Visit to Adlai Stevenson High

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!


  1. TreeRooster
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    Of course the problem with being a theist is that the measurable evidence is certainly lacking. There is no way to test between an uncaused unconscious reality which somehow allows or causes the cosmos to form, and an uncaused reality which does the same but does so consciously, even lovingly, but undetectably.

    I’d think that the agnostic or theistic evolutionists out there, at least the open minded ones, don’t arbitrarily pick some creation story as absolute truth. They might even accept evolutionary explanations for the existence of things like the experiences of altruism and vicarious happiness, beauty and gratitude. At the least however, they feel as though these experiences indicate that the entire cosmos has purpose–if only to allow those experiences to exist! Is the choice to think this way somehow dangerous?

    • Posted April 23, 2010 at 8:12 am | Permalink

      What is the difference between undetectable and nonexistent?

      • Jordan
        Posted April 23, 2010 at 8:32 am | Permalink

        1: not easily seen
        2: barely able to be perceived;

        I’d say ‘undetectable’ is typically used in relation to the human senses where something exists but isn’t detected without assistance. I don’t believe the word implies a statement regarding existence in the current vernacular.

        non·ex·is·tence (nng-zstns)
        1. The condition of not existing.
        2. Something that does not exist.

        E.G. a bed made of sleep (thanks QualiaSoup)

    • Jordan
      Posted April 23, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      “At the least however, they feel as though these experiences indicate that the entire cosmos has purpose–if only to allow those experiences to exist!”

      Is this a tautology?

      “Is the choice to think this way somehow dangerous?”

      Not sure I would say dangerous as much as wishful and unscientific. I don’t know of any working scientific theories that require a god to make them go.

    • llewelly
      Posted April 23, 2010 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      April 23, 2010 at 7:20 am:

      I’d think that the agnostic or theistic evolutionists out there, at least the open minded ones, don’t arbitrarily pick some creation story as absolute truth. They might even accept evolutionary explanations for the existence of things like the experiences of altruism and vicarious happiness, beauty and gratitude. At the least however, they feel as though these experiences indicate that the entire cosmos has purpose–if only to allow those experiences to exist! Is the choice to think this way somehow dangerous?

      It’s not hard to find vocal theistic evolutionists out there, who don’t arbitrarily pick some creation story as the absolute truth. Among agnostic evolutionists, it’s the rule. Note that both Ken Miller and Francis Collins, who clearly believe in an intervening God, have settled on accepting the science in most places (but have God fiddling around in the details).
      If one is involved in the debate over which to teach evolution in schools, that kind of thinking can be politically advantageous, although internally inconsistent. Nonetheless – the more the theistic evolutionist accepts the science, the smaller and more obscure the role of God in the cosmos of the theistic evolutionist, and the more like an atheist the theistic evolutionist becomes. At some point, the only remaining difference becomes the unwillingness of the theistic evolutionist to admit of the consequences of the science.

    • Notagod
      Posted April 23, 2010 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      Is the choice to think this way somehow dangerous?

      In the context you have presented that question, a complete and fair answer would require an exhaustive description of the cosmos. I don’t think I have the expertise, however, just as the first thing that came to my mind; I am skeptical that the internal chemical reactions of stars have any contribution to the reason that humans experience emotions. Unless you have some rational basis or evidence I think it is wrong for you to assert that there is a causal relationship between stars and human emotion. Your subject area is the cosmos and I’m just trying to point to one of many possible disconnects.

      I think there is danger in supposing a human centric cosmos. Among other things it endangers the human species because it doesn’t point out the importance of the interaction between all life. As a specific example that is intended to have a broader meaning; the canary in the coal mine would only help if you notice that the canary is dead or dieing AND you can live afterward. But I also think that species other than humans have importance beyond any benefit that humans might derive from them.

      • TreeRooster
        Posted April 23, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the replies guys. I agree that seeing purpose in the cosmos is wishful thinking. That might not be a problem in itself–but it is dangerous to devote too much time to hoping and not enough to actually doing good. I’d also agree that a human-centric viewpoint is dangerous and probably wrong!

    • MadScientist
      Posted April 23, 2010 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      “Is the choice to think this way somehow dangerous?”

      Yes. Next question.

  2. jmrunning3
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    I hope these kids understand how fortunate they are, both in having you visit AND having an AP biology teacher willing to teach evolution as well as use your book.

    My child’s AP biology teacher is a creationist and global warming denier and feels it is more important to gloss over actual science and teach them how to study for tests.

    I have WEIT and TGSOE and have encouraged my child to read them. Unfortunately, this particular teacher has managed to instill in my child that “science is boring”, so the desire has been thoroughly squashed.

    • Posted April 23, 2010 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      Move. Really… its better for your kid in the long run.

