Category Archives: Darwin Week


You’ve seen the schedule; now learn more about our daily speakers! Each day of Darwin Week 2017, there will be special presentations by people from the UNI community. All speeches will occur in the University Room, which is located on the bottom floor of Maucker Union.



Our 2:00 Monday speaker is Dr. Tyler O’Brien, a Professor of Anthropology here at the University of Northern Iowa. He teaches several courses on the subject of physical anthropology, including human origins, forensic anthropology, and human biological variation. His research interests include Human Osteology, Forensic Anthropology, Cranial Modification, and Bioarchaeology.

Dr. O’Brien’s Darwin Week 2017 presentation is entitled “Bones, Beetles and Birds: Darwin’s Contributions to Physical Anthropology.



Our 3:00 Monday speaker is Dr. Helen Harton, a Professor of Psychology as well as the graduate coordinator in psychology and the associate director of the center for academic ethics. She does research on academic ethics as well as on social influence, prejudice, and relationships. She is excited about the changes that scientists are beginning to make in response to the replication crisis she will address today and looks forward to the beneficial effects that increased methodological and statistical rigor will have on psychology, medicine, and other sciences.

Dr. Harton’s Darwin Week 2017 presentation is entitled “The Reproducibility Crisis in Science.”



Our 4:00 Monday speaker is Dr. Justin Holmes from the Political Science department. He is currently a professor of political science here at the University of Northern Iowa and teaches several courses related to political psychology, voter behavior, and public opinion. His research interests include presidential rhetoric, political communication, and American politics.


Dr. Holmes’s Darwin Week 2017 presentation’s topic is TBA.


Our keynote speaker that night at 7 p.m. is author and activist Kavin Senapathy! She’s the co-founder and director of international pro-science, pro-biotech movement March Against Myths, and co-author of “The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House”.

Her talk is entitled “Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt in Your Grocery Cart”.
Check here for more info!

If you haven’t already, please “like” the Darwin Week Facebook page (and the UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers page, while you’re at it!) Also, click “attending” on the event to get quick Facebook access to the schedule as well as ask questions or add comments.

You can also join the ranks of the several dedicated UNIFI members who have changed their profile pictures and cover images to the ones on this page.

Meet the Speakers of Darwin Week 2017: Kavin Senapathy

Darwin Week this year will be from February 13-16 and UNIFI’s officer team is busy planning away! Each day there will be 3-4 UNI faculty members giving talks and each evening of Darwin Week 2017, there will be a special presentation by someone from outside the UNI community. All talks will occur around 7:00 pm in the University Room in the basement of Maucker Union.

Our first keynote speaker is Kavin Senapathy on Monday evening at 7 pm. Her Darwin Week 2017 presentation is entitled Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt in Your Grocery Cart. 

Our food supply has never been safer, or more varied or abundant as it is in the developed world today. Yet the public fears “toxins” and chemicals in food, and faces an avalanche of labels with every trip to the market. Kavin Senapathy will discuss why people believe what they do about food, why these myths proliferate, and how to decipher the tactics that marketers use.

Kavin Senapathy is an author, writer, and science activist covering health, medicine, biotechnology, agriculture and food. She’s the co-founder and director of international pro-science, pro-biotech movement March Against Myths, and co-author of “The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House,” a book discussing popular food misconceptions and why they proliferate despite evidence against them. As a mom to a 6-year-old and 3-year-old, Senapathy often tackles health and nutrition misinformation targeted at parents. She’s a regular contributor to Forbes, with work frequently appearing in outlets like Slate, Gawker, Grounded Parents and more. She is active on social media, and can be found discussing the latest biotech, food, health and parenting-related news on Twitter @ksenapathy and Facebook at

Hate mail is awesome

Today I opened my first hate letter from an anonymous person. The letter was received by the Math Department office. This is peculiar because I have never used Wright Hall as a mailing address. All they knew about me is that I am an atheist and a math student at UNI, thanks to the article pictured to the right. Indeed, I offer thanks to the Courier and UNIFI otherwise I might not have had this opportunity. All emphasis such as underlining, capitalization, and paragraph separation, are the author’s (to the best of my ability). Enjoy:

Mr. Moeller,

With sadness, I read this Stupid article. Capital ‘S’? Yes, the world’s problem? We are too far from GOD, BUT GOD has NOT moved. WE have. Man wants to do as man wants to ‘do,’ to hell with God, His 10,& Bible.

Where has it gotten us? Faith IS virtue: one we must -cultivate- always in line with God’s plan for us. (Why U.N.I. let this CRAP in? sad.)

To start with – – – a baby is a miracle. You nor I could create something so-o-o perfect and precious.

