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January 03, 2006

Crown clade of Creation

"The sequence of study found in all other current biology texts can implant a subtle evolutionary philosophy in the students' minds. The Christian teacher will find that the unique A Beka Book approach to biology eliminates the conflict which results when evolutionary philosophy is combined with truth. Students and teachers alike will feel more comfortable when they realize that it is not biology that is in conflict with Scripture, but rather the ungodly philosophy of some biologists.

So reads the prologue of Biology: God's Living Creation, sent to me as a gift by a friend with a disturbing sense of humor. The controversial textbook - and here I use "textbook" to mean "cruel practical joke played on unsuspecting high school biology students" and "controversial" to mean "filled with lies" - made the news recently when a group of Southern California fundamentalists sued the University of California over UC's refusal to credit biology classes for which the book served as text. The UC regents were right to so decide: the book is garbage.

Much of the public attention to the book focused on what I will call for lack of a suitable expletive the paleontology section, and for good reason. The second paragraph of that section begins: "The Bible, the oldest record of man's past, reveals to us the close working association between created man (Adam) and other living things." Anthropology comes under direct attack in the next para, which starts out "After the days of Noah, when God dispersed mankind throughout the world..." The text is the usual creationist assortment of misrepresentations ("Supporters of the punctuated equilibrium concept argue that most 'missing links' are missing from the fossil record because they never existed," page 368), non-sequiturs and arguments from authority (page 349 holds a table of prominent historical scientists who were Christian creationists, the most recent being electrical engineer John Ambrose Fleming, who died a very old man in 1945) and flat out lies ("No true 'missing links' have ever been found to bridge the gaps between different kinds of organisms," page 367).

Of that last category, perhaps the most damaging example can be found on page 352:

When a hypothesis has passed the test of many well-designed experiments and has the support of other scientists, it is referred to as a theory.

Despite the colloquial use of the word to mean "wild-assed guess," a theory in this context is a framework on which the results of tests of hypotheses are related one to the other. A theory is a higher order of truth, above "fact." It's provisional, but so, in science, are facts. But leave the quote-mining to the creationists. There's too much funny stuff in the book, and we'd be here all day.

OK, just one more, question 7 from Section Review 13.1, on page 343:

In a paragraph, explain why the Bible is completely true and accurate when it speaks of scientific matters, although it is not a scientific textbook or treatise. Give examples of truths recorded in the Scriptures many years before they were recognized by scientists.

And they accuse PZ of being closed-minded to alternative ways of thinking.

But to tell the truth, the odious lies in the "paleontology" section weren't the thing that bothered me the most about the book. They're so blatant, and easily refuted by any student that has both a questioning mind and Internet access. They're almost a burlesque of creationist thought, and besides, I've become jaded in that respect.

No, the statement that bugs me most in this book is in the section on human physiology.

We are fortunate to live in an age when scientific dogma is overturned at a startling clip. When I first studied geology, Plate Tectonics was an intriguing idea with not a few skeptics. Now it's consensus. When I was taking high school biology back then in the Pleistocene - taught to me, incidentally, by a devout Catholic (and CRN reader), David Roycroft (and thanks again, Dave), who was somehow able to reconcile his Roman Catholic faith with the observable reality of evolution to the apparent detriment of neither - living things were no longer divided into three parts like Gaul. In 1894, Ernst Haeckel had added the Kingdom Protista to Linnaeus' Plantae and Animalia, and you can still find textbooks in used book stores that follow this tripartite division, Protista consisting of single-celled organisms that aren't clearly plants nor animals. During the late 1930s, increasing knowledge of bacterial anatomy prompted the addition of a fourth kingdom, Monera (or, straightforwardly, "Bacteria.")

In nineteen-sixty-mumble, Dave Roycroft taught his classes Robert Whittaker's five-kingdom version of things, with Fungi given their own kingdom. Not long after he coached me to that 4 on the Biology AP, the two-empires system came into use, with the kingdoms divided between the "empires" Prokaryota, simple single-celled organisms, and Eukaryota, which included both singlecelled and multicellular organisms, all of which differed from prokaryotes in that their cells had organelles: nuclei at the very least, with some also having mitochondria, Golgi bodies and endoplasmic reticula, and - if the cells were very lucky - chloroplasts.

