True, and not just for a few minutes. A chicken can stagger around without its noggin because the brain stem, often left partially intact after a beheading, controls most of its reflexes. One robust fellow lived a full eighteen months. Likely he was a real birdbrain, however.+
IN THE HIGH-PROFILE WORLD OF professional wrestling, the waters have been anything but calm. Massive wrestler egos, unrealistic fan expectations, and outright deception by bookers have all played a part in wrestling scandals over the years. Lawsuits have been filed. Wrestlers have watched their careers sell-destruct. Beloved personalities have tragically died.
Thus far, professional wrestling has survived the setbacks and remained extremely popular. But the impact of the following well-publicized controversies has had a substantial effect on how wrestling is perceived by both hardcore and casual fans. For both groups, the scandals provided a rare glimpse of the real-life happenings behind professional wrestling.
Frank Goodish, a.k.a. Bruiser Brody, was hardcore before hardcore was a common term in professional wrestling. On July 16, 1988, Brody was allegedly stabbed to death by fellow wrestler Jose Gonzales in the showers of the Bayoman Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Brody bled to death on the locker room floor, surrounded by wrestlers and waiting for medical attention that arrived too late. While Gonzales was charged with the murder, he was later acquitted and actually made a professional comeback.
Over The Edge was supposed to be just another WWF pay-per-view. The Godfather vs. the Blue Blazer was supposed to be just another match. Sadly, May 23, 1999, will forever be remembered as one of the darkest days for professional wrestling. Owen Hart fell from the rafters of Kemper Arena in Kansas City to his death, a victim of a stunt gone bad. Grief gripped the Hart family, WWF co-workers, and wrestling fans everywhere. A lawsuit filed by the Hart family against the WWF and others is still in the pretrial stage.
Although he began his career as a fan favorite, Brian Pillman’s style evolved into a persona that was loud and obnoxious. His death on October 5, 1997, did not resemble that latter career style. In the quiet confines of a Bloomington, Minn., hotel room, Pillman–an employee of the WWF–passed away. According to the Hennepin County coroner, arteriosclerotic heart disease caused his death. Pillman’s affliction may have been exacerbated by painkillers he had been taking since being involved in an automobile accident on April 15, 1996.
The Von Erichs
Once known as a prominent family in professional wrestling, the Von Erich name is now more closely associated with tragedy. Five out of six sons of parents Fritz and Doris Adkisson all met untimely deaths. Jack died in 1959 at age 7 when he accidentally electrocuted himself. David died in Tokyo on February 10, 1984, at age 25. Mike over-dosed on Placidyl–a drug used as a sleeping aid–on April 2, 1987, at 23. Chris shot himself with a 9mm pistol on September 12, 1991, at age 21. Kerry committed suicide at 33 with a gunshot to the chest on February 18, 1993. Only Kevin survives.
Arrests of Ken Patera and Mr. Saito
All they wanted was a burger after the match. The problem was how they went about getting it after being refused service. During an April 6, 1984, late-night visit to a Waukesha, Wis., McDonald’s, Ken Patera and Mr. Saito threw a boulder through the window of the closed restaurant. A brawl ensued between the wrestlers and the local police at a nearby Holiday Inn. On June 6, both men were convicted on multiple counts of battery to a peace officer, not to mention criminal damage, and sentenced to two years in prison.
For all the publicity the lawsuit brought Rena Mero, the outcome was rather anti-climactic. Claiming that the WWF sought to intimidate her into performing obscene and dangerous acts, Mero filed a $110 million lawsuit on June 3, 1999. She also wanted the rights to the Sable name and a full release from her WWF contract. After public gyrations by both sides, including Mero appearing in the audience during a WCW “Nitro” broadcast, the suit was quietly resolved. Mero was able to keep the proceeds from her Playboy magazine appearances, but she was held to her contract and unable to use her famous moniker.
WWF vs. WCW lawsuit
Vince McMahon had lost the services of stars Kevin Nash and Scott Hall to WCW. “Nitro” was creeping up in the ratings with the New World Order “invasion.” But McMahon still had some fight left in him. In the summer of 1996, Titan Sports, Inc., filed a lawsuit claiming that WCW was duping the wrestling public into believing that there was an arrangement between the two promotions. Hall and Nash were portrayed as “outsiders” trying to overtake WCW, and the WWF took exception. The lawsuit is still working its way through the courts.
