Check out what this evolutionary blogger has to say.
What is your background in science and how did you get involved with The Panda’s Thumb?
I am an optical physicist with degrees from the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Rochester. I was a professor at Rensselaer in New York and Waterloo in Canada before I joined what is now the National Institute of Standards and Technology. While at NIST, I worked for 6 months or so at the Weizmann Institute of Science. I retired from NIST in 1999 and joined the physics department at the Colorado School of Mines. Most of my research has been in applied physics, but I have also published books on technical writing, science and religion, and evolutionary science.
After I presented a paper on intelligent-design creationism at a 2001 conference called Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? I was invited to join an Internet discussion group from which The Panda’s Thumb descended.
Why so many posts on evolution vs. creationism?
The blog is about evolution; it is an instrument for people to discuss discoveries in evolution or, for example, continuing problems in evolution. I don’t want to speak for anyone else who writes on The Panda’s Thumb, but I see creationism as a dangerous attack not only on evolutionary biology, but also on geology and cosmology, and therefore indirectly on all of science. A disquietingly large fraction of the population rejects evolutionary science or is skeptical of it, partly because they misunderstand how science works, so it is almost inevitable that creationism would arise as a topic of discussion.
Is it something you studied or simply a hobby?
If you mean did I study it in school, then the answer is no; I studied it on my own. It is, however, far more than a hobby for all of us. A clergyperson might say it was a calling, to defend science against ignorance.
In the 1950’s, Bernard Kettlewell performed pioneering experiments in which he demonstrated with reasonable certainty that peppered moths in England had evolved a black form in order to be well camouflaged on trees that were covered with soot as a result of industrialization. He showed further that the moths reverted to their light form after the passage of clean air acts. He used not one but several lines of reasoning, and his work holds up fairly well today. Indeed, the late Michael Majerus of the University of Cambridge recently reproduced Kettlewell’s experiments, taking into account the supposed flaws in Kettlewell’s research, and essentially duplicated Kettlewell’s results. Similar results have also been found elsewhere on other species.
In 2002, a journalist, Judith Hooper, wrote a book, Of Moths and Men, which was highly critical of Kettlewell and stopped barely short of accusing him of fraud. I devised what physicists call a mathematical model of Kettlewell’s data and, working with my colleague Ian Musgrave of the University of Adelaide, demonstrated that the “suspicious” fluctuations that Hooper had purported to find in Kettlewell’s data were perfectly normal and well within statistical uncertainty. Hooper, I fear, knows nothing about science and was far too eager to find fault where none existed.
What does it say about evolution? Why do you call it the icon of evolution?
The peppered moth research alone says comparatively little about evolution; it is merely one bit of evidence in the vast web of evidence that is used to establish the reality of evolution. It is a misconception to think that a single experiment “says something” about evolution. Evolution is a complicated theory, and no single experiment or even a small handful of experiments can either prove or disprove the theory.
In 2002, the creationist Jonathan Wells wrote a book called Icons of Evolution. Wells took a handful of textbook examples, which are necessarily oversimplified, alleged flaws in them, and unaccountably thought he had refuted the theory of evolution. One of Wells’s icons was the peppered moth. Wells didn’t lay a glove on it; the peppered moth is an excellent example of evolution in action. See, for example, “Why much of what Jonathan Wells writes about evolution is wrong,” by Alan D. Gishlick
Have you done any other studies with animals or insects to prove your opinion on the theory of evolution is right and creationism is wrong?
I do not know how to answer your question without appearing rude. But to a working scientist, it sounds like asking, have you done any studies to demonstrate that the earth is approximately spherical and not flat? Let me put my answer this way: Descent with modification is an established fact that uses several independent lines of evidence including the fossil record, comparative morphology, biogeography, and genetics. The best theory – indeed the only theory – that we have to account for descent with modification is the theory of evolution.
Creationism has at least three genera (genuses): old-earth creationism, young-earth creationism, and intelligent-design creationism. Each of these comprises several species. Not one species of creationism has ever performed valid scientific research to try to refute the theory of evolution. What they do instead is look for real or imagined flaws in the theory or to argue that evolution could not have happened as in fact it did. They make the mistake that Wells made, thinking that, if they can find one flaw or one unexplained fact, then that flaw will supersede the 50 million (figuratively speaking) facts that evolution explains admirably. If they want to have any effect on science, then they must develop a viable, testable theory of their own and show that their theory explains the available evidence better than evolution. In other words, they need to attack the dragon at the end that breathes fire and not look for warts on the tip of its tail.
Your book Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails) with co-author Paul K. Strode has a lot of fascinating examples in it about why how evolution works. Can you name one of them concerning animals?
Paul says that if you want to get a high-school student’s attention, just say testicle, so I’ll tell you what he wrote about descending testicles. In most but not all mammals, the testicles descend through the abdominal wall and hang dangerously exposed outside the body. Obviously, that is not the best place to protect your reproductive organs. Additionally, as a result of testicles descending, the sperm duct has to be exceptionally long.
The ectothermic (cold-blooded) ancestors of mammals had internal testicles (the males, anyway). As mammals became endothermic (warm-blooded), their testicles descended to the point where they are now generally located outside the body. It is possible, for example, that they are located there for display (think of the rump of a baboon), but it is more likely that the body temperature of the evolving mammals became too high for efficient sperm production. In consequence, the testicles gradually migrated farther and farther from the core of the body until they actually reside just outside the body.
An intelligent designer would not have employed this solution; rather than endanger the reproductive organs, she would have simply lowered the body temperature by the necessary 1 °C or so. Evolution, however, has no foresight and can only build on what it has in any given generation. Evolution solved the problem but at an expense that a foresighted designer probably would not have paid.
How directly or indirectly are animals involved in the success of evolution according to your book? How big is their role?
I don’t know how to answer this question. As the poet Archibald MacLeish might have said, evolution does not succeed; it just is. Everything evolves. Perhaps more importantly, everything co-evolves with everything else. As the mouth of the goat gets tougher, the thistle gets thornier; and as the thistle gets thornier, the goat gets tougher. Likewise, as the rabbit evolves better camouflage, the eagle evolves better eyes; and so on. Thus, animals contribute to the evolution of plants and other animals, and plants contribute to the evolution of animals and other plants.
Why are large photos of animals always featured on the blog, Panda’s Thumb?
One of the webmasters, Reed Cartwright, thought it might be interesting to feature some kind of nature photo each week. Some of the photographs show very unusual creatures and generate interesting discussions.
Can you explain the reference to the name of the blog The Panda’s Thumb?
The distinguished paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould for many years wrote a column in Natural History magazine, a publication of the American Museum of Natural History. One of his essays (as well as a collection of essays) was called “The Panda’s Thumb” and described a sixth “digit” that the giant panda uses to strip bamboo leaves and eat them. This sixth digit is not a finger, but an extension of a wrist bone that is normally very small. You may see a picture of it in The Rough Guide to Evolution, by Mark Pallen. It is considered an example of how evolution takes whatever raw material is available to it and uses it to solve a problem in a way that is often neither elegant nor predictable. Gould unfortunately died of cancer less than a year after his sixtieth birthday, and the blog was named The Panda’s Thumb in his honor.