The point of all this ancient history? None of these revisions were suggested on a whim, as one might decide to reorganize one's record collection from alphabetical to chronological. Each revision was proposed to reflect increasing knowledge of the awe-inspiring diversity of single-celled life, and the realization that the truly profound differences among living things had less to do with being green and sedentary or brown with teeth than with microscopic details of construction.

That learning continues. In 1990 Carl Woese, who had spent some years studying differences in ribosomal RNA among a wide variety of prokaryotes, split that empire in two based in part on those differences. One section was given an old name, "Bacteria." The other Woese dubbed Archaea. Together with Eukaryota, Bacteria and Archaea became, in Woese's view, the newest high-order taxa, which he called 'domains." His view is gaining adherents, though some still stick to the five-kingdoms notion. It's likely that Woese's idea won't be the last refinement. Most biologists agree - after another one a them there paradigmatic shifts in the sciences that's happened in the last forty years - that Eukaryotes arose from symbiotic partnerships among Bacterial and Archaeal organisms, with Archaeal organisms becoming nuclei, blue-green algae becoming chloroplasts, smaller bacteria becoming mitochondria, and so forth.

Either way, the old "Animal Kingdom" has suffered demotion. Not only is it subordinate to the new domain Eukaryota, but an increasing number of taxonomists relegate us Animals to a subcategory of a subcategory. A common and almost certainly temporary view of Eukaryotes breaks that domain down into the groups Stramenopiles (including diatoms, kelp, and the pathogen that causes sudden oak death) Alveolates (dinoflagellates and similar organisms), Rhodophyta (red algae), Green Plants, a grab-bag category of various not-yet-assigned single-celled organisms, and Opisthokonts.

Opisthokonts are distinguished from other eukaryotes by a number of cellular and molecular features, the easiest to explain of which is that when opisthokonts form cells that move by way of the whip-like organelles known as flagella, those flagella grow on the posterior end of the cell, and there's usually only one flagellum per cell.

About half the readers of this blog are producing one particular type of such cells right now, and a significant proportion of the other half is shouldered with the responsibility of killing them. Animals are a sub-subgroup of opisthokonts, along with fungi and some single-celled organisms.

"Animals," despite a conflation in the common mind with "mammals" ("we saw plenty of animals, birds and fish!") refers to any multicellular animals, from rotifers to right whales. The vast majority of animals, by sheer numbers, are microscopic. Of those that aren't, the vast majority are arthropods, which comprise three quarters of all known living and fossil species. Head deliberately along the evolutionary branches toward people, and be careful: there are thousands of wrong turns for each correct one. The majority of vertebrates are fish. The majority of terrestrial vertebrate species are birds, and 96 percent of the remainder are lizards and snakes. About half of all mammal species are rodents. Almost half the remainder are bats. Of mammal species not rodents or bats, almost half are ungulates. Of primate species, more than half are monkeys, with almost all of the rest lemurs or lorises.

We are one species among millions, one flimsy twig in a forest. The whole history of the biological sciences has been confirmation and reconfirmation of this fact. Copernicus and Galileo took us from the center of the universe. Thousands of biologists still work to dethrone us from the seat we had long usurped at the head of the table of life. This is a planet of bats and rats, of sparrows, of beetles and ants, but mainly - to a first approximation - this is a planet of bacteria. One could call us an afterthought, if one granted that thought played a role in our stepping onto life's stage, which I do not. I find this point of view exhilarating, like looking at a starry sky and imagining the impossible distances. There is grandeur in this insignificance. There is an imperative not to take more than our share.

Which is why the first sentence of Chapter Six in Biology: God's Living Creation angered me so badly:

Man is the most magnificent part of God's creation - far more complex in structure and design than the earth or any heavenly body.

Ignore the untruth in the subordinate clause for the moment. It is the first part that is so dangerous, seductive even to non-fundamentalists. The devotee of Teilhard's noösphere, the extropian with his imagined Manifest Evolutionary Destiny, the well-intentioned Marxist with his inevitability of change, all fall to the same teleological demon, shackled to the Great Chain of Being. And once we set ourselves apart from the rest of "creation," we begin to resent our ties to the earth. Of what importance is a snail, a rotifer, a tiger? We begin to imagine - and to implement - a world in which we are alone.

It is called hubris. It goeth before a fall, already in progress.

The most dangerous part of the Crown of Creation notion, of course, is its ring of truth. We each of us are cooperative projects of a quadrillion or two prokaryotes, and those single cells conspire to create consciousness. It is as if pond scum, piled and shaped a certain way, began to discuss its purpose.

