Friday, October 06, 2006

Opabinia Regalis: Mascot of Darwinian Skeptics

Opabinia Regalis rocks. This amazing Cambrian animal had five eyes, four of which were perched above its body on trunk-like extensions-- sort of like periscopes on a submarine. It also had a long snaking proboscis (a.k.a. snout, schnoz, sneezer, nose) with grasping spines on the end. When was the last time you were grabbed by a nose? Its body plan is so unlike any other animal currently in existence, or at any other time during the history of the earth, that it deserves its own phylum. It is so bizarre that when a reconstructed image of it was first presented at a scientific meeting in 1972, the audience of scientists burst out laughing. Have a good look here or here or here. For more information, and how you pronounce its name, go here.

I will have more to say about this little guy, and his threatiness to the scientific community. The Washington Post has declared him, in effect, unconstitutional.

Oh yes, and I dub him Cambrian Animal of the Week. A previous Cambrian Animal of the Week is here.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Scopes Eugenics Trial

Is it fair to call the Scopes Trial, the "Scopes Eugenics Trial"? Is it accurate? I am not quite sure of the right answer, but it is certainly more accurate than calling it the "Scopes Monkey Trial." One thing is clear: the debates over evolution in the 1920's were influenced by the issue of eugenics far more than most people today realize. States were enacting eugenics legislation in the 1920's and people were claiming support for it based on the alleged "science" of evolution.

I have more to say on this topic, but not today. For now I will simply give some extended quotes from Hunter's Civic Biology, which is the text Scopes used to teach evolution in his Tennessee school. This text was on trial as much as Scopes was, so it is important to understand the nature of the "science" it purported to teach the young people of Tennessee. (Bold emphasis mine throughout.)
Hunter's Civic Biology, p. 195-196

Evolution of Man. -- Undoubtedly there once lived upon the earth races of men who were much lower in their mental organization than the present inhabitants. If we follow the early history of man upon the earth, we find that at first he must have been little better than one of the lower animals. He was a nomad, wandering from place to place, feeding upon whatever living things he could kill with his hands. Gradually he must have learned to use weapons, and thus kill his prey, first using rough stone implements for this purpose. As man became more civilized, implements of bronze and of iron were used. About this time the subjugation and domestication of animals began to take place. Man then began to cultivate the fields, and to have a fixed place of abode other than a cave. The beginnings of civilization were long ago, but even to-day the earth is not entirely civilized.

The Races of Man. -- At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; The American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.

Hunter's Civic Biology, p. 261-265

Improvement of Man. -- If the stock of domesticated animals can be improved, it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws of selection. This improvement of the future race has a number of factors in which we as individuals may play a part. These are personal hygiene, selection of healthy mates, and the betterment of the environment.

Eugenics. -- When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. Tuberculosis, syphilis, that dread disease which cripples and kills hundreds of thousands of innocent children, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity. The science of being well born is called eugenics.

The Jukes. -- Studies have been made on a number of different families in this country, in which mental and moral defects were present in one or both of the original parents. The "Jukes" family is a notorious example. The first mother is known as "Margaret, the mother of criminals." In seventy-five years the progeny of the original generation has cost the state of New York over a million and a quarter dollars, besides giving over to the care of prisons and asylums considerably over a hundred feeble-minded, alcoholic, immoral, or criminal persons. Another case recently studied is the "Kallikak" family. (Footnote: The name Kallikak is fictitious.) This family has been traced back to the War of the Revolution, when a young soldier named Martin Kallikak seduced a feeble-minded girl. She had a feeble-minded son from whom there have been to the present time 480 descendants. Of these 33 were sexually immoral, 24 confirmed drunkards, 3 epileptics, and 143 feeble-minded. The man who started this terrible line of immorality and feeble-mindedness later married a normal Quaker girl. From this couple a line of 496 descendants have come, with no cases of feeble-mindedness. The evidence and the moral speak for themselves!

Parasitism and its Cost to Society. -- Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.

The Remedy. -- If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with some success in this country.

When people opposed the teaching of "evolution" in the 1920's, what exactly did they oppose? Was it "evolution" as we understand it? Was it a eugenics public policy agenda? Or was it some combination?

These quotations are taken from the Eugenics Watch web site, so I cannot vouch for their complete accuracy. I have seen some of them corroborated by reliable scholarship elsewhere.

Previous posts on eugenics in the form of forced sterilization enacted as public policy in the 1920's is here. Another post on why all this matters today is here.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Critical Thinking As a Threat to Science

Macht at Telic Thoughts has an effective and amusing reply to the hysterical piece in the Washington Post arguing that science and medicine will be "decimated" if students are encouraged to apply critical thinking skills to the theory of evolution. The Post piece is the usual collection of misrepresentations and straw man arguments.

The Post piece makes me worried about science in America because the writer seems to suggest that students should be taught to blindly accept the theory of evolution and not think for themselves. It also worries me that a person who is apparently a scientist cannot seem to be logically consistent. He closes with this:
Nations that value open inquiry and use scientific criteria in education, research and industry will outperform those that do not.

So which is it: Open inquiry or blind acceptance? I vote for open inquiry in all areas, even on the "holy ground" of evolutionary theory.

Then there is this blogger who thinks patriotism demands that kids be taught to blindly accept evolution and not evaluate it critically:
Those who wear their patriotism on their sleeves must support teaching only science in science classes or admit how empty are those flags they wrap themselves in.

Hmmm. That's a new twist on the old "flag-wrapping" metaphors. Based on his approval and lengthy quotes of the Post piece, we can only conclude that "teaching only science in science class" really means banning any science that does not comport with the majoritarian view of what is science, and/or banning any scientific evidence that tends to undermine Darwinian theory. The patriotism angle is at least a new argument, even if it is ridiculous.

By the way, you should check out Telic Thoughts. Yeah, it's this great blog about bunny rabbits, but sometimes they go off topic to discuss teleology.