Thursday, November 17, 2005

Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Your Future Doctors

Like most graduate students, I make my living as a teaching assistant. Right now I am teaching a few lab sections a week of an introductory biology lab. I enjoy what I do. Sometimes the material gets a little old after you've gone over it so many times, but I like interacting with the students, especially when I feel like I have done something to get them excited about studying biology. As you might imagine, many of the freshman students who are majoring in biology have high hopes of getting into medical or dental school. Some will actually make it, although I don't actually know what the percentages are.

Sometimes it can be frustrating though. Too many people have problems letting go of their preconceived notions. I don't remember how the subject came up, but at some point during one of my labs this week we got on the topic of evolution. One of my students, who happens to be a very religious guy, started to roll his eyes when I said something about it.

"What, don't you believe in evolution?" I asked.

"I believe in evolution to an extent. Do I believe we came from monkeys? No way."

"How about a common ancestor between us and them?" I needed to point this out since nobody who is a proponent of evolution has ever said that we come from monkeys, just that somewhere along the line a speciation event occurred and we have been diverging ever since.

"No, I think that's all a bunch of crap."

I'm paraphrasing now, but I let him know that the official stance of his religion (which also happens to be my religion) was that we are to be concerned about living our lives in a way which pleases God, to bring others to Christ, and to leave the science to the scientists (emphasis added).

What I should have mentioned was something along the lines of how he can expect to be a good doctor if he is willing to ignore evidence because it disagrees with his personal beliefs. I'm sorry, but people have been trying to disprove evolution for over 150 years. That's the nature of science. Anytime someone comes up with a new idea, other scientists try their hardest to disprove that idea. It is hard for me to understand how people who are in the field of biology can still have doubts about anything that has been under that much scrutiny in the scientific literature, and is still backed by all the evidence. I realize that this student is only a freshman, but it's still frustrating to me.

This is the thing that gets me: I think everyone will agree that bacteria eventually gain resistance to antibiotics, insects eventually gain resistance to pesticides. Is this not natural selection? You're telling me that organisms can't adapt to changing environments when they have yet to find a cure for AIDS because the virus is able to evolve too fast? I think that my student would even agree that in these scenarios, evolution is taking place, which brings me to my next gripe. How can you believe in evolution "to an extent?" Either it happens or it doesn't. It's the same process occuring whether it's on a small scale (such as bacteria gaining resistance to antibiotics), or on a large scale (such as one species experiencing disruptive selection eventually resulting in a speciation event).

Did the people who placed Galileo into lifelong imprisonment for heresty believe in heliocentrism to an extent? I can't imagine some Catholic bishop in the 1600's saying "I believe that Venus and Saturn, and maybe a few stars could orbit the sun, but not the earth. I think that's a bunch of crap." Of course not. The sun and everything else orbited the earth. End of story. Of course, it turns out they were wrong, and I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who still believes that the earth doesn't orbit the sun (although, there is a society somewhere in Nevada that still believes that the earth is flat and shaped like a disk, surrounded by what is known as 'the outer ice.' I believe their name is The Flat Earth Society. You could probably look them up if you're interested, but I'm too lazy to look up that information to give to you right now). So why are people so reluctant to believe that evolution is a possibility? Does it necessarily mean that if evolution occurs there is no God? I don't think so. I believe that if anyone could use evolution to create man, that God certainly could.

Just because a lot of scientists tend to be atheist or agnostic doesn't mean that we all are. I just don't believe that the Bible is literal in every sense. I don't believe that the earth was created in 6 days. I don't believe that the earth is only 6000 years old. I believe that dinosaurs actually existed and that the fossils we find are real and weren't placed here by the devil to lead people astray (you may laugh at that one, but my ex-mother-in-law actually told me that once).

I wonder about the direction our country is going in when we still have groups trying to have creationism (or nowadays Intelligent Design) taught in public schools as a viable alternative. Is it not a step backwards once you start ignoring all the evidence for something, just because you want to believe something else? What is my student going to do when he's a doctor and is presented with evidence that goes against one of his personal beliefs? Will he just ignore it and risk his patient's life? Is that part of the reason why so many doctors misdiagnose their patients? (I have another opinion on that one, but that will have to wait for another time as this is quite a bit longer than I intended and I still have work to do tonight).

I still have hope for this student. He's a smart guy, and will probably learn a lot more on the subject before he graduates. I was the same way when I started out (actually, I was just unsure what to believe). I'm sure he'll come around. I'm glad I did.


PsychoIntern said...

Just one thing I disagreed never "proves" anything (that's why we test the null hypothesis). It only explores what is observable and tries to explain events/evidence the best it can. Natural selection is something that can be observed (especially in such things as bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics or other rapidly reproducing organisms that have short enough life spans that such generational observation is possible). I doubt that many people would argue against the idea of natural selection or evolution within species. However, I think they do differ in their ideas of how man came to exist or the creation of one species from another (or the bifurcation of one species into two extremely disparate species (i.e., silver back gorillas and humans). However, the origin of man, or the idea that all life evolved from one-celled organism, is something that can never be "proved true" just as it cannot be "proved false." All we can do is search for evidence that might support the theory, or fit into the boundaries of the theory. If we find some evidence that does not fit the theory, then we have to create a new theory that can encompass the new evidence/event. I pesonally believe that God created mankind. I am not sure if he did this by sending lightning into the primordial soup that once flooded the earth, creating protein chains, and eventual microorganisms that evolved into multi-celled organisms, and eventually Adam... :) or if he allowed all other life to develop that way, and created a prototype of man (Adam) in some other way. I really don't think the ideas of evolution, natural selection, and religion are necessarily incongruent. Only if you are a very concrete thinker that interprets the Bible literally (God created the earth in 6 literal 24 hour days...More like 6 very long creative periods). Well, I am rambling now...I haven't thought much about evolution since 1991 when I took my Freshman Biology class from Drs. Cates and St. John.

PsychoIntern said... that is a really brilliant comment you made on evolution. Are you some kind of genius?
Secret admirer of you cognitive skills!!!

PsychoIntern said...

Thank you...I am glad that you think I am a genius. I am sorry that you are not. Maybe you will experience a rare beneficial mutation of your genetic makeup and your children will have the opportunity to be smart. Sorry that stupidity was somehow naturally selected for in your family.

PsychoIntern said...

Damn!!! This blog shows that it is me that is leaving comments to embarrassing.

Hot Tamale said...

Wow!! Ryan I really do believe you made a brilliant comment on evolution. Unfortunately I'm starting to question whether you really are a genius after reading the other posts...just kidding! I thought it was hilarious and it made my day! =)