It’s Football Season!

What do football and tattoos have to do with evolution?  We’ll find out tomorrow.  David Sloan Wilson’s Evolution Studies Program at Binghamton University continues its tradition of bringing a cavalcade of experts and celebrities to our humble burg.

evolution education in the american south

Required reading

The roster of nerds and wonks has been impressive.  For those of us obsessed with creation/evolution debates, Evos has hosted heroes such as Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project and Michael Berkman of Penn State, among many others.

What’s on tap this week?  All the way from sunny Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Professor Christopher Lynn will be talking about his work in evolutionary anthropology. Professor Lynn just published a new edited book that SAGLRROILYBYGTH might be interested in, Evolution Education in the American South.

Tomorrow afternoon, Professor Lynn will share his work, in a talk titled “Tattooing Commitment, Quality, and Football in Southeastern North America.”  As Lynn describes it,

Tattooing appears to be a cultural and psychological pattern of behavior rooted in Darwinian processes. It is the result of an evolved tendency to manipulate human bodies in meaningful ways with distinctive benefits. Tattooing can signal group affiliation or commitment through using the body as a human canvas. Tattooing also provides cues about biological quality because it is an injury to the body, and the healing process on the surface of the skin is visible to everyone and impossible to fake. These factors make tattoos costly honest signals, consistent with evolutionary models in multiple species, including humans. I review the functions of tattooing from an evolutionary perspective, outline historic and prehistoric evidence from the North American Southeast, analyze biological implications, and discuss contemporary functions of tattooing among college football fans as a signal of commitment and quality.

For those in the Binghamton area, the talk is free and open to the public.  It will take place on the scenic campus of Binghamton University, in room G-008 in the basement of Academic Building A.  Monday, April 3rd, starting at 5:15 PM.

Hope to see you there!


Good Seats Still Available!

The 2015-2016 lineup at Binghamton University is looking like another winner. Dan Kahan of Yale Law School has just agreed to come up in the spring for a talk about his work with science communication.

We had a very exciting year last year, too. Michael Berkman visited from Penn State. Professor Berkman gave a great talk to our Evolution Studies program about his work with evolution education. Then in May, Jonathan Zimmerman from New York University delivered our annual Couper Lecture. Professor Zimmerman blew our minds with some of the most provocative ideas from his new book, Too Hot to Handle.

Are you a Kentucky Farmer?

Are you a Kentucky Farmer?

Folks who spend a lot of time with science, creationism, and public perceptions will be familiar with Professor Kahan’s work. His Cultural Cognition Project has explored exciting new directions in the tricky field of science communication. As Professor Kahan will tell you, we’re all Pakistani doctors; we’re all Kentucky farmers.

Details of Professor Kahan’s talk to follow. It will likely be a Monday evening in the early months of 2016. As always, the seminars hosted by Binghamton’s stellar Evolution Studies Program are free and open to the public.

Can’t wait.

Binghamton: The Place to Be

If you care about our educational culture wars—and you know you do—there’ll be no better place to be in 2015 that Binghamton University in sunny Binghamton, New York. We’ll have two of the world’s best scholars coming to campus to talk about their work. They will share their research into some of the most confounding culture-war questions: Who decides how and what to teach about evolution? How has sex education spread worldwide?

In late March, Professor Michael Berkman will be coming. Along with his colleague Eric Plutzer, Prof. Berkman published a bombshell book a couple years ago about the teaching of evolution in public high schools. Berkman and Plutzer are political scientists at Penn State. They got funding from the National Science Foundation to survey high-school science teachers about their teaching. Their results attracted a good deal of attention.

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

In the January, 2011 issue of Science (sorry, subscription required), for example, Berkman & Plutzer described the results of their survey. They found that about 13% of teachers taught creationism in public schools as science. Another roughly 28% taught recognizable evolution. The rest, roughly 60%, are the most interesting. This large majority of teachers reported that they taught a mish-mash of watered down evolution, religious- or religion-friendly ideas about creation, or a menu of evolution and creationism.

But the book was bigger than just this survey. As political scientists, Berkman & Plutzer argued that the important question was the way these decisions were made. Who decides what gets taught? State standards don’t do it. In states with good evolutionary science standards, teachers still teach non-evolution. Textbooks don’t do it. Glittering new science books with all the evolution bells and whistles can’t teach by themselves.

For Berkman & Plutzer, the answer was simple: Teachers. Teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats,” making daily decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. In most cases, teachers fit in with their local communities. If their communities want evolution to be taught, teachers teach it. But if communities want it watered down or kicked out, teachers do that, too.

