09 August 2005

My brother thinks I'm a nerd...

My brother was recently kind enough to give The Panda's Thumb a bit of a plug, and I'm always happy to get publicity. Sadly, though, he sees my participation on PT as evidence of my nerd-dom - possibly because he doesn't get as worked up about the whole thing as I do. That is a mistake.

It's not a mistake to claim that I'm a nerd, of course. I am one. Always have been, probably always will be. I'm working on a doctorate in zoology, I have access to not one but two different labs, I can converse more intelligently about the papers in last weeks' edition of Nature than about whatever the popular TV shows are, the only current TV show I can name is Myth Busters, I build plastic models in my spare time, and I used to play D&D a lot. If you don't think that is the picture of a nerd, then you are probably worse-off than I am.

Being worried about creationism is different. Here's why:

Evolution really is the key to understanding a huge amount of biology. Sure, you can memorize biochemical pathways and anatomical features and whatnot without referring to evolutionary theory, but that's about it. Evolution provides the thread that ties together the different fields within the biological sciences, and provides us with the explanation for why living systems work the way that they do. Without evolution, the biological sciences would be nothing more than a loosely-knit collection of barely-related disciplines.

Evolution is also a field that has enormous practical implications. Why do the drug companies test on animals first? Because we share a lot of common biochemical systems with them. Why is that? Because we share ancestors with them. Why is it important to always finish taking any antibiotic that you are perscribed, even if you feel better before you run out of pills? Because bacteria can evolve drug-resistance, and not finishing the whole treatment is a good way to help bacteria in your body do just that. Why is it so hard to find a single treatment for AIDS that will work for an extended period of time? Because the AIDS virus evolves really fast. I could go on almost indefinitely, but that would serve only to prove that I am a nerd - and I already did that. Suffice it to say that evolution has both theoretical implications and practical applications.

This is all stuff that the Intelligent Design community doesn't want you to learn - at least not as "fact". They want that stuff taught as a "theory", and they want students to be informed that there are "other theories" - or, at a minimum, they want students to be taught the "evidence against evolution". Those are positions which sound nice in theory, and lend themselves to fantastic sound bites. But they are lousy science, and in practice amount to teaching lies.

Personally, I think this is an area where education is important - and not just because I work in the field of evolutionary biology and have kids. Biology and biotechnology are areas that are advancing rapidly. Many of the new discoveries and inventions have huge implications, and quickly become areas of active public policy debate. (Stem cells are a fantastic example of this.) It would be nice if the public had a good enough working knowledge of biology to be able to have an opinion based on a reasonably accurate understanding of the science involved.

So when the Commander in Chief comes out and says that students should be exposed to Intelligent Design, I do tend to get worked up a bit. I don't know if he formed his opinion as a result of his own religious beliefs, as an attempt to pander to his religious right constituents, or out of plain stupidity, and I don't much care. (I do know that he decided to ignore the opinion of his own science advisor on this topic, but that's another story.) What I do care about is doing as much as I can to make sure that we are giving our children a good public education.

Evolution and creationism might not be the kind of thing that everyone gets worked up about, but there are reasons above and beyond nerd-dom to care about that kind of thing.
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