Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Lesson of History: If They Want to Secede, Let Them Secede 

We have been delighted to read the first wave of articles inspired by the release today of the chimpanzee genome. Cladistic analysis of our shared genetic heritage indicates that, on the evolutionary bush, the human and chimp branches diverged as recently as six million years ago:

  • Small but crucial differences: The researchers said the results confirmed the common evolutionary origin of humans and chimpanzees. Out of the 3 billion base pairs in the DNA coding for chimps and humans, about 35 million show single-base differences, and another 5 million DNA sites are different because of insertions or deletions of genetic code. Waterston estimated that 1 million of those coding changes are responsible for the functional differences between humans and chimps — thus defining our humanness.
  • Six new genetic frontiers: Scientists identified six regions of our DNA that appear to have evolved dramatically over the past 250,000 years — including a "gene desert" that may play a role in nervous system development and also has been linked to obesity. They said a seventh region that showed notable change contains the FOXP2 gene, which already has been linked to speech in humans.
  • Brain genes key: A comparison of gene expression in various tissues indicated that most of the genetic changes occurring during the evolution of chimps and humans had neither a positive nor a negative effect. However, the testes in the males of both species showed strong evidence of a positive effect. Also, genes active in the brain showed much more accumulated change in humans than in chimps — suggesting that those genes played a special role in human evolution.
  • Primates' risky business: Scientists compared the chimp and human genomes with those of mice and rats, and found that both primates carried a greater amount of potentially harmful genetic coding. They speculated that such coding may have made primates more prone to genetic diseases, but also more adaptable to environmental changes.
  • Clues to diseases: The genomes contained hints that the chimpanzee genetic code has been attacked more frequently than humans by retroviral elements — such as those present in the HIV virus. Scientists also noted key differences between the genomes that may affect susceptibility to viruses, the workings of the immune system and the progression of diabetes and Alzheimer's disease in humans . . . .
[A]lthough six new regions of rapid evolutionary change have been identified, "we don't know what natural selection in these regions acted upon," said Tarjei Mikkelsen, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was the first listed author for the chimp genome study . . . .

The researchers also used the chimp genome as a new reference point for judging how rapidly various areas of genetic code have changed: Waterston said it appeared that genes linked to the wiring of the nervous system and the perception of sound changed particularly quickly in primates, compared with other mammals.

As for genetic changes that are peculiar to humans, the "most intriguing" one involves transcription factors, the proteins responsible for controlling the expression of other genes, Waterston said. Scientists believe that tweaks in transcription factors may spark rapid evolutionary change, even though the genes they control are relatively unchanged — just as the same classical melody can sound dramatically different when given a jazz interpretation.
Our non-cladistic analysis of the evolutionary bush indicates that if you share our excitement at the above news, your branch has already diverged from the one occupied by the vast majority of Americans:
In a finding that is likely to intensify the debate over what to teach students about the origins of life, a poll released yesterday found that nearly two-thirds of Americans say that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools.

The poll found that 42 percent of respondents held strict creationist views, agreeing that "living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time."

In contrast, 48 percent said they believed that humans had evolved over time. But of those, 18 percent said that evolution was "guided by a supreme being," and 26 percent said that evolution occurred through natural selection. In all, 64 percent said they were open to the idea of teaching creationism in addition to evolution, while 38 percent favored replacing evolution with creationism . . . .

John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum, said he was surprised to see that teaching both evolution and creationism was favored not only by conservative Christians, but also by majorities of secular respondents, liberal Democrats and those who accept the theory of natural selection. Mr. Green called it a reflection of "American pragmatism."

"It's like they're saying, 'Some people see it this way, some see it that way, so just teach it all and let the kids figure it out.' It seems like a nice compromise, but it infuriates both the creationists and the scientists," said Mr. Green, who is also a professor at the University of Akron in Ohio.

Eugenie C. Scott, the director of the National Center for Science Education and a prominent defender of evolution, said the findings were not surprising because "Americans react very positively to the fairness or equal time kind of argument."

"In fact, it's the strongest thing that creationists have got going for them because their science is dismal," Ms. Scott said. "But they do have American culture on their side."
What better expression of American democracy? Discard the elitist "scientific method" with its emphasis on observation, evidence, falsifiability, etc. Instead, subject every hypothesis to a popularity poll -- just like on Family Feud. ("Survey says . . . phlogiston!") Think of all the flotsam and jetsam we could eliminate from the classroom if the curriculum were based on what the typical American thinks about science:
American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.
There are 218 million Americans over the age of 18; 20% of 218 million would be just under 44 million. So 44 million adult Americans reject heliocentrism. And don't their opinions deserve just as much respect as the wild-assed Copernican theories of a handful of pointy-headed post-17th century scientists? -- who, when you get right down to it, can't even tell you why gravity works??