      • jmrunning3
        Posted April 23, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink

        You don’t know the half of it.

        Google: Randy Brogdon for Governor. Sally Kern, Jim Inhofe, Tom Coburn.

        Tough crowd, huh?

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted April 23, 2010 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      I would say complain, loudly, to the school, the district and the state about the unqualified teacher.

      • Microraptor
        Posted April 23, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

        And the ACLU. If this teacher is putting religious views into a public school class, it’s definitely something they should be involved with.

  3. Posted April 23, 2010 at 8:00 am | Permalink


    Let me give you an advice, even if you did not ask for.

    Never “give” something to read to your child. Tell him what makes you feel that science is not boring, why you feel that it is important and exciting to know about evolution. Then you can tell him that you found WEIT and TGSOE interesting reads, but never press your child into reading them. If he/she does, that’s good, but if not, your sharing your opinions with him/her is good enough.

    • jmrunning3
      Posted April 23, 2010 at 8:49 am | Permalink

      No, you are exactly right. I have not handed them any books, demanding they be read. I do talk about why I think subjects such as this are important AND interesting, and I point out my books are always available to them, but you are correct in that pressing them to read something (anything) would be wrong.

      Thanks for allowing me to clarity.

      • jmrunning3
        Posted April 23, 2010 at 8:50 am | Permalink

        “clarity” s/b “clarify”

    • Janet Holmes
      Posted April 23, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      I subscribe to various science magazines – Newscientist and others- I leave them lying round and my kids often read them. One’s a designer, another’s into theatre but they all are scientifically literate.

  4. Sigmund
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    I would answer the chromosomal fusion question differently.
    About 20 years ago I spent a year training as a cytogeneticist – basically analyzing karyotypes for alterations (translocations, losses, gains etc). The lab I worked in frequently dealt with the analysis of the chromosomes of infertile couples. It was not at all uncommon to find chromosomal fusions in these cases. Indeed the very first karyotype I examined had a 45XX karyotype due to a robertsonian fusion – the same sort of fusion that resulted in human chromosome 2. I’m not sure of the exact figures but these sorts of chromosomal abnormalities are not that uncommon – perhaps 1 or 2 percent of the population will have them, however they don’t tend to spread since they have rather severe effects on fertility (due to the fact that in most cases the egg or the sperm will contain an unbalanced set of chromosomes, thus leading to embryonic lethality). In an inbreeding situation, however, it would be much more likely that this chromosomal fusion could lead to fetile offspring and the mating of a 45XY with a 45XX (father and daughter or brother and sister – even cousins) would lead to offspring that are both interfertile and have balanced chromosomes – 44XY or 44XX.

    • Janet Holmes
      Posted April 23, 2010 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      I have just been reading in Newscientist about the explosion of Toba 74kya which is supposed to have dramatically altered the climate for a period of time and possibly created a bottleneck in our species. Have we any idea when this chromosomal fusing took place? 74kya seems too recent to me but it’s an interesting possibility. A serious drop in the pop would be one trigger for the sort of incestuous breeding needed to spread a lower chromosome number. I was going to suggest that the religious would not like the idea that incest started our species but of course they already believe that it did! Maybe Noah really did exist! ROFL.

      • Sigmund
        Posted April 23, 2010 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

        It will be interesting to look at the full neanderthal sequence and the Siberian female genomic sequence when it comes to see if the fusion is present in either or both. As for Toba, I think the most recent data disputes the hypothesis that it led to a population drop – rather the population was already fairly small for a long time before and after this event.

        • TheBlackCat
          Posted April 26, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink

          There was an article in science about this recently, and apparently the relevant scientific community is still highly divided in this regard. I would say that at best some researchers think the most recent data disputes the hypothesis (primarily those who collected the data), but many others remain unconvinced.

  5. Posted April 23, 2010 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Hey man… come on…

    “somebody else would have made it had you not been existed.”

    >> had you not existed.
    >> had you not been born.

    “a large chuck of”

    >> chunk (?)

    “below , and don’t think that this didn’t bring a lump”

    >> so think, this brought

    Unless its creative license being used to form an intentional double negative.

    I’m a big supporter of WEIT blog and a long time reader/writer, but when you start off saying, “the importance of learning to write clearly” and proceed to make three mistakes you send the wrong message man.

    If my corrections find no merit, I guess I was just being picky (or wrong).

    • Thanny
      Posted April 23, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      Last I checked, blogs do not have copy editors. The human brain has a knack for mixing common phrases together, as if it started by wanting to use one, but changed its “mind” mid-stroke and switched to the other. If you think your brain doesn’t do this as well, you’re not paying attention.

