Eugenie Scott: Decrypting Pseudoscience

August 24, 2015

Our very special guest on Point of Inquiry this week is Eugenie Scott, the former director of the National Center for Science Education who has been waging and winning battles against creationism and pseudoscience for years, and has become one of the most venerated luminaries of the skeptic and secular movements. A Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, in 2013 she was honored with the Center for Inquiry Lifetime Achievement Award.

Scott is getting back to her roots as a biological anthropologist to talk about cryptozoology and other fringe anthropological claims. Talking with host Lindsay Beyerstein, Scott explains the distinctions between real science and pseudoscience, as well as some of the common misconceptions that lead people to mistake fiction for fact. Why is the existence of things like yetis so improbable? Why couldn’t humans and aliens procreate? Questions like these point to a need that is at the core of Scott’s career: the need to better educate kids about the methods of science.

Scott and Beyerstein also take an anthropological look at the recent controversy over Rachel Dolezal, the civil rights activist who became the focus of heated national attention when it was alleged that she was a white person passing as black. What does the concept of race even mean to biological anthropologists?

And as a bonus, as mentioned in the episode, below we have a picture of what Eugenie Scott might look like as a Neanderthal, thanks to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, August 26, 2015. 

Hello and welcome to a point of inquiry. A production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. 

And my guest today is Jimmy Scott, a happy warrior against creationism, noted science educator. And today she’s getting back to her roots as a biological anthropologist. And we’re going to talk about all kinds of cryptos, zoological and other fringe anthropological qualms. I’m going to use these as a teachable moment to talk about difference between science and pseudo science. Jeannie, welcome to the program. 

Thank you. It’s lovely to be here. 

You talk about the difference between science and pseudo science as a major theme in your work. Can you talk a bit about that construct and how we differentiate between claims that are scientific and claims that are pseudoscientific? 

I think one of the things that you want to keep in mind, if you’re considering a claim that you think sounds a little odd and most of the pseudoscience claims sound a little bit odd even from the beginning, but they could be true. Science is. I mean, nature aside, there’s all kinds of crazy things out there that you wouldn’t think are real. So just the fact that something sounds a little off doesn’t mean it’s necessarily not true. But if you’re trying to evaluate a claim, know remember Carl Sagan’s wonderful aphorism, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So what’s an extraordinary claim? And the way I’ve found useful to look at it is to consider whether some odd sounding claim is compatible with or violates some core understandings of nature that science has developed over many, many years. I mean, the thing about science is that when we get an idea about how nature works, we go out and test it and then we test it some more. And then we tested with bells on and then we test it with three wrinkles on the left knee. I mean, you know, we keep testing things over and over and other people will test ideas. And eventually a consensus is arrived at. Yes. CO2 as a warming gas. Yes, living things have common ancestors and so forth and so on. So these things go into the scientific consensus and and they are used to generate new hypotheses. If a pseudoscience, if I shouldn’t call them initially pseudo science. But if an idea violates one of those core ideas that are very, very well supported, then you start looking for extraordinary evidence. 

So use a schematic which has the core, the frontier and the fringe. Can you talk a bit about that image and how it helps us sort these claims? 

Yes, I stole it from an article that Jim Tressel wrote many, many years ago and published in trying to remember. I think it was like The Atlantic or some other popular magazine. It was called A Consumer’s Guide to Pseudoscience, which is a delightful piece that still still should be read today, I think. And he was talking about how well, how do you judge whether something is great career or not? And he pointed out that if you consider the content of science, the the not the method of science, but the content. What do we think is really valid explanations about the mind of the natural world, starting with the core ideas of science? 

These are the really well tested ones, the ones that we feel very, very secure about around that. If you visualize another concentric circle around that core circle are the frontier ideas of science, which is where all the research is going on in universities or industry research labs and so forth. And some of those frontier ideas will go into the core. And some of them, most of them won’t. But then the third concentric circle in gems, a little image there is the fringe ideas and fringe ideas are ideas that in some substantial way violates some core, well accepted proposition of science. 