Professor Berkman will be visiting our scenic campus as part of the Evolution Studies Program. We’re not sure yet what the focus of his talk will be, but he tells us he’s got some new data he’ll be sharing. Can’t wait to see what it is.

Our second campus visit will be from Professor Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University. Over a decade ago, Prof. Zimmerman defined the historical vision of America’s educational culture wars with his book, Whose America? In that volume, Zimmerman argued that two main tensions had divided Americans’ vision of proper education. Since the 1920s, conservatives and progressives had squared off on fights over patriotism and religion. Does loving our country mean teaching students to question it? Or to support it unhesitatingly? And should schools incorporate prayer and Bible-reading? Who gets included in history textbooks, and how?

Professor Zimmerman’s new book looks at sex education as a global phenomenon. Though the United States was an early exporter of sex ed, by the end of the twentieth century the US government joined some uncomfortable allies to battle sex education. As Zimmerman has argued, sex ed has created a new and sometimes surprising worldwide network of conservative alliances. For example, at a 2002 United Nations special session on children, US delegates joined Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, and Syria in condemning a sex-ed proposal.

Who's for it?

Who’s for it?

When it comes to culture-war topics, national boundaries aren’t as important as we tend to think. It’s difficult for historians to look beyond them, though, due to language barriers and the high cost of research travel. In his new book, Prof. Zimmerman hopes to overcome those prosaic difficulties and tell the story of sex ed in its full global context.

And when he journeys north to our campus in early May, Zimmerman promises to share some of his insights from this book.

So whether you care about evolution, creationism, sex ed, history, school politics, school prayer, or any other culture-war issue, there will be nowhere more exciting than Binghamton University in 2015.

Be here or be square.

Save the Date, Evolution Wonks!

Great news for all of us in sunny Binghamton!  Professor Michael Berkman of Penn State has agreed to come up for a talk about his work.  It is scheduled for March 30, 2015, so everyone has plenty of advance warning.  Clear your calendars.

Evolution? Creation? Who decides?

Evolution? Creation? Who decides?

Professor Berkman’s talk will be part of the fantastic Monday seminar series of our Evolutionary Studies Program (EvoS).  The brainchild of evolution maven David Sloan Wilson, EvoS makes this campus a wonderfully stimulating place to work.  I’ve had the chance to talk to the assembled multitudes, and the EvoS program has brought in a steady stream of world-class evolution experts from all fields.

Those who follow the evolution/creation controversies may know Professor Berkman best for his recent-ish co-authored book, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

The centerpiece of that book—and the part that attracted the most attention—was a survey of high-school science teachers.  Berkman and his co-author Eric Plutzer found that a sizable minority (28%) of science teachers taught evolution.  Another small minority (13%) taught creationism as science.  But a large middle—roughly sixty percent—muddled through.  This middle group either taught both, or neither, or a watered down mainstream “science” that left plenty of intellectual room for creationism.

But less noticed and more momentous was their argument that teachers make the most difference in what gets taught.  And teachers tend to fit in with their communities.  When we hear that large percentages of Americans agree with a recent creation of humanity, we might think at first that those people are mixed in with the rest of us.  But far more likely is that such folks cluster geographically. In other words, in some towns, most of the residents are creationists.  In those locales, teachers will teach what their community wants.  Not out of some sinister oppressive fundamentalist machinations, but much more simply because the teachers hold those same beliefs.

As Berkman and Plutzer argued, teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats.”  They do not simply crank out whatever ideas are enshrined in textbooks and state standards.  Rather, teachers exert profound influence on the kinds of ideas students hear, and the ways those ideas are presented.  In Berkman’s and Plutzer’s words, “not only do personal beliefs influence instruction, they also have a stronger impact than any other factor we have examined” (page 186).

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

Required reading for anyone interested in evolution/creation issues

As Berkman and Plutzer put it, the best way to understand the evolution/creation fight is not as a question of religion or science.  Rather, at heart, this is “a political struggle over who decides, a question central to democratic politics” (page 31).

So Monday, March 30 should be an interesting evening.  The EvoS crowd usually runs toward the biologic and away from the politic.  Many of the undergraduate students are biology majors and many of the faculty and community participants cluster in the hard sciences.  Such folks sometimes wince at any attempt to understand evolution/creation as a cultural or political issue.  Instead, some hard scientists tend to see the issue as black and white: Evolution is science, creationism is not.

I’m not sure what Professor Berkman will discuss in his talk, but I’m counting the days til then.  These talks are open to the public and free; no registration is required.  I’ll post details of the specific time and location as we figure them out.  For those who can’t make it to our scenic but out-of-the-way campus, EvoS usually posts the audio of these talks after a few days.

