Webinar Follow-Up: Dinosaur Polls and More

A few questions came up during the webinar this afternoon that we didn’t have a chance to get to.

View Images

1. I talked about a poll of Texans about evolution. Someone asked for the source of the chart I showed. Here it is. I used this poll mainly to illustrate the fact that being a journalist who writes about evolution in the United States is an inherently interesting job. (You get really interesting commentsreally interesting comments, for example.) But I don’t think that Texas warrants singling out, judging by nationwide polls.

I also get annoyed when pollsters ask questions that demonstrate that they don’t understand evolution very well. Walk into a museum with a good dinosaur exhibit, and you’ll discover that birds are dinosaurs. And so, if someone changed that statement to “Humans and dinosaurs live at the same time,” and asked me if I agreed with it, I’d say, “You betcha!”

2. Another person asked how much space in The Tangled Bank I spend on the mechanisms of evolution, such as epistasis, fitness landscapes, evolvability, modularity, and genotype-phenotype maps. The answer is that I lay out some of the fundamental mechanisms, such as selection and drift, and try to delve into mechanisms that have been investigated more recently–without turning the book into a textbook for biology majors, instead of the non-majors book that it is. So, rather than deriving theorems, I tend to use illustrations, metaphors, and specific biological examples to get the concepts across.

3. A third person mentioned that she does research on the teaching and learning of evolution, and wondered if I would consider writing a book specifically for teachers to help them teach evolution. I’m no expert on pedagogy (which is why I had a board of advisers for The Tangled Bank made up of scientists who not only do important research on evolution but also teach non-majors). Fortunately, there are already lots of resources out there intended specifically for teachers, such as Understanding Evolution. (Full disclosure: I wrote the history sections on the site, and my chapter on evolutionary medicine can be downloaded for free there.)

Thanks again to AIBS, Chris Mooney, and all the people who joined us. It was my first webinar experience, and it was not only painless, but downright enjoyable. And congratulations to the people who won copies of our books!

Update: 8:15 pm. Jamie Vernon left a comment worth replying to at length:

Hi Carl,
I truly respect what you have done for science communication, however I must take exception to your implication that humans walk with dinosaurs. Dinosaurs? Really? “Terrible lizards?” You see, I live and teach in Texas so I see on a regular basis the problems of improper science education. Now, I can appreciate the humor in that statement and the provocative nature of it, but for those who clearly don’t understand evolution, it can be confusing and misleading. I assume when you agree that “humans walk with dinosaurs” meaning birds, you intend to provoke the question, “Really? How? Where?” Unfortunately, not everyone is as inquisitive as you might think. This leaves us, teachers, to clean up the mess. The statement isn’t anymore true than someone who says, “humans descended from chimpanzees.” So, the least you could do is clarify by stating that “humans walk with the descendants of dinosaurs.” Eh?

No, humans walk with dinosaurs.

It would not be true to say that humans walk with other species of dinosaurs, such as Tyrannosaurus rex or Velociraptor. But birds are dinosaurs, too. That is, they belong to the group of species defined as dinosaurs by paleontologists, based on their shared common ancestry. The statement “humans walk with dinosaurs” is not analogous to “humans descended from chimpanzees.” That would be like saying “birds descended from Tyrannosaurus rex.” Birds are dinosaurs in the same way humans are mammals.

View Images

This statement is not misleading, nor is it intended merely to provoke. It’s just an accurate depiction of the state of the science today. It problably comes as a surprise to many students, but that makes it–as they say–a teachable moment. The link to the American Museum of Natural History web site I provided above offers some good information to help students understand this statement. It’s also something I discuss in The Tangled Bank. Here’s an evolutionary tree I put together with the help of paleontologists to get this across…