      It’s trivial to see how someone could start to say or write “had you not been born”, but finish thinking “had you never existed”, ultimately producing “had you note been existed”. The translation from thought to speech to written text provides ample opportunities for such a jumble to be recorded, and it wouldn’t be noticed until a subsequent reading.

      Your objection to “don’t think that this didn’t bring a lump” is just completely unfounded. Two negations in proximity are only “double-negatives” if the logical interpretation of the statement’s meaning differs from the stater’s intention (e.g. “I don’t take no crap from no one”). In this case, the logical parsing of the statement matches the intended meaning, and it happens to be an extremely common turn of phrase as well.

      If you can’t see the literary difference between “and it brought a lump to my throat.” and “and don’t think that this didn’t bring a lump to the throat of an old evolutionist.”, I’m not sure I can help you understand.

      • Eric S.
        Posted April 23, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

        Of course I understand the literary difference.

        Why are you defending this?! I’m an atheist. I think he’s doing fantastic work with his actions. HOWEVER, if you are going to make a statement encouraging minors to “WRITE CLEARLY”, you might want to do a little bit more than a once-over to ensure logical parsing isn’t somewhere a person will get hung-up in understanding what he didn’t mean to not say. Even in euphemisms, double negatives don’t make no sense.

        Oh yeah, THAT ^ up there ^ was creative license, which I granted could be the usage (but this is supposed to be demonstrating writing clearly?).

        The brain mixing up statements is fine… but like he said, he encourages kids to WRITE CLEARLY. Take some time, and f*cking reread your document before pressing submit.

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted April 23, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

          Eric S.

          Point taken, but sometimes I write quickly and have other thngs to do that preclude careful proofreading of website posts.

          That said, your post above is quite rude, and also curses at me. Try being more polite.

          Oh, and I should also point out that you are missing an apostrophe in a contraction in your sentence, “Unless its creative license being used to form an intentional double negative.”

          Try to proofread your comments before hitting “submit,” ok?

          • Launcher
            Posted April 23, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

            Now I have to wonder if Eric was one of the reviewers on my last manuscript (that petulant “Third Reviewer”).

        • Posted April 23, 2010 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

          I’m an English teacher who encourages my students to write clearly, precisely, and effectively. I’m also a writer/blogger who occasionally writes awkward phrases, or misuses an adverb, or misses a typo when I proofread my work. These mistakes don’t diminish my credibility as a writing teacher. Mistakes happen. And although we should avoid them as much as possible, one can write clearly, encourage others to write clearly, AND screw up sometimes. It’s important to not miss the forest for the trees here.

    • Capita
      Posted April 23, 2010 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      If you meant “…it is creative…”, then you should have written it’s, after all you wrote “I’m” not “Im”–I know some people dismiss apostrophes altogether but you don’t seem to be one of them. If you meant to use the possessive my apologies; English is my second language and I don’t understand your usage. I do find it a little disconcerting that many of you make this kind of mistake, Scientists.

      • Notagod
        Posted April 23, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink

        Being a bit jealous of people that can write proficiently in English I am doubly jealous of those that are proficient in multiple languages. My excuse regarding English is that I became frustrated early on when it became apparent that due to the duality of word meanings, no matter what I wrote or how I wrote it, my intended meaning could be misunderstood. Worst for me though was that I couldn’t always be sure of the authors intended meaning.

        I lost interest in the language for want of a better tool.

      • Eric S.
        Posted April 23, 2010 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

        I probably made a mistake.

        >>Unless it is creative

        Is probably right, but there is no “edit” button for comments. I am OK with changing things that are wrong (isn’t that what we atheists DO? see something as incorrect, and change our understanding)

        I would have been just fine and dandy if he just went and made ANY edits for clarification and not represent a position of SLIGHT hypocrisy.

        Its NBD, I hate being a grammar Nazi, but this was a pretty bad case of THREE ambiguities.

        Please people, stop posturing and making excuses. Its just minor errata, but in conjunction with his prior statements continues to look bad on the guy. I WANT HIM TO LOOK GOOD, so I posted the comment so it could be fixed.

        • Rick T
          Posted April 23, 2010 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

          Why don’t you quit while you’re behind?
          You don’t seem to be able to use punctuate correctly and also mix tenses in the same sentence. Your writing sucks and you are rude, as well.

          • Rick T
            Posted April 23, 2010 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

            Here is how you do it. Apologize for your errors (like “use puncuate” in my last comment) then shut the fuck up.
            Like this.

    • lylebot
      Posted April 23, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      There’s nothing unclear about the first and second errors. They’re mistakes, but it’s completely clear what he meant. Personally I think it’s counterproductive to conflate “clarity” with “correctness”; it leads students to focus on getting all the rules right rather than putting together coherent sentences in a logical order.

