Saturday, March 28, 2015

On Dr. James J. Krupa, biology professor and evolution apologist at the University of Kentucky

Slate.com has posted an edited version of an essay Dr. James Krupa wrote for the journal Orion on his experience teaching biology at the University of Kentucky. I had Dr. Krupa for two courses 15 years ago and I want to shed a different light on his teaching manner.

Krupa has been awarded multiple times as being one of the most popular teachers on UK's campus. Krupa's human ecology course made a big impression on me and I remember it fondly. I learned a lot about the inefficiency of having black roof shingles, the environmental scourge of free-roaming cats, and the joys of mulching. (Every time I put something in our compost bin, I think of Dr. Krupa.) I also correct people for using the word "theory" instead of "hypothesis"-- his greatest achievement in my life. I also thought of Dr. Krupa last year when I read The Origin of Species for the first time, more on that below.

However, not everything Dr. Krupa said from the lectern was true. In one of his Intro to Evolution lectures I remember him talking about how our bodies contain organs and attributes that are no longer useful but are evolutionary relics. (The appendix, body hair, nipples on men, etc.)  That may have been fine on its own, but he also made the claim that babies have been known to be born with tails, another relic example, and that doctors simply snip them off at birth. I raised an eyebrow but not my hand, no one said a word about it.

My roommate that semester was finishing his residency in pediatrics at the University of Kentucky hospital. He saw lots of babies delivered, so I asked him about it. I don't remember his initial response, but he later asked his attending physician. The response was something like "Every now and again I hear that some quack in the biology department at UK tells students this. It's nonsense." He remarked that if a baby had a "tail" at birth, it would likely contain the base of his spinal cord out due to a deformity. Cutting that would obviously cause serious problems.

A search of the repository of the National Institutes of Health turn up several studies of tail birth defects, and they have nothing to do with our biological ancestors. One example:
"The most frequent cause of a pseudotail in a series of ten cases obtained from the literature was an anomalous prolongation of the coccygeal vertebrae. Additional lesions included two lipomas, and one each of teratoma, chondromegaly , glioma, and a thin, elongated parasitic fetus."

A more recent study noted that "About 50% of the cases were associated with either meningocele or spina bifida occulta...After diagnosis, microsurgery should be performed if there is any intraspinal component to avoid any damage and neurological deficit."

Reportedly, the evolutionary tail myth began in a 1982 New England Journal of Medicine article by Dr. Fred Ledley, and was later popularized by other science writers like Robert T. Bakker who claimed it was a "throwback" to our ancestors. The myth lives on.

The problem with this is that Dr. Krupa was quite aggressive at countering other myths from the internet that Christian students would bring to him. I remember one time he disseminated a printed copy of an email he'd received from a student that semester-- to all 300 students in our lecture and I assume the other sections as well-- and proceeded to explain how ridiculous it was; making a real embarrassment of the student. His lectern was more like a bully pulpit, and this is likely why no one questioned the evolutionary baby tail claims-- I was certainly too intimidated at the time as a freshman to bring up what I'd later learned about babies' tails from the UK Hospital. (Perhaps Dr. Krupa's examples of Christian students in his Slate piece suffer from adverse selection, just a thought.)

Krupa's exam questions did not always stick strictly to biology, either. One memorable question asked which Protestant denomination did not allow for evolution in its doctrinal statement (answer: Southern Baptists). This question struck me more as being from someone with an axe to grind rather than just interested in teaching the science. 

Krupa's essay mentions the "transitional forms" claims students make. I attended a symposium/debate on the nearby campus of Transylvania University where Dr. Krupa and another professor were debating the merits of teaching intelligent design in schools. The professor opposing Krupa made a similar transitional form claim, and Krupa interrupted him by thumping on a couple of thick textbooks on his table saying "I have the proof right here." Krupa did not identify what his books were. After reading the Origin of Species, I believe what the opposing professor was referring to was the weaknesses in Darwin's theory that he raises himself in chapter 10-- "The Imperfection of the Geological Record." Between the various sedimentary layers we do not find a linear progression. Some advanced species show up in earlier eras but not in later eras, and vice-versa. We also do not see the "swarm" of living creatures in the earliest deposits necessary to bring forth the later variety of species. Quoting Darwin (with my emphases):

"Consequently, if the theory be true, it is indisputable that before the lowest Cambrian stratum was deposited long periods elapsed, as long as, or probably far longer than, the whole interval from the Cambrian age to the present day; and that during these vast periods the world swarmed with living creatures. Here we encounter a formidable objection; for it seems doubtful whether the earth, in a fit state for the habitation of living creatures, has lasted long enough...
To the question why we do not find rich fossiliferous deposits belonging to these assumed earliest periods prior to the Cambrian system, I can give no satisfactory answer...It does not seem probable that the most ancient beds have been quite worn away by denudation, or that their fossils have been wholly obliterated by metamorphic action, for if this had been the case we should have found only small remnants of the formations next succeeding them in age, and these would always have existed in a partially metamorphosed condition. But the descriptions which we possess of the Silurian deposits over immense territories in Russia and in North America, do not support the view that the older a formation is the more invariably it has suffered extreme denudation and metamorphism. The case at present must remain inexplicable; and may be truly urged as a valid argument against the views here entertained...The several difficulties here discussed, namely, that, though we find in our geological formations many links between the species which now exist and which formerly existed, we do not find infinitely numerous fine transitional forms closely joining them all together. The sudden manner in which several groups of species first appear in our European formations, the almost entire absence, as at present known, of formations rich in fossils beneath the Cambrian strata, are all undoubtedly of the most serious nature."

Krupa's time may have been better spent explaining how biologists have since explained the above difficulties with the fossil record and why Darwin's own stated concerns are no longer problematic. It's one thing to argue that the fossil record we have available to us is unfortunately incomplete and not completely knowable in the 1800s, as Darwin did, but quite another to claim to possess specific evidence from the fossil record in the (unidentified) books you're thumping, as Krupa did. Had he inspired us to read more deeply and guided us to those sources, I'd perhaps be writing a different blog post.

The opening of the essay illustrates well that the battle over evolution is a bit different in Kentucky. An hour away from UK is Ken Ham's Creation Museum, where Ham recently debated Bill Nye. (Aside: I remember Ham and Dr. Duane Gish coming to the largest church in Lexington to give seminars on creationism when I was a child. They alleged that someone at the Biology department of UK had agreed to a debate until learning that Dr. Gish would be representing the creation side, at which point he or she declined. I have no idea whether that was true or whether Dr. Krupa was on faculty at that time.) I noted at the time that Ham showed more kindness and respect to Nye in their debate than I ever saw Dr. Krupa give a student. In the end, that's often what makes the difference to an impressionable 18-19 year old freshman, no matter the information being presented.

So, I share that as a different point of view of the man in the Slate piece. If you have your own memories of Dr. Krupa, feel free to comment.

No comments: