Friday, January 15, 2010 5:18 PM
In the minds of some of the “experts” who hold sway over the Texas public school textbooks, Joe McCarthy was an American hero, white men are responsible for civil rights, and “evolution is hooey.” Over the past 15 years, Washington Monthly reports that an activist bloc has methodically taken over the Texas State Board of Education, bent on injecting hard-right ideology into the state’s textbooks. According to these activists, the Founding Fathers never wanted a separation between church and state, and they’re doing their best to break down the wall by changing the schoolbooks in Texas.
The politicized textbooks would be a problem just inside Texas, but economic factors have given the state a huge influence over textbooks throughout the country. Unlike many other states, Texas makes the decisions on a state level on what books local school districts can buy. So when the state makes a decision on what books to purchase for its 4.7 million high schoolers, publishers take notice. The only bigger market for textbooks in the country is California, a state whose budget is in such disarray, it announced that it won’t be buying new books until 2014. In the meantime, an anonymous industry executive told Washington Monthly, “publishers will do whatever it takes to get on the Texas list,” even if that means caving in to right-wing activists.
In what’s already been a fearsome battle, the Texas State Board of Education is in the midst of its once-each-decade meeting to decide which books are purchased throughout the state. The Washington Monthly meticulously documented how conservative activists took over the meetings, forcing out moderates, accusing them of being pawns of the “radical homosexual lobby” and similar claims. With meetings taking place until March, the conservative activists are in prime position to push textbooks in Texas and throughout the country to the right. Don McLeroy, a particularly vocal activist on the state’s school board and a staunch advocate of teaching creationism in schools, told Washington Monthly, “Sometimes it boggles my mind the kind of power we have.”
You can watch a video of the school board's discussions below:
, licensed under
Monday, July 20, 2009 1:52 PM
The August issue of Ode magazine is all about laughing—from laughter yoga to the scientific benefits of giggling to an especially interesting article written by Blaine Greteman that delves into the evolution of laughter:
Today, we tend to focus on “he who laughs last.” But he who first burst forth with our characteristic “ha-ha-ha” took a major evolutionary leap toward humanity as we know it. Laughter is ancient, predating the development of language. It’s ubiquitous; all mammals do it, panting with delight in response to tickling or pratfalls, as noted by none other than Charles Darwin. It’s also one of the first things babies learn. Now, though, scientists are asking two dead serious questions: Where does laughter come from? And why do we do it?
Greteman begins to answer these questions with the research of scientist Robert Provine:
If you digitally remove the “ha” sound from a human laugh the way Provine has in a recording studio, you hear a long exhalation or sigh. This extended sigh may be our most primal existential defense mechanism, controlling our breathing in ways known to lower heart rate and blood pressure. Decoupling the laugh from respiration—so that we can giggle instead of pant—was a crucial evolutionary moment, Provine postulates, because it enabled the vocal control that allowed us to make all kinds of other “fancy sounds” needed for speech.
Source: Ode (article not available online)
Image by Jimbowen0306, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009 12:33 PM
Once upon a time, Charles Darwin found himself in a pickle called sexual selection. While contemplating natural selection, Darwin wondered why male peacocks, for instance, waste energy growing elaborate tails that don’t always influence productive mating habits. As it turns out, “There may be survival of the fittest, but there’s also survival of the sexiest.”
Susan Milius, for Science News, highlights a few recent explanations for this confusing process. Some scientists pose the handicap principle, in which a tail “stays reliable as a badge of quality across generations only if good tails present a handicap that not all individuals can overcome.” Others say male beetles’ harmful genitalia, which “look more like instruments of war,” may be products of “an ongoing arms race between the sexes.” However, “one of the biggest developments in the theory of sexual selection has been the recognition that females in many species aren’t monogamous.” Yes, ladies can (and do) see past a pretty face.
Source: Science News.
Image by ToastyKen, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009 2:07 PM
Believers in survival of the fittest may struggle to explain the existence of skinny weaklings in human society. Evolutionarily, the muscle-bound beefcakes should have banished the wimps from the face of the earth long ago. New research, however, shows that pipsqueaks may have some evolutionary benefits that jocks don’t have.
Scrawny people may have quicker reaction times than the more physically fit, according to research published on Science Daily. The researchers theorize that the more finely tuned reactions “may have evolved to help the weak get out of the way of approaching danger.”
The most hulking people also have a harder time battling disease. The New Scientist reports that “the downside of all that brawn is a poor immune system and an increased appetite.” The increased appetite may not seem like a bad thing today, but evolutionarily, having to constantly eat may was considered a disadvantage.
All’s not lost for the muscle-bound among us, however. More physically fit men are generally more attractive to women, tended to lose their virginity at a younger age, and had more life-time sexual partners. Researchers think that the relative costs and benefits of physical fitness may explain why both geeks and jocks still survive.