Shakespeare had it backwards, I think. That foul and pestilential congregation of vapors Hamlet loathed is far more sublime than any gaudy overhanging painted firmament. We are the quintessence of dust and yet we are as gods in apprehension, and that's the whole point, and that's the whole problem.

Posted by Chris Clarke at January 3, 2006 08:59 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.faultline.org/cgi-bin/mt-tb.cgi/1508

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A cruel present
Excerpt: Chris Clarke has been reading a gift book: an A Beka Book, one of the worthless creationist texts that the UC system refuses to accept for credit. Ever wonder why? "The sequence of study found in all other current biology texts can implant a subtl...
Weblog: Pharyngula
Tracked: January 3, 2006 04:40 PM
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Comments

Wow! Gorgeous!

Posted by: coturnix at January 3, 2006 07:17 PM
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sent to me as a gift by a friend with a disturbing sense of humor

Heh. I sent you an "antidote" book as well; hopefully it gets there soon.

Fantastic post, btw.

Posted by: the_bone at January 3, 2006 07:26 PM
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Yep, got the antidote book and devoured it.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at January 3, 2006 07:30 PM
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From one afterthought to another, simply wonderful Chris. Excuse me while I take Tito for a walk and ponder the impossible distances to Rigel and Betelgeuse.

Posted by: OGeorge at January 3, 2006 07:44 PM
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Gorgeous, Chris, just gorgeous! I especially liked "There is grandeur in this insignificance."

And btw, I went to nothing but Catholic schools through high school, with nothing but Catholic science teachers -- some of them nuns! -- and yet I was taught evolutionary theory and all sorts of other supposedly "ungodly" science (including how reproduction worked!). They, too, had no problem reconciling faith and science, and some of these pious people also saw the universe and humanity as you do. But these particular individuals took the humility of Christ seriously, and like many intellectual Catholics, they knew their way around a paradox, such as your "grandeur in insignificance," too. (And come to think of it, wasn't Mendel a monk?) This is why I don't get the creationists.

OK, end of rant. Again, gorgeous!

Posted by: Dr. Virago of Quod She at January 3, 2006 07:53 PM
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I especially liked "There is grandeur in this insignificance."

You may have known this, Dr. Virago, but that line was a deliberate lift from Darwin's last sentence in The Origin of Species:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at January 3, 2006 08:04 PM
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Thank you, Chris. That was a wonderful read, and I'll be sharing it with a lot of people.

I have such a hard time with people who say that evolution takes the meaning out of life, or that it strips away the beauty of creation. It amazes me that what's simply *there* isn't enough for people.
What more does anyone need? Why does there need to be a meaning? And how can anyone look at this and not say "Wow"?

Posted by: D. Sidhe at January 3, 2006 11:59 PM
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You reminded me of this nearly 10-year-old essay by Stephen Jay Gould:

"Planet of Bacteria"

Posted by: John at January 4, 2006 05:21 AM
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We are the quintessence of dust and yet we are as gods in apprehension, and that's the whole point, and that's the whole problem.

Amen. I think a few viruses lurking out there beg to differ with our particular apprehension.

Beautiful work.

From D. Sidhe: It amazes me that what's simply *there* isn't enough for people.
What more does anyone need? Why does there need to be a meaning? And how can anyone look at this and not say "Wow"?

I think I understand it. People need a personal connection to a personal god, which they can control. Reality is a great big scary place without it. The problem is that they don't allow for the same kind of spiritual connection to exist in the rest of nature.

Posted by: eRobin at January 4, 2006 06:45 AM
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Hi there! I stumbled across this... and I wanted to say I was really struck by how well, and how thoroughly, you took apart this creationist so-called textbook. Thank you for it!

I guess the fundamental problem of creationists, and the reason that they've been so successful, is that between hard-line Protestant sola Scriptura Biblical literalism and lay misunderstanding of the sciences, they just shout loudly and people who believe that God created the world say, "Well, gosh, maybe this evolution stuff isn't right." And of course it rings true, because we've all heard it before.

The example of students of Catholics learning about evolution is really a non-issue -- Catholic schools have long taught evolution in biology classes; the same is true for Jews. But it's Protestants who are still the majority of the country, and at their head are the literalist hard-liners; and between public school curricula eviscerated by religious hard-liners, Protestant schools teaching Biblical literalism, and facile media coverage of dualistic "controversy," there are all too many people who believe that religion should trump science.

