Friday, February 5, 2010

Evolution -undiluted!

I am truly alarmed at how evolution is presented (if it is even presented at all) to my children through the public education system. I cannot fathom why evolution is even an issue of debate, considering there is "supposed" to be a separation of church and state. This is quite clear cut in my mind. However it appears that when it is brought into the curriculum, creationism must be presented to offset the theory of evolution. Why must creationism be thrown into the mix to dilute the theory and muddy the waters regarding evolution? Does this (creationism) not belong in the realm of personal belief and hence falls into the "separation of church and state" category? While I don't want this to be a post about religion, my preface is required because religion is the source as to why the theory of evolution is consistently either squelched altogether, or misinterpreted by our educational system. Religion is a personal issue, and should remain something taught at home. I don't want creationism taught to my children at school in any facet, as that is forcing another individuals' doctrine upon them. Science, on the other hand, is not a doctrine.

The popular public misconception of "ape becomes man" is probably the biggest detriment towards the science community as a whole. Education of the general public is in need of a drastic overhaul. I am continuously amazed at how people believe evolution equates to apes evolving into man. (This just makes me want to hand them a worm). However, in order to dissolve these/their misconceptions, I generally start with the tree of life and what a clade is. A lot of times I just see their eyes gloss over because they are not interested in learning any corrections. Instead, they just perpetuate the myth by passing on their erroneous "data" to their offspring when they are questioned about evolution. While I believe this in and of itself is a basis for having evolution taught unhindered in our schools, I will forgo pontificating upon it. Instead, I want to point out the importance of a foundation in the realm of sciences. Evolution is a foundation not only for earth sciences, but also biological sciences. It should be presented from an unbiased, non-religious standpoint.

Most people think of humans in the context of evolution, and this is a very short-sighted view. Evolution is just a small part of a big picture. For the sake of simplifying things, I am going to use the current flu virus as an analogy. When you get a flu shot, they tell you up front it may or may not work for (such and such) period of time because the virus evolves through mutation. Step back from this thought for a bit and see an entire world full of species that are exhibiting changes. How are scientists to document/classify them? This is where cladistics comes in to play.  For example:  
Cladistics predicts the properties of organisms.

As with any other system in science, a model is most useful when it not only describes what has been observed, but when it predicts that which has not yet been observed. Cladistics produces hypotheses about the relationships of organisms in a way that, unlike other systems, predicts properties of the organisms. This can be especially important in cases when particular genes or biological compounds are being sought. Such genes and compounds are being sought all the time by companies interested in improving crop yield or disease resistance, and in the search for medicines. Only an hypothesis based on evolutionary theory, such as cladistic hypotheses, can be used for these endeavors.
                                                  ~Phylogenetic Systematics                
 In 1915, geologist Alfred Wegener recorded finding identical species he found on both side of the Atlantic. Being as there wasn't an access point in order for the species to traverse across to the other continent; he proposed that they (continents) were once connected. (image on the left found here) The theory of plate tectonics did not become popular until the 1960's, however Wegener was the first to present the theory. With the onslaught of the plate tectonic theory, scientists started looking at things in a different light. Having said that, here is an excerpt of an example as to how evolution comes into play among the sciences:

Biogeographers now recognize that as continents collide, their species can mingle, and when the continents separate, they take their new species with them. Africa, South America, Australia, and New Zealand, for example, were all once joined into a supercontinent called Gondwanaland. The continents split off one by one, first Africa, then New Zealand, and then finally Australia and South America. The evolutionary tree of some groups of species — such as tiny insects known as midges — show the same pattern. South American and Australian midges, for example, are more closely related to one another than they are to New Zealand species, and the midges of all three land masses are more closely related to one another than they are to African species. In other words, an insect that may live only a few weeks can tell biogeographers about the wanderings of continents tens of millions of years ago.

                                      ~Biogeography: Wallace and Wegener

A foundation in evolution is important for students in order to develop the critical thinking skills needed in the realm of sciences. If they are taught a diluted or misleading version of evolution, they are hindered from having the necessary tools for success. While some public school systems are lucky and have progressive educators to advocate for the discussion and implementation of a curriculum including evolution from a scientific standpoint, sadly, I fear they are in the vast minority. For some reason, "evolution" in itself just seems to be a dirty word. I'd like to see that change.

Sources/further reading: (culled biodistribution image) (a book I found that I will most likely get in the near future)


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