Why You Should Tip Your Bartender from an Evolutionary Perspective: How Reciprocal Altruism Can Get You Tipsy.

I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” We all know this mantra.  Actually, when executed properly, it’s the most efficient way to get things done.

Let’s take a moment to think about our ancestors.  It wouldn’t make sense for someone to share all of the berries they found or the meat they hunted with someone else.  Why bother?  It’s going to help ME survive if I save it all for myself.  Right?  The problem is that evolution is not about survival – it’s about reproduction.  The name of the game is passing on your genes.  Because of the inherent nature of evolutionary processes, cooperating is actually beneficial.  Sharing my berries with my child will increase reproductive success.  My genes are passed on, and my offspring get to grow and be healthy and continue the pattern.  This is known as kin-selected altruism – helping out and cooperating with family members.  Cooperation among kin increases overall reproductive success (Hamilton, 1964).  Ants all equally benefit from a reproductive standpoint when they each work for the queen.  Humans do reproductively better when we cooperate with our kin as well.  Studies have found that we share food more with our own kin than with non-relatives (Ziker & Schnegg, 2005).  It’s probably no surprise that we tend to leave our will with a close relative compared to friends or strangers (Cartwright, 2000).  Okay, so helping out the family makes sense.  What about non-relatives?

Research has pointed out that helping out non-relatives may be selected for as well (Trivers, 1971).  Reciprocal altruism is a type of social interaction in which one individual pays some cost or sacrifice to another with the expectation (however unconscious) that the same sacrifice will be made for that individual.  Paying a cost to a non-related recipient (buying my friend a gift) may benefit me if/when that individual pays me back someday (she buys me a gift).  Scratching someone else’s back today might benefit you someday when you’ve got an itch and need to call in a favor from that same person.  But what if that person never comes back to scratch your back?  What if that person receives the benefit, but never returns the cost?  We would call this person a cheater, but let’s face it – they’re winning here.  They got their back scratched, AND they didn’t have to do anything for it!  The problem with cheaters is that ultimately, all their bridges get burned.  Think back to our ancestors – suppose one day a lion comes up Grog the Caveman’s cave, and he has a weapon to take care of the issue and save his friend, Thak.  If Thak was a cheater, you think Grog would save him?  Thak has been eating Grog’s meat, borrowing Grog’s tools, and hogging Grog’s fireplace for a long time, all without ever helping out Grog in return.  Lot of I.O.U.’s, that Thak… He does not have Grog’s back when he needs him.  Paying any cost to Thak will never benefit Grog.  It makes more sense to consider giving Thak over to the lion for dinner…

So, what’s a more modern and fast-paced example of reciprocal altruism?  Hanging out at the bar, of course!  I can’t think of a quicker way to display this in action.  Patrons do not HAVE to pay their bartender a tip.  It’s encouraged and expected, but not enforced.  Someone could order a Long Island Iced Tea, watch me make it, pay for the drink in exact change, and then walk away.  And many people often do.  Here’s the problem… After about 3 Long Islands, I no longer feel like making these for you for free…. You’re out of luck.  The nature of being a bartender, or any waitstaff, is that tips are what pay the bills.  And that’s fine, until someone cheats the system.  Let’s use Joe as an example.  Joe could be the cheater, and it would work out for him for a while.  He would get his buzz cheaper than other tipping patrons.  Ultimately, this runs out though.  After Joe has established himself at every watering hole in town as the non-tipper, no bartender is going to serve him.  On a lighter note, those who tip are likely to get unexpected benefits often.  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that, as the bartender, I often buy a round for my regular tipping customers.  It’s nice to do.  I don’t do it in hopes that they’ll scratch my back later, but quite often this is what happens.  It ends up in a nicer tip at the end of the night.  At the very least, tipping your bartender will keep him/her happy and eager to serve you throughout the night.  Reciprocal altruism can get you tipsy.  Now, I’m not saying that the only reason people do nice things is because we’re selfishly all hoping and expecting nice things to come our way afterwards.  I’m merely pointing out how this type of altruism has been selected for through evolution.  It can be adaptive.

The bottom line here is that you should tip your bartender.  It keeps them happy, and that keeps your drink stiff.


Cartwright, J. (2000). Evolution and human behavior: Darwinian perspectives on human nature. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Hamilton, W.D. (1964). The evolution of social behavior. Journal Theoretical Biology, 7(1–16).

Trivers, R.L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46(35–57).

Ziker, J., & Schnegg, M. (2005). Food sharing at meals: kinship, reciprocity, and clustering in the Taimyr Autonomous Okrug, Northern Russia. Human Nature16(2), 178-211.

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How I Scared the S*** Out of Guys in Only 15 Minutes…. And Now You Can, Too!

Recently, I had the opportunity to present my work at an evolutionary psychology independent conference (EPIC).  It was truly an amazing opportunity and a wonderful experience for presenters and audience members alike.  Both alumni and current members of the New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology lab presented their own research at this conference within a standard 15 minute time slot.  The conference was open to the public, and audience members included several faculty members, various interested college students from near and far, and even local high school students interested in psychology and evolutionary studies.  I was privy to hear about the evolutionary psychology behind music and emotional intelligence, how evolutionary psychology is truly interdisciplinary, and even the evolutionary psychology behind ostracizing people, among other topics.

My current thesis work evaluates the existence of what I call partner insurance.  This is what I presented at EPIC, and it was a blast (Watch the full video here).  Partner insurance is like other types of insurance, but for your love life.  In case of flood, fire, breakup, divorce…. an individual may have a Mr./Ms. Plan B.  My research only studies this phenomenon in heterosexual women, so my data reveal frequencies of Mr. Plan B’s and which characteristics in women are predictors of having a Mr. Plan B.

Previous research has demonstrated that college women, on average, have 3.78 Mr. Plan B’s (Dibble & Drouin, 2015), and that roughly 2/3rds of all college students who are in a committed relationship will openly admit to having at least one Mr./Ms. Plan B (Dibble, Drouin, Aune, & Boller, 2015).  YEAH.  When I mentioned this, the whole audience had the same reaction you’re probably having now – silence and immediate nail-biting.  Well, fear not.  According to my preliminary analyses, this is something women grow out of.  Women who report having a Mr. Plan B are significantly younger than those who do not.  I argue that this phenomenon may be a bit more localized to just college students or young adults, in general.

That being said, I still scared the shit out of many of the guys in the room (whoops – sorry about that).  Overall, my data reveal that roughly 20% of women in committed relationships will report having a Mr. Plan B, and there are other predictors of this besides age.  As it turns out, women who are more narcissistic, women who tend to lack remorse for their actions, and women who are generally a little more detached from morals are the ones who report having a Mr. Plan B.  Not a great picture, I know. The silver lining is that if and when this work is published, it should add to the body of literature on human mating strategies.

And here’s where Darwin comes in – keeping evolutionary theory in mind might help to explain partner insurance in this case.  Intrasexual competition is one of various mating strategies.  This occurs when members of the same sex compete for a mate.  We might see this in animals when male elk compete with other male elk using their antlers.  In humans, a simple example would be Sally telling Janice that her hair looked great, when really, Janice desperately needed a hairbrush.  Research has demonstrated that women who are more narcissistic and follow the other same characteristics listed above are generally more competitive for mates (Carter, Montanaro, Linney, & Campbell, 2015).  Partner insurance – having a Mr. Plan B – could simply be another mating strategy in the form of intrasexual competition.  By holding onto a Mr. Plan B, a woman arguably keeps a potential mate inaccessible to other competing females.

So, is having a Mr. Plan B smart?  Having car insurance is certainly a wise move, but partner insurance?  On the one hand, we could argue that having a backup boyfriend might be adaptive.  A woman who organizes her life in such a way that she is in and out of frequent relationships might be someone who would benefit from having partner insurance.  However, we could also make a very strong case that partner insurance would serve as a serious threat to an existing and otherwise healthy relationship.

My intent at EPIC was never to scare the s*** out of the men in the room, nor is that the intent of this blog.  I’m hoping this work will be recognized soon, and we can continue to gain understanding about how humans interact in the world through a Darwinian lens.  Meanwhile, I’m going to go help Janice.