PROOF that God wants the world to go on & on & on & on & on _________

UNTIL “HE” returns to end it all & take us all to Heaven to be with “HIM” forever.

God knew “having” & raising a baby would NOT be easy, so “HE” created sex as a “treat” for married people to enjoy as COMPLETE LOVE! p.s. satan’s been busy ever since Eden tempting man to stray FROM God’s plan for us.

Mysterious? yes, but FAITH IN GOD must keep us going on the right path to get our eternal reward – Heaven. (should be “great“! There’ll be no lawyers there!! W’loo phone book has 40 pages of lawyers. What does that tell you? Clever killers even get “high-powered LIARS” from Des Moines. sad, sick mess.

Don’t get me started on our corrupt justice system! 702.2 Mil.$$ of our Ia taxes last year. (UP16.7 Mil$) our laws protect the killers, not innocent Taxpayers. God also tells us in Genesis 9:5-6 and Leviticus 24:21 IF YOU KILL one of mine, you must pay with your life NOW. (should be all done in 6 MOS.)

Jesse, get involved in something worthwhile. (in line with God’s plan for us) Here’s one: Capital punishment for ALL killers. (regardless of age)

You know what? HOW FAR “OFF BASE” ARE WE ? ? ? ? ?

We, (in U.S.A. Thanks to satanic supreme court- we have capital punishment for the tiny, innocent, UNborn miracles of GOD

instead of: FOR ALL KILLERS. (We are even stupid enough to pay for a lawyer to LIE for ’em too yet. Did they need a lawyer to plan & execute the murder… some very clever.)

Then, they lie too yet, but what is a LIE for an offence to a killer in cold blood?

Jail for life? Supidity AGAIN. Jails are overflowing. They love all FREE. It sure beats work. NOT? IF a 21-yr. old kills one- lives to 65,

65-21 = 44 years at $33,000 amounts to 1.32 Million TAX dollars. Yikes.

“TOUGH LOVE WORKS,” but it must be used. This babying and coddling & excuses really got us in trouble. Ia Sales tax NOW 7 cents. I remember when it was 2 cents. We are simply taxed to death, To pay for all the UNneeded nonsense. Homosexuality is NOT of God. Read God’s word. Leviticus 20:13 (spiritual) death!

pretty strong words. Eh? IF 2 friends want to room & share expense… O.K. BUT, it is NOT marriage, SORRY.

Very few “Christiansare Christian enough to work & teach FOR GOD’s WAYS. Iowa has one great Christian. Bob Vander Platts. BUT, a real leader needs followers, not WIMPS. Thank God he got 3 Iowa supreme court justices OUT. all 7 should be gone.

supreme court? small “s” & small “c”? yes, only important persons places & things EARN a capital letter. Get in line with God people. Let’s count our blessings.

-A Tax Payer

This, for me, is a reminder of how much we really need tax dollars to fund the “UNneeded nonsense” that is a liberal arts education. This eloquent retort doesn’t cover a single topic raised in the Courier article. Instead, I suspect it is an aimless shot in the dark that was meant to soothe their own uninformed frustration. Socrates sure did have it right. It is no wonder these people are always so furious. Ignorance is not bliss.


P.S. – The author was not kind enough to leave their mailing address. If the author happens to see this, feel free to contact me at As always, I would love to have a conversation.

*Keynote* Lawrence Krauss – “A Universe from Nothing”

Prof. Lawrence Krauss is an internationally known theoretical physicist known for his work across many fields in science.

We want to celebrate scientific knowledge as we progress into new realms of understanding. In physics we use equations to study reality and to model them, and Einstein figured out that if he added a small, almost unmeasurable constant of reality. However, this constant made the equations of physics fold into harmony, and helped explain many things later on.

We know of 400 billion galaxies in the observable universe, and each of those contains billions of stars. In 1925 we knew of one such galaxy, the Milky Way, but now, less than a hundred years later we know of so many more possible worlds out there.

If we look at those galaxies they appear to be moving away from us, and that in fact, every galaxy is moving away from us. In fact, galaxies that are three times as far away from us as another galaxy is moving away three times as fast. So, if every galaxy is moving away from all other galaxies then the universe is expanding in all areas. This means that the universe had a beginning.

Every atom in your body came from stars, and those atoms came from stars. Stars that exploded after being generated in the center of stars produce atoms that make you up, and in fact there are atoms in your right hand that came from a different star than your left hand.

Light travels throughout the universe and is morphed by mass. In pictures of the universe we can notice that the curving of space and actually change the path of light, because light is made of matter and the large objects of mass we can detect that light is bent by mass.