For John Hodgman’s take on the culture war between nerds and jocks, watch the video below:
Image by Crimfants, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, December 22, 2008 9:58 AM
Synesthesia is the source of near-endless fascination for neuroscientists. It’s “probably the sexiest neurological phenomenon around,” Michael Mays observed on Studio 360 last February. Synesthetic people tend to reflexively blend their senses together, seeing colors in response to music, for example, or link shapes with specific tastes.
A new study, highlighted by the New Scientist, documents the first known cases of an unusual form of synesthesia where textures blend with emotions. For these synesthetes, corduroy may produce confusion, while dry leaves might trigger disgust.
For the study, neuroscientists V.S. Ramachandran and David Brang tested their subjects twice over the span of eight months to confirm that they felt textures in emotionally specific ways. Their associations stayed the same throughout the tests: One woman described the sensation of sandpaper as “telling a white lie” in the first round of tests, and said she felt “guilty” after touching it the second time, “but not a bad guilt.”
The study follows only two subjects, so this particular form of synesthesia is likely rare, but it’s more than a curiosity. Neurologist Richard Cytowic estimates that 1 in 23 people experience some kind of synesthesia.
Ramachandran theorizes that synesthesia may be an evolutionary adaptation that helps people think creatively and metaphorically. He describes synesthetic experience as a spectrum, where nearly everyone has the ability to make some form of synesthetic connections. For example, he sees traces of tactile-emotional synesthetic thought in the widespread use of phrases like “sharp criticism” or a “rough night.” In fact, Ramachandran thinks that studying synesthesia could help explain some key milestones in human evolution, like the development of language.
Image courtesy of Djenan Kozic, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, November 05, 2008 10:52 AM
There has been a lot to repent for throughout this election. Both Republicans and Democrats have viciously attacked each other over the past few months (or years) in pursuit of a single goal: electoral victory. Now that Barack Obama’s victory has been decided, it’s time for a little forgiveness.
It wasn’t always this nasty. Gil Troy writes for the Wilson Quarterly that “our political ancestors often approached the political game in better humor and with a closer attachment to political life.” Today’s “media politics,” by contrast, engender partisan bickering and division for the sake of a compelling storyline. In their attempts to motivate the electorate, politicians end up distancing themselves from voters. The effect is that political parties today are approached with the same zeal as a pro-sports team, according to Troy, with all the intensity and vitriol, but little participation from the fans.
Evidence of this nastiness was on full display throughout campaign 2008. Many on the left focused on the hate-filled videos from outside of McCain-Palin rallies, but the Democrats released their share of attack advertisements, too. Watching television in battle-ground states over the past few weeks has been an exercise in muck-wallowing, with a constant stream of attack ads and over-the-top accusations coming from both sides.
The reality is that revenge serves an evolutionary purpose, psychologist Michael McCullough told In Character. When an animal feels wronged, revenge protects that animal’s interest and deters “harm-doers from harming us a second time.” The inclination for some may be to redress the harms of the past few months and lick the wounds inflicted throughout the campaign.
For many, however, Obama’s victory can send that same message of deterrence for the wrongs of the past eight years. On an evolutionary level, for a species to survive, animals must move beyond revenge to forgiveness.
“When people forgive,” according to McCullough, “they switch from ill will for someone who has harmed them to good will for that person.” That simple act has evolutionary and health benefits: Conflicts create anxiety and stress that forgiveness helps alleviate. Beyond the benefits to the individual, forgiveness fosters cooperation in a species, according to McCullough, and “helps us restore and maintain relationships that are valuable to us.”
In their final speeches of last night, both Obama and McCain seemed to acknowledge the importance of relationships with other Americans. Obama quoted Abraham Lincoln saying “We are not enemies, but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” The way to ensure that is for both sides to forgive.
, licensed under
Wednesday, September 17, 2008 10:41 PM
Members of the Royal Society, Great Britain's national academy of science, were thrown into a tizzy recently when, according to the New Scientist, the society's director of education Michael Reiss said, “creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a world view.” In an article for the Guardian, Reiss added that science teachers should be able to engage in serious and respectful discussion with students who have doubts about the theory of evolution.
Though Reiss was not advocating that creationism be taught as science, some society fellows were furious that Reiss, an ordained priest, would suggest creationism be discussed in science classes. Nobel laureate Harry Kroto told the New Scientist that Reiss's comments, taken at face value, are not entirely problematic, but the messenger is. “There is no way that an ordained minister—for whom unverified dogma must represent a major, if not the major, pillar in their lives can present free-thinking, doubt-based scientific philosophy honestly or disinterestedly.”
