The State of Things

A recent study (Junker et al., 2012) has detailed recent decline in suitable environmental conditions for African great apes.  As I have discussed in the past, habitat loss is a serious challenge that may lead the extinction of the great apes.  However, this study has shown conclusively that habitat loss is a larger problem than previously believed and is causing great ape populations to collapse at a faster rate than previously predicted.

Pan-African data

The three species of African great ape (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos) have suffered disproportionately from the affects of habitat loss, and certain geographical regions of Africa have seen greater habitat loss and faster great ape population decline than others.

Gorillas have been hit the hardest.  Since 1995 cross river gorillas have lost 59% of their habitat, eastern gorillas have lost 52% of their habitat and western gorillas have lost 31% of their habitat.  These data reveal that for gorillas, continental location seems to mean very little.  Whether in the east (52%) or west (59% and 31%) of Africa, habitat loss has been incredibly disastrous and rapid.

However, there is significant variation between the effects of this habitat loss on overall subspecies population totals.  Although all subspecies have suffered massive population decline (about half since the 1980s), two of the four subspecies may be on the verge of extinction.  There are currently 95,000 and 5,000 western lowland and eastern lowland gorillas respectively.  These totals are low enough to warrant an “endangered” status from the IUCN.  However, there are only 700 and 300 mountain and cross river gorillas remaining in the wild, which has caused several conservationists to believe they are beyond saving.

The reasons for the disproportionate population decline seems to be because both of these subspecies only live in mountain environments.  This increases the likelihood that their populations would be isolated and fragmented as a result of habitat loss.  For subspecies with such low total populations, genetic isolation due to fragmentation could cause genetic bottleneck too small to survive.  Even the most optimistic researchers have found it hard to argue against the likelihood that they will not be extant in 2020.

For bonobos and chimpanzees the data does not paint as bleak a picture, but still quantifies the plight of species struggling to deal with our increased presence.  Bonobos have suffered a 29% reduction in habitat and chimpanzees have suffered in between 11-17% reduction in habitat over the past 20 years.  The toll on overall population size has been shocking.  There are fewer than 50,000 bonobos and approximately 250,000 chimpanzees remaining in the wild.  This may not seem as bad as gorilla population decline, but it is important to remember that in the 1960s there were close to 2 million chimpanzees.

Although both chimpanzees and bonobos are more ecologically flexible than gorillas, habitat loss still poses extreme challenges to their continued existence.  Less habitat means less resources, increased fragmentation, more contact with humans (which increases the likelihood of zoonotic disease transmission) and less space to hide from poachers.  In essence, habitat loss compounds other problems that are causing chimpanzee and bonobo population to collapse at alarming rates.  In some areas of Africa populations have collapsed by more than 90% due to human-contracted disease (e.g., Ebolavirus) and increased hunting.

These data reveal more clearly than ever that great ape protected area establishment and proper management are more important than ever.  If we don’t act soon, we may be the only member of the Hominidae family remaining by 2100.

References

Junker et al., 2012.  Recent decline in suitable environmental conditions for African great apes.  Diversity and Distributions, 18: 1077-1091.

 

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Evolutionary Thought Pre-Darwin pt. 1

I am known to write about evolution from time to time ttime to time.  However, I have never discussed the origin of the idea.  Everyone knows that Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution by natural selection (fewer people know that Alfred Russel Wallace is co-discoverer).  However, most people have a misconception about the development of evolutionary thought.  The theory of evolution by natural selection did not develop in a vacuum and evolutionary modes of thinking have existed for much longer than is generally acknowledged.  So this is going to be my first of two blog posts on evolutionary thought pre-Darwin.

Did evolutionary thought exist in the ancient world?

Explanations for the world’s diverse flora and fauna and humanity’s place within it have existed in most, if not all of the worlds cultural groups throughout history.  However, very few cultural groups believed the idea that the world’s flora and fauna evolved and changed over time, and for most of human history this belief has been a minority or non-existent position.  Despite this, the idea that life had changed over time and that humans were descended from other species was not a foreign concept in Ancient Greece.  For example, Anaximander of Miletus (610-546 B.C.E.) hypothesized that the first animals lived in water, and that humanity must have first developed in the sea before emerging onto land.  He also thought that the first human form must have been a different species because “man needs prolonged nursing to live”.  The Ancient Greek philospher Empedocles (490-430 B.C.E.) was also a proponent of evolution and was the first person known to introduce the idea of natural selection, albeit in a very rudimentary form.  He believed that love and strife were two controlling forces in nature, with love bringing elements together, generating new creatures, and strife pulling elements apart, corrupting creatures in the process.  Empedocles suggests that some of the combinations that love generates are fitter to survive than others, which is why I would argue, he introduced a rough version of the idea of natural selection.

Around the same time, on the other side of Eurasia, Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu also theorized that species change biologically over time.  This mode of thinking was largely embraced by eastern thought and was infused into Taoist philosophy in the 4th century B.C.E.  Ancient Taoist philosophers in the Ancient world agreed that humans were a part of nature and that species developed in response to differing environments and were in a “constant transformation”.  Although largely philosophical, as opposed to a testable scientific hypothesis, it was clearly evolutionary thought.

