Sunday, December 09, 2007

Man to Ape

In the wee hours of Saturday's festivities, I made a passing remark that my high school hadn't done much to teach evolution and that my knowledge of the process came from college. What was intended to be a remark upon the value of higher education was, unfortunately, taken as an indictment of public education, especially an education from a school with local political considerations which may have played more than a small part in the discussion.

a school where I might have actually paid attention. Or paid for it with my life.

It's worth noting that I had only a passing interest in the sciences until my senior year of high school. It may be worth noting that I had mostly only a passing interest in high school. I was far more interested in skating through courses like biology than killing myself for an A+. I was too busy reading comics, worrying about art class and English, playing basketball, trying out for plays, trying to start a lacrosse team and trying to go to shows to care much one way or another about what sort of education I was getting in high school biology. At the time, I assumed most public high schools taught basically the same things, and didn't really know what I didn't know... so it didn't seem at all like a big deal.

A fairly normal track at Westwood, the first high-school I'd attended, was to take a basic intro to science course as a Freshman, biology as a sophomore, chemistry as a junior and physics as a senior. Tucked in there were other science offerings such as anatomy, bio 2 (which KOHS also offered), and a few other options.

So it was that when I moved from Austin to Spring between my Freshman and Sophomore years I was lumped into the honors science track and took biology with a herd of freshmen. That year Jeff Wilser and I dissected worms, frogs, squid, a fetal pig and I spent most of the year wondering how what I learned from The Swamp Thing and X-Men applied to what I was learning in class. And I frequently asked questions about the Swamp Thing and the likelihood of humanity ever shooting beams from their eyes.

Apparently, not going to happen.

I received few answers which I found satisfactory as to how a plant could take on the consciousness of a biologist as he lay dying in a swamp, but my instructor was patient and I felt like I had a pretty good feeling as to the difference between the innards of a pig and a worm by the end of the year. That, really, had been our focus, after all. Anatomy, eco-systems, and how far we could push our teacher without getting bounced out of class seemed to be more than enough to fill a year.

We had, in the spring, covered Mendel Squares and there had been mention of evolution as a part of our year. I believe terms like "natural selection" had been bandied about, and looking at if you could curl your tongue or which direction a hair swirl would go as an inherited trait. But, really, that was about it as far as I can recall.

I had a subscription to National Geographic, read comics about mutants (which had about the exact grasp on science as one would expect of a comic where a man can cover himself in ice and not die of hypothermia), owned a set of Encyclopedias, watched Nova on occasion and National Geographic Explorer, so I knew of Darwin. I had heard of the Beagle, knew that mutations occurred between generations, and that was the basic mechanism for the present state of the world's biodiversity, in the snap-shot view of the modern human (with an historical record).

What was not covered, as I can recall, was much about Darwin himself, nor was Darwinism heavily emphasized in our lessons. The focus, in retrospect, was more upon genetic traits and inheritance than on the advantage of a larger beak to eat a different sort of nut. Whether Darwinism was deemed beyond the scope of a basic biology class, I don't know. Or whether a political decision had been made by our creaky school board and Superintendent (who was, I think, 147 at the time), I have no clue.

But I have my suspicions.

In college I was more interested in geology than I was biology, but as these things tend to do, some of my courses began to intersect. Age of the Dinosaurs was, for some odd reason, placed under geology. I was hoping for a course that would teach me about gigantic pre-historic eating machines, and that was absolutely part of the curriculum. These teachers were no fools. But it was also about the progression of life and the minute changes of anatomy that work as an advantage in a dino-eat-dino world. Further, with a fairly clear way to read the fossil record through radioactive decay and soil layering, the picture was logical and clear.

I also took UT's Bio-for-Dummies, or biology for those of us not planning a career in a lab coat or herding lab rats. Here, the angle of biology was inverted from the broad-based/ Marlin Perkins world of Biology I'd poured over in high school. It was DNA and RNA sequences, bio-diversity on a microcosmic scale, spreading outward through non-random splitting and re-splitting, and the cause of mutation becoming abundantly, pointedly clear. Moreover, our instructor was a retired UT prof who had grown bored and returned as an adjunct. He was passionate about the topics he taught in a way I think must have come out of having that year or two of retirement to live in his own head, with no pressing publishing dates to worry about, and deciding that he'd spend the years that were supposed to be for him making sure 18-22 year olds knew how the hell a cell replicated itself and what that meant for each and every one of us.

Also, he intoned, beware of pseudo-science. Beware of the folks coming at you with an agenda that goes beyond mitochondria and gene sequencing. Heed the tenets of the scientific method, and understand the difference between hypothesis, theory and fact.

For a student, who wasn't much of a student, but who was looking for tools with which to observe and understand the world around him, the course had a tremendous impact.

In my final semesters at UT, I was able to take Physical Anthroplogy, and, again, as these courses tend to do when you've landed in your fifth year of undergraduate education, just as one sees patterns in history course after history course, and learns to make those connections that come with a more detailed approach to education than the "drink from the firehose" of the first year or so, there it was again. My own body was being detailed in its change from large-mandibled anthromorphs to protein hungry tool users. DNA and RNA sequences slowly, gradually changing.

And the knowledge that it wasn't so much that one species was some high-evolutionary (after all, leave you alone with a hungry puma and see who wins in that scenario), but that its been an advantage to be able to build wheels and spears. And the slow, gradual change over millenia was a beautiful thing, in its way.

I don't take what I learned in college for granted. Or I try not to. I was not a great student, and I doubt most of my instructors would remember me (while I suspect my high school biology instructor would probably remember me for reasons other than my raw genius).

Like a lot of folks, I don't see evolution as a matter of belief, unless you want to reduce trust in academia to some form of faith. Instead, it is a matter of observation and understanding. Part of that understanding is that, while the data is massive, should reliable data begin to move science in another direction, understanding why and how observations have produced a new hypothesis or theory.

Biologists, anatomists and scientists do not have answers to every question or unexplained phenomena in the pattern of evolution, nor do they claim to. When new and contrary evidence shows up, it's not a challenge to destroy the whole image, but an opportunity to re-evaluate what the scientific community believes it knows.

For me, while I've never been a lab-coat kind of guy, it's been a method I understand and can appreciate. It's given way to understanding how science can move forward, and in its simplicity, its something us non-scientists can embrace as a method for our own observations.

I'm not sure what the point was to this post, other than a nostalgic trip down academic memory lane. I've often regretted my own lack of more rigid academic pursuits in the sciences, though I suspect my near inability to deal with any math beyond trigonometry would have probably been a bit of an issue.

The world is a lovely place, and viewing it through the lens of what few scraps of information I was able to pick up in school only makes it all the more of an amazing universe in which we dwell.


mcsteans said...

My useful contribution to your nicely thought out post?

I like the 'No' guy in your Hypothesis chart.

Anonymous said...

One of the things that makes me periodically think of leaving the country is the fact that in America, belief in evolution is regarded as some sort of religious faith (and the wrong one, at that.) Thanks for your post, which cuts out the BS and gets at what it's really about for many non-scientist, educated people.

The League said...

I've not lived anywhere but the good 'ol US of A, and mostly in Texas at that. So I'm not sure if wouldn't just be something similar some other place. Maybe not. But I think somebody is always going to find something to get their panties in a bunch about no matter where you go.

I don't have children, so I have no real stake in what they teach kids in school. But perhaps, if you do have kids, making sure you advocate for the their education, you're doing your child, as well as other children, a service by insisting the best and most thorough education for them, no matter where they live.