On November 18, 1993, more than two years after former ringside physician Dr. George Zahorian was convicted of selling steroids, WWF owner Vince McMahon was indicted for possession and conspiracy to distribute anabolic steroids. The trial featured testimony from star witness Hulk Hogan on July 5, 1994, in Uniondale, N.Y. The 17-day trial ended when, after 16 hours of jury deliberation, McMahon was acquitted of all charges.
Salman Khan’s Veer is in the news yet again. After the portion of a wall fell on bystanders, the film’s unit was rapped for damaging portions of the Amber Fort. We take a look at some of the most controversial films over the years.
Arguably one of the finer movies to release this year, Slumdog Millionaire has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in India. From political parties slamming it for its title to a slum dweller suing it’s makers and Amitabh Bachchan criticising it for showing the underbelly of the country, Slumdog Millionaire could have deserved better media attention in India. Fact is, it didn’t. Here’s the latest: Nakul Singh has sued the makers for wrongly crediting the bhajan Darshan do Ghanshyam to the blind poet Surdas. He claims his father Gopal Singh Nepali had written this for the film Narsi Bhagat.
Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar was in the news right from the beginning. First it took an exceptionally long time for the film to be shot and then to be edited. Then there were rumours that Jodhaa Akbar was delayed because of Aishwarya Rai’s marriage and finally when the movie did release, it faced a boycott from a tin-pot organisation called Rajput Karni Sena. It was alleged that the movie had distorted historical facts. Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a prominent Hindu organisation also demanded that that certain objectionable dialogues in the film be removed. Surely, Ashutosh Gowariker must’ve thanked his stars that Swades and Lagaan were not historicals.
If last year it was the Rajputs who were protesting, this year it was the turn of the barber community. The film in question was Billu – earlier called Billu Barber. Days before its release, the makers had to change the title and knock off ‘Barber’ from the title. But things didn’t end there. A word from the song Mar jaani offended certain Muslim members of the audience. Stone pelting and some drama unfolded at the theatres playing the movie as well as at Shah Rukh Khan’s house.
Madhur Dixit’s Aaja Nachle also irked certain communities in Uttar Pradesh. A particular line from a song managed to get it into some serious trouble. So much so, Mayawati called for a nationwide ban on the movie. Trouble started when some bloke led a demonstration in front of a movie hall in New Delhi where the film was being screened. The controversy reached Parliament on Saturday when Lok Sabha MP Ramdas Athawale of the Republican Party of India alleged the title song humiliated Dalits and demanded that the film be banned. Things turned uglier when even the chief minister of Punjab banned the movie expecting trouble. It took some amount of fire fighting to get things in place. Director Yash Chopra had to issue an televised, unconditional apology and remove a particular word from the song.
Arguably the most controversial film in this entire list, Black Friday was based on the book by the same name. Written by senior Mumbai-based journalist S Hussain Zaidi, Black Friday narrated the events that preceded and followed the dreaded 1993 blasts in Mumbai. The movie was ready in 2004 but kept getting stuck as the court stayed its release. Finally in early 2007, the movie hit the screens after the accused had been charged under TADA. The movie was a hit and propelled director Anurag Kashyap into some much-deserved limelight.
Get the Friday off Black Friday and you still have a controversial film. For one, a antique furniture dealer sued director Sanjay Leela Bhansali alleging that he had purposely burnt the sets of Black to claim insurance. It was also alleged that the director has under-insured the movie sets in order to reduce his premium outgoings and has charged him. The dealer was reportedly not compensated either. The state-run Maharashtra Film, Stage and Cultural Development Corporation, which owns Mumbai Film City where the studio was located, had also slapped a Rs 60 million suit on Bhansali for causing damage. That was not all. A deaf and mute assistant also accused the director having skipped his payment for his services.
Arguably one of the most controversy-ridden movie in recent times, Devdas was probably jinxed from day one. Aishwarya Rai suffered from some food poisoning, then Salman Khan reportedly came drunk on the sets and created a ruckus, a storm fan caused a serious accident, killing one unit member and seriously injuring another. Along the way, Madhuri Dixit also reportedly issued ultimatums to Bhansali because the shoot date kept getting postponed.