Quickly after the universe was created it expanded and kept expanding, only the expansion was too much for gravity to keep up. This means that 100,000 years after the big bang gravity was not there to force and clump matter into galaxies.

Another quirky thing is to measure nothing. If you take all of the matter out of some region of space it will actually weight something, and something is a boiling mess of virtual particles popping in and out of space in extremely short time scales. These virtual particles give us the remaining explanation for the mass of particles and matter. Seventy percent of the energy in the universe is described by nothing.

Our universe came from nothing. Nothing is unstable because virtual particles are forming and destroying them selves in extremely short time scales. In a strong enough gravitational field the virtual particles will actually produce matter as we see it. We don’t need super natural beings to create anything because nothing will always create something!

“We didn’t create the idea of a multiverse because we’re atheists, we were driven to it by measurements of nature.” — Lawrence Krauss

Thank you Lawrence Krauss for packing the CME! Your talk was the largest we’ve had at a Darwin Week ever, over two hundred people were there to listen!

*Live Blog* “Genetics of the Evolutionary Process” By Prof. Theresa Spradling

Dr. Spradling is discussing how genetics are vital to the evolutionary process. There is a quickly growing field called Modern Evolutionary Synthesis, which relates to how genes variations come to be. Here are some of her main points:

  • “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” – Theodosius Dobzhansky
  • She uses the example of the different colors of mice in different geographic areas. This occurs because of the color of their environment and how genes that make one blend and avoid predators tend to proliferate.
  • The Mc1r gene is one that helps determines pigmentation (not just in mice, but in other species, even humans).
  • There are many genes that determine pigment, and their interaction is key to what determines color.
  • Every time an organism reproduces, they make copies of their genes. This leads to a high likelihood that mutations occur, and is thus why they do occur at such a high rate.
  • Each person has over 100-200 mutations unique to them.
  • Just the regulation of two genes can create a wide variety of 3D shapes in finches.
  • It isn’t hard to change a trait. Shape, amount of protein, when protein shows up, and where protein shows up are all factors
  • Gene duplication seems to be more common in our lineage than in other primate lineages.
  • Gene duplication has led to the way we can see color, versus other, older species which see it differently.
  • Gene duplication lead to new functions.
Fascinating talk, Dr. Spradling! Thanks for participating in Darwin Week 2012!

Live Blogging: Steve O’Kane, ‘The Joys of Poor Design: Intelligent Design? Not.

Steve O’Kane has been a great friend to UNIFI since its inception. He has taught Biology at UNI for 16 years and has been a proponent of skepticism and freethought. Today, he is talking about evolution and the illusion of ‘design’.

There are two main positions of the intelligent design crowd. First, that life is so well designed that it ‘must’ have been designed by an intelligent mind. The other is that some things are ‘irreducibly complex’ and could not have been formed by natural processes. O’Kane is going to focus on the first during this talk.

That life appears to be well-designed leads to conclusions about such a designer. Namely, that ‘he’ is some sort of great engineer. O’Kane’s mane argument looks like this:

1. An omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator god would create organisms that have optimal design, ie things are competently designed.
2. Organisms have features that are sub-optimal of detrimental. ie, things are not competently designed.
C; Therefore, either a god did not create these organisms or that he is not all together omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.

His first example is a darkling beetle, which is a flightless beetle with fused elytra that do not allow it to spread wings and fly. The fused elytra allow it to conserve water, so it is an effective adaptation. However, the insect has wings under their elytra that are not allowed to spread. This seem to be a waste of space: why would a good engineer give a beetle wings that it does not use? It makes sense if you understand natural selection and phylogeny, but not if you believe in an omnipotent designer.

His next examples are human. Firstly, that many humans are born with tails, and all are born with the genes and structures to grow one. Another example is the inguinal hernia, that about 30% of men get at some point in their life. This can be explained by looking at our evolutionary history: our shark ancestors (and current sharks) have their gonads near their head and inside their body as they are cold blooded. Warm blooded creatures, however, need to have their testicles on the outside of their body. During human embryonic development, the testicles move from near the throat all the way down, and they need to pierce through the torso. This leads to complications such as the hernia in a third of men. A designer would have human testicles start on the outside. This doesn’t make sense from an ID point of view, but from an evolutionary viewpoint it can be easily explained.

Another human example is that of the prostate. All humans experience prostate enlargement as they age. The prostate pinches the urethra we age and it becomes prone to blockage and cancer.

Other examples included the jumbled path that light must take through the eyes of the Octopus and the laryngeal nerve, which travels a bizarre path from the brain, down through past the heart, and around and back up through the neck to the larynx.

