Understanding evolution problems

Ken Kinman kinman2 at YAHOO.COM
Wed Mar 3 22:31:29 CST 2004


Dear All,
      John Grehan brought up some interesting points about this "educational" site.  Overall I think it will be a useful site, but with the one horribly glaring exception----namely its treatment of biological classification (which is clearly one-sided and deserves a "propaganda" label, to put it very mildly).  And remember that classification is at the very core of how we view and communicate broad evolutionary concepts and the unfolding of the history of life.
      I am particularly disturbed that a site that purports to educate does not even mention (much less define) the terms paraphyletic or polyphyletic.  They are just  simplistically lumped together with phrases like "not a clade" or "artificial".  For example:  "So to lump chimps, gorillas and orangutans together as apes without including humans is an ARTIFICIAL grouping."  No mention of the fact that it (Family Pongidae) does have a single common ancestor and that many biologists still prefer to recognize it as a paraphyletic taxon giving rise to Family Hominidae.  Applying the terms "artificial" or natural to such groups depends on your classificatory philosophy (NOT whether you are a scientist or not).
      This site seems to be implying (and many students will infer) that we are therefore not "Keeping Up With The Times".  And an even bigger slap in the face is the comment "Because the Linnaean system is not based on evolution, most biologists are switching to a classification system that reflects the organisms' evolutionary history."  Again the inference will often be made (by impressionable students) that those who are not strict cladists are producing artificial classifications not based on evolutionary history.  What a huge crock of "mush" (again to put it politely).
     Why don't you properly inform your students and let them make up their own minds, instead of this kind of propagandizing.  What are they going to think of you if Class Bivalvia does turn out to be a paraphyletic group that gave rise to radulate molluscs, or "Domain" Eubacteria is paraphyletic with respect to both Domains Archaebacteria and Eukaryota (just to mention two cases I am particuarly interested in).  I could care less about strict cladism, but you are going to give a terrible black eye to cladistic analysis as well.
     And then there is this continued declaration that "Birds ARE dinosaurs" (as opposed to the less dramatic "birds are dinosaur descendants").  Reptilia is only "valid if birds are included".  This isn't science---it's semantic jibberish (even according to various dinosaur researchers that dare to speak up in that particularly cladocentric discipline).  But even that is mild compared to comments like "The five-kingdom system solved some problems, but suffered from an inability to account for all living things."(Please, give me a break!).   Abandoning kingdoms in favor of "flexible" domains is advocated (again, give me a break).  If this isn't propaganda, I don't know what is.  Strict cladism is glowingly painted as "flexible", natural (not artificial), and "Keeping up with the times".  The implication is that the rest of us biologists are intransigent and in the minority, when in fact it is the strict cladists who are intransigent and in the minority.
     Once again, a well-funded group centered in places like New York and Berkeley are thumbing their noses at the rest of us (biologists and non-biologists alike).  But as I have stated before, it will catch up with them eventually, and the only problem is that ALL biologists will suffer, and especially students who were indoctrinated into believing there was no alternative viewpoint.  If strict cladists are so confident in the superiority of their methods, WHY do they continue to stoop to using such rhetoric and fail to educate students about the controversy (instead of pretending that it doesn't exist).  What these students don't know WILL hurt them in the long run, and many of them will eventually resent it.  If you keep them in the dark, it's simply indoctrination lacking in a truly free flow of ideas, concepts, and methodologies.  It's short-sighted and patronizing, however well-intentioned strict cladists might think it is.
          --------- Ken Kinman




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