Back in Europe Roman philosopher Lucretius (100-55 B.C.E.) further developed evolutionary thought in the poetic treatise De Rerum.  Within it he states:   

“And many species of animals must have perished at that time, unable by procreation to forge out the chain of posterity: for whatever you see feeding on the breath of life, either cunning or courage or at least quickness must have guarded and kept that kind from its earliest existence… But those to which nature gave no such qualities, so that they could neither live by themselves at their own will, nor give us some usefulness for which we might suffer to feed them under our protection and be safe, these certainly lay at the mercy of others for prey and profit, being all hampered by their own fateful chains, until nature brought that race to destruction.”

However, in contrast to the reception of evolutionary thought in China, early European proponents of natural selection were not well received in Ancient times, or afterwards despite the fact that much of their work survived intact.  The influential Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle disagreed with Empedocles and Lucretius arguing for a teleological view of the cosmos.  This had a far-reaching influential impact on western thought.  Teleology was the philosophical belief that there are final causes and purpose in nature analogous to human actions.  When applied to life and the existence of life, teleological thinkers were prone to adopt a view similar to contemporary “watchmaker analogy” arguments (i.e. life appears to be designed, therefore there must be a designer).  As a result of influential philosophers adopting this mode of thinking, a pre-Christian creationist thought predominated in Ancient Greece and Rome.

What happened after that?  Check back for part 2!

 

Can There Be Another Jane Goodall?

So I have calmed down a bit after the excitement of getting to meet and talk with Jane Goodall.  It was a great experience and something I will probably remember for the rest of my life.  However, while discussing the encounter with my friend, she raised a disconcerting point: “There can never be another Jane Goodall.”  I’d be lying if I said I had never thought about that myself.  Specifically in the fields of biology and anthropology, can there ever been another adventurous, explorer to uncover some great mystery about life and our relationship to it?  Could there ever be another Darwin?  Another Leakey?  Another Goodall?  And if the answer is no; should someone who is in the process of dedicating his/her academic time to a related subject care?  This is no simple question.

Pillars of modern day evolutionary thought

Charles Darwin, Louis Leakey and Jane Goodall are all examples of individual scientists that have conducted pioneering field research and as a consequence have made incredible contributions to evolutionary science.  Darwin, through his observations aboard the H.M.S. Beagle co-discovered the mechanism by which the evolution of life occurs.  Louis Leakey, through his excavations in Olduvai Gorge uncovered the geographical origins and anatomical structure of our ancient ancestors.  Jane Goodall, through her field work at Gombe in Tanzania, introduced the world to our closest relatives.  Each scientist in their own way helped piece together the mystery of our origins and helped us to better understand where we came from as a species.

But are they part of an age of science that is now over?  Of course, evolutionary science is stronger than ever.  The work of Darwin is integral to all biological sciences, palaeoanthropologists are still conducting excavations and uncovering more and more about our evolutionary past and our closest relatives evolutionary past, and great ape field research is still an integral aspect of most anthropology and biology departments.  However, are the roles of individuals in these fields to simply fill in the gaps?  Can there be more pioneers?  Any more daring Beagle voyages to uncover the mysteries of life?  Any more brave treks into the jungles of Africa to gaze upon a forgotten past?

A matter of perspective

For my friend it was disheartening to think that there cannot be “another Goodall”.  It was a reason to find the field of primatology less attractive, less interesting, and perhaps less deserving of young, intelligent researchers.  A part of me understands that point of view.  And as an aspiring primatologist I have to agree with her that there cannot be “another Goodall.”  I know that unless I randomly happen to stumble upon a group of yet-to-be-discovered apes in the heart of Africa (very improbable) my research will not be pioneering anything in the same way as her research was.  However, that does not leave me less excited, and I certainly do not think that my time and energy is wasted by dedicating my life to better understanding our closest living relatives.

Charles Darwin, Louis Leakey and Jane Goodall may have been the pioneers, but because of them fields of inquiry exist that could not even be dreamed of in the not-so-distant past.  Researchers today are working on problems and attempting to answer questions that Darwin would not have even thought of back in the 19th century, or Goodall would have been able to ask in the 1960s.

For example, in evolutionary biology, scientists are able to sequence genomes and literally read the code of life.  As a result, biologists are able to understand the relationship between organisms, discover the mysteries of the origin of life itself, and solve fundamental problems related to disease and ageing that were pure fantasy to many human civilizations.

Likewise, many palaeoanthropologists are only beginning to piece together the origins of our species.  It seems as though every year a new species is uncovered that radically challenges previous assumptions about the environmental pressures that led to the existence of the most dominant and inquisitive species in the 4 billion years of our planets existence.  On top of that we have only started to understand the evolutionary history for the great apes.

In primatology, an equally impressive radiation of research specialization has occurred since the 1960s.  In the past primatologists conducted localized, regional studies of small groups of unhabituated populations.  Today, research is being conducted on Pan-African and global scales.  Field researchers are able to collect biological samples to understand social structure and disease transmission; camera traps are being utilized to understand what great ape behaviour is like when the researcher is not present (the double-slit experiments of the primate world) and observe unhabituated groups; and comparative long-term studies that span continents and centuries are revealing trends and allowing us to answer previous unanswerable questions.