In a letter to the Royal Society calling for Reiss’s resignation (he has since stepped down), Kroto and fellow Nobel prize winners, Richard Roberts and John Sulston, emphasized the point that as a deeply religious man, Reiss never should have been appointed to his position in the first place: “Who on earth thought that he would be an appropriate Director of Education, who could be expected to answer questions about the differences between science and religion in a scientific, reasoned way?”
Their comments raise a big philosophical question: Can a person represent both science and faith? Or are science and religion so fundamentally different that a person must choose one before the other?
Thursday, July 31, 2008 3:39 PM
The human ability to speak evolved from talking fish, according to new research from Cornell University. In fact, LiveScience reports that speech skills in all vertebrates, including birds, dogs, and humans, can be traced back evolutionarily to the neural circuitry found in fish.
Many fish can still talk today, including the midshipman fish, whose males will emit grunts and hums to communicate with others. A video of that is available on the LiveScience website. Male midshipman fish will hum in order to attract other mates. “Female midshipman dig it,” LiveScience reports, “and they only approach a male's nest if he makes this call.”
Wednesday, February 20, 2008 1:07 PM
Like all science fairs, you could tell which projects had parental help and which ones didn’t at the 2008 Home School Science Fair. The blue-ribbon winning project on dinosaurs and people roaming the earth together, with the color photos and the perfectly cut lettering, probably had parental help. The one explaining how a broken motor disproves Darwin's theory of evolution, with the roughly cut pieces of paper and the penciled in chicken scratches, probably did not.
Every diorama in the Home School Science Fair, which took place inside a shopping mall in Roseville, Minnesota, had a biblical quote attached to it. A young woman whose project involved teaching her dog how to run circles between her legs decorated the words: “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (John 14:15) in pink lace fabric. This quote got to the crux of the science fair, in my opinion: parental commandment. These parents pulled their children out of school, away from their peers, and said, “Now prove that Darwin was wrong.”
The projects all used classic high school science language: Start with a hypothesis, move on to testing, and then draw a conclusion. The problem was that much of the science was backwards. In good science, you start with a piece of evidence and try to find a truth. With creationist science, you start with a truth (the Bible), and try to find the evidence.
Before I arrived at the science fair, I planned to engage some of the children and parents. I wanted to ask them about creationism and education. Once I got there, however, I was overcome with a sense of pity for the children. They stood around the suburban mall, in the prime of the most awkward years of their life, being forced to preach blather. I didn’t want to exploit them for a cheap laugh while their parents and the company Answers in Genesis (whose literature was scattered throughout the event) were so clearly exploiting them to proselytize. The children’s gangly limbs and bad acne reminded me how vulnerable I was at their age and how easily someone could have brainwashed me.
I overheard one parent saying, “One thing is for sure, a lot of learning has gone on this week.” I would change that statement a bit: I’d say a lot of indoctrinating went on that week. Hopefully, a good college professor, and a few years of therapy, will help these children turn all that “learning” around.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008 11:14 AM
Many people of faith are baffled by the opposition to the study of evolution. They trust scientific explanations of the origins of life, they believe that God was somehow behind it all, and they don’t lose a lot of sleep over the whole thing.
A recent exhibit on Darwin at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History highlighted the voices of people who find no conflict between belief and science. The problem is that many of the exhibit’s visitors were wholly unimpressed, Jason Byassee reports on Theolog, the blog of mainline Protestant magazine the Christian Century. Byassee makes some good observations about what more thoughtful religious engagement with Darwinism might look like:
All Christians are challenged to articulate how the sheer unlikeliness of our existence here—amidst countless species who did not survive natural selection—is a witness to the goodness of a creator God. That’s tough to do. But it’s easier to take on this challenge than to ignore the bones that Darwin dug up.
Saturday, January 05, 2008 12:52 PM
Next time you find yourself at the White Castle drive-thru, ordering a beach ball-sized sack of slyders, don’t blame the midnight munchies. Blame evolution. Blame the monkey, hidden deep inside the mossy roots of your family tree, happily swinging through the jungle picking fruit. According to an article in LiveScience, it’s the monkey’s fault that humans are so easily influenced by fast-food commercials, bright neon signs, and colorful billboards.
Humans’ paternal primates relied on a specific set of skills and senses to survive in the wild. Many of those traits have been passed on to us. Some of the abilities we share with monkeys—seeing colors, perceiving three dimensions—are the same abilities that make us susceptible to even the simplest marketing ploys. Monkeys needed 3D vision to jump from tree to tree. In humans, seeing in three dimensions can make TV hamburgers look irresistible. Monkeys developed the ability to see colors, a trait that helped them judge the ripeness of fruit. Humans' ability to see colors can make stomachs grumble when they see the bright fruits and veggies in grocery-store ads. The article gives the impression that humans haven’t come very far as a species, especially when it comes to food.
Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.
Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!
Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of Utne Reader for only $29.95 (USA only).
Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 6 issues of Utne Reader!