My favorite example, which you can find a lot on the Internet, is free energy. You have lots of opportunities to invest in free energy gadgets, free energy companies. These are these are companies that have produced some sort of project product that supposedly will allow you to generate energy without using any and other you know, this this will solve our energy problems. We don’t have to worry about fracking. We don’t have to worry about carbon. We don’t even have to worry about solar. Just hits one of these to your house. And that’d be just great. Except you don’t find physicists investing in free energy because these gadgets are really perpetual motion machines. They you know, the laws of thermodynamics say that you can’t generate free energy price. 

Does the U.S. Patent Office. You won’t even have these claims out because they’re so far from anything plausible. I’m glad to hear that because things show up in the patent office that are kind of surprising sometimes. They’ve got a blanket rule, no perpetual motion machine. Sorry, Harrar. 

Good to hear. So if a claim like are. Giant hominids in the northwest part of the United States are in the Himalayan mountains. OK. Does that violate some well accepted principles of science that otherwise we are very confident in? Yeah, and a lot of ways. So therefore, we would expect extraordinary evidence for things like Yeti’s and things like bigfoots. 

And what are some of those really? I mean, it seems like, you know, you look at the fossil record and there are very large apes that have been fossilized and things like that. So you sort of if you let your imagination go, it doesn’t sound like the craziest thing that I might be more large apes than we currently know about. So what’s the problem? Where are the big core beliefs that these kinds of theories are on up against? 

Well, yeah, it is. I mean, one of the fascinating things about pseudoscience is that there often is a grain of truth. There often is a plausibility to the claim. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be if I were to if I were to claim that I have a nest of invisible fairies under my bed, you know that you’re not going to be very likely to believe that. But if I say that there’s a large mammal that comes into my backyard every night and turns on the motion generated light, that’s more plausible. One. One thing that you really want to consider is to me, it to me, the strongest kind of of argument is demographic. What we know about small populations is that small populations, small populations, species without very many numbers have reduced genetic variability. It just goes with the territory. You can’t have a lot of genetic variation if you have only a limited number of individuals composing the species. If that’s the case, then that population is vulnerable to any kind of environmental change that might challenge the genetic variability available to respond to that change. Diseases are something that wildlife biologists worry about cheetahs all the time because cheetahs went through a genetic bottleneck. Their numbers shrunk way down, reducing the genetic variability in cheetahs. And so as cheetahs are sort of slowly increasing in populations, they still have reduced genetic variability. 

So they’re almost like really purebred housecats to this point with a little diversity. 

Yeah, they’re really close. Yeah. The cheetah genetics are quite fascinating. People have been studying this for a couple of decades now because it’s so clear that this is a species that is in great danger. 

Do they have weird genetic problems from inbreeding like deafness or. 

You know, I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m somebody may know. There aren’t a lot of hemophiliac. It seems like a bad adjustment. Yeah. 

That would probably be selected against pretty quickly. But there’s all sorts of genes. There’s all sorts of diseases that jump from species to species. And maybe, you know, there is a disease that’s waiting to smite cheetahs. And if they don’t have the biochemical variability, so to speak, to produce antibodies could be curtains for cheetahs. Well, the same sort of principle is applicable to all mammals, tall and large mammals. Even more so because large mammals have caloric requirements that smaller mammals don’t. And so there’s a double whammy going on here. As it were. But if indeed there was some sort of large primate that was coexisting with modern human beings for tens of thousands are really would have almost really have to be hundreds of thousands of years because nobody’s really claiming that these are closely related to us. But if there’s some large, in fact, giant hominid that is coexisting with with Homo sapiens because there are so few physical remains that we don’t have any fossils, we don’t have any bodies. We’ve got some hair samples and things and we have sightings and the like. But those aren’t really very reliable. These must be very small populations because they’re largely undetected. Well, small populations don’t last long for mammalian species. The cheetah under went a population crunch about 10000 years ago and they’re still struggling. Yet the claim is that these large primates living in very tiny populations for maybe one hundred thousand or more years somehow are still around. That just is a low probability kind of a phenomenon. Other ecological requirements similarly suggest that Bigfoot and Yeti’s are very improbable because large bodied mammals have very high caloric intake requirements. 