So for me, although the pioneering era of Darwin, Leakey and Goodall may be over.  I personally choose to cherish the foundation they have given present day researchers, as opposed to becoming disheartened at the impossibility of becoming “the next Goodall”.  And in a greater perspective this may be part of a larger transition in the sciences – from the age of discovery to the age of mastery.  But I’ll save my thoughts on that for a later post.

Meeting With Jane

I remember it was about 7 years ago that I was really starting to gain an interest in science and academics.  I began to read voraciously; everything from philosophy to physics.  However, one book in particular captured both my heart and my mind: Through a Window.  Ever since then, Jane Goodall has been a tremendous influence to me.

In “Through a Window” I was transported into the world of another species on our planet that behaves in very similar ways to our own.  She structured the narrative in such a way that if I hadn’t known I was reading about another species, I would have thought she was observing groups of humans.  When she observed these animals, she saw individuals with personalities.  They had feelings and emotions.  They felt pain, joy, love, fear, happiness.  They made jokes, had enemies and best friends, they had lovers, they cared deeply for their children.  They developed strong social bonds with each other and structured themselves in groups that were not too dissimilar from human groups.  They also made tools to hunt and to forage.  And they waged war.  At the time of her writing these were groundbreaking discoveries.

For me the stories she told from her field research left me completely astonished.  Like many of the scientists who she encountered after returning from her first field season, I found it hard to believe that another species could think and act like us.  In that book she made me think differently about our species and the relationship we have to the rest of life on our planet.  I became intensely interested in what our connection was with chimpanzees.  I was interested in our history with them, what their intellectual capacities were, how many individuals were remaining and where, and I was interested in what their behaviour could tell us about our own evolutionary past.  But perhaps more than anything, her book inspired within me a passion and inspired me to dream.

I wanted to know what was happening in the field of primatology today.  What progress had researchers made to understand their behaviour?  Their evolutionary history?  Their biology and ecology?  What were we doing as a species to ensure that we peacefully coexist with our closest relatives?  What did it take to get involved and follow in the footsteps of Dr. Jane?

Since reading her work 7 years ago, I have fully immersed myself in academia, with a specific focus on chimpanzee behaviour, ecology and human evolution.  In the early stages of my career, I have dedicated my time to helping piece together our origin story and better understand our closest relatives.  I hope that I am only at the beginning of that journey, but I have already had the opportunity to travel to Africa (twice) to conduct my own independent research on chimpanzees.

For me, having the opportunity to do that was literally a dream come true.  And today I got the chance to meet the person who has had such a profound impact on me both emotionally and intellectually:

We spoke for 5 minutes but it felt like 5 seconds.  I couldn’t have been more overwhelmed.  She asked me about my research and what I was hoping to do in the future.  She even gave me advice and suggestions for my research proposal and gave me a few contacts that will help me build a better research project in the future.  I was just impressed that I managed to speak coherently.  When I put the encounter into context, it is certainly one of the most important of my life.  I feel more motivated to continue in the field and the encounter was a vivid reminder as to why I got involved in chimpanzee research in the first place.

Jane Goodall spent her life reaching out to our family.  Through her efforts humans now understand our place in nature and our relationship to the rest of life.  She has inspired a countless number of contemporary researchers that are completing ground breaking research throughout Africa.  And she has built a global institution dedicated to inspiring the next generation to protect and cherish our planet.

 

Global Religiosity

I always love reading international science polls.  I find it interesting to see the variation in thought and interpreting the data to try and make sense of the results.  I have even written a blog post about a poll (here)!  And now it seems time for another one.

I stumbled upon a recent Gallup International Poll that attempted to understand global religiosity and atheism. You may remember that earlier in the year Gallup released a similar poll indicating there has been no change in American creationist belief over the past 30 years.  Although that poll was shocking (and disappointing for me), the global polling results for religious belief do not reveal similar trends.

First what data was collected?  The Gallup International Poll collected data from 50,000 individuals from 57 countries and compared it with data collected in 2005 to analyze global trends in religious belief.

The facts

Global religious belief:

Religious 59%                                      Not religious 23%                              Atheist 13%

Alright so these stats were actually a little surprising for me.  The percentage of individuals claiming to be religious is lower than I expected, but I imagine it would be higher if the question was asking about belief in God, instead of affiliation to a religion.  Also, the percentage claiming to be atheist was a little higher than I expected, but still a sizeable global minority.

Where are the atheists?

  1. China 47%
  2. Japan 31%
  3. Czech Republic 30%
  4. France 29%
  5. South Korea 15%
  6. Germany 15%
  7. Netherlands 14%
  8. Austria 10%
  9. Iceland 10%
  10. Australia 10%                                  
  11. Ireland 10%

These results were completely unexpected to me and I think the data is subject to extreme interpretation.  China and Japan having the highest proportion of atheists may be because Buddhists do not always consider themselves religious.  Or it could be that people in general who do not adhere to a Abrahamic religion may not think about religious denomination in the same way as someone who has been influenced by Judeo-Christian culture.  I was also surprised that Canada, Sweden and Finland (all included in the study) did not have more self-identified atheists.

Who is the most religious?