      One could make the case that the third example isn’t as clear as it could be, but I don’t think it’s unclear either.

  6. Posted April 23, 2010 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    These students sound great.

    I wish I’d had their biology class in high school. Mine was in the deep south, and we hardly touched the subject of evolution, lest the wrath of the LORD descend upon us.

  7. Microraptor
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    My high school science teacher was a very religious man, who, though he claimed to support evolution, never taught much of it, and what little he did teach was not particularly good. He did a very poor job explaining natural selection, and never even touched some of the other cornerstones.

    Given that I’m now attempting to earn a degree in evolutionary biology, I’ve had to do a lot of self-education to cover what I missed.

  8. daveau
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Stevenson has a reputation of being one of the finest high schools in the Chicago area. This seems to be a good example of why a lot of people I know want their kids to go there.

  9. SLC
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Attached is a link to a portion of a presentation at Case-Western Reserve that Prof. Miller gave on the Dover trial. In it, he discusses the fusion of ape chromosomes 12 and 13 to form human chromosome 2.

    • SLC
      Posted April 23, 2010 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      Well, this is interesting. I attempted to post a link to the Miller video and Firefox embedded it instead! I have absolutely no idea how that happened.

  10. MadScientist
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    I knew it! It is flies and not humans who are The Chosen Species! Think about it – flies are far more numerous and diverse, and in the winter they use their nano inter-dimensional travel gadgets to go on holidays and magically (to us) reappear in the spring. Drosophila ergo dis deaque.

  11. PSStarsFan
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to take a moment to thank Dr. Coyne once more for coming to my school and giving his brief discourse on evolution, biology, and the relationship between science and faith. It was very nice to hear such an eloquent speaker talking about beliefs that closely mirror my own, especially due to the respect that the majority of my classmates have for him. I’d also like to give thanks for not easing back on the arguments for scientific reasoning and against faith-based reasoning, as we should not be intellectually coddled, as was mentioned in the original post.

  12. Student
    Posted April 24, 2010 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Too humble in my opinion regarding scientists … others ought to and might make the discoveries later that a scientist makes, but might or might not; but time is a factor in any case to a scientist’s credit. What a world had polio’s prevention been discovered in 2010 rather than 1955 … or any scientific discovery … the multiplier effect is enormous and the sooner is works on the humanity the better.

  13. Seth
    Posted April 24, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    This is funny…really. The man (Jerry) is kind of busy, since he’s a flipping SCIENTIST. He doesn’t have all day to carefully proof-read his posts. God.

  14. Seth
    Posted April 24, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Oh, and clearly I’m new here. That post screamed “New guy who wants to be acknowledged by his peers”.

    • Launcher
      Posted April 27, 2010 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      I see you, Seth.

      • Seth
        Posted April 27, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

        I see you…wait. Why do I feel like I’m on Pandora…

  15. Antonio Manetti
    Posted April 24, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I believe the Church’s official position is summed up in the rather equivocal statement below.

    Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution

    From Wikipedia:
    [T]he Vatican’s chief astronomer, Fr. George Coyne, issued a statement on 18 November 2005 saying that “Intelligent design isn’t science even though it pretends to be.

    Fr. Coyne (no relation I presume) retired from his post of Chief Astronomer shortly after making this statement.

  16. bobrhorman
    Posted April 26, 2010 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    One particularly interesting topic that Jerry Coyne brought up was during his visit to Stevenson was the difference between science and religion. He mentioned that the biggest difference between a scientific and religious view of the world is that science can be refuted using appropriate evidence, while religious beliefs never give in no matter the evidence. This fact alone is quite empowering, because in a universe in which we barely understand, laws (particularly those declared in books written thousands of years ago) that are set in stone cannot possibly define our very existence. While this had little to do with evolution, I think that it gave the students meaning to the reason for pursuing science–to explain the unknown.

    • Carol O
      Posted April 26, 2010 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

      “He mentioned that the biggest difference between a scientific and religious view of the world is that science can be refuted using appropriate evidence.”

      So, where’s the science behind the highly improbable and 99.99% impossible theory that life came from non-life? Isn’t that a refutation in itself?

      • tyyao2000
        Posted April 26, 2010 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

        I am assuming that you are saying that the theory on the origin of LIFE, abiogenesis, is wrong. (correct me if your talking about something else?) While there are many unknown parts about how life began, I would like to see what you’ve quoted me on: “appropriate evidence”.

      • Launcher
        Posted April 27, 2010 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        Hmmm, where did you get such a precise statistic as “99.99%”?

        Certainly, no theory of abiogenesis is as widely accepted as, say, natural selection as a driver of evolution. But even if you believe in a god that created life.. wouldn’t he/she/it have had to create life from non-life, by definition? Will you refute EVERY theory with such great confidence?

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