You were saying earlier gorillas needed 9000, 10000 calories a day, like one and a half. Michael Phelps in training. 

Yeah, yeah. You’ve got a really chow down if you’re if you’re supporting that much, but. 

I mean, how much how much tonnage of leaves is that for a gorilla to get nine or ten thousand calories from a salad bar? 

Oh, this is why they eat all day long. Now, maybe just to take a point of argument here, maybe they’re eating higher caloric things. Maybe they’re eating nuts. Maybe they’re well, tubers are somewhat higher. Calor well, higher calorie than leaves, but still. But we don’t have any evidence that the guerrillas dig up tubers, for example. They really are full of wars and occasional frigid divorce, occasionally eating fruit. The giant primates that are proposed as as relic time onwards. What are they eating? I mean, this gets into the requirement of extraordinary evidence. And unfortunately, the evidence isn’t there, by the way. You are going to get so many posts on this from Bigfoot fans. 

Bigfoot fans are very passionate about this. And I get it. I mean, I you know, I would as a physical anthropologist, I would love it if there were Bigfoot. I would say be. How cool would that be? Right. But, you know, you know, you got to go with your head rather than your heart on this. 

I mean, the one I really have my heart set on that I really hope is true. Are the giant ancient dinosaurs like the Loch Ness Monster, like ever a dinosaur had lived to the front. That would be the neatest thing. 

I would just be totally cool. But again, there’s nothing to eat. Yeah. Yeah. 

Champi. You know, Updyke, Champlin, Champlain, Ogopogo. Yeah, it’s. Yeah. Alas, even less likely, I’m sorry to say. 

And next, you’re gonna tell us that it’s unlikely that there are any hybrids between human beings, space aliens, despite what some paperback books would have you believe. 

Alas, yes. That it gets even more improbable. But, you know, this this idea of of human extraterrestrial aliens is very sturdy. The sad thing about it is that it reflects a real ignorance of just basic biology, not even basic human biology, but just birds and bees. I mean, now it is that we get new little organisms and what is a species and how our species states, I mean, just layers that are not even clear. 

A basic question. 

Yeah. You got a point there as well. So, you know, I either either people never knew this stuff to start with, although the kind of biology I’m talking about is so basic. You learned it in high school or they’ve forgotten it or they’re just not interested in thinking seriously about these claims. 

I think people also sort of forgetting the connection between, say, genetics and chromosomes and evolution. People realize, OK, our chromosomes are important and they’re in cells. And right now it’s sexual reproduction brings them together. But they’re not thinking, well, why would our chromosomes be able to line up with anything an alien might bring to the table reproductively? 

Why would we assume that aliens reproduce using DNA or sex? Yeah, right. No fun at all. Yeah, it’s it’s there’s all kinds of. I was talking in the in the lecture that I gave at the CFI meeting about how when we look at reproduction, we look at hybridization, we look at species in extant species. There are all kinds of barriers that keep members of different species from interbreeding and insects are perhaps the most interesting. Many insects have kind of a lock and key system in terms of male and female genitalia. And I showed a picture of damsel flies, which was quite something was very sort of curlicue. 

And Barak looked like a sconce or some. 

And there was one one picture that I found in the literature that I would have loved to have shown. But it looked like it was really proprietary and it was something I was worrying about copyright. But it was you don’t want to get a cease and desist picture. Exactly. But it was just the most wonderful curly Q you could imagine. So anyway, different species of damsel fly have very different male and female genitalia, and you don’t get that lock and key if you if you try to have a male damsel fly, tries to breed with the female from another species. So that keeps the genes from flowing from one species to another. That’s a very effective, isolating mechanism that prevents species crossing. You’ve got to be able to get the zygotes whatever eggs and sperm Urist elite transmit when you gotta get the stuff from from A to B. Then you have to be able to have the chromosomes line up so that you get that fertilized egg. And so you start getting cell division and you can’t just get cell division, you can’t just get more cells. You have to be able to differentiate cells so that some become skin and some become teeth and some become muscles and whatever, or leaves or stoma or whatever. And you can’t do that and. Yes, you got the controller genes that say, you know, skin cells turn out now in this branch. And so you have to have a lot of genetic similarity before you can get a new organism at the end of the growth process. And different species. Again, you mentioned evolution. The more recently you share a common ancestor, the more recently two species share a common ancestor. The more similar their genes are going to be, the more similar their DNA, the higher the likelihood that they could produce a hybrid. Which is why horses and donkeys can produce mules because they shared a recent common ancestor quite recently within the last, I think, six or seven thousand years. And so, you know, the further back in time you go I mean, we share genes with Petunia’s, but we’re not likely to exchange genes with Petunia’s because even though we share lots of genes with Petunia’s, we don’t share enough that we could actually produce that fertilized eggs. 

