Chat transcript with Leonard Krishtalka

Welcome to our online chat with Leonard Krishtalka about evolution.

The chat took place on Thursday, October 6, at 2:00 PM and is now closed, but you can read the full transcript on this page.

Moderator: Welcome this afternoon to our online chat with Leonard Krishtalka, the director of KU’s Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center, which will open an exhibit on Nov. 2, “Explore Evolution.”

I’m Dave Toplikar, online editor, and I’ll be the moderator today.

We have lots of questions ready to go about , so we’ll get started.

Lonnie, Lawrence: Did you decide on the exhibit after the intelligent design debate started or before it started?

Leonard Krishtalka: The exhibit was conceived in 2002, before the current controversy in Kansas began. It was also conceived by a biologist and educator at the U of Nebraska State Museum, who then asked 5 other university museums to join the project.

Brian, Lawrence: Dr. Krishtalka, do you think the mechanism of evolution is falsifiable? Random genetic variation and selection (or some variant material process) is used to explain the emergence of every biological feature, and for many relatively small or trivial changes, that is observable.

But at other levels, that mechanism’s creative ability is extrapolated, not demonstrated. And now, there have been elucidated a number of biochemical systems that appear to be irreducible (while maintaining function). These appear to present significant challenges to the variation/selection mechanism.

Leonard Krishtalka, director of KU's Natural History Museum, responds to reader's questions online.

So, is the variation/selection mechanism falsifiable? In other words, is there any system or feature that would be beyond the reach of the variation/selection mechanism? If so, what would characterize it. And if not, on what basis is it claimed that this mechanism is in fact limitless in it’s creative abilities? It certainly hasn’t been demonstrated.

Thanks, and my apologies for the multi-pronged question.

Leonard Krishtalka: This is a complicated question, but the basic answer is that all components of evolutionary theory—microevolution, macroevolution, mutation, speciation, extinction—are testable and falsifiable, either in the laboratory through experimentation, or through observation in the field. The notion of irreducible complexity is a canard—it does not exist and there is no evidence for it. It was first proffered by Michael Behe, an ID proponent, and was subsequently demolished by biologists.

Cal, Lawrence, KS: As a non-christian, I am skeptical of this so-called Intelligent Design proposed by our Board of Education. I have no problem with the way evolution is being taught in our schools. But, I’m afraid that if the option of Intelligent Design is incorporated by some of the school districts, some kids, who are of non-christian background, would be taught (or force-fed) Intelligent Design from the point of view of Christians. As I understand it, there’s supposed to be a separation between state and church. Or, am I completely missing the point here?

Leonard Krishtalka: the main point is that ID is not science, because it invokes supernatural explanations for the occurrence of phenomena. Science seeks and invokes only natural explanations for natural phenomena. The fact that ID also invokes biblical creationism would make it violate church/state separation if it were introduced into the classroom as science. there is no problem teaching ID in the HISTORY OF SCIENCE, because indeed ID, then known as Natural Theology, was popular in the 1700s and early 1800s.

Todd, Lawrence: Why shouldn’t ID be taught in a science class?

What evidence is there for ID through the scientific method?

Leonard Krishtalka: As I responded in the previous question, ID invokes the supernatural to explain things, which takes it out of the realm of science, which deals only with natural explanations for phenomena. ID is faith-based, not evidence based.

Mark Lawrence: In your opinion does the debate about evolution shows us how well the scientific paradigm was/is taught in the classroom for the past fifty years?

Leonard Krishtalka: Good question. We teach science and evolution well in the classroom, but we have done a terrible job disseminating to the public what science is and isn’t and why science is critical to our day-to-day lives. the public realizes this with medical science, but has a much more difficult time grasping this for the other sciences. Society pays for most of scientific research with its tax dollars, and therefore deserves to know its benefits and how it is done. we need to do a much better job of translating complex science to society.

Josef, Lawrence: I look forward to this exhibit but I am wondering if both evidence supporting evolution as well as evidence that does not support Darwin’s Theory represented? For instance Darwin himself stated, “Why, if species have descended from other species by insensibly fine gradations, do we not everywhere see innumerable transitional forms? Why is not all nature in confusion instead of the species being, as we see them, well defined?” How is the striking lack of evidence of these transitional forms dealt with in the exhibit?