Carter, G. L., Montanaro, Z., Linney, C., & Campbell, A. C. (2015, February). Women’s               sexual competition and the Dark Triad.Personality and Individual Differences74,               275-279.

Dibble, J. L., & Drouin, M. (2014, May). Using modern technology to keep in touch with           back burners: an investment model analysis. Computers in Human Behavior, 34, 96-           100.

Dibble, J. L., Drouin, M., Aune, K. S., & Boller, R. R. (2015, June 11). Simmering on the             back burner: communication with and disclosure of relationship alternatives.                         Communication Quarterly, 63(3), 329-344. doi:10.1080/01463373.2015.1039719


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How Evolutionary Psychology Can Help You on a First Date


“Are we doomed?” & “Oh, you must be using me as your case study!”


These are the two comments I get the most at work.  Did I mention I’m a bartender?  By day, I study evolutionary psychology.  But by night, I put on a cape and bartend.  Okay, I don’t wear a cape… usually.  Often, customers will ask me what I’m studying and what I do when I’m not tending bar.  Once I mention the words ‘evolution’ and/or ‘psychology’ I typically get asked if we’re all doomed as a species (whatever that means), and whether or not I’m using the bar scene as my laboratory.  Probably not and no, respectively.  My limited knowledge in evolutionary psychology can’t really answer that first question (can anyone?), and I’m certainly not secretly taking notes on people’s drinking habits, behavior, or emotional issues they dish to me.  What I do typically study in the actual laboratory is mating strategies from an evolutionary perspective.  This is definitely something seen at the bar.  I’ve witnessed many a first date crash and burn after a couple martinis, and I’ve also seen many a happily wedded couple enjoy a nightcap on their date.  I’m sure we all have, and most of us probably have our own dating story to tell.  Based on research in human mating strategies, and on my experience actually witnessing mating strategies in action from behind the bar, here’s my take on what to know when you’re dating.

First, it’s important to know the difference between a Type I error and a Type II error.  Or as Glenn Geher puts it (Darwin’s Subterranean World), the more aptly named “Found Fool’s Gold” Error and the “Failed to Find Something that’s Actually Real” Error.  A Type I error occurs when someone reports an effect that is not actually present – a false positive.  A simple example would be if a company announced that their new anti-depression medication helps fight depression, when really, it does not.  The “Found Fool’s Gold” Error – the treatment didn’t really work, but now everyone thinks it does.  This is obviously a huge problem.  A Type II error occurs when an effect really IS present, but is missed or goes unnoticed – a false negative.  An example of this would be if the same new anti-depression medication was tested, and the researchers declared that the treatment is useless because it had no effect on depression.  It could be that the new treatment actually decreased anxiety, but this benefit went unnoticed and unreported because the researchers were only looking at depression.  The “Failed to Find Something that’s Actually Real” Error – the new medication actually worked for something, but the effect was missed.  Both cases are errors, but one (Type I) is generally much worse than the other (Type II).

Now, let’s relate this to mating strategies.  When it comes to women seeking men, The Type II error would be to assume that men are not willing or ready to commit to a relationship long-term.  This error is safer in a way – the cost of making this error is significantly less than the cost of making the Type I error.  The Type I error would be to lack any sense of skepticism and assume all men are ready and willing to commit to a long-term relationship.  The cost of making this error is far greater than the cost of the Type II error when dating.  The cost of unexpectedly having to bear children without resources and support from a would-be father or husband is greater than the cost of missing a potential dating opportunity.  For men seeking women, the Type II error would be to assume that all women definitely want to sleep with you.  The cost of this error might be a slap or a drink thrown in your face.  However, the cost of the Type I error – assuming no women want to sleep with you – would be a serious loss of reproductive success.

Indeed, research has shown that we tend to stick to the Type II errors when it comes to mating strategies.  Haselton and colleagues found that women tend to assume that men are unwilling to commit, and men tend to over-perceive a woman’s sexual intent (2000).  It is the less risky route to take in terms of increasing one’s reproductive success.  True enough, I see this a lot when I’m working at the bar.  Often, women on a date will later confess to me or ask if I think the guy they’re on a date with is a “player” or unwilling to commit and be exclusive.  Similarly, I hear men making comments once in a while like “dude, she totally wants to sleep with me.”  (Cue eye-roll)

So, what?  What’s the take-away?  Here’s my advice when it comes to dating today – have fun and relax a little.  Ladies and gentlemen, it’s actually in our biology to feel these things – for women to be skeptical of a man’s level of commitment and for men to over-perceive a woman’s sexual intent.  When weighing the costs, there’s clear evidence and there are clear signs that one error may cost a lot more than the other.  This has shown to be adaptive for our reproductive success.  However, knowing why we think and feel this way when we date can also be adaptive.  Being aware of these mechanisms may alleviate any initial negative or judgmental thoughts about a person’s dating perspective.  Guys, let’s avoid calling her “baby-crazy” or “needy” if a gal mentions interest in the long game.  Ladies, maybe just throw the water in his face instead of the red wine when he wrongly assumes you’re ready to go home with him already.


Haselton, M. G., & Buss, D. M. (2000). Error management theory: a new perspective on           biases in cross-sex mind reading. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology78(1),       81-91.

Geher, G. (2015, October 21). Renaming Type I and Type II error [Web blog post].                      Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/darwins-subterranean-                  world/201510/renaming-type-i-and-type-ii-error

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Darwin’s Big Idea: Evolution as a Cross-Cutting Construct

So recently Aron Wiegand, webmaster for evostudies.org, posted the following question to us EvoS bloggers:

“From the selective breeding of plants to animal husbandry, conservation, and drug development, what do you consider to be the most prominent example of the practical application of evolutionary knowledge in human society?”

Aron, this is a hard question to answer! When the world celebrated Darwin’s would-have-been 200th Birthday on 2/12/2009, such major media outlets as Time, the Atlantic, and Newsweek underscored the fact that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were actually born on the same day – and much discussion ensued about which historical figure had a stronger influence on the modern world. Being compared with Abraham Lincoln in terms of influence?!?! Not too shabby. Darwin’s influence has been simply enormous on modern thought.

My money goes to the field of education itself. The ideas of evolution have the capacity to serve as an intellectual infrastructure for connecting ideas across all areas of academia. This basic idea, which we refer to as the EvoS (Evolutionary Studies) model of education (thanks to David Sloan Wilson for spearheading this movement!), allows students to (a) learn about the basic principles of evolution and then (b) see how these principles are applicable to such seemingly diverse areas as genetics in fruit flies, Neanderthal social structures, the nature of art, reactions to infidelity in modern humans, the nature of human religion, and more. Way more.

What is particularly special about the EvoS model of evolution education is that it provides a new way to think about interdisciplinary education. Interdisciplinary education pertains to any form of education that draws on content across multiple traditional academic areas (e.g., biology and geology). Most interdisciplinary programs at colleges and universities, such as programs in gender studies, focus on a shared content area (in this case, gender, for example). Such a program would include courses in such fields as history, sociology, and political science all as they relate to the content are of gender. Such a curriculum is connected by content.

EvoS is different – and it provides a novel way to think about interdisciplinary education. Instead of connecting classes based on shared content, EvoS connects classes based on the shared set of principles of evolution. Thus, our EvoS curriculum at New Paltz includes a course in historical geology, which focuses on the fossil record and how evolution helps us make sense of the fossil record, and it also includes a course in social psychology, as this course will typically include some content related to how human social behavior can be understood as the product of evolutionary forces. And that’s not all – students in our EvoS program at New Paltz (and in similar programs at other schools around the country) take courses from a bunch of different departments – courses that vary considerably on terms of content, but that share the common pedagogical tool of evolutionary principles.

For a great introduction to the EvoS concept, check out the many free-and-streaming videos of the past speakers in our annual EvoS Seminar Series.

Darwin’s Influence on Education as Only Partly Realized

So in answer to your question, Aron, I think that Darwin’s influence in the field of education is huge. But get this – I also think that the potential that Darwin’s ideas have to inform how we educate people has only be partly realized. EvoS programs such as our program at New Paltz are still only found at a handful of colleges and universities. As a result, it’s still the case that most colleges and universities offer evolution education only in compartmentalized areas – such as biology and geology departments. This is a shame, as Darwin’s ideas have the capacity to improve our understanding of such issues as:

  • Human Physical Health
  • Human Mental Health
  • Education
  • Politics
  • Conservation of the Environment
  • … and more!

We neglect Darwin’s ideas within academic circles to our detriment. In the future, based partly on the efforts of the EvoS Consortium that hosts this blog, I see a time when Darwin’s ideas are fully implemented across academic areas – and a unified and coherent educational framework connected with evolution helps turn on the light for generations of students in years to come. Hey, a guy can dream, right?



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Struggling with a big decision? Your body knows the answer.

Got a heavy decision to make? Ask your body.

I’m horrible at decision-making. Always have been. I don’t know why I struggle, but I will mull over my options for ages before I eventually settle with the cobb salad…. After changing my order three times. Small decisions, big decisions, I’m not good at it. In most areas of my life, I actually consider myself to be a fairly logical and reasonable individual. I think things through. I’m the type to make a pros and cons list. This is usually helpful enough. However, there are some decisions – often the big ones – that can’t be made from my pros and cons list. I need to call in a different method.

Ironically, this method is far more simple than penciling out every possible detail and consequence of each possible option. Here it is: I ask my body. Body, how do you feel about X? (My body tenses up a bit, my shoulders rise a little, I feel uncomfortable.) Body, how do you feel about Y? (My arms stretch out like the Dodgers are about to win, I relax a little, I smile.) Pretty simple – go with Y. I’ve used this method for decisions as petty as whether to go away for the weekend or stay home and focus on work, along with decisions as big as deciding which job to take – the one I’ll love or the one that pays more. I’ll spend way too much time writing out exactly why I should or shouldn’t choose (fill in the blank). Eventually, I ask my body what it feels is best. It’s never really steered me wrong.

Our bodies have a funny way of knowing what we need sometimes before our minds do. It actually seems a bit counter-intuitive for us to think this way, but it shouldn’t be. Most other species let their bodies take care of them. If an animal is hungry, it eats. If it’s tired, it sleeps. If a predator is lurking, it plays dead. Animals will do all these things without a pros & cons list. I sincerely doubt that chickens consciously take a moment to weigh whether playing dead is the best option for them to avoid predation. Yet, extensive research shows that animals do in fact engage in a freeze response known as tonic immobility as a defense mechanism from impending doom (Gallup, 1974). Even humans can enter into a catatonic state when faced with such traumas as sexual assault (Moskowitz ,2004). The body reacts quickly to protect the individual without forethought, logic, or even a pros & cons list.

Our emotions are not without physical properties. Typically, we describe our emotions in terms of the psychological. I feel sad, happy, angry, excited, etc. Universally, these emotions come with physical expressions. Typically, we can tell when a dog is angry. At this moment, we probably don’t try to play fetch. We can tell when someone is sad or troubled by the expression on their face and their body’s demeanor. Similarly, we can tell when people are happy or excited. I wouldn’t walk into a pub to see a bunch of smiling individuals jumping and cheering and think to myself, “Bummer, the local team must have lost.” This is nothing new, and it is not unique to humans. Charles Darwin himself published a book in 1872 which describes the intertwining of the psychological and the physical for emotional expression in humans and animals. This is a complex system that is a highly adaptive. When it comes to our decision-making skills though, we often limit ourselves to the psychological. The pros and cons lists. This isn’t inherently wrong or bad, of course. It’s probably how we make most decisions with any level of awareness. I’m suggesting that if you find yourself stuck, try bringing the physical into it.

Our bodies may be onto something before our minds are, or at least when our minds are in the way. When it comes down to it, try asking your body.




Darwin, C. (1872). Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. N.p.: Penguin Classics

Moskowitz, A. K. (2004, October). “Scared stiff”: catatonia as an evolutionary-based fear             response. Psychological Review,111(4), 984-1002.

Gallup, G. G. (1974). Animal hypnosis: factual status of a fictional concept. Psychological             Bulletin81(11), 836-853.


Posted in Evolution and Psychology, Nicole Wedberg | 1 Comment

How Exactly is Evolution a “Crosscutting Concept”? Enter Bill Nye the Science Guy

Finally, Some Evolution Controversy: No Such Thing As Bad Press

If you’re like me, you are feeling pretty bummed today about not getting a ticket to see Bill Nye. The fact that only a limited number of students were able to attend is a disservice to the University’s student body, not only because Bill Nye the “Science Guy” is for many of us a childhood hero, but his message on the importance of teaching evolution in public schools was not heard by those who need to hear it most. And although many of us were not able to listen to Bill Nye’s words or admire his bow tie, we can help to carry out his mission of including evolution in the K-12 curriculum.

By Ruth Bishop “Evolution belongs in the classroom and all students belong in Bill Nye’s lecture” (The Crimson White, 9/29/15)

Bill Nye the Science Guys recently spoke at the University of Alabama on the topic of “The Importance of Teaching Evolution.” The talk was hosted by The Blount Undergraduate Initiative & as part of the ALLELE series (Alabama Lectures of Life’s Evolution, hosted by the Evolution Working Group). There were three big questions/complaints that emerged from this talk: (1) Is any one speaker worth paying what, essentially, was equivalent to my first year’s salary as a tenure-track professor? (2) Why did we not foresee the outpouring of interest & book Nye in a larger venue? (3) Was it worth it, given that he never directly said, “it’s important to teach evolution because…”?

Does Your Program Need Attention & Have Money Laying Around?

The first two questions/complaints really belong together, & the answers are rather boring. Who really wants to hear about the logistics behind booking speakers? Let me just say, I’ve been involved in booking the ALLELE series now for 6 years (full disclosure: I’m the co-chair of the Evolution Working Group & took it upon myself to help raise enough money to support Blount in bringing in a big name, so, yes, I am biased), & we’ve had some medium-name events but had no experience with someone a whole generation of students grew up on. Let’s face it, Ed Wilson, Lawrence Krauss, & Frans de Waal are big in science circles but NOT household names. Bill Nye, on the other hand, is someone even your non-science _____ [fill in the relative] has heard of. I admit, I didn’t grow up on Bill Nye. He came after I was already in my 20s & not watching much PBS or whatever. I also came to science later in life. While we do our best to bring in most of our speakers because they’re good presenters with interesting research, we brought in Bill Nye for you, the public, because we knew you’d like it. Period. And it’s really amazing how many people who complained that we should have anticipated the outpouring of interest when we FINALLY brought a good science speaker to UA didn’t realize the Blount program has been doing this for 15 years & ALLELE is in its 10th year & that ALLELE alone brings in at least 5 free evolution speakers every year.

And, boy, did you like it.

And it was a free event. Many of you would have preferred we charged & been willing to pay so it would not have been so difficult to get the tickets that were passed out. The Alabama Museum of Natural History website had an ~148,000 hit spike in the day after we announced the Nye ticket giveaway. We gave away tickets over 3 successive days, times, & locations & had an estimated 600 people show up for the 200 tickets the EvoS Club gave away. Those were gone in 6 minutes.

On the second day, the ticket giveaway was to begin at 1 PM, & people had started lining up by 6:15 AM. On the final day, people camped out overnight.

We gave away over 900 tickets to fill up Moody Music Hall, which is the largest venue on campus we could access for free. I know, I know, you all wanted us to host it in Coleman Coliseum or the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater. The Coliseum would have entailed the two of us doing the fundraising to realize in advance that we needed to raise an additional $20,000 to cover that expense & to somehow be able to convince others of that importance. Some Colleges in the University that I shall not name but who, IMHO, should have been supportive of a talk by an engineer about education expressly gave not a dime to support the Nye talk. And the Amphitheater? Jesus Christ, we should go from struggling to fill a 500-seat hall for some talks to considering the city amphitheater? What do you think we are, event planners? Apparently, we could have filled it, but, as it turns out, the University would not have liked us to host a big University event like that off-campus. So there you go.

He Didn’t Talk about the Importance of Teaching Evolution in the Classroom!