  1. Ghana 96%
  2. Nigeria 93%
  3. Armenia 92%
  4. Fiji 92%
  5. Macedonia 90%
  6. Romania 89%
  7. Iraq 88%
  8. Kenya 88%
  9. Peru 86%                                          
  10. Brazil 85%

It is not surprising that 3 of the 6 African countries surveyed ranked in the top 10 of religiosity (and the other three were not far behind).  After colonization Christian and Islamic theocracies politically dominated the continent and as I’ll show below, poverty (ironically) is highly correlated with religious belief.  No developed country ranked in the top 20 religious countries.  For those interested the most religious G-20 countries are Italy (73%), Argentina (72%), South Africa (64%) and the United States (60%).

Religiosity among the poor

Bottom quintile 66%
Medium-low quintile 65%
Medium quintile 56%

Medium-high quintile 51%                                                                                   High quintile 49%

The trend is strong and significant.  The richer the country, the less religious.  Statistically, the United States is a noticeable outlier being the richest highly religious country.  China, Turkey, Vietnam and the Czech Republic are also outliers being the poorest least religious countries.  Despite this the overall trend is clear.  Richer countries can invest more in educating their population, and as the statistics also reveal (below), the more educated an individual, the less likely they are to be religious.

Religion and education

Less than secondary school 68%

Secondary education 61%

Higher education 52%

These stats were also not surprising.  The more education you have the more critical you become of religion and God in general.  The stats reflect that both nationally and internationally and could also explain the outliers in the economic trend (above).  The United States, although rich, does not invest enough in the education of its own population (or at least it is fair to say that there is disproportionate investment).  Whereas, China, Vietnam, Czech Republic and Turkey may be investing more in their education system, despite major economic constraints.

Global trends since 2005

  1. Vietnam 23%
  2. Switzerland 21%
  3. France 21%
  4. South Africa 19%
  5. Iceland 17%
  6. Ecuador 15%
  7. United States 13%
  8. Canada 12%
  9. Austria 10%
  10. Germany 9%

Religious decline does not necessarily seem concentrated in one particular region, although most countries experiencing steep religious declines are also developed countries.  They also seem to be countries with individuals that predominantly adhere to a Judeo-Christian religion.  There is a noticeable absence of countries from the Middle East and Africa on the list, but this is not surprising.  

Final thoughts

Although the overall trend is clear and religious belief is clearly being questioned globally, I don’t think these statistics indicate that religion is disappearing or will disappear in the near future.  The great majority of countries are still overwhelmingly religious and even the overall global religiosity index survey is biased because proportionally fewer people in the developing world (particularly Africans, Latin Americans and Middle Easterners) were interviewed.  If every country was surveyed and a larger sample was collected, I have no doubt that the global religious belief would be higher than 59%.

 

Creationism in Public Schools

I often get into arguments with people regarding the role of Judeo-Christian creationism in biology classes.  Many non-religious people seem to be of the opinion that the “theory” of creationism (as believed by Christians) should be introduced to students before teaching them about biological evolution.  Their reasoning seems to go something like this: a) a large proportion of North Americans believe creationism to be true, b) we shouldn’t offend their beliefs and c) students should know every theory and make the decision for themselves.

Now, I believe I am a rational and fair person, but I just couldn’t be more against the rationale of this argument.  I believe that in biology class (or any other course that teaches about the science of evolution (e.g., anthropology, psychology, chemistry)) teachers should not have to mention creationism at all.  I believe this for several simple reasons:

1. Teachers of other academic subjects do not have to deal with the same pressure

Judeo-Christian creationism and biological evolution are what a cultural anthropologist would call two different “ways of knowing” about the origins of life and our species.  One of those ways of knowing is built on ideas propagated in religious texts passed down for thousands of years, and the other is built on the scientific method.  Biology is (obviously) a science class.  In biology class you learn about the way organisms function on a macro and micro level, you learn about the diversity of life, and you learn about how life came to be.  You learn about all of these things from a scientific perspective, or “way of knowing”.  You learn about the scientific method and the scientists who have used it to do research and make discoveries of biological structures that are invisible to the human eye.  Or you use it to study other living organisms, or understand what life was like in the very distant past.  I believe that since biology is a science class, you should not have to learn about any other competing way of knowing.

Don’t get me wrong.  Learning about religion is important.  We should learn about the history of religion and we should learn about religious philosophy.  It is integral to understanding the world around us and to understand the moral, spiritual and cultural evolution of our species.  However, that should be done by studying religions academically in a history, philosophy or world religions class.  Introducing a “theory of creationism” before teaching evolution is just wrong.

In fact, the very thought of this is bizarre to me.  What would it be like if any other academic course had to deal with this unwanted and unnecessary intrusion into their subject?  What if an astronomy or physics teacher was forced to introduce the Judeo-Christian genesis story before teaching about the Big Bang?  What if a history teacher was forced to introduce the biblical understanding of history before teaching about what modern day historians know about our past?  What if cultural anthropologists were forced to teach the Christian understanding of other religions and spiritual groups before teaching their students about cultural relativism?

