April 16, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Darwin as Canary in a Coal Mine

The state of evolution teaching is like the fabled canary in a coal mine, Sean Carroll told Science.1  That’s why the molecular biologist from the University of Wisconsin, Madison is cutting back on his research and undergraduate teaching to concentrate on his new appointment: vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  Asked by Elizabeth Pennisi in a Newsmaker interview about the concerns of high school teachers he has contacted, he said:

Well, we probably were brought together over the teaching of evolution.  That was issue [number] one, …  because biology without evolution is kind of like physics without gravity.  It’s also sort of a canary in the coal mine for the state of science education.  There’s so much propaganda against evolution, but you see the same sort of techniques being used against climate science or stem cells or whatever it might be.

Note: This is Sean B. Carroll, not the cosmologist Sean M. Carroll of Caltech; far enough back, though, they probably had a common ancestor.


1.  Elisabeth Pennisi, “Newsmaker Interview: Sean Carroll and the Evolution of an Education Maven,” Science, 16 April 2010: Vol. 328. no. 5976, p. 294, DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5976.294.

Let’s see if years of research and teaching has elevated Dr Carroll above the lot of mortals so that he can lecture the rest of us on how not to engage in propaganda.  First of all, since he is keen to protect Saint Darwin from the Neanderthals, has he in his own research demonstrated the innovative power of evolution?  Pennisi’s article would certainly have produced the best example of his PhD expertise to impress the would-be challengers to the title of “pioneer in the field of evolutionary development.”  Here it is.  Ready?  “His most recent paper describes how the polka dots on a fruit fly wing were patterned according to the distribution of a molecule involved earlier in the fly’s development.”  Well, Whoopie View with a polka-dot dress.  He starts with fruit flies, he ends with fruit flies; but not one polka dot developed into a canary.  It sounds, therefore, like we are at liberty to parse his paragraph for possible propaganda.  Baloney Detectors, ON!

  • Assertion: Teaching of evolution is issue number one.  Analysis: The popularity of an issue is not necessarily relevant to its importance.  Undoubtedly teacher lounge time is popular as well.  And how scientific was his sample?  Did he include Christian schools?  Well, guess what!  What were the questions?  Maybe the issue they were concerned about was how dogmatic the textbooks are about evolution.  Don’t assume they were all pro-NCSE.
  • Assertion: Biology without evolution is kind of like physics without gravity.  Analysis: This is the old canard in a cold mind known as association and analogy.  Try ours instead: Biology without evolution is kind of like Russia without Stalin.  See?  Anyone can do it.  It’s fun.  Achieves the desired result; no evidence or argument required.  Here are some more analogies submitted by a regular reader: Biology without evolution is like:
    • Africa without malaria
    • Food without botulism
    • Lincoln without Booth
    • Middle Ages without the Black Plague
    • Mexico without drug wars
    • Washington DC without lying politicians
    • CBS without the BS
    • Christmas without atheists
  • Assertion: Evolution is a canary in the coal mine for the state of science education.  Analysis: Analogy mixed with non-sequitur.  Most of biology and medicine gets along fine without evolutionary storytelling tacked on.  Biology was doing fine for centuries before Darwin created the Great Society for Storytellers and liberated biology from empiricism (12/22/2003 commentary).  The research of Linnaeus, Jenner, Mendel, Pasteur, Lister, Carver, Watson and Crick and many other giants of biology and medicine owed nothing to Darwin.  If anything, Darwinism represents dead weight – a useless requirement to fit uncooperative data into a predetermined story line.  It wasted decades of effort on now discarded ideas like vestigial organs and junk DNA.  Nevertheless, Carroll’s badly-scrambled metaphor can be salvaged with a few alterations.  The canary represents morality and a vibrant altruistic society (not evolution).  The coal mine is the descent into secularism.  Evolution is the poison gas belching upward from the depths.  Now the analogy fits the state of our country’s decline perfectly.
  • Assertion: There’s so much propaganda against evolution.  Analysis: Anyone can hide behind a broad brush, unsupported claim intended to generate fear.  Some examples, Dr. Carroll?  We’ll supply one going the other direction – yours.
  • Assertion: You see the same sort of techniques being used against climate science or stem cells or whatever it might be.  Analysis: Generalities, no specifics, blanket accusations: “whatever it might be”.  Let’s take him up on it and include “tenure” in the unspecified category “whatever it might be.”  Insert any issue Dr. Carroll feels passionate about.  Go ahead; he left the door wide open.  And he revealed by his short list that he’s not really motivated by science education, but by the leftist political agenda.  Perhaps he feels that high school science teachers should teach the modern scientific method: you know, hide the decline, falsify data, collude in your emails, get unelected judges to give you what the public won’t vote for, etc.

When Dr. Carroll is not reasoning in a circle (source), pushing against the Humvee (source), shushing the co-conspirators (source), reassuring the fearful (source), or practicing his intolerance (source), he’s telling high school science teachers how to teach science.  You notice that Science gives this guy the open mike with no challengers.  From his platform at HHMI, let him explain to science teachers how Howard Hughes tinkered blindfolded with accidents in a hangar without a plan while drinking, and a Spruce Goose “emerged”.  No wonder home schooling is big.

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