Okay, we admit it: we're swinging the sledgehammer here. The rhetorical questions above may seem a trifle crude -- but no cruder, surely, than the position taken by the Association of Christian Schools International in its federal civil-rights lawsuit against the ten campuses of the University of California:
Under a policy implemented with little fanfare a year ago, UC admissions authorities have refused to certify high school science courses that use textbooks challenging Darwin's theory of evolution, the suit says . . . .

The 10-campus UC system requires applicants to complete a variety of courses, including science, mathematics, history, literature and the arts. But in letters to Calvary Chapel, university officials said some of the school's Christian-oriented courses were too narrow to be acceptable.

According to the lawsuit, UC's board of admissions also advised the school that it would not approve biology and science courses that relied primarily on textbooks published by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Books, two Christian publishers.

Instead, the board instructed the schools to "submit for UC approval a secular science curriculum with a text and course outline that addresses course content/knowledge generally accepted in the scientific community."

"It appears that the UC system is attempting to secularize Christian schools and prevent them from teaching from a world Christian view," said Patrick H. Tyler, a lawyer with Advocates for Faith and Freedom, which is assisting the plaintiffs . . . .

Although private schools have the right to teach what they want, she said, students from those institutions can gain admittance to UC schools by completing the necessary course requirements at community colleges if they choose.

But according to the lawsuit, the odds are heavily stacked against students seeking admission through that route.

The suit also accuses the university system of employing a double standard by routinely approving courses that teach the viewpoints of other religions, such as Islam, Judaism and Buddhism.
So the UC admissions office approves "courses that teach the viewpoints of other religions." Would these be . . . science courses? Has UC given its stamp of approval to any high-school biology courses that teach creation myths, Christian or otherwise, as if they were scientifically valid? And if such courses do in fact exist, could we possibly trouble the Association of Christian Schools International to, well, name one?

It's not just evolution, of course. The right-wing-slash-corporatist-slash-fundamentalist axis of disinformation-slash-ignorance has aggressively undertaken to replace sound science with risible hooey in any number of fields:
But enough whining. As anyone who knows us will tell you, we are all about solutions, not problems, so allow us to offer a modest proposal.

In May of last year we wrote about Christian Exodus, a group that plans to relocate thousands of fundamentalist voters to a backwater state in hopes of hijacking the legislature and passing "godly legislation" that will eradicate the constitutional barrier between church and state. (The organization, fortuitously, was profiled just last weekend by the L.A. Times.) From the official website:
ChristianExodus.org offers the opportunity to try a strategy not yet employed by Bible-believing Christians. Rather than spend resources in continued efforts to redirect the entire nation, we will redeem States one at a time. Millions of Christian conservatives are geographically spread out and diluted at the national level. Therefore, we must concentrate our numbers in a geographical region with a sovereign government we can control through the electoral process.

ChristianExodus.org is orchestrating the move of thousands of Christians to reacquire our Constitutional rights and, if necessary to attain these rights, dissolve our State's bond with the union.
The first state targeted for theocracy is South Carolina.

We are willing to write a big fat check to help Christian Exodus accomplish their takeover of the Palmetto state, and we will be only too happy to throw in the deeds to a few neighboring states as well -- namely Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina, and possibly portions of Missouri and Kentucky. Our conditions are quite simple: 1) they take every goddam fundamentalist who has aspirations of running a school board or a government agency with them; and 2) they stick to their guns and secede from the union, leaving sane people in charge of what's left of the USA.

They will thenceforth be free to outlaw abortion, praise Jesus in grade school, elect John Ashcroft president, applaud themselves for acting "politically incorrect," and produce the lovely tufted textiles for which the region is justly famed. All we ask in return is that they get out of our way and let us practice honest science untainted by religious dogma.

There is, however, one little white lie to which we will consent -- because we know it will seal the deal.

We will alter our history textbooks. In every classroom across the land, children will be taught that the South won the Civi-- pardon us; the War of Northern Aggression.

They give us science; we give them history.

We think we'd have a deal in minutes.

(Almost every Zemblan patriot we know contributed a link or two to this post. Our thanks to all of them.)

UPDATE: See also our august colleague Mithras.

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