Hope to see you there!




Friday Night Lights: Evolution in Schools

How can evolutionary ideas help education?  This Friday, biologists and evolution mavens David Sloan Wilson and Richard Kauffman of Binghamton University’s Evolutionary Studies Program will be giving a talk about using evolutionary theory to improve education.  And you’re invited.

Professors Wilson and Kauffman will not just be talking about teaching evolution as a subject, but about ways to use evolutionary ideas to help increase learning in all subjects.  As they put it,

Evolutionary theory is highly relevant to education in ways that go beyond the need to teach evolution in public schools. We will make two additional evolution-education connections in our talk. First, evolutionary theory can be used to design social environments that are maximally conducive to learning all subjects. Second, evolutionary training can increase general cognitive thinking skills, including the ability to transfer knowledge across domains. We will illustrate these points with two studies, involving a program for at risk-high school students and a college course that teaches evolution across the curriculum, respectively.

The talk will take place on the scenic campus of Binghamton University, Friday, May 9, between 5-7 PM, in room 124 of Academic Building B.  All are welcome, but the talk will be targeted toward graduate students and science educators.  There is no need to register and the event is free.

For those of you who are unable to travel to Sunny Binghamton, the presenters will be talking about two academic studies: “A Program for At-Rish High School Students Informed by Evolutionary Science,” and “The Evolutionary Biology of Education: How Our Hunter-Gatherer Educative Instincts Could Form the Basis for Education Today.”



Binghamton University On Top!

You all can take your college basketball and shove it.  My beloved employer, Binghamton University, has topped the college charts this week in the only way that really matters: annual snowfall.  We Bearcats come in sixth overall, trailing behind only Syracuse, Northern Arizona (?), Montana State, University of Colorado—Boulder, and SUNY Buffalo.

They Couldn't Have This Much Fun with a Mere 85.2 Inches of Snow!

They Couldn’t Have This Much Fun with a Mere 85.2 Inches of Snow!

Don’t get me wrong: students come here for more than the snow.  Binghamton has consistently ranked among the top schools for its combination of academic excellence and affordability.  The university is home to unique and marvelous institutions such as David Sloan Wilson’s EvoS program.  Without leaving snowy Binghamton, it’s possible to meet and greet some of the most exciting minds in the world of evolution/creation debates.

But as I look out my window this spring afternoon at a sheet of ice and crusty snow in my backyard, I realize that such top academic rankings and fancy special programs can only get people to CONSIDER Binghamton.  We STAY for the snow.


Allmon at EVoS

Clear your calendars!

Next week Professor Warren Douglas Allmon will be traveling down scenic Route 96 from Ithaca to talk about creationism.

Allmon’s talk, “Creationism in 2013: Not in the Headlines but Never Far Away,” will be on Monday, November 18, at 5:00 in room AG008 on the beautiful campus of Binghamton University in sunny Binghamton, NY.  The talk will be free and open to the public; no registration is required.

It will be part of the continuing series of Monday seminar talks hosted by the Evolutionary Studies program here on campus.

Allmon is the Hunter R. Rawlings III Professor of Paleontology at Cornell.  He also runs Ithaca’s Museum of the Earth.

I’m excited to hear what Professor Allmon has to say.  A couple years back, Allmon argued in the pages of Evolution: Education and Outreach that evolution educators must begin by understanding the reasons for resistance, not just riding roughshod over it.  As he put it,

This multiplicity of causes [for rejecting evolution] is not sufficiently appreciated by many scientists, educators, and journalists, and the widespread rejection of evolution is a much more complicated problem than many of these front-line practitioners think it is.

Hear hear!  If you want to hear what Allmon has to say, come on down.  Hope to see you there.

It’s Your Own Fault

It’s your own fault if you’re bored this fall.

Binghamton University is hosting some events that will certainly be of interest to all ILYBYGTH readers.

For those in the area, there will be some great ways to think and discuss the possible meanings of American educational conservatism.

I’ll keep the list updated, but so far there are three talks of note.  All of them are free and open to the public.

1.) September 11, noon-1:30, IASH conference room, Library North 1106: Adam Laats, “‘Democracy’ and American Education, 1930-1960.”

Yours truly will be presenting some ideas from my current book about American educational conservatism in the twentieth century.  Specifically, I’ll be talking about the ways conservative activists in groups such as the American Legion framed “democracy” in strikingly different ways than did progressive educational thinkers such as John Dewey.  The talk will be part of the series of faculty fellows’ talks at Binghamton’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

2.) September 24, 5-6:15, specific topic TBA: Mario Rios Perez.