The list could go on, but I think you get my point.  Teachers of astronomy, history, cultural anthropology or any other subject, do not have to introduce the Christian understanding of what they are discussing before teaching their students from a scientific or academic perspective.  So why is teaching evolution in biology or evolutionary anthropology class any different?  It can’t be because learning about the evolution of our species is more threatening to religious belief than learning about scientific understanding in other subjects.  Sure in biology you can learn that there is no need to evoke a Christian God to explain life on Earth, but in cultural anthropology and sociology you learn no religious belief is superior to any other and that religion is largely determined by where you were born and who your parents are; and in history you learn that all the supernatural stories and events of the Bible are myths of Middle Eastern pastoral herders from the Bronze Age; and in astronomy you learn that you do not need to evoke a Christian God to explain the universe itself.

Furthermore, the scientific “truths” in those subjects are no ‘more valid’ than the theory of evolution in biology.  Academics know that biological evolution occurred with the same level of certainty that they know the Big Bang occurred or that religious belief is dependent on socialization or that supernatural stories from the Bible are myths.

2. It gives special privilege to the Judeo-Christian origin story

To allow creationism to be introduced before the teaching of evolution, isn’t just a disservice to scientific theory, it is also a disservice to the role of secularism in public society.  Secularism is based on the premise that public society should be separate from religion and not biased to support any particular religion or religious worldview.  However, if biology teachers are forced to teach the Judeo-Christian origin story before teaching evolution, they should have to teach all of the other religious origins stories as well.  Canada and America are not Christian countries, even if Christianity is the dominant religion, they are secular countries built upon secular principles.  Teaching a Christian origin story in a public school is giving privilege to a particular religious group over other religious groups.

Either way, no religious origin story should be taught in biology class anyway.  If you want to learn about Creationism, go to a church.

3. Creates illusion that biological evolution is not a fact of nature

I think this is an underrated and overlooked point, and it is connected in many ways to the first point.  Do you ever hear any controversial debates over whether the Big Bang occurred?  Do you ever hear any uproar over history teachers teaching students that Jesus walking on water and Moses parting the Red Sea are not historical facts, but rather part of Christian mythology?  In theory, these should be important issues for Christians, perhaps just as important as trying to get creationism in biology class.  Nevertheless, I have never heard any uproar over either of the aforementioned issues.  This is partly because astronomy teachers never do feel the need to preface the scientific understanding of the origin of our universe with an introduction about what Christians think about it.  What they think about it is irrelevant.

The fact that biology teachers are often times forced to preface a class on evolution with creationism implicitly plants the seed of controversy in a students minds: “biological evolution must not be validated yet.”;  “maybe scientists don’t know for sure.”;  “it is only a theory…”.  I think this annoys me the most, because I actually believe there is stronger evidence for evolution than gravity.  Don’t take this the wrong way; obviously we know gravity exists.  But our understanding of gravity is incomplete, it is still subject to major revisions in the future, our understanding of evolution is not.  Evolution may be a theory, but it is a fact that it happened.  It is only a theory because we must keep using the scientific method to better understand how life evolved, notwhether life evolved.  And there is so much to understand about the evolution of life that it will always be a theory.  There will never come a point in time when scientists will be able to say, “ok let’s move on, we know everything we’ll ever need to know about evolution.”

I’m losing focus a little bit now, but I hope my point is clear.  When you preface a class on evolution with creationism to a group of students, the very narrative of that class will give them the impression that evolution itself is in question.  That it is not a fact; when in reality it is and there is no debate about whether it has occurred.  This is a particularly important issue for me because I remember when I started learning about evolution.  The narrative of many books and courses led me to believe there was a debate to be had.  And so I spent my first year learning about the debate between creationism and biological evolution, instead of learning about evolution itself.  And that brings me to my next point.

4. Detracts from meaningful conversation about evolution itself

I remember reading “The Greatest Show on Earth” by Richard Dawkins and he opened with a devastatingly good point about what it is like to study evolution.  He asked readers to imagine being a Roman historian that is constantly pressured by a powerful religious group that believes the Roman Empire never existed.  Even though you have spent your life studying the Romans — reading their books, excavating their jewellery, coins and artifacts, walking on their ancient roads and marvelling at the colosseum — there was a group that continually argued (facts be damned) that the Roman Empire didn’t exist at all.  And now imagine that every time you taught your students about Roman History you had to preface your class with the beliefs of this religious group, and let your students know that there is a “competing theory” arguing that the Roman Empire never existed.  You would have to spend your entire class and most of your time arguing that the Romans did indeed exist, instead of having a meaningful conversation about the Romans themselves.

I think the analogy is apt because I know that I am oftentimes frustrated by the fact that I can get wrapped up into a debate about the very existence of evolution, instead of having a conversation with someone about some of the interesting discoveries made by evolutionary scientists.  This debate gets started because of the constant pressure on science teachers to include creationism in the curriculum.  Instead of focusing on how natural selection functions or how scientists can use the molecular clock technique to predict past speciation events, students get wrapped up in the debate about whether evolution even happened.  Evolution becomes controversial.

