Spring 2006 classes

Last week I finally got my course schedule figured out:

  • American Nationalism & American Culture – Michael Kammen
  • Science, Arms and the State – Peter Westwick
  • “The American Century”, 1941-1961 – Jean-Christophe Agnew

I’m also taking French for Reading, auditing a bioinformatics class and sitting in on Lloyd Ackert’s History of Ecology. Up until the middle of the week I was still hoping to take Advanced Topics in Macroevolution, the syllabus of which consisted of going through Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Being that I’m an historian of evolutionary biology, have audited a graduate-level evo course, and have a fairly broad science background in general, I figured this would be perfect for me, and Ole encouraged me to take it as a graded class instead of an audit. But the professor, who just returned from vacation and returned my messages on Monday, will not let me take it because I don’t have enough graded coursework as relevant background; she says it would be unfair to the other students (paleontology grad students) to let me in. I wrote her a caustic email about how, in fact, it was unfair to her students not to have me there. But only in my head.

But aside from driving to New Haven 4 days a week (probably 5 on weeks with job talks, like this week), this semester should be really good; the Westwick and Agnew courses are superb so far, and the Kammen course was awkward at first but is getting better. The department is now going to administer language tests internally, and I expect to be able to pass French at the end of this semester. The bioinformatics class (in the statistics department) has been really enjoyable so far; I forgot how fun math can be. And Lloyd’s class is really small (two undergrads, and me), so I get to show of my book learnin’ and have nice informal discussions with Lloyd twice a week about various historical topics related to the cycle of life.

The Wikipedia history of science project that I started is going really well; it’s up to 19 participants. I’ve decided to take advantage of my access to Yale, so I’m going to try to periodically find well-illustrated old science books that haven’t made their way to Beinecke yet, scan illustrations, and put them on Wikipedia. This week, I checked out Ernst Haeckel’s incredible Kunstformen der Natur (1899), a 13 inch folio with 100 full-page illustrations, many of them in color. I’ve scanned sea anemones, orchids, nepenthes, and ammonites so far.

Historians of Science on Wikipedia

The search results with the User: pages on Wikipedia turn up a fair number of historians of science, mostly graduate students and professors (and there are probably more who don’t mention their field on user pages). Check it:

Neale Monks

On a related note, I’m starting a WikiProject for history of science. If you’re a Wikipedian (or would like to become one), you should join it.

Wikipedia in the classroom

It looks like I’m not the first one to think of assigning students to edit Wikipedia articles (not that I actually thought I was). T. Mills Kelly at George Mason University reports on his experiments with using Wikipedia assignments (and his experience of receiving papers bases primarily on Wikipedia sources). However, Kelly researches “the influence of digital media on student learning in history,” so (ironically) it’s not just being used for pedagogical purposes in this case.

I’m not sure how much say I’ll have when I’m a TA next year, but I’m going to start my Wikipedia assignments then if I can get away with it.

Review of The Evolution-Creation Struggle by Michael Ruse

I did a group book review for Beverly Gage’s class on American Conservatism last Spring, covering 4 books that deal in one way or another with the history of Intelligent Design. Best of the bunch was definitely Ruse’s book, The Evolution-Creation Struggle. (The others were Creationism’s Trojan Horse, Doubts About Darwin, and the 3rd edition of Ed Larson’s excellent Trial and Error.) In particular, I think Ruse’s book is relevant to all the pronouncements about the status of ID as science/pseudoscience/junk science and the frequent invocations of the mystical scientific method, in the wake of Kitzmiller v. Dover. And since I saw other sites mentioning the book recently, I thought I’d post that portion of the review. I also stumbled across this interesting interview with Ruse on the book.

My review:

Michael Ruse—who cultivates a great oval beard to emulate Darwin—has written about fifteen books, mostly on evolution, and edited about that many more. Ruse has a gift for melting down detailed historical scholarship and reforging it into something grander, capturing the broad themes in the history of evolution. His latest offering, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, demonstrates the historical continuity of thinking about creation, evolution, and the relationship between religion and science, putting Intelligent Design into context as a philosophical continuation of the same questions that partially-overlapping circles of evolutionists and Christians have been pondering and debating for hundreds of years.

Ruse begins by describing the cultural context in which evolution first arose, which is crucial for understanding the tensions and links between evolution and religion, then and now. Ruse argues that though “the eighteenth century did see much scientific activity, and some was certainly pertinent to the issue of evolution,” “metaphysical ideas played as big if not a bigger role in the origins of evolutionism.” Particularly, ideas of progress heavily informed the theories of virtually every prominent evolutionist before the 20th century, with the partial exception of Darwin himself. Ruse compares the spread of evolution after Darwin’s Origin of Species to the formulation of a religion from Jesus’ teachings, with T. H. HuxleyDarwin’s bulldog—playing the part of Saint Paul.