There wasn’t anything in the film that stirred the controversy as much as what the lead actor said outside of it that undid it. Aamir Khan, always a man about town when his film releases, made himself seen along with those protesting against raising the heights of the Narmada dam in Gujarat. The film was banned in the state for quite some time till the court decided to intervene and provide protection to the theatres screening the film.
It was a film that pretty much brought the mighty Yash Raj films to its knees. The battle between multiplex owners and distributors reached a head with this particular film. The owners claimed that Yash Raj demanded more than a fair share of profit from the film. Not willing to give in to the Studio’s demands, all multiplexes refrained from showing the movie. As a result Tashan, one of the first big budget films of the year, ended up being a miserable flop. Funnily, it was Yash Raj, which started the whole anti multiplex owners trend with Fanaa.
Jo Bole So Nihal
This Sunny Deol-starrer was supposed to be a celebration of ‘Sikhdom’. Ironically, the movie managed to irk the very community it was cheering for. Members of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee accused the film of showing “the Sikh community in a bad light.” Things turned really ugly when two high-intensity blasts rocked two cinema halls in the capital killing one and injuring about 53 others. The community also had issues with a Sikh character being chased by scantily clad women. Further the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee claimed that the film had grossly misused a terms that was spoken in Sikh temples and battlefields.
This was probably Deepa Mehta’s first brush with controversy before Water. Right-wing activists stormed two theatres in Mumbai and prompted the movie’s distributor to stop the showing of Fire. The film focussed on a lesbian relationship between two sister-in-laws. It was clearly a first in the Indian context where homosexuality to this day is discussed in hushed tones. The controversy also rocked the parliament with opposition members slamming the Hindu nationalists for “intolerance” and “hoodlum rule” in Mumbai. Interestingly Shabana Azmi one of the two leading actors in the film and an MP, was present in the house when the debate started. She silently watched it unfold without once making a comment.
A period piece set in Varanasi, Water was to complete Deepa Mehta’s trilogy – Fire and Earth being the first two. But the movie ran into controversy right from the first day of the shoot. Water dealt with the plight of Indian widows in the 1930s and was supposed to be shot in Uttar Pradesh. However the state government the film’s location permits as mobs stormed the ghats along the Ganges. The film’s sets were burnt as were effigies of the director. At some point Deepa Mehta gave up the idea of shooting in India and put together an entirely new cast. Seema Biswas replaced Shabana Azmi and Lisa Ray replaced Nandita Das. The film was shot and completed in Sri Lanka.
Ek Choti Si Love Story
Manisha Koirala who had created waves when Dil Se released found herself in a spot when a film called Ek Choti Si Love Story began to generate curiosity amongst the trade circuit. The story revolved around a body double she had allegedly approved of. Shashilal Nair, the director of the film claimed that Manisha had no problem with the scenes where the double was used. Manisha, of course, claimed otherwise. Things came to a head when the actress approached Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackery to intervene. Nair was ‘advised’ to delete the scenes but he insisted that the Sena chief should see the film first before suggesting any cuts.
1932/1933: Bodyline, England v Australia: In an effort to nullify the world’s greatest batsman, Australian Don Bradman, England employed a tactic that came to be known as ‘‘bodyline’’. The bowlers would target the batsman rather than the wicket, and the outrage it caused in Australia following injuries to many of its batsmen threatened friendly relations between the two countries.
1947 – Pakistan v India
For many years following the partition of India, games between Pakistan and India had to be played at neutral venues due to crowd trouble. In recent years, the games have been labelled ‘‘the friendship series’’, and fans have joined together in displays described as ‘‘cricket diplomacy’’.
1977 – World Series Cricket: battling the television networks
Australian multi-millionaire Kerry Packer signed 51 of the world’s leading players and established his own competition in defiance of the International Cricket Council.
The move was ultimately successful in wrestling television rights from ABC, Australia’s publicly-owned broadcaster, and modernising the game.
1980s – The rebel tours
During the 1980s, players from England, Australia, Sri Lanka and the West Indies toured South Africa, in defiance of the international ban on sporting contact with the country due to apartheid.
All of the players involved in the tours received lengthy bans.