Leonard Krishtalka: I don’t know of evidence that falsified evolution, but I do know of many phenomena in biology that we still need to explain and are the subject of intensive research—that is the nature of science, always growing, emending and adding to the body of knowledge. The fossil record is an excellent example. For some groups of organisms (e.g. diatoms over the past 14,000 years as is shown in Explore Evolution) the fossil record is dense enough to track evolution and speciation through time. Ditto the fossil record of trilobites and mammals from many different time periods. But other groups lack such a good fossil record for many geological and anatomical reasons. finally, many species, once evolved, did not change much through time, so there would be no transitional forms. In any case, there are many examples of transitional forms in the fossil record, with Archaeopteryx, the feathered “dinosaur” and its relatives being the best known examples.

Joyce, Baldwin: Is there a scientific model to see the direction humans will eventually evolve into based on natural selection? What is your educated guess of how humans will look like in a million years?

Leonard Krishtalka: I know of no such model. Because human create their own environment and resources and can escape from the vagaries of environmental change, we are not subject to the kinds of natural selection that all other species are. Some evolution is occurring, for example, in our jaws, which are, in general getting shorter and can no longer accommodate the entire dentition. Hence so many people with impacted wisdom teeth or wisdom teeth that never erupt. I can’t predict what we will look like in a million years or if we will even be here as a surviving species. If we do not steward the environment and its natural resources more wisely than we are now, we won’t survive for another million years.

Ernie, Tonganoxie: Too often, I think, the general public sees stand-alone examples of evolutionary principles but is not given guidance in linking them together. Will the “Explore Evolution” exhibit be able to connect the seven areas or might they appear (to a non-scientist) to be nearly unrelated to each other?

Leonard Krishtalka: The exhibit was designed to feature cutting edge examples of evolutionary research in different fields—anatomy, genomics, fossils, disease systems, speciation. There are basic principles of evolution that connect these dots—genetic variation, natural selection and time—and we hope that the visiting public can connect those dots. The exhibit, however, was not designed to be a short course in evolution, although there is a good amount of understandable theory in the exhibit that supports all six evolution modules.

Robert, Lawrence: The Evolution in the classroom issue is usually portrayed as a church/state separation issue. Isn’t this actually a state/school separation issue? You’ve even said that evolution disclaimers on textbooks “is what totalitarian governments do”. Why not get the state out of the curriculum completely?

Leonard Krishtalka: My answer to this question is simple. A democracy depends on a well-educated populace, and therefore both are in the best interest of the state. Also, there would not be a church/state issue with evolution if science and religion were not mixed in the science classroom. Science seeks to explain the composition, history and functioning of the universe, Earth and life on Earth. Religion, for adherents, provides a sense of place and purpose in that universe. Two different missions.

Jim, Chicago: Do you believe it is more important to allocate funding more heavily toward academic research or public education? How is such a determination made since Dyche Hall houses departments that serve dual-purposes?

Leonard Krishtalka: I think this should not be an either-or choice. Both are critically important. Funding research produces knowledge discovery for the benefit of society. Public education informs society about that knowledge, how to apply it, what it means, and how to evaluate policy issues, such as the nature of a first-class science education.

Brian, Lawrence: ID has nothing to do with Biblical creationism. On what grounds are you saying it does?

Sorry editors, but these comments by Dr. Krishtalka are already entirely sensational.

Leonard Krishtalka: If i was sensational, I’d be making more money in a different profession. Seriously, Brian, the latest evidence linking ID to biblical creationism is twofold: 1) the “Bible or evolution” speech by Steve Abrams on Sep 24 to the crowd in Independence, while he is pushing ID onto the KS standards.

(2) he testimony at the Dover PA trial yesterday that the ID book Of Pandas and People started life as a creationism book, with creationism in the title and throughout. With the Supreme Court ruling that creationism was not science, all references to the word “creation” and “creationism” in the book were changed to “intelligent design”. Case closed.

John, Lawrence, KS: Will there be any components of the “Explore Evolution” exhibit that are directed specifically towards Creationists or ID proponents?

Leonard Krishtalka: No. this exhibit is about evolution, the unifying principle in all of the biology. It has nothing to do with creationism or ID or any other religious idea.