I’m not sure what he’ll be talking about, but Professor Perez (of Syracuse University) has done some great work with the history of schooling in Chicago.

3.) November 18, 5:00: Warren Douglas Allmon, “Creationism in 2013: Not in the Headlines but Never Far Away.”

Professor Allmon will be talking as part of the EVoS series of Monday seminars.  He is a paleontologist at Cornell, our neighbor to the north.  When I heard he was coming to our friendly campus, I looked up his sort-of recent article about the culture of creationism in Evolution: Education and Outreach.  In that article, Professor Allmon makes the powerful point that resistance to evolution is about more than just the knee-jerk “religion vs. science” clichés that we hear so often.  He argues that Americans’ resistance to evolution comes from five distinct categories.  As Allmon argues, “this multiplicity of causes is not sufficiently appreciated by many scientists, educators, and journalists, and the widespread rejection of evolution is a much more complicated problem than many of these front-line practitioners think it is.”

Hear hear!  Can’t wait to hear his talk in November.

Hope to see you there…



Adam Laats on Evos & You

Many thanks to DJ SupplyGuy for hosting a talk yesterday on his radio show “EVoS & You.”  DJSG presented some interesting questions and our short half-hour talk ranged from pen-dropping to ham-and-cheese sandwiches.

Some of the questions we wrestled with:

  • Why do so many Americans doubt evolution?
  • Why do smart evolutionary scientists seem so dumb about creationism?
  • How can evolution education do a better job?

Check out the show: Evos and You~2012_10_16_17_00_08.

Required Reading: Who’s Afraid of Evolution?

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.  I started this blog when I discovered many of my secular, liberal friends and family shared my ignorance about the complexities of life in Fundamentalist America.  One academic acquaintance once asked me regarding young-earth creationists, “What’s wrong with these people?”  She didn’t mean to be patronizing, but she dismissed a huge group of Americans with one sarcastic comment.

As we’ve noted here before, American creationists embrace a wide variety of beliefs.  Calling oneself a “creationist” doesn’t necessarily mean one believes in a six-thousand-year-old planet, or a literal six-day creation.  But it might.

Venema. Image source: Trinity Western University

Dennis Venema of Trinity Western University recently shared some of his experiences teaching evolution at an evangelical Protestant university.  Writing on The BioLogos Forum, Venema discusses the thrill he experiences when he shares his evidence for evolution with his evangelical students.  As he describes, some of his students resist accepting the evidence.  Even when they do recognize the power of chromosomal similarities, students still reach individual conclusions about how this science impacts their faiths.

Venema’s reflections demonstrate the complexities of creationism within the borders of Fundamentalist America.  We outsiders must be careful not to lapse too glibly into a simple evolution/creation binary.

As Venema relates,

“For me personally, the most difficult circumstances to watch are students who feel torn between the evidence and their faith. In some cases these are extremely bright students, who easily see the strength of the evidence, but feel the need to remain unengaged and uncommitted because they fear a backlash from their churches, or (especially) their parents.  While an evangelical university can be a wonderful, safe environment for students to explore these issues, that environment doesn’t follow them home. These struggles are painful to watch, and I’ve spent more than a few hours in prayer for students facing them.”

This experience is different at an evangelical university than it would likely be at a mainstream school.  For starters, the assumptions about students’ home lives would not be the same.  No matter how caring and sympathetic a professor might be at a mainstream college, he or she would not likely assume that evolution would cause such struggles for his or her students.

Students who learn about evolution at my institution, for example, would do so under the auspices of David Sloan Wilson’s EVoS program.  This is a wonderful and powerful academic experience for undergraduates.  But the students in the program generally assume that anyone who does not embrace the science of evolution is trapped somehow in a bizarre and archaic subculture.  My chat about the intellectual culture of creationism with a group of bright and talented students in the EVoS demonstrated the intense secular bias of the program.  (You can listen to a podcast of that conversation here.)

As Venema continues, at an evangelical college, the situation is vastly different.  Many students come from churches and families in which the word “evolution” has long been associated with every sort of rank sin.  At Venema’s school, for instance,

“evolution matters. That intensity of student engagement is invigorating, and the students feel it too. Regardless of where students ultimately decide to “land” on the issue, many report that they enjoyed the process – the exchange of ideas, the discussions and debates, and the new understandings gained.”

So who’s afraid of evolution?  Many of my secular friends and family would likely assume that students at evangelical colleges are taught simply to hate and fear the truths of modern science.  As Venema shares, the real experience is a much more complicated thing.