1990s – Match-fixing
The captains of South African (Hansie Cronje), Pakistan (Saleem Malik), and India (Mohammed Azharuddin), were banned for life after a match-fixing and illegal betting investigation. Two Australian players, Mark Waugh and Shane Warne, were fined for providing inside information to bookmakers.
2003 – Zimbabwe
Two Zimbabwean players, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga, wore black armbands during the 2003 World Cup in protest against ‘‘the death of democracy in Zimbabwe’’. The Zimbabwe Cricket Union, headed by Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe, subsequently faced allegations that it had introduced a racist policy banning white players.
The American boy band, Jonas Brothers, is not only making headlines because of their music and acting efforts. Recent controversies involving Kevin, Joe, and Nick Jonas have caused Disney to lose some money to cover up bad publicity swirling around. From the buzz-making Jonas Brothers shirtless pictures to controversial dating rumors left and right, the teen group act has been receiving a lot of jabs from the media, paparazzi and currently, some disappointed fans.
The rumors were said to have been caused by the brothers’ various relationships with famous young stars in Hollywood. With the exception of the oldest sibling, Kevin, the rest of the Jonas Brothers have caused a stir because of highly publicized dates and affairs.
Joe Jonas’ highly sensationalized break up with country singer, Taylor Swift, caused a major buzz in Hollywood. To compound matters, Swift has been very vocal about her feelings towards the split. Swift said that the break up was sudden and only happened through a phone call. Joe, according to her, was the one who made the ‘break up’ call that only lasted for 27 seconds.
“When I look at that person, I’m not even going to remember the boy who broke up with me over the phone in 27 seconds when I was 18,” said Taylor in a talk show interview.
In response, Joe refuted the claims of his ex-girlfriend and said that the phone call only lasted as it did because Taylor wasn’t open to hear his side. He also denied other allegations that he cheated on Swift with 10,000 BC actress, Camilla Belle. Although Camilla and he are already dating, he insisted that he never cheated on any girlfriend.
Nick Jonas has also been the target of tabloids because of his relationship with Hannah Montana star, Miley Cyrus. The two apparently broke up because of Nick’s new fling, Selena Gomez, another Disney star. Selena starred in the Jonas Brothers’ music video, Burnin’ Up as the singer’s love interest. The incident caused the two teen actresses to cause cat fight rumors and the Youtube war between Miley and Selena also emerged because of Nick.
Despite these, the Jonas Brothers is taking the rumors in stride. They also have the support of Disney and their record label. However, Disney did some reprimanding to the siblings to avoid further damage on their squeaky clean image especially when there some jarring Jonas Brothers shirtless photos spread all over the internet. In some reports, it was said that Disney is alarmed with the issues that have been surfacing about their sweet, clean, and dandy young stars like Hannah Montana, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, and just recently, the Jonas Brothers.
Controversy and the Oscars seem to go hand in hand almost every year. Maybe it’s inevitable that such a high profile event as the Academy Awards will attract some controversy.
Let’s take a look back through the history of the Academy Awards, and some of the controversial moments which, amazingly enough, have become memorable moments of Oscar past.
Throughout Oscar history, presenters and even Oscar winners have chosen to use the occasion of the Academy Awards to make some political comments, such as Richard Gere making comments about China’s human rights violations one year, or Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon imploring the United States government to allow a group of HIV positive Haitians to enter the country. But some have stood out as major controversies.
In 1977, when Vanessa Redgrave won her Supporting Actress Oscar for Julia, she used her speech to comment about a bunch of “Zionist hoodlums,” raising scattered boos and applause from the audience.
A short time later, on that same telecast, Paddy Chayefsky came out to present the writing awards, and delivered a speech of his own, saying that he was sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards, “for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a mere thank you would have sufficed.”
That moment still remains one of Oscar’s most controversial moments.
One year in the mid ’70s, Frank Sinatra responded publicly on an Oscar telecast, rebuking Dustin Hoffman for his criticism of the Academy, saying “and contrary to what Dustin Hoffman thinks, it is not a disgusting evening, it is not garish, and it is not disrespectful.”
Controversy even sometimes erupted by individuals who didn’t want to accept their Oscars. George C. Scott made it known how little he respected the Oscar, saying he would be home watching a hockey game that night, and sure enough, his name was called as the Best Actor of 1970.