Science shouldn’t care if you’re offended

So to end my little rant, I have a message to science teachers and non-religious individuals who think it is alright to introduce creationism into biology class: science isn’t about picking and choosing facts and trying not to offend people.  We live in a secular society and we need to keep science in science classrooms, and make sure religion stays out of them.  This is not a joke.  This is actually a war.  Look at what is happening in some states right now.  In Minnesota students in public school hardly even hear about the theory of evolution, in many other states students hear a “debate” about evolution’s validity, in Kentucky creationism is taught alongside evolution.  This is simply unacceptable.  Evolution is the fundamental framework for all of biology.  Scientists are currently using an understanding of evolution to understand the spread and transmission of disease in order to predict and prevent the next epidemic before it happens.  Scientists use evolution to treat and cure viral and bacterial infections and develop new vaccines.  Without evolution conservationists would not be able to understand some of the basic threats to extinction or be able to apply evolutionary theory to know what habitats were optimal for future survival.

If you don’t like it that creationism shouldn’t be taught in biology classes, that is sad for you.  Go to a church and learn about it if you want, but don’t bring it into the science classroom.  If you have to take biology and your upset because you are being tested on it, just do it, get over it, and don’t believe it afterwards if you don’t want to.  It is completely fine to believe in whatever you want as long as you aren’t hurting anyone else.  But in a truly secular society it doesn’t matter how many people believe in creationism, it doesn’t matter how many people are offended by evolution, creationism should not even be mentioned in a biology class, because it is not science.  Simple as that.

 

Presidential Candidates on Science

I suppose I was bound to write a post about science in the 2012 presidential election eventually.  I stumbled upon a great site a few weeks ago (www.sciencedebate.org) that was attempting to get Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to answer 14 of the most important science-related questions facing our planet today.  It goes without saying that not only the citizens of America, but the citizens of the world need to know where both of these individuals stand on scientific issues, because the implications of electing a scientifically illiterate president would have far-reaching consequences for everyone.  Throughout this post I will post what I believe to be key questions and segments of the candidates responses and try to analyze what their responses mean for policy both nationally and internationally.  (If you want to read all the questions and their entire responses go here).

1. Innovation and the Economy. Science and technology have been responsible for over half of the growth of the U.S. economy since WWII, when the federal government first prioritized peacetime science mobilization. But several recent reports question America’s continued leadership in these vital areas. What policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation?

Obama: I am committed to doubling funding for key research agencies to support scientists and entrepreneurs, so that we can preserve America’s place as the world leader in innovation, and strengthen U.S. leadership in the 21st century’s high-tech knowledge-based economy. To prepare American children for a future in which they can be the highly skilled American workers and innovators of tomorrow, I have set the goal of preparing 100,000 science and math teachers over the next decade. These teachers will meet the urgent need to train one million additional science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates over the next decade.

Romney: We must reform America’s legal immigration system to attract and retain the best and the brightest, and equip more Americans with the skills to succeed. I will raise visa caps for highly skilled foreign workers, offer permanent residence to foreign students graduating with advanced degrees in relevant fields, and restructure government retraining programs to empower individual workers and welcome private sector participation.

America’s K-12 education system lags behind other developed nations, and while our higher education system remains the envy of the world its costs are spiraling out of control. We must pursue genuine education reform that puts the interests of parents and students ahead of special interests and provides a chance for every child. I will take the unprecedented step of tying federal funds directly to dramatic reforms that expand parental choice, invest in innovation, and reward teachers for their results instead of their tenure. I will also ensure that students have diverse and affordable options for higher education to give them the skills they need to succeed after graduation.

Obama’s response here clearly indicates (rightly or wrongly) that the STEM sciences are the key for growth and industry and should be prized over other sciences and types of knowledge.  Since this questions is specifically asking the president about future innovation and economic growth, I don’t necessarily have an issue with this stance since most of the STEM sciences do lead to more practical jobs than other areas within science and academia.

Mitt Romney gave a much more detailed and lengthy response to this question, although I felt much of it had little direct relevance to the question overall.  The first relevant point to bring up is that Romney seems committed to attracting and keeping foreign individuals with advanced degrees.  What is unclear is what classifies as a ‘relevant field’.  Does this mean that he will get to pick and choose if you can stay in the country depending on what subject you are doing your PhD in?  Also, his comments on education are a little hard for me to take seriously.  In the past he has publicly stated that if you can’t afford higher education you should “borrow money from your parents” but here he seems to be supporting education reform to stop tuition fees from spiralling out of control.  Finally, Romney makes a similar, but a little less specific, comment regarding sciences that have commercial benefits.  It seems that whoever becomes the next president, the STEM sciences will be getting the most government assistance for future growth.

2. Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change—and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?

Obama: Climate change is the one of the biggest issues of this generation, and we have to meet this challenge by driving smart policies that lead to greater growth in clean energy generation and result in a range of economic and social benefits. Since taking office I have established historic standards limiting greenhouse gas emissions from our vehicles for the first time in history. My administration has made unprecedented investments in clean energy, proposed the first-ever carbon pollution limits for new fossil-fuel-fired power plants and reduced carbon emissions within the Federal Government. Since I took office, the U.S. is importing an average of 3 million fewer barrels of oil every day, and our dependence on foreign oil is at a 20-year low. We are also showing international leadership on climate change, reaching historic agreements to set emission limits in unison with all major developed and developing nations. There is still more to be done to address this global problem. I will continue efforts to reduce our dependence on oil and lower our greenhouse gas emissions while creating an economy built to last.

Romney: I am not a scientist myself, but my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences. However, there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue — on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk — and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community.

