given up altogether due to the iron laws of political correctness.

  7. lumpyhead says:

    You want cutting edge braintastic neuroscientism of that thar cranial lumpology? Man, you’ve got to read Dr. F.J. Galls work. Very ‘cutting edge’. If yer a phuqin moron like cu-cu-cuh-chuckles-hans-Whev.

  8. And besides having some rudimentary understanding of quantum mechanics and relativity probably is a good thing…isn’t enriching a person’s life and getting them to at least appreciate something outside their normal life a goal of education?

  9. ronhohn says:

    Hitting closer to home, HIV medication must frequently be changed because the virus mutates and resists current medication, but have you also noticed – this is for the taller people – that bathroom furnishings were designed generations ago and never updated, and are all too low for the average person?
    The sink is too low, so is the toilet. I cannot stand under my shower head, I must duck to wash my hair. People used to be shorter than today. The bathtub is too short, I can’t sit and stretch my legs

  10. stevie says:

    I know a microbiologist working off the coast of Massachusetts studying man-made life-forms created from sewer discharge. (Hello Godzilla)
    And the only “Intelligent Design” I’ve seen referenced in the Bible seems to come from Aliens. “Chariots of Fire” flying the angels up into the sky; ‘horseless carts’ that Jesus and the angels used to travel in when they were tired of walking, etc.
    If they taught a course on “Alien Design”, then we’d be gettin’ somewhere.

  11. “I know a microbiologist working off the coast of Massachusetts studying man-made life-forms created from sewer discharge. (Hello Godzilla)”
    Godzilla? Don’t you mean something a little lower on the evolutionary scale? Like amoebas or Republicans?

  12. melior says:

    This is about education, not just politics, part trois:
    The primary lesson that creationists of all stripes (including IDiots) want to inculcate in children is unquestioning deference to statements by authority figures, no matter how nonsensical. The take-home message is to reject the methods of reason, science, and rationality when instructed to do so.
    This can destroy a child’s mind — although it may as a side-effect also turn him or her into a pliant, sheep-like Republican voter.

  13. I think the importance of having a reasonable grasp of evolution goes beyond refraining from using antibiotics or knowing why your eyes are brown.
    Study of evolution exercises all kinds of intellectual muscles that will in turn help people to function more effectively in their own life and as citizens of their country and community. When you understand evolution, you appreciate non-linearity and complexity. You have a sense of scale, both of time (geologic time) and number (i.e., organism population). There’s an important lesson even in being overwhelmed by the implications of evolution. It’s called humility–and we could use a little more of that.
    Evolution is more than a theory of biology, it is a philosophical worldview that enriches our perspective on politics, on spirituality, and on most anything we think about.

  14. greg white says:

    Join our organization NOW and begin reaping the benefits immediately!
    We’ll tell you;
    – Who you can marry.
    – Whether you can divorce or not.
    – How to breed.
    – Who to vote for, (the ‘family values’ folks, of course!)
    – What to think, or not to think at all, just “have faith”.
    – It’s “O.K. to Kill” (support the troops)
    – It’s “O.K. to Steal” (support the troops)
    – How to dress.
    – What music to listen to.
    – Which movies you should, (and shouldn’t!), watch.
    – That science is flawed & how a 2,000 year old myth is better
    – Oh yes, and that we’ll need more donations to advance our cause.

  15. feromon says:

    Thanks for the links, noncarborundum.

  16. Anonymous says:

    There are many useful informations in this great article…I really enjoy reading the whole blog that you write. Thanks!

  17. Thanks you site admin

Comments are closed.