The most well known example of an actor refusing his Oscar was Marlon Brando, who was named Best Actor of 1972 for The Godfather. Brando wasn’t at the Oscars either, but instead he sent Sacheen Littlefeather, an actress pretending to be Apache. She delivered the reason why Brando wouldn’t accept his Oscar, due to the poor treatment of American Indians by the film industry, at which point various boos could be heard from the audience.
Recently, controversy erupted before the Oscars, when it was announced that Elia Kazan would be receiving the Academy’s honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, because some people never forgave him for naming names to the House on Unamerican Activities Committee in the ’50s. Some people whose careers were forever ruined because of it.
Of course controversy has even come from unexpected events, such as:
* The streaker who ran across the stage in 1974, which was as much a sign of the times as anything.
* In 1988, the Academy itself got in hot water with Disney because of the use of Snow White in a very cheesy opening production number, which also co-starred none other than Rob Lowe.
* A Best Documentary winner told the Oscar audience to ban General Electric.
* Barbra Streisand made light of the Academy’s choice to honor women through its theme one year.
* Eddie Murphy commented one year that at first he didn’t want to present Best Picture because of the lack of black actors winning Oscars.
But after a few years have passed, these Oscar moments join the other memories of Academy Awards gone by, and we can’t imagine the awards without those moments.
From now on, controversy and Oscar will continue to hang out together, and hopefully one day they too will become part of Oscar’s colorful past.
In other Oscar news:
The Academy officially announced this week that the 72nd Annual Academy Awards telecast will return to the Shrine Auditorium one last time before holding the Oscars in its own theatre. The date for the telecast has also been announced, Sunday, March 26, 2000. The Academy is again planning on a pre-Oscar arrivals show, much like it did for the first time this year.
The Alaska Iditarod race held each year in March sparks controversy over the treatment of the dogs. It is a popular event that is intended to commemorate Alaska’s culture and heritage of Alaskan Huskies pulling sleds through mountainous and rough terrain. Mushing was a means of travel in Alaska in the early years with a team of sled dogs pulling a sled with a driver on board.
The route taken for the race is based on the year it is run. Even numbered years, the routes goes from Anchorage to Ruby. This is the northern route. In uneven numbered years, the route is run from Anchorage to Unalakleet, the southern route. The distance of the race is around 1,200 miles and is the longest dog sled race in the world.
The first Iditarod was held in 1973 and reportedly 15 to 19 dogs died during this race. It is estimated that approximately 130 dogs have died since the early days of the race, when there was no official count taken of the number of deaths. Thus, the exact amount of dog deaths during the early years is not exactly known.
The last ten years have shown deaths resulting from strangulation in towlines, internal hemorrhaging, liver injury, heart failure and pneumonia. Also, included as a reason for some deaths is a deterioration of the dog’s muscles and organs during extreme exercise. There have been incidences of racers kicking their dogs to death, striking them with sharp objects and mushing the dogs through dangerous deep water and ice.
During the race, dogs sustain injuries to the spine, bone fractures, sore paws, torn muscles, sore joints, dehydration and diarrhea. About half the dogs who start the race are not able to make it to the finish line.
In training the dogs for the race, it is reported some dogs are injured or die from the grueling paces they are put through. The training is done in remote areas of Alaska and many dogs are forced to pull extremely heavy loads. The strain of pulling these loads can cause hip and spine injuries.
The mushers are also criticized for culling the dogs. They are accused of killing any puppies or dogs that do not meet the standard of a good race dog.
Along the race trail, there are around twenty checkpoints with a veterinarian on duty to provide medical care for the dogs. These checkpoints serve as rest areas for both the dogs and the musher. The dogs are fed and allowed to rest at these checkpoints and any dog that is sick or injured is left off at the checkpoint.
The veterinarians who care for the dogs at the checkpoints defend the treatment of the animals, saying many untruths are told about the dogs running themselves to death. They claim the number of dog deaths is normal when you consider you are talking about 1,000 dogs, so three to five deaths out of 1,000 dogs is not an alarming figure. Kennels that house 1,000 dogs can expect around 3 deaths in a two week period.
Almost all mushers are members of several animal care groups that promote responsible care and humane treatment of the dogs. They say the stories of dogs and whips could not be further from the truth. They are out and out exaggerations and cause protest from animal rights activists.