I mean, humans couldn’t even interbreed with any kind of other primates. 

Who you know, one of the real interesting issues in creationism and creation science is what they call understanding the berriman, which is the created kind. And of course, because they start with a Bible and then look for science to support it. The Bible says that humans were created specially from all other creatures. So that’s kind of the bottom line for these folks. All other you know, you can get variation within the kinds so you can variation within the petunia kind or the damsel fly kind or the chimpanzee kind. But you can’t have chimpanzees sharing common ancestry with humans, say, or damsel flies sharing a common ancestry with houseflies. 

You, CBS are sharing ancestry with all of us. Right. 

You have to have separate creation of the kinds. But what is a kind? So the creation science people are really interested in defining what you mean by kind and what they’ve settled on. Because, you know, I mean, these people do try to use real science. They need to use more. But they try. They’ve settled on kind of a genetic approach to things. So the amount of genetic variability between two species is going to determine whether they’re members of the same kind. So some of the creation science people believe that there is a kind of an already you dactyl kind in a way that cows, sheep, buffalo and antelope are all one kind. And then when the cows sheep buffalo landed from the ark, they diversified into these various species. And it’s true that cattle and bison can interbreed. So, you know, you get a what do they call a beefalo? You could be Falo. And there’s know goats and sheeps can and various things can happen with this group. So that brings us to the primates. That was a long introduction, but it counts. What about humans and chimps? Well, according to the Bible, humans were separately created. We did not share a common ancestor with chimps. But what’s the genetic variation between chimps and humans? Well, it’s very close. We share lots and lots of genes with chimpanzees. Many more genes than cattle and buffalo. So by the reasoning of the Barot monologist, as they call themselves, chimps, gorillas, orangutan and humans should all be one created kind. 

I do primatologist think that it would be possible to hybridize between any of those primate species. 

There have been some in vitro efforts to try to fertilize various ape eggs with other apes sperm. I believe that it was possible for a may be misremembering this, but an orang sperm could penetrate those Zona Aliquippa of a given, but no further cell division could take place. Chimps and humans, you might get the same sort of thing, but it would be highly unlikely to get any further cell division. Again, the more recently shared a common ancestor, the more similar your genes are going to be. Show humans and chimps shared a common ancestor quite recently. Certainly about the same length of time as horses and donkeys. Roughly seven, eight million years ago, you saying earlier that humans and Neanderthals, we know for a fact, did interbreed. 

Yeah, and I like that picture of me as I did. That was really something. Maybe we can make it on the website. Can you upload a picture to the Smithsonian Web site and get yourself one of their images? 

No, you have to go and sit in front of their camp, OK? It was funny because I was actually wearing lipstick that day. So that picture of the Neanderthal is really quite colorful lipstick. That’s very funny. Glad to had personal adornments. Right? I mean, a guy might have something. They might have painted themselves. Who knows? 

You were a consultant on a very strange TV show about a woman who claims to be some sort of hybrid. Can you tell us about that? 

