Yesterday I headed out to the ritzy suburbs of Chicago to visit Adlai Stevenson High School, where the two AP biology classes have been reading my book and blogging about it. I gave them a 25-minute spiel that covered a lot of topics: my scientific history, the importance of charismatic and enthusiastic teachers, what it’s like to be a scientist, career strategies, the importance of learning to write clearly, and why I wrote my book.
I emphasized that there are four qualities that make a good scientist: the willingness to work hard (diligence is far more important than brains); the ability to live with doubt, since we’ll never have all the answers and some of them are impossible to get; the willingness and openness to be wrong, and to admit it when you are; and the humility to realize that no matter what contribution you make, somebody else would have made it had you not existed.
I also covered the Big Topic—the relationship between science and faith. These are smart, mature kids who can think and don’t need to be intellectually coddled, so I saw no call to pull my punches. As I expected given that a large chunk of the students describe themselves as “theistic evolutionists” (see the poll on their blog), the question-and-answer session dealt largely with the relationship between science and faith. Nearly all the questions were along those lines, including these (with the answers I gave):
“Many religious people are theistic evolutionists, with the “evolution” part going against many people’s religious beliefs. Aren’t you proud of them for their stand?”
A: I am proud of them for accepting the fact of evolution, but not so proud of them for being either straight “deistic” evolutionists (who think that a god got the process started and then withdrew), or more active theistic evolutionists (who think that God may occasionally have intervened in the process—this is the official position, for instance, of the Catholic Church). If you accept evolution based on the evidence, why is it praiseworthy to posit that the process was started or tweaked by a supernatural being, a proposition for which there is no evidence? Moreover, there are hundreds of different and conflicting creation stories—which of these do you accept, and why?
“Why do all apes except humans have the same chromosome number but humans have a different one, with 46 chromosomes?”
A: I believe, but am not sure, that the student who asked this thought that there was some supernatural reason connected with the specialness of humans. My answer was that yes, chimps, orangs, and gorillas have 48 chromosomes and humans two fewer. On a mechanistic level, this was the result of a fusion of two chromosomes in one of our ancestors to form the metacentric chromosome 2 in humans. We know precisely which chromosomes fused, too (I believe this is all described in Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God). But why did the fusion occur? We don’t know, although there may not be much of a selective penalty for two chromosomes fusing, and it may be adaptive in bringing together genes in the same pathway into the same “linkage block.” We’ll probably never know the answer to this question. But such fusions are certainly not unique to primates: they occur all the time in Drosophila flies, for instance. So if chromosome fusion is some providential and supernatural act, a divine being did the same thing in flies as in apes.
“What is NOMA and what do you think about it?”
A: This was an involved question and I won’t recount my answer in full here. I explained what NOMA was, its origin in Steve Gould’s writings, and described my view that it is an unsatisfactory solution to the problem of faith versus science. I also took issue with NOMA’s (and Gould’s) contention that morality is solely the purview of religion.
It was a great visit and I wished I could have stayed longer to talk to the students. But I told one of their teachers, Brett Erdman, that I would make a post (this one) in hope that the Stevenson students would comment (anonymously if they wished) about my talk or any other issues related to my book or evolution. So, kids, fire away!
Oh, and the students gave me a huge card (with many index-card insertions to contain the well-wishes) and a iTunes and a Barnes and Noble gift card. A picture is below, and don’t think that this didn’t bring a lump to the throat of an old evolutionist.
Fig. 1. My thank-you card from the AP bio students!
Many thanks, Stevenson students, and best of luck with your careers!