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Natural History Museum Excursion #1, Saturday 12 March 2011


The line to enter the Natural History Museum is likely to be long on Saturday morning, you should plan to arrive at the main entrance on Cromwell Road by 10:45 or so to make sure that you are inside and at the meeting area (just inside the main door on the right) by 11:00 sharp. You will have the usual weekend Underground closures to deal with, the Piccadilly Line is operating normally and stops at South Kensington which is the closest tube stop to the NHM.

Make sure you are well fed enough to last until we eat an earlyish dinner at around 17:30 at the flat (Shepard's pie and apple crisp).


Complete the reading and other items on the assignments page that are due before 12 March.


We'll meet just inside the door and then retreat to a corner someplace so we can get organized. After I have explained the exercise (see The Great Debate below) you will have about 3 hours to explore the museum while working on it. At 15:15 (earlier is better) we'll meet at the Attenborough Studio to see the interactive film Who do you think you really are. After that we'll haul ourselves up to the West End for dinner at the flat.

The Great Debate

For this exercise you will be researching various aspects of evolution in preparation for a debate in class on Tuesday. We will divide into three groups, one group of six that will support evolution, one group of six which will support not evolution, and a group of three judges (Charlie, Fitz and one other).

What's at Stake

Darwin and his adherents did not put forth a single theory but rather a collection of them over some time. These have been augmented and extended over a long period of time by subsequent research. For this debate we must narrow our focus, these are the principle theories you should consider:

  1. Transmutationism
  2. Common descent
  3. Struggle for existence
  4. Natural selection
  5. Sexual selection
  6. Biogeographic distribution
  7. Heredity

Your evidence, analysis and presentations should address all of these.

The Original Players

Potential sources and lines of reasoning to consider

As in all science the judgement in this case will be made on the weight of the evidence, the quality of that evidence, and the presentation of that evidence. Personal observations of fossils and other geologic specimens, particularly when supported by others' analysis (contemporaneous or current) of those same specimens, is especially valuable in this context.

Examining the specimens, and the science used to evaluate those specimens, are both within bounds, if you will. For example many of the specimens are placed in historical context with radiocarbon dating, which involves the analysis of a particular carbon isotope. How reliable is that technique? How are reliable are the other techniques that this science depends on? Where is the evidence for transmutation? What about behaviors found in nature that run contrary to sexual selection/natural selection?

As you might expect arguments of the ilk of the watchmaker's analogy, Hoyle's tornado in the junkyard and irreducible complexity are not worth pursuing.

Highest weight will be given to evidence developed from the collections and information at the NHM, or by the NHM on-line. Primary and tertiary sources available on the Internet can also be used.

The Debate

On Tuesday during class we'll have a structured debate between the two groups. There will be opportunities for the teams to question each other and for the judges to question both teams.

The format of the debate will be as follows:

  1. 20 minute presentation from the evolution group, 10 minutes of questions from everyone
  2. 20 minute presentation from the not evolution group, 10 minutes of questions from everyone
  3. 10 minute break and judges consultation
  4. 10 minutes of questions from the judges
  5. Short judges consultation and the results

The arguments will be judged on the weight of the evidence presented, the quality of the presentation and the materials used, your ability to field questions effectively, and the quality and completeness of the organized notes (see below) that you give us at the beginning of the debate.

The judges will determine which team presented a more convincing case taking into account the relative weight of the evidence presented by each team, the effectiveness of the presentation and any associated materials (i.e. visualizations and the like), and your ability to address concerns and questions raised by the judges and your classmates.

Your grade will depend solely on the overall quality of your work as a team, not on which side of the debate you fall on.

What's Due

  1. Your preparation for and participation in the Great Debate in class on Tuesday.
  2. An annotated bibliography of the sources you used to develop and support your arguments, one bibliography for each team. These could be specimens from the NHM, information kiosks at the NHM, on-line information, etc. For each of them write a sentence or three describing how you are using it. Divide the bibliography into two sections, information/specimens that were available in June, 1860 and those that only became available after that date.


Bonus Prize

There will be prizes back at the flat for the three people who find the most specific specimens at the NHM that Sally could have sold by the seashore. (And I don't mean something you find in the loo...)

Blogger and Photographer

We will need two volunteers from the studio audience to take pictures and write-up/post a blog entry about this excursion. Get in touch if you are interested. In order to spur interest in these positions I'm offering 5 bonus points if you take on one of these tasks.

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