Ultimately, the science is an input to the public policy decision; it does not dictate a particular policy response.

The reality is that the problem is called Global Warming, not America Warming. China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Developed world emissions have leveled off while developing world emissions continue to grow rapidly, and developing nations have no interest in accepting economic constraints to change that dynamic. In this context, the primary effect of unilateral action by the U.S. to impose costs on its own emissions will be to shift industrial activity overseas to nations whose industrial processes are more emissions-intensive and less environmentally friendly. That result may make environmentalists feel better, but it will not better the environment.

I was genuinely excited to read the responses to these questions to see where the two candidates stood on one of the most important scientific issues of the 21st century, and potentially one of the most important scientific issues in the history of our species.  Obama seems to whole-heartedely accept that government must play a fundamental role in preventing our planet from getting any warmer and creating an infrastructure that is “built to last”.  There was really nothing to dissect here, he was direct, to the point, and didn’t give me any reason to pause or question his future intentions regarding the environment.

Romney on the other hand gave the slimiest response ever.  In his first point he acknowledges that global warming is happening and I thought he was off to a good start.  Then he quickly back tracks and says “there is lack of scientific consensus on the issue.”  This response infuriates me because there is complete scientific consensus on the issue.  The 2% of climate scientists that deny global warming happen to be paid by oil companies to say that.  And even when oil companies pay top climate scientists to do research disproving global warming, many still acknowledge that our planet is warming at an unprecedented level, we are the cause and we have to support policies to lower our greenhouse gas emissions.  His responses also get worse unfortunately.  When he makes his point saying that “science is an input to the public policy decision; it does not dictate particular policy decision” he is pretty much saying, ‘we aren’t going to listen to the 98% of climate scientists who agree global warming is happening right now and we need to support policies to stop it right now.’  Finally, if his stance on what he was going to do about climate change wasn’t clear already, he shirks all responsibility by trying to compare the responsibilities of developing and developed countries.  This goes without saying but countries that are developed in the year 2012 are developed because of all the fossil fuel emissions they have burned since the industrial revolution back in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Developed countries are the primary reason the earth is warming, and while developing countries should also attempt to build an economy that is sustainable, developed countries must lead the way, both because they are morally obligated to and because they are economically capable to do so.

5. Education. Increasingly, the global economy is driven by science, technology, engineering and math, but a recent comparison of 15-year-olds in 65 countries found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 23rd, while average U.S. math scores ranked 31st. In your view, why have American students fallen behind over the last three decades, and what role should the federal government play to better prepare students of all ages for the science and technology-driven global economy?

Obama: An excellent education remains the clearest, surest route to the middle class. To compete with other countries we must strengthen STEM education. Early in my administration, I called for a national effort to move American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math achievement. Last year, I announced an ambitious goal of preparing 100,000 additional STEM teachers over the next decade, with growing philanthropic and private sector support. My “Educate to Innovate” campaign is bringing together leading businesses, foundations, non-profits, and professional societies to improve STEM teaching and learning. Recently, I outlined a plan to launch a new national STEM Master Teacher Corps that will be established in 100 sites across the country and be expanded over the next four years to support 10,000 of the best STEM teachers in the nation. These investments would improve the quality of STEM education at all levels, ensuring the next generation of Americans has the tools to out-innovate and out-compete the rest of the world.

Romney: Unfortunately, rather than embracing reform and innovation, America remains gridlocked in an antiquated system controlled to a disturbing degree by the unions representing teachers. The teachers unions spend millions of dollars to influence the debate in favor of the entrenched interests of adults, not the students our system should serve. The efforts of teachers will be central to any successful reform, but their unions have a very different agenda: opposing innovation that might disrupt the status quo while insulating even the least effective teachers from accountability. Sadly, these priorities do not correlate with better outcomes for our children. To the contrary, teachers unions are consistently on the front lines fighting against initiatives to attract and retain the best teachers, measure performance, provide accountability, or offer choices to parents.

Empowering parents with far greater choice over the school their child attends is a vital component of any national agenda for education reform. To start, low-income and special-needs children must be given the freedom to choose the right school and bring funding with them. These students must have access to attractive options, which will require support for the expansion of successful charter schools and for greater technology use by schools.

Poor K-12 education is one of America’s biggest weaknesses.  Barack Obama does give a specific plan to improve science and math education, but gives little further detail as to how to reform the system itself, which is broken.  And once again, it looks as though all federal funds whether for K-12, for the university or the private sector, will be directed towards the STEM sciences.

American teachers, even though they are unionized, typically have lower wages and less job security than teachers in other developed countries.  So Romney decided to attack and blame them for the education system.  Maybe his rationale is that if American teachers were not unionized their wages could be lowered even more substantially.  He also says that there should be “far greater choice” in school selection and that low-income and special needs children “must be given the freedom to choose the right school and bring funding with them.”  I’m not sure exactly why he suggests low-income students should ‘bring funding with them’.  I may be misinterpreting this but does this mean he wants low-income students to pick private schools to give them better education and pay for their schooling?  I just can’t help but see this as Romney being detached with the struggles a low-income family faces.

9. The Internet. The Internet plays a central role in both our economy and our society. What role, if any, should the federal government play in managing the Internet to ensure its robust social, scientific, and economic role?