Mushers love their dogs and contend that the Alaskan Huskies’ instinct is to run and pull sleds. This is what they were bred for, the same as bird dogs who instinctively hunt birds. The Huskies have been used for generations in Alaska to pull sleds, so it is easy for them, whereas it would be very difficult for some other breed of dog. Pulling a one ton sled from a dead stop is what one Husky is capable of doing. Endurance is the Husky’s strong point.
The story started when Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy was reported missing in June 2003. A month later, after teammate Carlton Dotson was charged for murder, Dennehy’s dead body was found in chest-high weeds. The police had been tipped off after Dotson told a cousin of his that he shot and killed Dennehy during an argument.
But the black eye didn’t end there for Baylor University’s basketball program, as Dennehy’s girlfriend reported violations to the NCAA. Investigations revealed that head coach Dave Bliss had been improperly paying for Dennehy’s tuition, had not reported players’ failed drug tests, and had told players and coaches to lie to authorities by claiming that Dennehy had been dealing drugs. The school is now under probation until 2010.
What makes it stranger: In October 2004, Dotson was deemed to be psychologically incompetent and was sent to a mental hospital where he was evaluated. He was returned to jail after doctors doubted his accounts of hallucinations, and a week before his trial was to begin, with no plea bargain in hand, Dotson pleaded guilty in the death of Patrick Dennehy. He is currently serving a 35-year jail sentence.
Diego Maradona, who was on Tuesday named the new coach of Argentina, is a gifted yet controversial figure whose off-field antics could never overshadow his brilliance on the pitch.
The pint-sized midfielder is widely regarded as the greatest footballer of all time. He shared FIFA’s Player of the Century award with Brazilian legend Pele.
A glittering career at national level brought him a World Cup winners medal in Mexico in 1986 — the same tournament as the infamous “Hand of God” incident against England in the quarter-finals.
He was also part of the team that came runners-up four years later in Italy after a shameful 1-0 defeat against West Germany which saw two of their players sent-off.
At club level he played for Boca Juniors, before moving to Barcelona for two seasons in 1982.
After Spain he moved to Napoli, his bustling play and talismanic presence driving the Neapolitans to two Serie A titles in 1987 and 1990 and a UEFA Cup triumph in 1989.
He finished his career at Boca in 1997, having retired from the national team three years earlier.
But controversy was never far from the dark-haired maestro.
He was twice banned for drug infringements, he was linked to the Mafia and was not fond of paparazzi intrusion into his private life. However, it is the illegal goal against England that towers above all else.
The “Hand of God” came during Argentina’s 2-1 win over England, when he rose above keeper Peter Shilton to punch the ball into the net. Despite English protests the referee never spotted the incident and the goal stood.
Later in the match saw Maradona at his most sublimely skilful when he weaved through the England team from the halfway line, taking on Terry Butcher and Terry Fenwick to slot the ball home.
Michel Platini, the former French captain and present UEFA president, once remarked: “The things I could do with a ball, he could do with an orange.”
Balance, vision, and a powerful left foot marked him out from a very early age. At 17 he made his debut for the national side — the same age Pele was when he made his.
The spectre of drug abuse surfaced in 1991 when he tested positive for cocaine and was slapped with a 15-month ban.
Health problems followed his retirement and in 2000 he suffered a heart attack in Uruguay, reportedly brought on by a cocaine overdose. His convalescence involved a spell in Cuba at the request of Fidel Castro.
Maradona, who still enjoys the adulation of millions in his homeland despite his well-publicised battles with drink and drugs, was in Beijing to see the Argentina side win gold this summer.
The scientific study of evolution is filled with controversies. That was one of the messages coming out of a two-day symposium on the latest in research from the field that was hosted by Rockefeller University last week. I’ll discuss the scientific details of some of the talks separately, but it’s worth analyzing these controversies in light of the “academic freedom” bills that are being considered by a number of states, which purport to protect teachers who discuss controversies regarding evolution.
Nationwide, nearly half a dozen states are considering variants of such bills, some of which throw in the origin of life and climate change for good measure. Legislators in Florida recently introduced such a bill in response to new educational standards that were the first to formalize the teaching of evolution. Althought two incompatible bills passed the state House and Senate, they died when the legislature went out of session; similar measures are still pending in other states. These bills appear to have originated at the pro-Intelligent Design thinktank the Discovery Institute, and constitute part of its latest effort towards reducing the teaching of evolution in public schools.
