Sunday, March 22, 2009

A dead, dinosaural kind of thing?

Twenty years ago, California proposed statewide science education guidelines that asserted, "Like gravitation and electricity, evolution is a fact and a theory."

This was too much for the powerful Traditional Values Coalition, a group that at the time represented more than 6000 mostly conservative churches. The Coalition's spokesperson, Rev. Louis Sheldon, was quoted in the press as saying: "When you teach kids that they came from monkeys, that's a dead, dinosaural kind of thing. It's a negative. It's not a warm, fuzzy kind of thing."

Which prompted a Globe column (and a reprise in Skeptics and True Believers). I raised the question: Is truth always warm and fuzzy?

Infants do seem to prefer their truths warm and fuzzy. Most very young children would rather cuddle a teddy bear than a Barbie doll. Toy stores are full of warm, fuzzy stuffed animals, including monkeys, to console babes in the cradle.

Growing up has something to do with putting aside the teddy bear and the security blanket. I suggested that Reverend Sheldon underestimated our children when he insisted that high school kids can't handle cold and clammy truths, like descent from reptilian or amoebic ancestors. And he forgets, I wrote, "that many paleontologists now believe dinosaurs were warm-blooded animals, not fuzzy perhaps, but certainly warm."

Well, well. Now it turns out that dinosaurs may have been fuzzy after all. New fossils from China show fuzz that might have been the precursors of feathers. Lawrence Witmer, who writes about the new discovery in the March 19 issue of Nature, tells the BBC: "Maybe all dinosaurs, even the predominantly scaled ones, had fuzzy parts. And if they were covered in a fuzzy coat, what does that tell us about their physiology? Perhaps they were warm-blooded."

I wrote in the Globe: "It is one of the glories of a free society that people can believe whatever they want about human origins. And certainly scientific truth is not infallible. But high school kids do not need intellectual security blankets. By insisting that science textbooks be warm and fuzzy, California creationists participate in the infantization of the next generation of Americans." My response may have been premature. Maybe the kids can have the truth and warm and fuzzy too.