Obama: A free and open Internet is essential component of American society and of the modern economy. I support legislation to protect intellectual property online, but any effort to combat online piracy must not reduce freedom of expression, increase cybersecurity risk, or undermine the dynamic, innovative global Internet. I also believe it is essential that we take steps to strengthen our cybersecurity and ensure that we are guarding against threats to our vital information systems and critical infrastructure, all while preserving Americans’ privacy, data confidentiality, and civil liberties and recognizing the civilian nature of cyberspace.

Romney: It is not the role of any government to “manage” the Internet. The Internet has flourished precisely because government has so far refrained from regulating this dynamic and essential cornerstone of our economy. I would rely primarily on innovation and market forces, not bureaucrats, to shape the Internet and maximize its economic, social and scientific value.

Thanks to the non-governmental multi-stakeholder model, the Internet is — and always has been — open to all ideas and lawful commerce as well as bountiful private investment. Unfortunately, President Obama has chosen to impose government as a central gatekeeper in the broadband economy. His policies interfere with the basic operation of the Internet, create uncertainty, and undermine investors and job creators.

Specifically, the FCC’s “Net Neutrality” regulation represents an Obama campaign promise fulfilled on behalf of certain special interests, but ultimately a “solution” in search of a problem. The government has now interjected itself in how networks will be constructed and managed, picked winners and losers in the marketplace, and determined how consumers will receive access to tomorrow’s new applications and services. The Obama Administration’s overreaching has replaced innovators and investors with Washington bureaucrats.

In addition to these domestic intrusions, there are also calls for increased international regulation of the Internet through the United Nations. I will oppose any effort to subject the Internet to an unaccountable, innovation-stifling international regulatory regime. Instead, I will clear away barriers to private investment and innovation and curtail needless regulation of the digital economy.

I have to remember that Obama, not just Romney, is a trained lawyer, and sometimes Obama can also use some wordplay designed to avoid directly answering a question.  I think he did it with his response to internet freedom when he said “but any effort to combat online piracy”.  It may be a reach here on my part but this to me indicates that Obama would still potentially wish to pass a bill like SOPA or PIPA.

Romney’s response to this question in my opinion was actually quite good.  While government has an important role in many other areas of life, the internet is best left alone.  I will say though that this does not match what Romney stated back on the campaign trail about wanting to completely block porn from the internet.  That kind of sounds like government attempting to “manage” the internet.

12. Space. The United States is currently in a major discussion over our national goals in space. What should America’s space exploration and utilization goals be in the 21st century and what steps should the government take to help achieve them?

Obama: Two years ago I set a goal of sending humans farther into space than we have ever been — to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s. We will continue to operate the Space Station until at least 2020 and perhaps beyond. When our Orion deep space crew vehicle takes its first test flight in 2014, it will travel farther into space than any spacecraft designed for humans has flown in the 40 years since our astronauts returned from the moon. That is progress.

The recent landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars was a great leadership moment for our nation and a sign of the continued strength of NASA’s many programs in science, aeronautics and human spaceflight. It’s also important to remember that the $2.5 billion investment made in this project was not spent on Mars, but right here on Earth, supporting more than 7,000 jobs in at least 31 states.

My administration has put a big focus on improving science and technology, engineering and math education. And this is the kind of thing that inspires kids across the country. They’re telling their moms and dads they want to be part of a Mars mission — maybe even the first person to walk on Mars. That’s inspiring.

Romney: America has enjoyed a half-century of leadership in space, but now that leadership is eroding despite the hard work of American industry and government personnel. The current purpose and goals of the American space program are difficult to determine. With clear, decisive, and steadfast leadership, space can once again be an engine of technology and commerce. It can help to strengthen America’s entrepreneurial spirit and commercial competitiveness, launch new industries and new technologies, protect our security interests, and increase our knowledge.

Rebuilding NASA, restoring U.S. leadership, and creating new opportunities for space commerce will be hard work, but I will strive to rebuild an institution worthy of our aspirations and capable once again leading the world toward new frontiers. I will bring together all the stakeholders – from NASA and other civil agencies, from the full range of national security institutions, from our leading universities, and from commercial enterprises – to set goals, identify missions, and define the pathway forward.

Focusing NASA.

A strong and successful NASA does not require more funding, it needs clearer priorities. I will ensure that NASA has practical and sustainable missions. There will be a balance of pragmatic and top-priority science with inspirational and groundbreaking exploration programs.

The space industry really is in a transitionary phase.  However, Obama does seem to be committed to continuing U.S involvement and achievement in space exploration.  His comment regarding the fact that money spent on space programs are invested here on Earth, not in space, is really a key point to make and one that is often overlooked.  However, he does not make a commitment to increase Americas space budget, so NASA can expect to continue to struggle with limited funding despite substantial achievements in 2012.

The key to Romney’s response comes in the “Focusing NASA” section where he says “a strong and successful NASA does not require more funding, it needs clearer priorities.”  This is basically saying explicitly ‘NASA, not only are we not going to increase your funding despite your achievements and contributions to humanity, we are probably going to cut your funding even more.”  Either way, whether the next president is Obama or Romney, NASA is going to have to try and do more with less.