Posted by: Wes Meltzer at January 4, 2006 07:04 AM
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The example of students of Catholics learning about evolution is really a non-issue

Unfortunately, that's increasingly not so. Conservative Catholics are among the users of the textbook I describe here, in such programs as the Seton homeschooling curriculum. This despite the notable anti-Catholic content of some of the book.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at January 4, 2006 07:14 AM
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thank you for today's lesson in my continuing self-education project. an impressive essay. as others have said--great ending.

the IDers claim that UC is not admitting students from xtian schools. not true. you have it right. uc is not granting credit for specific courses in those schools.

i just love "In nineteen-sixty-mumble..."

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at January 4, 2006 08:10 AM
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Damn, Chris, that was gorgeous.

And once we set ourselves apart from the rest of "creation," we begin to resent our ties to the earth. Of what importance is a snail, a rotifer, a tiger? We begin to imagine - and to implement - a word in which we are alone.
It is called hubris. It goeth before a fall, already in progress.

Amen. Even at my most religious, I could never understand why it was preferable to think oneself a formed thing, a chunk of clay molded and given life by a huge Other, than to exist within a web of relationships, kin to every living thing whose existence we know of. How lonely, to be on a ladder with only an unpredictable, distant god and the cold angels above us. Give me Chris' forest that we are a flimsy twig of, rustling and pungent with life, warm with desire and terror, every inch of every surface inhabited by swimming, skittering, slithering, flying, crawling, climbing, creeping, growing cousins of every size and shape, from the tiniest viruses to a 2000 acre fungus.

Posted by: Stephanie at January 4, 2006 08:37 AM
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I've been keeping tabs on the creationists since the salad days of "Dr." Duane Gish in the mid-70s, and I wish that everything I'd written since then--much of it in anger--amounted to half of this, Chris. Bravo.

Posted by: doghouse riley at January 4, 2006 08:43 AM
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May I make a radical suggestion? Would you submit that post to the next "Carnival of Christianity?"

Heck, I know a couple of other blog-o-rees where that post should go, if there is a God in the heavens and all . . .

Posted by: Ed Darrell at January 4, 2006 08:53 AM
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What gets me is the reinforced and self destructive nature of the right wing's attack on education. It stems from ignorance and fear of the unknown, and reinforces the same.

When bible thumpers have a hard time in life, they rarely do anything constructive to improve their lot. They just thump their bibles harder, despite all evidence against the eficacy of bible thumping, in the pig-headed delusion that the sky fairy will save them. Should someone say something about intelligent about that, they are likely to get thumped hard by the same bible.

Not that that has any affect on the intelligent one, but the thumpers will thump all the same.

It's depressing.

Posted by: BruceH at January 4, 2006 09:00 AM
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Doh - no, Chris, I didn't know you were making a reference to Darwin. It's been 15+ years since I read Origin of the Species. Still, your particular version of the turn of phrase hits a right note.

Posted by: Dr. Virago of Quod She at January 4, 2006 09:06 AM
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Great way to celebrate your birthday, Chris! (Starting a day early, if the blogclock is to be believed.)

Happy birthday, but I'm still older than you.

Posted by: Ron at January 4, 2006 09:57 AM
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Beautiful. Especially the part about being one little thing among a universe of many other things. I find that comforting, myself. The idea of being a special, singular Being strikes me as well, arrogant and lonely.

Posted by: Rana at January 4, 2006 10:40 AM
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What if you're brown with teeth and sedentary?

Posted by: craig at January 4, 2006 10:45 AM
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Chris,

"We are the quintessence of dust and yet we are as gods in apprehension, and that's the whole point, and that's the whole problem."

That is brilliant. Mind if I sprinkle it about? Properly credited, of course.

Posted by: Mike at January 4, 2006 11:52 AM
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Dr. Virago, it's "The Origin of Species," not "Origin of the Species." Subtle difference in meaning. Actually, the full title is "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life."

Posted by: Ann at January 4, 2006 01:23 PM
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This is a fine argument expressed in elegant prose -- congratulations.

Posted by: Beche-la-mer at January 5, 2006 01:38 AM
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A commenter on my blog linked to this post. And now I may have to give up blogging, for what do I have to offer in the face of this beautifully written and compelling piece.
If you find you're way over to my blog you won't be as impressed by the writing, but you might at least find a kindred spirit both in me, the author, and in many of the comments I receive.

Thanks!

Posted by: RjZ at January 5, 2006 10:58 PM
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