Bill Nye: Evolution Denial Hurts Innovation in Science and Technology

The Science Guy returns to Big Think to address his creationist critics and warn against the risks of denying evolution, the fundamental core of life sciences.

Bill Nye:  Evolution is the fundamental idea in all of life science. So if we raise a generation of science students who don’t understand the main idea in biology they’re going to be incompletely educated students and this is going to be trouble for the United States because the United States keeps in the game economically by innovating – having new ideas, new products, new ways of doing things. That’s what the United States produces and brings to the world. And if we raise a significant fraction of our students who don’t understand science we’re not going to have the engineers and scientists to continue this tradition. So for me it’s troubling objectively or subjectively as one can be and as a citizen of the U.S.

I believe, I think here on Big Think that the problem is the same thing that allows us to recognize patterns to imagine shapes and things and routes and ways to get things done before we actually start doing those things that that ability also enables us to understand that despite our best efforts we’re all going to die. And I think that makes all of us a little nutty. We all find it a little troubling. And so because it seems incredible that all this stuff that we store in our brain, all the memories we have, all the mental images that we are able to keep, all the algebra that we learn, that all that goes away when we die is really hard for all of us to accept. And along with this is that we are not nature’s last word. We are not the final answer that nature came up with. That we are not what some entity created as his or her very best work. We’re just one more step on the evolutionary timeline. And for many people that’s so troubling they can’t accept it at all. For me, of course, it’s empowering and amazing and it makes me want to live every moment of every day in the best way possible. But for a lot of people it’s literally unimaginable.

Our journey begins when I was in New York. I’m living in New York nowadays but a year and a half ago I came here on an airplane and I had to be someplace for a television interview at – I had to get up around 5:00 a.m. Eastern time which was 2:00 a.m. Pacific time. And by the time I got to Big Think I was worn out. I was a little worn out. And you guys asked me a fabulous question about creationism. I’m not sure why you chose to ask that question and I spoke from the heart how troubling I find it for the United States science educational system, for our science students in the U.S. to be excluded or not be enlightened and not be enabled by the fundamental idea in all of biology which is descent by natural selection, evolution. So you guys posted that and people went a little crazy on the electric Internet, the computer machine that the kids use. And I just remind everybody when people take the time to write and they take the time to hate me that much, these are not people you’re not going to reason with. These are not people that you’re going to sit down and have a conversation with and a discussion and achieve a new conclusion. We each have pretty much made up our minds and so you can’t worry about that stuff too much.

My concern is not for the grownups who take the time to write these inflammatory things and react to your fabulous website and so on. My concern is for the people who are still in school, the people who are the future of the U.S., the future of the U.S. economy. And larger the future of the world’s economy. I mean the United States is so influential. It’s the third most populous nation in the world and it’s the nation that sent people to the moon. I mean it’s still a big influence. You can make very strong arguments for South Korea, Japan – huge economies doing amazing – Brazil doing amazing things. But still the United States is the leader in this stuff and so when we exclude a generation of science students we’re headed for trouble. I guess what I would just remind everybody who is troubled, each of us who might be upset by the inflammatory comments below the Big Think videos, those people are not really in the mainstream and I will state categorically that if they really believe the earth is 6,000 years old they’re really wrong about that. And that’s not an extraordinary statement. But I can’t tell – I’m not sure if the guys, the people at Answers in Genesis really believe that the earth is 6,000 years old.

I’ll say they certainly seem to. When you’re with them they certainly seem to be true believers. But they all use mobile phones, they all use Facebook and Twitter and so on. They take advantage of all of our technology developed through the process of science. They’re all happy to have had smallpox vaccinations if they’re of a certain age. Or they’re all happy to have not died of smallpox, I’ll put it that way. They’re all happy to eat food grown on farms that is in general extraordinarily healthy in general compared to other parts of the world. It’s not laden with bacteria and other harmful pathogens that might be associated with food stock. Once in a while we have big trouble here but the United State food system is a lot better than most places. And they take advantage of all of that. But apparently they don’t seem to appreciate the science that led to it all. And what I find so troubling with the Answers in Genesis people is they have a very diligent or complete indoctrination program for young people. They have quizzes and workbooks and classroom curricula designed to indoctrinate young people in the extraordinary and obviously wrong idea that the earth is somehow 6,000 years old and there was a flood 4,000 years ago and somehow land plants survived and salt water and seawater mixed but there’s still freshwater fish and so on. All these bits of evidence in nature that point out how obviously wrong it is, they press on and they work very hard to indoctrinate young people.


Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton

The Science Guy returns to Big Think to address his creationist critics and warn against the risks of denying evolution, the fundamental core of life sciences. To deny evolution is to deny the facts that serve as foundation for modern medicine, anatomy, and neuroscience. If America produces too many citizens who deny science, it runs the risk of falling behind the rest of the world in innovation.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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