Ruse invokes a tripartite distinction of “pseudoscience,” “public science” and “professional science” to classify early work on evolution, demonstrating a remarkable parallel to Intelligent Design. He describes all the evolutionary theorizing before Darwin, from Lamarck to Robert Chambers, as pseudoscience, because it was derived as much from ideology as from empirical observations. With Darwin, evolution became public science; it was intellectually and empirically grounded, but it had little bearing on the actual practice of science. Even the celebrated evolutionary apologist Huxley, a great innovator in biological education, found room for only half a class on evolution in his two-year, 150-lecture course; while he championed the social and (anti-)religious dimensions of evolution in public speeches, he did not find it relevant for future scientists and doctors. Only with T. H. Morgan, and to a lesser extent Ernst Haeckel, did evolution become the pursuit of professional scientists, somewhat separate from ideology and metaphysics.

Ruse is thus more forgiving than most of the fact the Intelligent Design springs from religious ideas and has not been conducive to novel experimental work. Though ID is at best public science, if not pseudoscience, that does not preclude professional science in the future. Ruse is skeptical of its future potential as well, as he sees the retreat from methodological naturalism as a “science stopper,” but his commitment to a historical approach precludes the typical facile demarcation of science and religion as entirely separate entities, with ID consigned to the latter. In nearly a century and a half since Darwin, the relationships among religion, concepts of creation, and evolution have taken many forms, but religion and evolution have never been entirely distinct.

Ruse addresses the historical role of evolution as a secular religion, especially for the group of scientists who established the core modern evolutionary theory (neo-Darwinism or the synthetic theory of evolution) in the 1930s and 40s. A complicated set of connections grew up gradually among evolutionary theory, Christian theologies, secular and religious humanism, and theories of creationism. Of particular importance was, and is, the distinction between premillennialists and postmillennialists. Most creationism, particularly the tradition of creation science and flood geology, derives from premillennialist, fundamentalist Christian theology. Ruse also claims that for many evolutionists, such as Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson, “evolutionism entail[s] its own brand of postmillennial theology.”

Intelligent Design represents a new mixture of scientific, philosophical and religious concepts, and Ruse does his best to separate each thread of ID for analysis. For each aspect, historical continuity is critical, and The Evolution-Creation Struggle makes sense of ID in terms of the very real and continuing tensions between science and religion without reducing history to the old trope of a war between science and superstition. While the conclusions will not sit well with ID proponents, Ruse separates his philosophical judgments from his historical analysis so that a wide audience will find this book useful.

The semester is finally over

I just finished and submitted my last paper of the semester. I’ve never had such a hard time finishing one. I got an extension from December 16 to January 2, and by then I was only about halfway through. I spent three weeks doing everything I could to avoid writing it, because I had lost interest. I did about 200 edits on Wikipedia in the “I’ll get back to writing just as soon as I check …” mindset. About a week ago I decided I would rather lose a toe (one of the smallest three, on either foot) than write it. I would lay in bed trying to get to sleep when I wasn’t tired, because I knew if I wasn’t in bed I needed to be writing. The whole time I was in Oklahoma and Texas, I had this awful weight hanging over me. And finally, it’s over.

I’m ready for a new semester. The department will be hosting more job talks soon (though they haven’t announced any names). In December we had Bruno Strasser and Laurn Kassell. Each presented work in progress, and I think many of us were disappointed with both, although the candidates themselves were more impressive than their talks. Strasser’s weak talk was particularly disappointing to me, because he does work that is extremely relevant to my interests (the intersection of evolutionary biology and molecular biology/biochemistry); he would be a possible thesis advisor (though Dan would still be the most likely choice).

For classes this semester, I’ll probably be taking:
Medieval Hebrew Scientific Philosophy – Gad Freudenthal
Science, Arms and the State – Peter Westwick
American Century: 1941-1961 – Jean-Christophe Agnew
French or German (I’ve taken one class in each, but I’m not yet proficient enough to pass the tests)

I’m also going to try to sit in on or audit these:
Advanced Topics in Macroevolution – This class consists of working through Gould‘s Structure of Evolutionary Theory.
Comparative Genetics – This is a bioinformatics class on the methods of using genetics databases.

In the meantime I’m going to get back to work on Wikipedia; Kepler needs me.