As to the focus: Nye’s talk epitomized evolution’s importance as a “crosscutting concept,” though, no, he didn’t drop the E word repeatedly to ham-fist that narrative home. If Nye’s position on the importance of evolution is unclear, spend 2 hours 45 minutes & watch this:

EvoS teams at the University of Alabama, Binghamton University, and SUNY New Paltz recently submitted a proposal for a $2.5 million grant to study the efficacy of teaching evolution at the undergraduate level as a “crosscutting concept.” I like this expression a lot because it seems relatively clear what it means, containing as it does three general terms common in standard American English usage—cross, as in cross-walk; cutting, as in cutting to the front of the line; and concept, as in…hmm, well, I use it a lot. As in, the concept of ‘stress’ or the concept of ‘love’ or the concept of ‘dissociation’ (not common, but central to my research). In other words, a concept is something that may be difficult to put one’s finger on or describe simply. It may not exactly be a thing, but it has biological or cultural meaning or influence.

While not an expression most of us EvoSers were previously familiar with, “crosscutting concept” should be something most K-12 educators know because it is the expression utilized throughout the Next Generation Science Standards.

Crosscutting concepts have value because they provide students with connections and intellectual tools that are related across the differing areas of disciplinary content and can enrich their application of practices and their understanding of core ideas. — Framework p. 233 (NGSS, Appendix G)

Those of us tilting at the windmills of undergraduate evolution education (kidding) are probably more familiar with the term “consilience,” adopted by my university’s most famous alum Edward O. Wilson in his book of the same name. While both expressions describe similar, er, concepts…(no, can’t use the same term to describe itself)…phenomena, crosscutting concepts suggests a theme relevant across disciplines. Consilience refers to a dissolving of disciplinary boundaries, as Jim McKenna points out in a recent commentary on the integration of anthropology and psychology in primate studies of development (bit of a digression, but as Gerald Graff & Cathy Birkenstein point out in They Say, I Say, all writing is a conversation & it’s reading the writing of others that often inspires our own efforts, as an answer to or inspiration of what we have read).

Our primary interest in the EvoS grant proposal is to assess the utility of teaching evolution to students regardless of their background or major & the value of an evolutionary perspective to many questions & all walks of life.

How can we, at the universities with a specific horse to ride, be helpful to k-12 teachers, with often more limited resources & many many horses to corral? We can start by using the same language to be assured we’re teaching the same principles. And, more importantly, we can use that language to connect the dots.

On “paper,” the talk was entitled “The Importance of Teaching Evolution.” Yet, Nye never had a title slide, did not get around to talking about evolution until at least the 30 minute point, or ever say “it’s important to teach evolution because”…

While there is some dissent among my colleagues at UA on this point, Nye did something far more important than SAY why evolution is important, he exemplified it by ranging (or, dare I say, cutting) across topics from autobiography & history to space exploration & physics.

I spend semester after semester saying “it’s important to teach evolution because…” to students who already probably accept that because they wouldn’t otherwise be in my class. (Unlike the biologists at UA, who get a lot of Creationists in their classes, bound for [yes, gulp] med school, that are anti-evolution, most of my students are Anthropology majors who are already aware that no job description out there in the world advertises “Anthropology majors apply.” We are one of those interdisciplinary disciplines that cut across many concepts, so it is no stretch to think of evolution this way. I recently had a reporter ask me for an article coming out soon in The Atlantic Monthly what other controversial trends or fads, besides evolution & the paleo diet, biological anthropology is relevant to. Uh, all of them, I answered [not helpful if you’re a reporter]. Race, climate change, immigration, healthcare reform, vaccination, education. All of them.)

Why should a non-science person care about evolution or evolution education? Not for evolution itself? What does an English major care about ring speciation in salamanders or the latest hominid fossil find (ahem)? Really? How does it influence their lives & make them better at whatever they choose to do with them? Granted, a lot of them DO care & choose to make livings that are directly relevant to evolution, but they could just as easily focus on the Gospels & find relevance in biblical scholarship. Of what use is evolution to a history major? A philosophy major? A computer science major? An engineering major?! We need people to understand why evolution is foundational to science literacy & that basic science literacy is important to understand, nurture, & protect our world for ourselves, our children, etc.

Basic scientific literacy is important in inspiring people, in inculcating the joy of discovery, & in saving the planet. It can get so depressing listening to the Ben Carson’s of the world who seem to have studied science yet have placed these bizarre religious limitations on discovery. Eff them. Go out & do something exciting! Build a better rocket! There’s life on Mars—let’s go explore it! We can build batteries that capture wind & solar energy & can completely resolve our energy crisis! How cool is that? But, again, what is the importance of evolution? It cuts across all of these.

To understand how life evolved, we need to know what to look for. We just found evidence of water on Mars, literally, the day he gave us our talk. This will help us discover if life has EVOLVED elsewhere in the universe & how life EVOLVED here on Earth. In fact, I think he broke the news to us before it broke because Nye ran off & did a live interview on MSNBC about this news story between his Blount/ALLELE talk & a post-talk book signing for Blount/EvoS students.

Anti-evolutionists like Ken Hamm hold that the world is 6000 years old. They also hold that climate change is not a result of human activities but part of the natural world (which is all controlled by a supernatural being). Yes, there have been other climate change events in prehistory, but they happened over thousands of years, not hundreds, & they influenced the demise of dinosaurs, EVOLUTION of mammals, & many other extinction & speciation events.

Was it Worth it?

We will see, but something tells me the answer will be yes.


Posted in Anthropology, Evolution & Astronomy, Evolution & Pop Culture, Evolution in Higher Education, Evolution in Media, Evolution in the Classroom | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on How Exactly is Evolution a “Crosscutting Concept”? Enter Bill Nye the Science Guy

One giant step for Alabama students….now what’s next?

In the past week, something amazing happened. It isn’t what we traditionally think of as ground-breaking or life changing, but to millions of young people in one southern state, this will be the first step in a new lens on science…..

Alabama, and the Southeastern US in general, has a long history of controversy when it comes to the teaching and learning of evolution. This isn’t to say that there are not teachers in Alabama who do an amazing job of teaching evolution, but traditionally evolution as a topic of discussion in polite company is a “taboo” likely to draw challenge, rebuke, and/or isolation. Due to our underpinning cultures, prevalence of literalist religious fundamentalism, and focus on states rights vs. federal, we have been in the negative spotlight for our refusal to teach or mention evolution, even going so far as to post disclaimers in student textbooks that explain how evolution is “just a theory” and one interpretation of evidence.

Enter Exhibit A:


You can check out Ken Miller’s dissection of the disclaimer here.

Our standards have long danced around the concept of evolution while outright refusing to mention “the E word” or, in best cases, addressed some concepts but with a weak enough language as to allow teachers to conduct a classroom “hit and run”, where they introduce the concept, discuss their discomfort and/or counter with alternative ideas, if they teach evolutionary concepts at all. Numerous cases regarding the teaching of evolution (or not) have seen the inside of the courtroom, quite a few notably from the Southern states–think Scopes, Aquillard, Epperson, McLean, Freiler, and Selman among others (NCSE 2007) . In light of the negative perceptions many around the world have of our conflict with evolution, it is nice to see Alabama, in a region fraught with conflict over controversial topics (see Louisiana and North Carolina in education news), both historically and presently (Alabama’s anti-science house bills that luckily died in committee), doing something in science that will help students in coming generations. It may not seem like much of a step forward, but considering the jump being made just in language of the standards, it is huge. For example, compare the language and coverage of evolution in life sciences for high school from the 2005/2009 rev. state science standards to that of the new standards:


Grade 9-12 Biology Core (p. 39): (first mention of evolution)

Describe protective adaptations of animals, including mimicry, camouflage, beak type, migration, and hibernation. 1. Identifying ways in which the theory of evolution explains the nature and diversity of organisms. 2. Describing natural selection, survival of the fittest, geographic isolation, and fossil record

This was the extent of coverage of evolution for high school biology in the earlier standards for education. There were some concepts of evolution touched upon in prior grades, but without mention of the term evolution and with little depth and application. Compare this to the level of detail and focus in the new standards and how early we are beginning with this underpinning concept:

2015 Alabama CCRS Science standards

Grade 3:

Unity and Diversity

9. Analyze and interpret data from fossils (e.g., type, size, distribution) to provide evidence of organisms and the environments in which they lived long ago (e.g., marine fossils on dry land, tropical plant fossils in arctic areas, fossils of extinct organisms in any environment).