Dave, Lawrence: I think that creationists/ID folks have done a great disservice in setting up a convenient straw-man for evolutionists to knock down. The fundamental issue since the beginning of evolution is the veracity of the science. You answered Brian above that each component of evolution is testable. However, the whole thing is not. What about the unforeseen contingencies that often arise when multi-component theories are tested overall?

Leonard Krishtalka: Disservice to whom? I would say the greater disservice has been to the reputation of Kansas nationally and internationally, and to the science education of 450,000 Kansas schoolchildren. The science behind evolutionary theory is as verifiable in whole or in part as is that behind gravitational theory, electromagnetism, relativity, etc., all of which are tested in chunks. there is no problem with that. Let me say it as plainly as I can: evolution, like gravity, is a fact of nature. Evolutionary theory explains how evolution works. There is no evidence with regard to evolution, or gravity, or any other large unifying principle, that multi-component testing will falsify the theory. If there are contingencies—GREAT!!!. All that means is that there is need/room for much more research to delve into those contingencies.

Doug, Lawrence: Dr. Krishtalka, Systems scientists like Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Lynn Margulis, James Lovelock, Ilya Prigogine contend that matter is self-organizing, that autopoiesis is an evolutionary dynamic in living systems. 35 years after it was articulated, does the concept of autopoiesis remain viable? How is it understood today? Does it comprise a small eddy in the present body of scientific thought or is widely held, a majority position?

Thanks for your work!

Leonard Krishtalka: I don’t know much about autopoiesis — I even have to be careful spelling it — but yes, some matter is self-organizing and that can be a dynamic in living systems. Much depends here on our definitions of self-organizing. Developing embryos are self-organizing in the development and differentiation of tissues, but this self-organization is mediated by enzymes and catalysts. And that’s the limit of my knowledge on autpoiesis, but I am going to investigate it further. Thanks

Jake, Olathe: Can evolution explain the human conscious?

Leonard Krishtalka: Neuroscience investigates the human conscious, as do the humanities and the arts. Evolutionary biology can explain when and in what species consciousness first arose from inferential evidence of brain size, brain wiring, presence or absence of speech and symbolic representations, etc — there is a book on the subject called the Bicameral Mind, which is quite old and probably dated. It is clear that other species also have a sense of consciousness as we think about it, such as chimps, or gorillas, but its most significant component—foreknowledge of one’s mortality—seems to be absent from chimps and gorillas, hence no religion or a concept of the afterlife. I know that this last comment will being in a flood of responses.

John, Lawrence, KS: Human evolution, in particular, seems to be the most sensitive issue for anti-evolutionists. Will the exhibit feature research in paleoanthropology on human origins?

Leonard Krishtalka: The exhibit does not feature paleoanthropology per se, but it does feature human evolution in the comparison of the chimp and human genomes, which only differ by approx 1.5% of the genes. the sequencing of the entire chimp genome was recently completed. Human evolution is indeed the trigger issue for anti-evolutionists because, I suspect, they prefer to be specially created than share a ancestry that is as genetically and geologically humbling as those of all other organisms on Earth. The fact is, humans are special in so many of their attributes and evolution does not make them less so. Indeed , it was through evolution that these special attributes were attained.

Agassiz, Lawrence: Is the Kansas State Board of Education evidence of Intelligent Design?

Leonard Krishtalka: It is good to end this session on a bit of humor, and I want to thank all of those who submitted questions and apologize for being able to answer them all.

Indeed, it is the KS BORED OF EDUCATION, at least 6 of the members are bored of a quality education for 450,000 Kansas students. I hope everyone out there will read today’s editorial in the Lawrence Journal-World about the Board’s appointment of the new Education Commissioner, Bob Corkins. As the editorial points out, it is more evidence of ideology and political agenda, not electoral responsibility to KS schoolchildren, ruling the Board and its actions.

Thank to all of you again for this chat session.

Moderator: That will be our last question today.

Dr. Krishtalka, thanks for taking so many questions from our readers today. I’m sure we could go on for several hours with all the questions we’re getting on this topic.

Leonard Krishtalka: A typo in my last message. I meant to write that I apologize for not being able to answer all of your questions. And I respect the differences of opinion that arose in our discussion. I hope everyone will have a chance to come to Dyche Hall and see the Explore Evolution exhibit.


Leonard Krishtalka