That was weird or what? They flew me into New Mexico. There was a woman there who claimed to be the product of extraterrestrial experimentation. She was a. Hybrid, human and extraterrestrial. And she was quite convinced of this. And it had really was sad in a way, because it really shaped her life. How did she come to believe this? Well, you know, it’s been a while since I’ve seen the whole thing. But she had. I think she might not have known her father was or something like that. At any rate, she she had created this story about her origins, not the things she asked Deus Ex. It is considerably. But, you know, she would get these visions and she had things happen to her psychologically that she assumed were the result of this alien origin. And of course, the probability of that is is just zero. I mean, a wirewood, some creature who evolved on another planet even use DNA. I mean, DNA is what life sprang from, from the planet Earth. But there are other kinds of replicating molecules that could occur elsewhere. There’s no reason for DNA to be the source. And just like we were talking about before. There is no shared common ancestry with an extraterrestrial because they didn’t evolve here on Earth. Big reveal. So the probability of her actually being a product of extraterrestrial mating is just zero. And in fact, as one of the scenes in the this little video, they took a sample from her and had it analyzed in a DNA laboratory. And there is the physician giving her the results and she is 100 percent human. How did she take it? I think she was very surprised because she had convinced herself that she was an alien and there wasn’t a lot of follow up. My suspicion is that her identity as a half alien was so important to her. She probably after the film was over, so to speak. She probably was able to re justify her alien origin to herself. I would not be surprised if she didn’t still hold those same beliefs. 

We have this kind of cultural fascination with the idea of hybridization, other life forms. I mean, if you look at even the Jesus smell, I mean, that’s kind of hybridization method itself or, you know, God. Humans reproduce together. Why do you think that we have this kind of enduring narrative that fascinates us so much about the idea that humans might be interbreeding with other and better things? 

I really don’t know. You need a folklorist for that, because that’s that’s really folklore. There are, in fact, lots of folkloric motifs, not so much in our culture, but in another culture as about human and animal hybrids. All folklore is culturally specific. It reflects values and concerns of the cultures in which they occur. So I’m sure the explanations would be different, too. 

And I sort of wonder, has something to do with our need for transcendence and the like, the comforting belief that we don’t have to rely on just each other, that there’s some kind of transcend it and that could be coming and making our species more special? 

Maybe, maybe transcendence seems to be a pretty easily learned human behavior. 

However, we don’t have a whole lot of wired behaviors, shall we say. You know, we don’t have these, quote, instinctual behaviors, but I think we do have genes making certain behaviors really easy to learn. And the idea of transcendence, the idea that there is a universe and a reality beyond the material reality that we live in. Those are very easily learned beliefs and behaviors. 

And hunting is also very easily learned. Yeah, you don’t get stuff like that. Speaking anthropologically, no, you don’t get stuff like that unless it’s adaptive. 

Something else I want to ask you about right now in the news. The big story of yesterday was this woman named Rachel Dolezal, who was rose to become the head of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, I believe, and was outed by her parents who are now claiming that she’s not black, though she, you know, in various places claimed that she was. And you’re talk really you alluded to this is something that, you know, biological anthropology might say a lot about in terms of what are our social constructs of race versus biological realities of human physiology. And can you say a little bit more about that? 

Yeah, that’s a fascinating example. I’ll bet you that example pops up in biological anthropology classes all over the country for the next six months. The thing is, human beings are a planetary species. We occur all over the globe in many different environments, varying considerably. And things like ultraviolet radiation, climate, humidity, temperature. We are a very adaptable species. And it’s not surprising that we are all one species. Right. And it’s not surprising that populations of human beings and one kind of environment look different to have somewhat different genes than populations in another environment, the very long arms and legs and low body fat of people. Traditional tribal groups in East Africa very well adapted for a hot. Dry, nomadic environment, the skeletons of East African people have looked pretty much like that for for tens of thousands of years, longer limbs produce more surface area for, in our case, evaporation, because that’s how we cool ourselves. But more surface area for release of heat. And you find that in wolves that live near the equator have longer legs than wolves living up in the Arctic. Similarly, in Ewart’s, what used to be called Eskimos input’s up in northern reaches Greenland and North America. You stand one of them next to an East African and you’ll notice the difference right off. They’re shorter. They have more body fat. Arms and legs are shorter. Both of these are perfectly modern and totally Homo sapiens. If they met each other, they could produce children. They are populations within a species. They are genetically open to each other. But they do look different because of adaptation to particular environmental circumstances. Skin color is another example of something that varies in what biologists call a client going from darkest at the equator to a lighter skin. The further away you get from the equator. So human beings vary. Now everybody knows that. But we have this tendency to refer to human variation as races, which, if it means what biologist means, is okay. But it generally doesn’t. 