10. Investigate how variations in characteristics among individuals of the same species may provide advantages in surviving, finding mates, and reproducing (e.g., plants having larger thorns being less likely to be eaten by predators, animals having better camouflage coloration being more likely to survive and bear offspring).

11. Construct an argument from evidence to explain the likelihood of an organism’s ability to survive when compared to the resources in a certain habitat (e.g., freshwater organisms survive well, less well, or not at all in saltwater; desert organisms survive well, less well, or not at all in woodlands). a. Construct explanations that forming groups helps some organisms survive. b. Create models that illustrate how organisms and their habitats make up a system in which the parts depend on each other. c. Categorize resources in various habitats as basic materials (e.g., sunlight, air, freshwater, soil), produced materials (e.g., food, fuel, shelter), or as nonmaterial (e.g., safety, instinct, nature-learned behaviors). 3 2015 Alabama Course of Study: Science 25

12. Evaluate engineered solutions to a problem created by environmental changes and any resulting impacts on the types and density of plant and animal populations living in the environment (e.g., replanting of sea oats in coastal areas due to destruction by hurricanes, creating property development restrictions in vacation areas to reduce displacement and loss of native animal populations).*

And Grades 9-12 Biology Core (2015)

Unity and Diversity

13. Obtain, evaluate, and communicate information to explain how organisms are classified by physical characteristics, organized into levels of taxonomy, and identified by binomial nomenclature (e.g., taxonomic classification, dichotomous keys). a. Engage in argument to justify the grouping of viruses in a category separate from living things.

14. Analyze and interpret data to evaluate adaptations resulting from natural and artificial selection that may cause changes in populations over time (e.g., antibiotic-resistant bacteria, beak types, peppered moths, pest-resistant crops).

15. Engage in argument from evidence (e.g., mathematical models such as distribution graphs) to explain how the diversity of organisms is affected by overpopulation of species, variation due to genetic mutations, and competition for limited resources.

16. Analyze scientific evidence (e.g., DNA, fossil records, cladograms, biogeography) to support hypotheses of common ancestry and biological evolution.

Now, for what feels like the first time in a while, we are in the news for doing something right in education, and it is important to both address the excitement of having a new set of state science standards that are nearly identical to the NGSS national standards and look at what still must be done to improve the teaching of evolution in this state, and others. Alabama’s new standards are wonderful and receiving positive attention from bodies such as the NCSE. For the first time, we are not afraid to examine evolution in the standards, have rich language surrounding the concepts of evolution, and include it in vertical scaffolding from a young age. For the first time, teachers who have been teaching evolution as it is intended to be taught from the perspective of the scientific community, have support from state adopted standards to delve deep into the elements of this topic. This is an amazing step forward in science education in the state of Alabama!

It is important, however, to recognize that this is hardly the end of the battle for science literacy in the state of Alabama relative to evolution. Having standards is a great start, but the presence of the standards is not equivocal to the presence of a magical switch that suddenly makes evolution less subject to the regional controversy, nor does it automatically mean that all the teachers who have avoided teaching it or taught it alongside other non-scientific alternative concepts like Creationism, will now change their minds and teach evolution. Research in this state has shown that teachers struggle with teaching evolution in light of their own world-view and beliefs (Glaze, Goldston, & Dantzler, 2014; Glaze, in prep; Goldston & Kyzer, 2009). Even those who teach evolution often go through a transformation of sorts, becoming more anxious, aloof, and discombobulated when addressing the topic than when they are teaching other, non-controversial topics. Having standards in support gives a scaffold upon which to build instruction, but it does not change the atmosphere of controversy and conflict that prevents many teachers from teaching evolution, whether out of concern for their own beliefs or out of fear of the response from the community where they teach.

Now that we have the framework for teaching evolution securely in place for K-12 education in Alabama, it is time for us to come together to find ways of providing more preparation for teachers, not just here, but across the nation, as well as support, strategies, and connections. We have a responsibility as scientists and educators to be the instrument for change.



ALEX (2005). Alabama Science Course of Study. Retreived from http://alex.state.al.us/staticfiles/2005_AL_Science_Course_of_Study.pdf

ALSDE (2015). Alabama Science College and Career Readiness Standards. Retrieved from http://www.alsde.edu/sec/sct/COS/2015%20Alabama%20Course%20of%20Study%20%20Science%20%20Final%209-10-15.pdf

Alabama Textbook Disclaimer (2009). Retrieved from http://www.rationalitynow.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/alabamadisclaimer.jpg.

Glaze, A.L. (In Prep). AP Biology teachers’ and evolution in the secondary classroom. A manuscript for submission to the Journal of Research in Science Teaching.

Glaze, A. L., Goldston, M. J., & Dantzler, J. (2014). Evolution in the Southeastern United States: factors influencing acceptance and rejection in pre-service science teachers. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education. doi: 10.1007/s10763-014-9541-1

Goldston, M.J., and Kyzer, P. (2009). Teaching evolution: narratives with a view from three southern biology teachers in the USA. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 46(7), 762-790.

Miller, K. R. (1999). Dissecting the Alabama Disclaimer. Retrieved from http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/disclaimer.html

NCSE (2007). Ten major court cases about evolution and creationism. Retreived from http://ncse.com/taking-action/ten-major-court-cases-evolution-creationism

Posted in Amanda L. Glaze, Evolution and Biology, Evolution by Natural Selection, Evolution in Media, Evolution in the Classroom | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Reflections on the Costs of Evolved Self-Awareness: Comparing Trajectories of Davids—Foster Wallace & Insurgent


Dave Insurgent (By Sailorsoul2846 [CC BY-SA 3.0 ])

I’m going to be writing on the costly implications of self-awareness in a forthcoming book & was walking around listening to Reagan Youth on Spotify & David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest on Audible when some parallels occurred to me. I’ll be writing about the relationship between marijuana & heroin addition. The general public, I think, does not consider marijuana addiction in the same league of seriousness as heroin addiction, but they both have at their roots depression, which is a biopsychocultural overweening self-focus (unpack that!).

David Foster Wallace was considered, I think, the most famous fiction writer of his generation & Infinite Jest is already considered a classic. Or it should be. I’m late to the DFW fan club but only because I found reviews of his work at the time of his life & death off-putting & academic & pretentious-sounding. (I should have recognized myself in those analyses.)

In Infinite Jest, DFW chronicles 12 Step Recovery with an eye toward paralleling the experiences of alcohol, narcotic, & marijuana addiction, which indicates to me he had some personal knowledge of all their roots in depression & self-obsession. I don’t know if he was a marijuana addict, but I can tell from my own experiences in NYC Marijuana Anonymous & AA that DFW (in writing about Boston recovery groups) knew something whence he wrote. And he wrote a lot about addiction, depression, & suicide. And then, despite his enormous successes, he committed suicide at, really, his intellectual & career height.

"David Foster Wallace headshot 2006" by derivative work: Pabouk (talk)The_best_people_you_will_ever_know.jpg: claudia sherman - The_best_people_you_will_ever_know.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:David_Foster_Wallace_headshot_2006.jpg#/media/File:David_Foster_Wallace_headshot_2006.jpg

David Foster Wallace (claudia sherman [Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0])

On the other hand, Spotify suggested I listen to “Degenerated” by  Reagan Youth, which is raw & sloppy & not at all the blitzkrieg speedfest aural kronk of so much of later hardcore that I have never been much a fan of. So I went down a rabbit hole of Reagan Youth & found that lead singer Dave Insurgent (née Rubinstein) had parents who were Holocaust survivors, that he became a heroin addict & dealer, & that he was beaten into a coma over a drug debt within hours of finishing vocals for the last Reagan Youth tracks of that era & had to have a lobotomy to relieve the brain trauma. He would never recover from that beating, &, despite relative success of RY over a 10-year period, they were financially busted when Reagan left office in 1990 (& ended the relevance of their political peace-punk schtick) & broke up.

