Wednesday, May 31, 2006

No Longer Silent

While engaging in a spirited debate on evolution on an internet message board I looked up some statistics on attitudes and beliefs about evolution, and can only shake my head, apalled. According to a 2004 CBS poll, only 13% of Americans believed that life as we know it changes and modifies according to the principals of evolution, whereas 82% thought that these processes were better explained by creationism or intelligent design (compared to 48% and 39% respectively in Britain according to a BBC poll).

For some reason, I thought the numbers were closer to 45% to 45%, something along the Red-state Blue-state lines. That's apalling! If 13% to 82% numbers are at all accurate we, as an educated and supposedly enlightened society, are in real trouble. The information is not getting out there. While my readership is not wide--I'll work on that--I'm going to devote some effort in discussing evolution. Maybe if enough of us speak out, people can learn that an understanding of evolution makes sense, and it needn't be a perceived as a threat to religious belief. However, that is part of the problem. Sometimes people experts (who may or may not have background in evolutionary theory) take a little too much glee in attacking those who hold on to their religion. Many of the highly religious will never ever be convinced that evolution can explain the diversity of life on earth or the origins of mankind, but I see no reason to bash them. That is counter-productive. The focus should be on educating those who are somewhere in the middle, while debunking the unfounded criticisms of those who are patently anti-evolution.

As a wildlife biologist I certainly had the educational background, but other than using this information for academic progress (i.e., classes and exams), and some work as a Teaching Assistant and Research Associate, I've rarely applied the knowledge, thinking that there are many able experts out there who are more knowledgeable and more articulate than I. Although that may be so, I nevertheless have more education in evolutionary biology than probably 99.9% of the college-educated populace. It is time to step up and speak out.
Beginnings
Like most kids I first gained information on earth's antiquity by seeing books about dinosaurs. For as long as I could remember, several times a year, my mother would take my brothers and I to the Denver Museum History, where we would marvel at the gigantic dinosaur skeletons. At the time we lived a few miles north of Fort Collins, near the Rocky Mountain foothills. We had an old creek near our house, and I spent much of my time near there, often fishing. The creek had limestone banks and we would dig into them and find fossils of marine shells. How did they get there I wondered, knowing that we were more than a thousand miles from the ocean? The earth was an old place, real old.

This didn't always jibe clearly with my Sunday school teachings and I still believed in Noah's flood. My grandfather, John Nevin Sayre, was a well-known Episcopalian minister in New York. He and my father were deeply religious. But to turn the crank of religious conservatives and neocons of this day, they were religious liberals. Grandpa was a co-founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the oldest pacifist organization in North America, and he was on the founding board of the ACLU. Anyway, we went to church every week, and Sunday school didn't teach us much about dinosaurs and fossils and how humans came to be. Even though dad was a Christian he was also a top scientist (a civil engineer) who believed in evolution. Through primary school we did discuss human origins at home and at school, and I always believed that long ago, humans did arise from an ape-like ancestor.

Education
We moved to Iowa in 1968, where my dad taught at the U of I in Iowa City, and it wasn't until 7th grade social studies, where I got some solid education in evolution. We had been brought up pretty free in our household, perhaps a little too much, and as the mores of society flipped upside down and inside out during that turbulent era, my academic track also floundered. I went from a solid elementary student to a problem kid. My grades where horrible and I learned practically nothing for two years at University High. But one class and one teacher stood out: Mrs. Kramer's social science. We spent an entire semester on human evolution, from primate beginnings to modern society. A lot of the kids had thought I was kind of a dummy, but I'd surprise them and myself in in those units by scoring as well as those who would be Ivy League bound.

By high school I knew that I wanted to be a biologist, but the offerings at our schoool were weak. This was surprising considering that we had a large new school in a progressive city, where our class of 270 boasted seven or eight National Merit Scholars. As as sophomore, I took "Survey of the Animals," and again I surprised many by ranking with the best achievers in the class. However, the entire focus in that course was on phylogeny or form and function. There was no evolutionary thought. The instructor, a nice man, was a creationist. My other bio courses were also disappointing, so I focused on pre-college chemistry and English.

On to Academia
In a recent blog I lamented some mixed feelings about Grinnell, but evolution was one area where the education stood out well above other academic institutions that I have attended. That college had some outstanding professors including Harvard trained entomologist Ken Christiansen, who taught Invertebrate Zoology and Karl Delong who taught Comparative Anatomy. In addition, I had some great coursework in Anthroplogy in Evolution of Man and Culture from Ralph Luebben and Primate Behavior from Jon Andelson. By the time I graduated, I had decided to focus on a career in ecology and natural resources, and evolutionary thought took to the shelf. Nevertheless, I did take on standard zoological training with courses in Ornithology at Colorado University in Boulder and Mammalogy at Colorado State University, where I also studied Comparative Physiology as an elective. However, my master's was a practical wildife management study on nutrition and physiology of wild ungulates. Evolution was limited to a half chapter in a class here and there and and maybe a lecture or two a year.

When I went for my Ph.D. at the University of North Dakota, I was more bent on solving the here and now problems of large mammal management, and I kind of resented the faculty's focus on evolution. Now I appreciate it more. Jeff Lang was very much an evolutionary thinker, and I was his Teaching Assistant for Vertebrate Anatomy and Adaptations, and also had several seminars with Dr. Lang focusing on the burgeoning field of Behavioral Ecology. My dissertation Ecology of Bighorn Sheep in Relation to Habitat and Oil Development in the North Dakota Badlands was mostly management focused, with some ecology. Lang did force me to think about evolution for my comprehensive exam, a grueling 20 hour written test that I took using an early 1980s word processor in a dusty lab full of animal skulls and bones.

A Broken Post Doc
I ended up doing two and half post-doctoral appointments over a three year period. The first two were temporary teaching assignments in natural resources at the University of Minnesota Crookston and UMass-Amherst. The third was a 22 month stint with USDA-APHIS National Wildlife Research Center back in Fort Collins, where I worked with Dr. Larry Clark, an evolutionary ornithologist. We used evolutionary biology and a little Pavlovian psychology to solve current problems caused by an invasive bird, the European Starling. I plan to write more on this in the future, but here's a synopsis for now.

We wanted to see if the theory of Batesian mimicry could be combined with classical conditioning to teach Starlings to avoid depredating crops. We fed captive birds food from orange and black cups, and combined that with non-lethal chemical repellents--compounds that would make the animals sick, but would not kill them. They then learned to associate the illness with the colored cups, and for a time would avoid any food from the colored cups. We advanced a little knowledge and garnered a couple of decent publications and abstracts, and a report out of it, but I left the project early because of a funding snafu that transpired in Washington.


That was six years ago and now I work in environmental policy and planning. This work is important, but I would also like to keep thinking like a biologist. And more importantly I would like to help keep people informed about evolution, something that should be part of every person's education. Back in high school and when I was a freshman in college, some of my peers, smart kids, would start in on evolution saying that there was no way that a mutation could be beneficial or that one species can tranform into another. I had no answer then, so I kept quiet. Then I learned more, and for decades at least I could agree to disagree with them, while meeting the challenges of academia. That is not enough.

Goals and Objectives
So I am not an evolutionary biologist but have been provided a solid evolutionary base. Now I want to apply it through writing, and as I describe previous experiences I'll also include an evolutionary background of the species that I've studied. In addition, I will use this blog as a forum to discuss evolution, with particular emphasis on countering misinformation set forth by the uninformed and sometimes to clarify or elaborate on concepts that are not well understood, even by those who are informed.

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