Saturday, October 25, 2008

Don’t Know Much Biology

Just the other day at some whistle stop on the campaign Governor Sara Palin delivered some boilerplate to the faithful. The subject was special needs children and her commitment to them. Ignoring how Palin red lined yet another part of the federal Government that will be immune from McCain’s budget freeze ( Defense and Entitlements also being off limits) and the shameless pandering to the home schooling crowd; we needed to look at her wallowing in the talking point of earmarks. Palin was in full McCainiac screed against the government spending U.S. tax dollars on testing of fruit flies in France.

The talking point was so wrong for so many reasons. First, she once again got the pertinent facts wrong. The fruit fly research was done here in the good old U.S.A. But it gets better (or worse from whose perspective you are look at this from.) Those fruit fly experiments were vital for understanding the genetics of, drum roll please- learning disabilities.

The burning question here is what is more appalling, that a candidate for office for the Vice Presidency of the United States is totally ignorant of High School Biology or the fact that thousands of “informed citizens” were also ignorant of these basic facts also. We have already seen Palin fail the test of “Are you smarter than a 3rd grader” as it applies to the U.S. Government, now she has gone for bonus round and proved once and for all that, at least in Alaska, our children are not learning. Please remember that Palin is a college graduate. Kind of proves that “sports journalism” degrees are not much an of accomplishment.

To see how badly Palin flubbed this we need to go back to those good old days of High School Biology that most of us probably, and Sara Palin definitely, slept through. Just as one can not study geology without a few rocks, one can not study genetics without fruit flies. Drosophila, specifically Drosophila melanogaster is the along with the lab rat part and parcel of any serious study of biology. The “common fruit fly” is as much a part of a biology lab as are the frogs we had to slice up. It is in the parlance of biology a model organism. Their rapid life cycles allow us to multiple generations ( and mutations) in a very short period of time. There is not a High School Biology student that has not had Gregor Mendel peas and Drosophila Melanogaster inflicted on them. Our only small solace was watching the teachers kill those pesky little flies in the name of science.

Unfortunately thousands and perhaps millions of high school students never got past the brief pleasure of insect slaughter to learn the actual lesson the teacher was attempting to impart to them. Far too many of us remain not only profoundly ignorant of basic science but are also belligerently proud of our lack of such knowledge. That cohort was happily hooting and hollering for Sara at the campaign event; they loved the meme of fruit flies in France.

But Sara Palin is not really to blame for this bit of know-nothingism. There is a deep vein of anti-intellectualism in this country. If you look at the ear-marks that McCainiacs love to hate most of them are scientific studies of one kind or another. It is the genetic studies of harbor seals, or crabs, or moose that get the klieg lights shown on them. This is not too surprising as Evolutionary theory lies beneath all these studies. If you reject Darwin’s big idea as “just a theory,” then rejecting any study based on his seminal work is that much easier to ridicule. The major reason scientists study the genome of other animals is because those studies help us understand the genome of humans. Harbor seals, being mammals like us share a significant amount of DNA with humans. There is only a few tens of millions years of divergent evolution between harbor seals and humans.

That last sentence is, of course, deeply offensive to the young earth creationist types that inhabit the Republican Party these days. They not only believe that God zapped those seals in existence but he did so only a few thousand years ago. He did this right after he provided us with a limitless supply of oil but before he came up with the bright idea of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They can not only quote chapter and verse of why this is true but also prove how this explains why global warming can’t possibly exist. Just look it up in the Old Testament, it is just after the condemnation of sodomy but before the justification of aerial wolf hunting.

This is the sorry state of affairs in our nation. Satire of the Republicans is so easy but then again so hard. They keep racing ahead of the ridicule. It gets positively Dadaesque out there on Republican campaign trail. The contempt for reason, for science, for logic, for common sense is more than palpable; it is a badge of honor. Simple Sara was able to toss her bit of raw meat to the slavering masses because they have had such dainty meals before. The anti-intellectualism, the anti-elitism, the anti-rationalism of the core believers has been stoked time and time again. We are in Orwell’s Animal Farm- “four legs good, two legs bad.” What is truly frightening is that the leader of this assembly is every bit as ignorant, clueless, ridged, and incurious as huddled masses she hectors to. She is George W. Bush without the breeding or the elite training.

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