Rubinstein started dating a fellow addict who prostituted on Houston St. to support their habits & was ultimately picked up & slain by infamous serial killer Joel Rifkin (you can find your own links about him—they’re all disturbing). It was, in fact, Rubinstein’s description of the vehicle that picked her up—familiar among Allen St. prostitutes & junkies—a high speed chase of Rifkin’s vehicle by police, & the smell of her decomposing body in his vehicle that led to Rifkin’s arrest. A week or so later, Rubinstein committed suicide.

Rubinstein’s decline & the arrest of Joel Rifkin happened the year after I moved to NYC. I didn’t grow up on Reagan Youth, but they were a CBGB’s fixture & broke up right before I moved to there  & started going, working, & playing at CBGB. I have several stories about CBGB’s & the seedy streets of that neighborhood (the infamous Bowery, which is rather sanitized these days). The first involves the beating I took right out in front of the place on my very first night in NYC. Basically, I was drunk & tried to distract some meatheads from messing with Brent, but, in my drunkenness I laced subtlety. So they turned their attention to me & were waiting outside the club when we came out & gave me a beating right there on the sidewalk while characters like you see below (Reverb Motherfuckers are out on the same spot, essentially) looked on. Later, the first time I smoked crack was when Brent took me to a spot a block from CB’s to score it (but discovered he’d forgot his wallet back on the bar, so I think we smoked some on the street with the dealer then couldn’t actually buy any—lucky we didn’t get another beating).

So I worked & played in this area & very well may have crossed paths with these people. The Bowery area (Bowery becomes Allen below Houston St.) was a seedy, grimy area of NYC from the days when an elevated train ran above it & blocked out the light. I had learned all about it as a punk rock fan intrigued by the history of CBGB’s, from listening to music & reading about their lives, &, before that, the stories of Jack KerouacJim Carroll, Henry Miller, &, a little further back, Herbert Asbury‘s Gangs of New York, which tread much of the same ground. I can visualize it perfectly.  One of my favorite bands before moving to NYC was the Lunachicks, & you can see the griminess of that part of NYC at the beginning of this video & a sense of the…I dunno…precariousness of life down there from the attitudes of these characters. I say precariousness because not everyone made it out. Some of them are still performing, some are alive & doing other things. Some are not.

The death of rock stars & artists & the mixture of drugs & depression can be charted back over time with no end in sight, but they resonate most, I think, when they are people active & inspiring YOU in YOUR LIFE & then they die. I missed the boat on DFW, but Infinite Jest is the book my high school best friend & lead singer of my NYC band, Brent Colyer, would have written had we the moxie & chops. We had a writing group at one point that always dissolved into blind drunkenness, but professional writers is what we both wanted to be. I have never related so much with a book as I do with Infinite Jest, so it is startling even in retrospect that DFW killed himself & that I cannot have a conversation with him (‘cuz, you know, I chat with famous people all the time…). And because Brent also suffered mental health problems & essentially pulled a Leaving Las Vegas & drank himself to death, I cannot talk with him about DFW as I would like to.

Less than one year after Dave Insurgent killed himself, I was shocked when mega-rich superstar, heroin addict, & clinical depressive Kurt Cobain committed suicide. I was 22, working at Tower Records in NYC & playing music; & Nirvana were a tidal wave of success. The shock of his death cannot be understated. Nirvana were not my favorite band, but they were a band of my generation. I was an early member of the Sub Pop Singles Club when I was an 18-year-old college freshman at Indiana University, & I bought Bleach right around the time it came out. Frankly, I preferred Mudhoney, but I have a poignant memory of planning to drive with my friends to see Nirvana play at either Bogart’s or Murphy’s Pub in Cincinnati, since not much of note came to Bloomington, IN in those years. However, we never made the drive because we could not score any weed for the drive & could not face the prospect of a cold turkey 2-hour drive each way. I was already a marijuana addict, as it was obviously impairing my normal functioning & resulting in shame—straight-up definitions of addiction. The only consolation was that, as I recall, Nirvana cancelled the show at the last minute because they were having delays in the studio working on their next record, which would turn out to be “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

And the rest is history…

Take-home lesson:

Self-awareness can be costly, so we look to blinder it. That doesn’t always work, but we find our culture in the details.

Posted in Anthropology, Evolution & Pop Culture, Evolution and Psychology, Evolution in Arts, Exaptation, Hypotheses, Literary Darwinism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on the Costs of Evolved Self-Awareness: Comparing Trajectories of Davids—Foster Wallace & Insurgent

Darwin’s Daily & Hourly Dharma

I’m just going to leave this right here…

Ernest Rossi's "Darwin's Daily & Hourly Dharma" (from Rossi, Schirmer, & Rossi 2010, European Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 10(1):63).

Ernest Rossi’s “Darwin’s Daily & Hourly Dharma” (from Rossi, Schirmer, & Rossi 2010, European Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 10(1):63).

Yes, I know, I should explain, but my mind is reeling a bit right now. Ever have those experiences when you stumble across a literature that advances a model that runs parallel to your own thinking & that is FAR OUT AHEAD OF YOU in the race? If you’re like me, it probably happens a lot, which means we probably need to read more & talk less. Like that’s going to happen.

Anyway, I will write more later about the exciting new gene-trait/environment study I’m embarking upon with friends & colleagues Francois Dengah & Jeff Snodgrass, but in the meantime I wanted to share this so I don’t forget it. I was reacquainting myself with the neurobiological models of dissociation that have been proposed by Stanley Greenfield, Tanya Luhrmann, & Rebecca Seligman as my part in our literature review. Greenfield wrote a fantastic ethnography of Brazilian espiritismo called Spirits with Scalpels & has always been a supportive voice at meetings when us young bucks talk about our models of consciousness & such & a refreshing reminder that most considerations of so-called “altered states of consciousness” are ethnocentric. So, I’m rereading his chapters on his model of a cultural biology of healing & he draws heavily on Ernest Rossi, including a similar version of the model above.

Short story long, I look up Rossi’s magnum opus The Psychobiology of Gene Expression: Neuroscience and Neurogenesis in Hypnosis and the Healing Arts in my university library system & stumble across an article entitled “Mapping the 4-stage creative process onto spontaneous eye-roll dynamics in hypnosis, mediation, and yoga” Rossi, Schirmer, & Rossi 2010, European Journal of Clinical Hypnosis 10(1):60-75). This article integrates a psychobiology of gene expression with the eye-roll associated with so-called ASC.

This made me poo myself a little because we have been using the eye-roll test for hypnotizability for years in my fireside relaxation study & only just gave up on it because I wasn’t sure it was actually measuring anything. I had not been able to find anything but criticism of it in the literature of the last 20+ years, even though it’s the best tool I’ve been able to find for field-based rapid assessment of hypnotizability.

Here’s an eye-roll from our fireside relaxation study data to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

eye-roll test for hypnotizability

eye-roll test for hypnotizability

I must get back to reading, but I’m getting a much better understanding of the distinctions among concepts like hypnosis, absorption, & trance. It sucks to be humbled, but it’s great to be validated when you’re studying crazy, fringey shit that used to get people blackballed from the Ivory Tower. Tcha to that crap anyway…

Posted in Anthropology, Evolution and Psychology, Evolutionary Medicine, Genetics | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Darwin’s Daily & Hourly Dharma

A dialogue concerning political correctness and its discontents

Aletheia: I shall make two somewhat related contentions. First, science should never be suppressed, distorted, or otherwise manipulated for ANY reason. And second, political correctness has become a suffocating force on many college campuses, in many segments of society, and in many newspapers and magazines. At best, this political correctness is a burden, a cumbersome code that stultifies spontaneity and freedom by forcing students, professors, and journalists to translate their thoughts into acceptable platitudes. At worst, it is an intolerable tyranny, a Stalinist-like suppression of freedom of inquiry and expression that should be immediately eradicated. You can see, I presume, how these are related.

Justitia: Certainly! Well, I shall attempt to defend two basic propositions, then. The first is that science is a social tool; it is not an absolute, autonomous human activity. If a certain root of the sciences bears bad fruit, then that root should be inspected and possibly extirpated. I have no problem, in other words, with regulating science. And the second is that what many derisively call “political correctness” is actually an informal and organic system of rules that allows us to function together more harmoniously. We live in a multicultural society, a society of multifarious values, ideals, and peoples. Political correctness recognizes this and urges sensitivity. It is an organic code of caution. And it is certainly not the tyrannical force you depict.