So you find anthropologists very reluctant to use the term race to refer to human variation. You can find some biologists who do want to talk about races of sparrows because with humans, we really confuse so many issues with race. We confuse language and culture and biology, and we assume that people with a particular color, skin or other particular physical characteristics have certain behavioral characteristics, which is really silly. That’s not how it works because behavior and culture is learned and passed on through generation to generation. Genes are passed down through generation to generation, but very differently from cultural traits. So the two really are independent. 

And it’s kind of interesting because we have this kind of I think it has roots in the 19th century idea that race is genetic. And yet if you actually look at the way in which races have been broken down, even in recent era, it’s crazy. I mean, they’re legal documents that say that Finnish people are not white. And it sort of gives you an entree into the idea of like the division of you who’s white and who’s not has nothing to do with biology or morphology or really anything. It’s just about who’s important and valuable in the eyes of the people who are making these decisions. When you’ve got the physically whitest people in the world because they’re not in a position of respect, because they’re immigrants being treated as nonwhite and classified as nonwhite for official purposes. 

Sure. You know, cultural and social considerations of human biological variation regularly do not reflect any kind of genetic reality. But that doesn’t mean that there are no biological differences among groups of people. I really disagree with the anthropologist whose standards. There is no such thing as race. I know what they mean. But when a member of the general public hears that immediately, that person loses credibility because, you know, from looking around the room, you know, here’s Mary Jane from Tokyo and here’s a friend from Northern Europe and here’s Joe from Nigeria. And these people all look really different. What do you mean? There’s no race as well. There’s human variation, but it’s not produced in little nice clumps that never change. 

And it’s kind of arbitrary where you want to slice up where the different races are and often contingent on historical factors. 

So if you look at skin color, human skin color is darker near the equator. And as you go further from the equator, especially in the northern hemisphere, you find a lightening skin color. So people at the equator are darker than people at the Mediterranean. People with the Mediterranean are darker than people up in Scandinavia. Fine, we all know that. But where do you draw the line between you know, there’s no such thing as light and dark and medium and whatever, because it’s a clonal variation. It’s a gradient of change. Now it takes something like that. And you look at something like blood groups. You can take somebodies blood sample and you can check to see what their HBO blood group is, because if you want to give that person a transfusion, you have to get the right antibodies and all that. And so if you look at blood groups, blood groups are also cleanly distributed. There is a tendency for people in Europe to have very low levels of Type B of the HBO system. The further you go toward the steps of Asia, the higher the frequency of B gets footnote. That’s kind of cool because it probably reflects the invasion of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire by the various steppe tribes that the Huns, et cetera, who came in and trashed many parts of Eastern Europe. Okay, so now that’s a claim. But that claim runs east and west. The skin color, Klein runs north and south. So how do you. And there’s many, many other genetic factors that also don’t fit. 

I mean, it sort of makes sense intuitively that if you’re living in an equatorial climate, it’s adaptive to have a lot of. Melon and a lot of protection from direct sunlight. And maybe it’s necessary as you get higher. Maybe you want more vitamin D and that sort of story makes sense. But is there an adaptive hypothesis as to why the blood groups vary like they do? 

Yeah. Blood groups are also biochemically similar to other kinds of proteins that you have in your body. And it is thought that blood groups might be part of the immune system in some fashion. And there’s tons of blood groups. It’s not just HBO and RH. I mean, there’s there’s zillions of blood groups and they’re doing something because otherwise they wouldn’t be there. But the idea that you can say this is a race, this this group of populations is a race doesn’t work very well. Number one, it doesn’t work because of all these crosscutting clines that you find. Well, a, because of Clerkenwell variation at all. I mean, there aren’t any genes that only occur in this race but don’t occur in that race. So you’ve got these gradients of genes and they don’t cluster conveniently. But the other reason is that ever since about the fourteen hundreds, there has been a huge amount of population movement around the Earth. The European voyages of exploration ended up taking Europeans to North and South America. There had already been some gene flow going on between Africa and Europe, but that increased with the development of efficient sailing vessels. You get all kinds of combinations of formerly geographically semi isolated population groups in the 20th and 21st century that you never had in the seventh century before the discovery of North and South America, north and South. Native Americans were genetically isolated from Europeans. There might have been some gene flow coming over the Bering Strait and trickling down into North America, but it wasn’t very great. 