So, might Discovery actually be on to something here? It’s worth doing a comparison of the controversies they’d like to see taught with the topics that are considered controversial within the actual scientific community. It’s pretty easy to get a sense for what Discovery thinks is a controversy by looking at Explore Evolution, the textbook they have created in the hope of encouraging schools to teach it. Those ostensible controversies fall into three major groups: existence of common descent, power of natural selection, and the existence of proteinaceous machines.
Common Descent: Discovery presents common descent as controversial exclusively within the animal kingdom, as it focuses on embryology, anatomy, and the fossil record to raise questions about them. In the real world of science, common descent of animals is completely noncontroversial; any controversy resides in the microbial world. There, researchers argued over a variety of topics, starting with the very beginning, namely the relationship among the three main branches of life.
Russ Doolittle presented an analysis based on individual folds in proteins that clearly resolved the Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukaryotes, while a distant relative, Ford Doolittle, argued that the prevalence of horizontal gene transfer at the bacterial level made any such trees questionable, or at best uninformative. Meanwhile, Thomas Cavalier-Smith argued forcefully that gene-based trees miss out on significant evolutionary events, such as the transition that gave the Archaea a radically different membrane chemistry. Almost anyone who touched on the subject (and there were several speakers that did) gave a confused picture of what the genome of a Eukaryote looked like before it first took a mitochondrion on board.
These are areas of real controversy; Cavalier-Smith seemed to introduce half his slides by pointing how they showed where others had gone wrong. But it’s worthwhile noting that there is essentially no overlap with the areas that Discovery would like to pretend are controversial. Ford Doolittle, in fact, made repeated reference to the fact that there were areas that phylogenetic trees made sense for tracing common descent, and that the animal kingdom was one of them.
Natural Selection: Explore Evolution seems to think a reply can be made to the arguments in favor of natural selection. Based on the symposium, the scientific community clearly doesn’t. Selective pressure made appearances in nearly every session. Selection for self-replicating RNAs and for enclosing biochemical precursors within membranes were central to the origin of life work of Gerald Joyce and Jack Szostack, respectively. At the other end of the spectrum, the researchers exploring human evolution (Katherin Pollard, Bruce Lahn, and Svante Pääbo) spoke of the challenges of identifying signs of selection amidst the genetic drift that’s occurred within the genomes of mammals in general and primates in particular.
Here, it was clear that there simply is no controversy. In contrast to the arguments over bacterial trees and the origin of eukaryotes, none of the researchers felt compelled to explain or justify their focus on the role of mutation and selective pressure. Concerns, when they arose, were simply focused on identifying the consequences of selection. As such, Discovery’s focus on presenting a controversy here seems hallucinatory.
Molecular Machines: Michael Behe, a Discovery fellow, has advanced the argument that some aspects of cellular life are analogous to machinery, and thus must have required the same attentive design that a machine does. This proposal is flawed on a number of levels, and has not gained enough traction within the biological community to rise to the level of anything beyond a distraction. But items Behe might consider molecular machines did appear in the talks, and their role was informative.
The proteasome is one complex of dozens of proteins that was mentioned in a couple of talks. Despite the enormous complexity and large number of specialized proteins in a proteasome, evolution readily explains its origins through gene duplication and specialization. Simplified forms, with fewer proteins, exist in Archaea and Bacteria. Not only are these simple versions of the proteasome an indication of its evolution, the gradual increase in its complexity allowed researchers to use it to infer evolutionary relationships among the three branches of life.
Similar analyses were performed with actin and tubulin, essential components of the complex skeletons that support Eukaryotic cells. Structural relatives of these genes appear in Bacteria and Archaea, where they appear to act to separate cell components even in the absence of a complex skeleton. An essential component of some Eukaryotic RNA interference systems also shows up in Archaea, where it does something completely unrelated to RNA interference. In all of these cases, parts of the supposedly designed machinery exist elsewhere, where they perform more limited but often related roles. Their use in determining evolutionary relationships didn’t so much as elicit a blink from an audience of scientists.