Aletheia: Very good. I trust we will have an animated discussion then! Let me begin with this contention: Scientists should pursue only the truth. They should not be concerned with social justice, social fads, or political ideologies; at least, they should not be concerned with these things when acting AS scientists. Furthermore, they should not be pressured by outside forces to suppress their results, however disturbing to our sensitivities those results might be. Science is, I think, an enterprise that creates by first destroying. It is like a fire that purifies a forest by clearing the old and withered limbs of old and withered trees. Impervious to our hopes and desires, science, this radical fire, often destroys ideas we have come to love. And science therefore is often painful.

Darwin, for example, destroyed our notion that we were the center of creation, that we were different from other animals, higher than other animals, more “heavenly” than other animals. Many Victorians were disturbed by this Darwinism, this attempt to reduce us to mere creatures, mere matter, mere physical stuff!! William Jennings Bryan in the United States railed against Darwinism. An ardent moralist, Bryan believed that Darwinism’s crude materialism would ineluctably lead to moral decay, to selfishness, adultery, profligacy, a turning from responsibility and charity. And he tried to ban its teaching. Imagine that! Imagine a world without the theory of evolution by natural selection! And, imagine further the utterly ridiculous despair of this man! He truly believed Darwinism would erode society as he knew it. Of course, it did nothing of the sort.

Justitia: True, true! Poor William Bryan. He certainly picked the wrong side of that debate! But, his example does not vitiate the argument against absolute scientific freedom. Before making that point, however, please allow me to note that I am not against science. I think science is an absolutely wonderful tool. It has improved our lives in myriad ways. I am quite thankful for science.

Aletheia: Very well. I recognize your caution and your expression of admiration for science!

Justitia: Yes. But, unlike you–or what I understand of your argument–,I do not think science is a sacred pursuit that should transcend or somehow escape the cost and benefit analysis that we apply to other human practices. Take a different example. Consider an engineer. Would we suggest that an engineer should pursue his task without regard for the consequences, that he should, in other words, design buildings or bridges without concern for social consequences. I don’t think we would use this kind of thinking for any social activity, and I don’t think we should. It is religious, this absolute devotion to the “purity” of the scientific enterprise. Consider a different example. Suppose that we knew that the creation of a certain virus could absolutely destroy mankind. Would we encourage its creation simply because science should be “free” from the fetters that regulate all other human activities, should be limited, apparently, only by the blind pursuit of truth?

Aletheia: Well, I think the engineering example is different from the scientific enterprise. Science is the pursuit of the truth. Engineering is not. And truth is often offensive–it often shatters our hopes and expectations. That is why science needs protection. The most important scientific discoveries have been coupled with lamentations and hysteria, with calls for suppression, and if we had heeded those calls, we would have deprived ourselves of the greatest, most revolutionary scientific ideas of history. We should never let our petty emotions, our inability to cope with difficult ideas, bury freedom of expression and inquiry.

Justitia: I don’t deny that we are sometimes a shortsighted species. However, I think you read history incorrectly. Many revolutionary scientific discoveries required years of social adjustment. Prudence, I think, dictated caution to the founders of such discoveries. Darwin, for example, was judicious in his presentation of human evolution. He waited many years before he specifically addressed human evolution; and, he even waited many years before he published his first work on evolution by natural selection. Now, you may throw caution to the wind, insult the sclerotic conservatives who urge slow change, and encourage that we present science without sensitivity for social sensibilities, but I don’t think that is a productive strategy. And, moreover, I think it is positively wrongheaded from a moral perspective. I am, you see, a utilitarian. I think outcomes matter. I don’t believe any sphere of social activity, including science, should be removed from the world of difficult cost/benefit analyses.

Aletheia: Well, let me say that I do not think we should ignore social sensibilities. I am not, for example, urging that we write science articles without any respect for the current norms of society. I do not think we should write a headline that reads, “Men simply better than inferior women at spatial rotation.” Even if some of the substance of the headline is true, the expression is horrible and is certain to provoke hostility. Upon the other hand, I think the research itself should be conducted and that the results should be disseminated. And, this, I think, makes the connection to political correctness salient. Political correctness creates an atmosphere that discourages the dissemination of “dangerous” ideas, that softens people’s emotions and sensitivities, and that encourages the parading of injustices and offenses. In other words, it creates a social environment that cannot tolerate the truth.

Justitia: Great! We agree on at least one thing. We should at least be cognizant of current social norms. But I think that the very real sensitivities about many issues that have become “politically correct” preexisted the label; they are the result of years of real injustice. For example, for many, many years, women were treated as inferior creatures, soft, delicate, irrational–certainly too fragile for the tough pursuits of mathematics and science. This attitude still lingers like a miasmic cloud, poisoning many men’s (and possibly women’s) views of women. We should be cautious anytime we forward results that might appear to justify this belief. I know that you do not support such despicable beliefs, but many people are not so educated and privileged as you are. They do not have the luxury of a sophisticated understanding of bell curves and statistical distributions.

Aletheia: But isn’t that a kind of intolerable paternalism? I don’t think we should decide for people what they can and cannot handle or understand.

Justitia: But we do this all the time. We make smoking regulations, for example, and propagate powerful narratives about how unlikable and disgusting smoking is. This is straightforward manipulation. We could coolly and calmly disseminate the results of studies on smoking, abstaining from more conspicuous propaganda crusades. But we don’t. And I don’t think we should.

Aletheia: I am not sure that these are the same. But let me set that complaint aside for a moment. And let me raise an important, perhaps fundamental, challenge to your position. How do you know what is good or bad for society? How do you know the costs and benefits of scientific exploration? We can see how hysterical the early thinkers who confronted Darwinism were, and we can see how silly their alarmism appears in retrospect. Don’t you think some of your concerns about sex and race (typical topics of political correctness) will appear similarly ludicrous to later generations? Why not just guide science with a simple exhortation: seek the truth. We don’t know what will come of truth, but I generally tend to believe that the truth is better than a convenient or morally expedient fiction.

Justitia: I am sympathetic to your position, but I disagree with your fundamental hypothesis; or, put another way, I am not so convinced as you are that the consequences of our research are obscure or mysterious…are somehow shrouded or hidden from us. Of course, our predictions about future consequences are always tentative and uncertain. But that doesn’t mean we should entirely give up the project. Let me give you a concrete example. Suppose you lived in the antebellum South in the United States. Would you conduct research on race differences? My guess, before I let you answer, is that you wouldn’t. And the reason is clear. Any research you conducted would be twisted and appropriated by racists and would be used to aid and abet an unjust and horrific system of slavery. In other words, you would do a cost/benefit analysis of your research, and you would conclude that the costs of the research would outweigh whatever benefits it might offer. I would not consider that censorship; rather, I would consider that simple prudence.

Aletheia: Excellent point. But the fault in your example is the unjust social system, not the science, right? I mean, presumably the racists in the South would use anything to justify their racism, so the science would neither help nor hurt their cause. Put another way, if you removed my research, nothing would change about the social system. Or, let’s even adjust your example. Suppose that I conducted research that showed that blacks were more intelligent than whites. Would that change the social order in the South? Almost assuredly not. In fact, it might just convince the Southern plantation owners that their slaves should be eternally removed from books and learning because educated and intelligent slaves would pose a threat to the plantation system. In fact, this is exactly what many plantation owners did argue. Uncertain and underdetermined, the effects of science depend upon myriad social and cultural factors, and those factors should be the targets of those concerned with social justice, not science.

Justitia: Well said. And I do agree, at least to a large degree, that there are many other social factors that we should target to increase justice in the world. But I don’t see why we should exempt science from this list. The effects of science on society might even be as rain in a large sea, but they are not invisible. Even raindrops add up. Why not subject it–science–to the same considerations we subject other institutions and activities?