So as our species are becoming more diverse genetically, as more genes come into circulation. 

Well, one source of diversity is certainly admixture. When I was teaching genetics back in the early days, I would always point out to people that any given generation, your main source of genetic variation that natural selection does not work on etc is going to be recombination. The fact that you’re swapping around the genes that are there, exposing some genes to selection that would not be exposed, etc.. Ultimately, the original, if you will, source of genetic variation is mutation as changes in the genes themselves, whether they’re point mutations or frame shifts or whatever. Lots of different ways that the genetic material can move around on a chromosome. And ultimately, that is the source of variation. But when you’re talking about the movement of, say, the age of exploration that is mixing up the genes, you’re not creating any new genes. Probably genes for blue eye color were pretty rare in North and South America before the advent of Europeans. You can find lots of blue eyed Indians now. 

So it’s kind of an anti bottleneck. Yeah. 

In a way, we’re becoming potentially more adaptable as a species, more able to respond to change because of diversity. 

There’s a difference between genetic variation in a population or a group of populations within a species and the species as a whole. This is kind of what I was getting at when I said the if you’re talking about the species as a whole, then the only way you’re going to increase variation in the species as a whole is through through mutation. That’s the only way you get new genes, so to speak. And they do occur. But as far as, say, natural selection adaptation, and we are continuing to adapt and we adapt to diseases. We adapt to lots of things. When you’re talking about adaptation, the mixing of genes from population to population or even groups of population that formerly were not in genetic contact, that will expose extant genes to selection in a way that hasn’t been the case before. So, you know, in an absolute sense, you’re not increasing the overall species variation, but you certainly are improving the possibilities for adaptation. 

To change gears a little bit. How do you think that we can improve the way that we teach science so that people have a better grasp not only of reproduction and evolution, but of human diversity? 

Well, it’s really important that we spend more time in K-12 kindergarten through 12th grade talking about science as a way of knowing the method of science, how to think like a scientist, the critical thinking aspect of it. All of the state United States science education standards, the national NGF says the next generation science standards, every science reform for the last 20 plus years has stressed increase in science, math and science as a way of knowing. The trouble is, we’re not getting those employed, not because teachers don’t want to teach them or even because they don’t know how to teach them. They would love to teach them. But other kinds of social and political pressures on the country have made it harder to do that because there is this. Mania right now in the United States for testing. And, you know, even though the unlamented No Child Left Behind is starting to fade away. Fortunately, states and districts just don’t want to spend the money to produce the kinds of tests that would actually measure how well a kid can think critically. You can’t do that with a multiple choice checkoff and run it through a scantron. 

Kind of ironic that a philosophy of testing is so difficult. The tests are so expensive to test. Yeah. 

You know, a number of years ago, California had what was called the Golden State exam. This was a pretty neat thing. This is back in the 90s. Students would come in and they would sit down. They had little cubicles and they would be given a little packet of something. It might be a packet of leaves and they would have to demonstrate how to use a dichotomous key. They might be given a little envelope, which had a battery, a wire and a bulb, and they’d have to figure out how to make a circuit. These were very practical kinds of things. And they really showed whether the kid understood the principles of classification, understood the principles of electricity and stuff. 

But in order to grade them, you had to hire a teacher to sit down and read that short answer, read, you know, the stuff. You couldn’t do that cheaply. And so my beloved state of California wasn’t willing to pay the money to administer and correct those tests. The Golden State tests went by the by and it’s all bubble. And now we have to get over this idea that we can educate on the cheap all the time we have for today. 

Thanks so much for coming on the show. 

Thank you very much for having me. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.