Bacon, Fish, Arts vs Science, and Dawkins.

This is interesting, if not a bit alarming. Essentially, this story follows a trail of individuals that even Kevin Bacon would be proud of.

The cast includes: a UBC student, her sister (also a UBC student), a senior level biology course, the course’s teacher and the course’s teaching assistant. As well, there is another teaching assistant – this one from the History Department (not Biology), and for the rest of us here, this TA is sort of the antagonist. Oh, and the aforementioned biology course focuses on the theory of evolution, with historical as well as current cultural contexts provided.

Anyway, the story goes a little like this:

The first UBC student, who was taking this biology course, thought that some of the reading she had done in this course would be useful for her sister. You see, her sister is also a UBC student, and one who needed to write a paper for her history class. Here, writing a historical overview of the theory of evolution seemed like an excellent option. In any event, her sister did write an essay on just such a topic – and not only that, to all intents and purposes, she wrote a solid essay.

This is where things got a little wierd. It turns out the teaching assistant marking the history paper (the aforementioned antagonist) clearly felt that there were some problems with her paper—namely that it espoused evolution as if it was a real process.

But wait – isn’t evolution a real process?

Below are segments of the student’s work and the TA’s comments (reprinted with permission):

Student: By 1870, about a decade after its publication, nearly all biologists agreed that life had evolved,, and by around the 1940s most agreed that natural selection was a key driving force.
Footnote: Allen Orr, “Devolution: Why Intelligent Design Isn’t,” The New Yorker, May 30, 2005.

TA: Astonishing statement by Allen Orr

Student: One account of the United States having a lower acceptance of evolution is that it largely sees Genesis as true while other mainstream Protestant faiths in Europe view it as metaphorical and, like Catholics, do not a see a major contradiction with Darwin and their faith. However, the most prominent reason is the politicization of science in the United States.

TA: How evolutionists call their opponents “unscientific” (including prominent physicists) is another manifestation of politicization too.

Student: So why do people continue to reject Darwin? One reason […]

TA: Also the lack of reliable fossil records, lack of examples showing species to species transitions, manipulation of evidence, etc.

The teaching assistant then had this to say at the very end:

As you may be able to tell, I personally have lots of reservations regarding evolution (even scientifically). But your goal isn’t to agree with me, and I found your referencing excellent and essay concise and to the point. The two complaints I have will be the heavy reliance on people such as Orr, and you are a bit thin on primary sources.

Anyhow… you can imagine what happened next. The essay’s writer (a bit upset by the comments), showed the comments to her sister, who (also a bit upset) went on to share this story (as well as the paper with the comments) to those involved in the biology course (much more upset by the comments), which inevitably made its way to me.

– – –

So what to do? What to do? As a colleague said to me, “Imagine a teaching assistant writing, ‘I personally have lots of reservations regarding the fact the Earth is round.'”

The key question, of course, is whether this is a big deal. On the one hand, it is a major knock against science. Truly it is. It’s an insult through and through to those of us trained and engaged in the scientific process. From that angle, we could say that there simply should be no place for this sort of silliness at a place like UBC. Aren’t we one of Canada’s (indeed the World’s) top universities—a bastion of scientific research, home to several Nobel Prize winners in science, and (irony of all ironies) host to a guest lecture by Richard Dawkins tomorrow?

Yet on the other hand, we are at a “university” – a space devoted to free academic debate and discourse. Even if this particular dialogue is tantamount to scientific nonsense, it’s not something that should necessarily be silenced. We should let it run its course – it may have career repercussions for the grad student in question – but that is ultimately their call, and we should let it run nevertheless. As well, in this case, it’s important to note that the opinions of this teaching assistant did not appear to affect anyone’s grade.

But if opinion is welcome, is there room for opinion on every issue (e.g., gravity, the existence of slavery or female circumcision or ghosts)? Is a TA entitled to share his opinion with his students? Is this an isolated case? Or is this one of many such incidences that occurs not only at UBC but also around the world?

And is this incident a reflection of deeper issues between the Arts and Sciences (in this case an academic in history vs an academic in biology)? Perhaps even a reflection of the challenges that us science literacy types need to pay attention to?

Anyway, the point is this – this might not be such an easy question to answer, but I’m certainly curious to find out what you and others think. At the very least, this would make a great anecdote in Dawkins’ talk tomorrow.

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David (@ng_dave) is Faculty at the Michael Smith Labs. His writing has appeared in places such as McSweeney's, The Walrus, and He plans on using Terry as another place to highlight the mostly science-y links he appreciates. In fact, if you liked this one, you might also like his main site generally - this can be found at