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A CRITIQUE OF AMERICAN BIOLOGY



by Jim Britell


Summary:  
The decline in biological diversity is being caused by the timidity of American Biologists. 150 years ago Emerson warned biologists to stop hiding behind their microscopes, and stand up and be "men" and get politically involved. But Biological Sciences punish "advocacy" with tenure loss and blocked professional advancement. So paradoxically the branch of science that studies evolutionary niches is being pushed out of its own niche by "creationists" who, unlike Biologists, are not afraid to contend.



If one reviews the problems of the world's modern industrialized nations and asks: "what problems are unique to America which can only be solved the science of Biology? Clearly the answers have nothing whatsoever to do with the design or promulgation of conservation plans, maps, or the collection of, yet more, data.

Noam Chomsky, in his books Secrets, Lies and Democracy pg.54ff, and The Prosperous Few and The Restless Many pg.78-79ff, states that in worldwide surveys of peoples' grasp of biological science and evolution, the results for the U.S. jump out as similar to pre-industrial societies. Chomsky says that to find the scale of ignorance about modern biology found in America today, one has to go to Mosques in Iran or rural Sicily. 10% of Americans believe in modern evolution; 75% literally believe in the devil! 1

Americans do not generally realize that the furious debates about teaching evolution and creationism are unique to America. The recent Creationist victories in Kansas, Alabama, Illinois, and Nebraska and their takeover of the Texas state school board show (and Texas is the second largest purchaser of school texts in the United States today) that this distressing trend is not on the wane. In countless biology classes in America today teachers are afraid to teach the basic principles of Biology.

What is the reason for America's dismal level of biological and evolutionary education? Ecology, and Biology alone among all the sciences, consider vigorous public advocacy of their core beliefs and ideas, by any of its professionals, unethical and punishable by loss of tenure. While all the sciences, like Chemistry and Nuclear Science may well be criticized for not advocating for the public interest when the applications that emerge from their core beliefs or core research become threatening to the public interest, that failing is of a very different sort from Biology. A Chemist, like any scientist may sit by and watch their creations used against the public interest but it is unlikely that he would passively allow the reintroduction of the discredited Phlogiston theory into his local high school. The entire scientific community in general has much to answer for--it was the scientific community who voted to prevent Carl Sagan from becoming a member of National Academy of Scientists because he was a "popularizer." But the peculiar shortcomings of Biology go well beyond the failing of scientists in general.

Of course there are hundreds of biologists and ecologists who have made enormous contributions to the effort to protect our public lands but these efforts are those of individuals acting out of conscience and not attributable to their professions. Two entire organizations AFSEEE and PEER have been created just for agency professionals who stand up and advocate for the resource but here too these scientists efforts are exceptional and mostly of the whistle blower variety and are to the credit of individuals not to the profession of biology and ecology themselves. If medical doctors operated under the constraints ecologists do, when they came upon an auto accident they might be confined to merely documenting the situation for their files.

I remember an incident in a meeting of about 50 professionals including many wildlife biologists, where we were talking about a timber sale and its effect on some rare lichens. A florid-faced, long-time county commissioner and a rancher loudly interjected (and he was serious), "Why boys, if you want lichens, just come out to my ranch. I've got them growing all over the backs of my fence posts." This outburst was followed by his loud laughter. The biologists present literally hung their heads and said nothing and because of their silence I took it upon myself to explain to him the difference between various types and classes of lichens; why they are all not the same; and their biological importance. If I had not been there, his remark would have passed unrebutted. After the meeting biologists came up to me, as they invariably do after such exchanges and thanked me for explaining basic facts of biology to those present. They apparently were professionally "estopped" from saying anything. Even worse in meetings where endangered fish or hatcheries are at issue, state biologists are often the very ones disseminating misinformation. On the other hand biologists seem to be able to continuously advocate for extractive interests and bad environmental projects with little fear of criticism. Every one of the thousands of timber sales that have been successfully stopped by our appeals or lawsuits have the obligatory biological approvals and sign offs tucked away in their files. The "No advocacy" door seems to swing only one way .

Dr. Richard Feynman, a Nobel prize winner and one of the finest science teachers who has ever lived, who showed that faulty O rings were responsible for the Challenger shuttle accident by dropping one in a glass of ice water before TV cameras, said in an address he gave at Caltech in 1974 , that what many scientists who work for government agencies do is actually not science at all. He said:

"If you've made up your mind to test a theory, or you want to explain some idea, you should always decide to publish it whichever way it comes out. If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make the argument look good. We must publish BOTH kinds of results.

I say that's also important in giving certain types of government advice. Supposing a senator asked you for advice about whether drilling a hole should be done in his state; and you decide it would be better in some other state. If you don't publish such a result, it seems to me you're not giving scientific advice. You're being used. If your answer happens to come out in the direction the government or the politicians like, they can use it as an argument in their favor; if it comes out the other way, they don't publish at all. That's not giving scientific advice."