Aletheia: Well, I think we should. The institution of law, for example, is dedicated to principles of legality. A lawyer does not ask herself about the contribution of her defense to the greater justice of the world, or at least, she should not. She should only ask herself about the law in a particular, circumscribed case. And she would not (or should not) sacrifice a case for what she perceived as the greater good. Such behavior would, in fact, be a dereliction of her duty. In other words, institutions are designed to pursue their tasks, to entertain, to protect, to inform, et cetera, without a greater calculus of social justice. Science is no different. It should pursue the truth. If the consequences are pernicious, the fault is not with the science, but with the people who use the science. We do, in other words, hold science to the same standards that we hold other institutions. They are just not your lofty standards.

Justitia: I think many would object to your description of the law!! I realize lawyers aren’t always the most popular people in the room, but I think many do contemplate the greater good. And they should. We all should. Contemplating the moral consequences of a behavior or practice is not at all lofty, ethereal, majestic, or somehow beyond the reach of mortal minds. Part of our biological inheritance, moralizing behaviors and institutions is, rather, something we do automatically. Just as many plants grow to the sunlight, so too humans strive toward the good.

Aletheia: Allow me to interrupt your elevated rhetoric!! I am not at all convinced that humans strive toward the good. In fact, I think humans strive for power, prestige, status, and control. Morals might be, in some sense, natural–but they are not all that noble. Our history, after all, is bespattered with blood; it is full of grisly tortures, rapes, and desecrations.

Justitia: Ha..ha! I figured you would correct me my morose friend. I certainly agree that our history is full of examples of humans behaving badly. And that is, perhaps, precisely why we need to be careful about what we research. But allow me to broach the topic of political correctness again. I have read many articles lately lamenting the rise of the politically correct college campus. And I am afraid that I don’t think this is such a bad thing. Perhaps I might put it this way: The real alarmists are those who are repining about the supposed erosion of free speech on college campuses.

Aletheia: Well, first, allow me to make my final point about science. I do not think we can predict the consequences of our research. We simply have no idea. The future is a dark, black night stretching out before us, illumined here and there by flickering thoughts and speculations. Often, we do more violence when we attempt to suppress or manipulate science for a noble end than when we simply leave it alone. In fact, this is the fault of all utopian thinking.

Justitia: And if we could? I mean, would you in principle support suppressing some research if it could be shown that it would lead to positive consequences or that it could avert a disaster?

Aletheia: I simply cannot imagine such a scenario…

Justitia: Well, challenge your imagination! What about the nuclear bomb?

Aletheia: I think the nuclear bomb is a great example. And it illustrates precisely why we must pursue the science to its bitter end. Suppose the Americans had decided that the bomb was simply morally impermissible, a terror that should be aborted and then forgotten. What then? We now know that the Germans were nowhere near developing a functional nuclear weapon, but what if they were? Certainly they had no moral qualms about creating and using such a bomb. We simply cannot protect ourselves from knowledge. Reality is like an unkillable horror monster. It is always there, waiting. We can ignore it, perhaps deny it….but we cannot destroy it.

Justitia: Well said. I do not agree, but I do applaud your answer! Let us turn, now, to political correctness before ending this entertaining conversation. Do you really believe that political correctness is as deleterious as you suggested at the beginning of this conversation? Do you feel that you cannot be spontaneous, cannot engage in persiflage with your peers or friends, cannot really say what you think around most people at college?

Aletheia: I absolutely think that political correctness is pernicious. I am not sure I would say yes to your last questions, but there are many things that I do not feel comfortable doing because I am an academic. For example, I do not feel free to exchange ideas on social media because I am afraid that it will hurt my academic career. I am afraid to offend students ()because I doubt that the university would protect me. And there are many topics that I leave unexplored because I know that if I pursued them I would be slandered and stained by the obloquies of a very, very vocal minority.

Justitia: Well, I certainly do not support denigrating researchers or injuring their careers, at least I do not support those tactics in most cases. But that is not the focus of many articles that I read. These seem to object to the emotional emasculation of college kids. These fret and huff and bemoan the persistent coddling of college kids. These fear that college kids are too cowardly to confront dangerous or offensive ideas anymore. I simply disagree. This is not my experience. And, for what it is worth, I think sensitivity is a good thing. We should have safe spaces for formerly (and currently) persecuted minorities, for gays, lesbians, rape victims, et cetera. If students want to watch films of puppies and eat oatmeal cookies, I don’t see the harm. Especially if it makes them feel safe.

Aletheia: Well, I am certainly not going to judge a trauma victim. But I do think we have promoted a certain narrative that praises and encourages students to express offense and that weakens the mind. Students want to hide in a comforting cocoon, safe from challenging ideas. But the job of college instructors is to shatter that cocoon, to expose students to new ideas, to challenge their beliefs, to discomfit them! A professor should not be a nanny who babysits and protects students; she should be a stirring lecturer who provokes them with dazzling and sometimes dangerous ideas.

Justitia: Can we separate two distinct but often conflated practices, then? On the one hand, we have real support systems, safe places, and institutional structures designed to protect victims. And on the other we have the softening of ideas. The first you do not object to. The second you appear to abhor? Is that correct?

Aletheia: Not entirely. But I do think the distinction is important. It is not entirely correct because I believe that the first issue is somewhat related to the second. That is, we have begun to coddle students too much. And this coddling bleeds, inevitably, into the realm of ideas. Students expect to be comforted and pacified at every moment, so they naturally react with horror when they feel the discomfort of challenging ideas because, let us be honest, ideas can be disconcerting. It hurts to have one’s worldview shattered. I can still vividly recall losing my belief in the pieties of my youth. It was a wound more profound and more painful than any I have yet suffered physically. (Perhaps that says more about my luck than anything!)

Justitia: Ha..ha. Well, we are probably both lucky! I do agree that the first issue bleeds into the second, but I am afraid my calculations arrive at different conclusions from you. I think it is an almost untainted–and, note that I said almost!–good that students expect to be comforted and pacified at every moment. That is what progress is about, is it not? Of course, one could imitate a man from the 1600’s wildly raging about the complacency and narcissism of men from the 1950’s. “He has a refrigerator; how dare he complain that his coffee is not always hot. I had to work for twelve hours a day just to plant and harvest enough to eat for the winter!” How do you know you are not just one of these antiquated curmudgeons!?

Aletheia: I hope I have not yet become antiquated! I will confess that smart phones are almost too complicated for me.

Justitia: Oh shame! They are very user friendly!

Aletheia: I agree that it is a dubious practice to condemn the new generation for their comforts and luxuries. However, I think we should approach this scientifically.

Justitia: Of course you do!

Aletheia: The only way! So, we know that isolating trauma victims from possible trigger sources can actually prolong the healing process. Sometimes a wound needs a painful wash of disinfectant. So, in this case, it might actually harm people to hide them from all the dangerous and threatening things in the world.

Justitia: But who should decide? Should the student decide when he or she is ready to experience a potential trigger?

Aletheia: I do not object to some freedom for the student, but it must be reasonable. We should not have to sprinkle our lectures with trigger warnings. The Great Gatsby does not need a trigger warning for misogyny. All Quiet on the Western Front does not need a trigger warning for harrowing war scenes.

Justitia: But why object to providing students, the consumers, with information about material with which they are going to grapple? I don’t see the harm in providing a quick label to a lecture about war that it will contain lurid and grisly scenes and descriptions. Is that really a bad thing?

Aletheia: I am somewhat more comfortable with providing those kinds of warnings than I am with providing warnings for any potentially discomforting discussion. So, let me give a different example. What about a psychology professor who wants to discuss sex differences? Or, let us get more concrete and more controversial, what about a psychology professor who wants to discuss the adaptive value of rape? Should he have to caution his students?

Justitia: I don’t see why not.

Aletheia: Because it propagates the notion that such a topic is somehow forbidden or risky. It is not. It is a scientific question. We need to teach our students about the moralistic fallacy, and about how science works so that they learn not to see such topics as controversial. Rape may or may not be an adaptive strategy. Whether it is has nothing to do with its moral significance. I absolutely despise tornadoes. But they do exist. And it would be utterly idiotic to deny their existence.

Justitia: Well said. Again, I am not certain that I agree, but I will praise your thoughtfulness. Shall we continue this discussion in the future?

Aletheia: Most certainly. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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