Government scientists who sign off on bogus EIS's and FONSI's or who allow their findings to be edited to fit preconceived notions are just using the forms and language of science and not actually doing science. They are merely misapplying the scientific method. and doing what Feynman referred to as "Cargo Cult" Science. 2

One can imagine a meeting on women's health issues where a county commissioner asserted there was no need for women's medical services because "Everybody knows that babies come from women eating watermelon seeds." Would any medical doctor present let that remark go unrebutted? Every science and profession from public health to business administration takes responsibility to promote, advocate, and advance their discipline. All, alas, but Ecology.

The task for biology and ecology today is not to merely collect more boring incomprehensible "monitoring" data but to vigorously advocate for better public education: to turn incomprehensible data into information; then display and format that information in interesting and compelling ways; and promulgate it everywhere.. The marvelous way any species has struggled over millions of years to fill its unique niche and why each creature is a fantastically precious physical and molecular repository of that struggle is the most fabulous, interesting and marvelous story that can possibly be told.

Ecologists must free their profession from the muzzles and shackles which bind them to silence as no other science. They must confront head-on the ignorance promulgated by so-called Christian fundamentalists who are on the rise, and distressingly, extending American-style biological ignorance to Third World countries like Russia, Guatemala, and seemingly everywhere...at an alarming rate.

In America, the failure of the science of Biology and Ecology to promulgate their knowledge is allowing their own niche - evolutionary knowledge - to be colonized by fundamentalist churches who proselytize creationist, anti-modern, and anti-scientific myths and nonsense. Every scientist in America should have gotten a wake up call when all presidential candidates from both parties reacted to the Kansas Board of Education decision on creationism by immediately siding to one degree or another with the "crackpots." By treating "advocacy" of their own discipline as a sin punishable by loss of tenure, ecologists are being driven from their own niche. In their obsession with niches and species competition, they apparently forgot about their own.

Worse, their widespread production of utopian maps from expensive "thought experiments" like the "Wildlands Project" can easily be misunderstood and misused to "prove" environmentalists are advocating "anti-human" exclusion zones. So the science of Ecology is actually providing ammunition for fundamentalist and "wise use" movements and indeed compounding the very problem for which they ought to have provided a solution. Not only are they not dispelling the profound ignorance about the very subjects for which their discipline alone can provide education and public awareness, they strengthen the very forces arrayed against them. One can only wonder about the evolutionary precedents for this.

The leading indicator for the growth of creationism and anti modern science is the progress of the effort to ban so-called "partial birth abortions." That is the wedge issue for the anti-abortion agenda, which itself is the wedge for the Christian fundamentalist agenda. And (of course) that agenda is clearly anti-evolution and pro-creationist. In a backward fundamentalist society like ours, not vigorously countering misinformation and allowing one's views to be "positioned" as "paganism" and against God's own plan is risky business.

If Ecology continues on its present path, within our lifetime we may well succeed in mapping the whole US on Mylar ten GIS layers deep only to see state mandated teaching in our US public schools that the world was created 6000 years ago. If this happens, the basic cowardice of the science of biology to address real issues and confront powerful forces will - in large part - be the cause. And it will not only be Biology which is set back; entire fields of study like cosmology, geology and quantum physics are impossible to teach with the constraint that the earth was created recently as basic yardsticks like time and light and indeed mensuration in all fields of science are irreconcilable with crackpot creationism.

Emerson saw this problem with biologists over 150 years ago in his essay "The American Scholar" 3 where he discussed the role of biologists (what back then were called "research scholars"). In this essay he addressed what he saw as the the seeming growing tepidness and cowardice of scientists, and called on them to be "brave". He said, " Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it he is not yet man. Without it thought can never ripen into truth."

(of scientists he said), "It is a shame, if his tranquility amid dangerous times arise from from the presumption that like children ..his is a protected class; or if he seek a temporary peace by the diversion of his thoughts from politics or vexed questions, hiding his head like an ostrich in the flowering bushes, peeping into microscopes, and turning rhymes, as a boy whistles to keep his courage up."

The question for ecologists today is this: in your evaluation, monitoring, research, mapping, and scientific activities in general, are you merely "peeping into microscopes" and "hiding your heads in flowering bushes", or are your scientific activities truly helping society confront the negative consequences of man's actions.

Had I the power to deploy protesters and choose their message I would send them to American graduate schools of Biological Science to stand in black shrouds at the front doors holding signs with the word: "SHAME!" As the professors walked in, the protesters would rub the first fingers of both hands together at right angles--the universal sign for "Shame on You."

(1) For recent distressing comprehensive polling data on American attitudes towards creationism see the web site for People for The American Way: http://www.pfaw.org/

(2) From "Cargo Cult Science" Caltech commencement address given in 1974 Also in the book, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" http://www.physics.brocku.ca/etc/cargo_cult_science.html

(3) The American Scholar (1837) was the essay which is most generally remembered for E's observation that people were becoming so specialized that we had forgotten what the true, whole man was, "...members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters--a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man."

©2000 Jim Britell
All rights reserved.
May not be reproduced without permission.


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