He describes these features as bi-products, like an attic in a house. We don’t ‘want’ attics, but they are there and used because they are part of the roof, which sheds snow. These things are used because they are there. They don’t just ‘go away’ because they aren’t part of plan, and so over time these odd pathways can develop. They have developed throughout the physiology of nearly everything, and it can be traced through out evolutionary history.

Something like half of our DNA consists of old, dead viruses. TIL! All great apes have the same virus in our DNA, which prevents us from making vitamin C on our own.

Q and A

An audience member asks how to respond when creationists demand that high-schools demand that teachers ‘teach the controversy’. O’Kane says: just do it. Just teach the truth. No more sugar-coating, just use evolution in every single biology class.

*Live Blog* Dr. John Groves “Oxygen and the Origin of Animals”

There were many creatures that lived before our time, and they are often unknown to many of us. These creatures are remembered in fossils across the world, and they are being discovered right now!

Life began in ancient oceans and started as the most basic single celled organisms. During this time there were many single celled bacteria floating around, and after about a billion years multi-celled organisms began to form and take hold in the oceans.

As these started to develop they began to create some of the basic structures we know about today, and one of those large groups was plants. These plants would create oxygen in the ocean, provide food to other organisms, or act as shelter for other organisms.

Animals have been found to start existing about 800mya (million years ago) and there was a large burst of evolution about 600mya, and this could not have happened unless there was a large amount of oxygen for them to replicate with (and use to do things). These events were called “oxygenation events”, and two have been discovered in the fossil record.

Once organisms started to use the increased amount of oxygen to evolve this created a natural feedback loop where an organism would change and cause other organisms to change as well, which would in turn cause the original animal to change. (Note: this is not saying that animals can change on their whim, but the forces acting in their environment would evolutionary cause them to change.)

Fun Fact: The size difference from original bacteria to the largest blue whales is sixteen orders of magnitude!

Thank you Prof. Groves for coming and speaking at Darwin Week. It’s always interesting to find out what species lived before our time!

*Keynote* Jamila Bey “The Future Belongs to Us: Facts Diminish Faith”

Our celebration of diversity is an advantage for most thing, including people! As more people hear about Darwin and are exposed to alternate beliefs, they may start to think, “hey, I never knew that I could think that way.”

Sometimes people take different beliefs the wrong way, and they can become scared or worried because they don’t have experience in diversity. But, as many moments in history have told us, diversity is key to a strong society and representation of ideas and backgrounds. We know diversity is a good thing, but how do we benefit from it?

Many of the ills in the nation that we see right now can be fixed with science, and it will take some time, but we can do it! Right now we very little skeptics being known in the public sphere. Now, don’t get the story wrong, we are doing this, we really are, and we have a lot more empirical support behind what we say!

Case in point, if you’re a women and you want some reproductive care you would want access to reproductive care! You would also like to hold onto some fundamental rights. There are bills in various states now that would punish a women who was pregnant and fell of a bike (and had a miscarriage). Even if it was not her fault at all. Many Catholic churches will punish potential mothers for insane reasons.

The thoughts, research, and skeptical methodology we bring to the table is exactly what we as a country need. Right Now A lot of us are afraid, with good reason, to come out. Many of our families won’t like us anymore, nor will we be respected at work or with friends.

When we have women who want to be part of our secular organizations they tend to attract other women, and that allows us to grow organizations. Churches do this fantastically right now with child care during church, and our organizations should try and do the same.

There’s ritual and culture within a lot of religious organizations right now, and we can create our own culture! Or, we can create our own cultures just for us and our friends. Does anyone care about the details to rituals we have now? No! We eat nachos and burgers during the Super Bowl and we are with friends and family, and skeptics can and should do the same!

Our children deserve to be raised with knowledge and truth. If we raise our kids in the way that we live our own lives they may take to skeptical rituals in the same way that religious people take claim to their rituals. It would really be remarkable if children would stand up against lies and bigotry and instead spread truth and honesty.

I am in a marriage right now that would have been considered illegal so short ago in our history that some people in this room were around to see that law change in our country. We all desire forward progress, and in the case of gay marriage we all see the resistance telling people who they can and can’t give half of their stuff to after a break up.

“Learning is something that keeps us evolving, it’s something that helps us to better, be better, and become better.” We understand the problems, and we have some ideas for how to fix them. But, making our voices be heard is the only way we can bring about better circumstances for all of us. Evolution is happening, and our thoughts and actions need to evolve. It’s hard to not be afraid, and we will suffer, but it needs to be done.

Jamila, thanks so much for coming and speaking at Darwin Week 2012! It was absolutely a blast to hear what you have to say, thanks again!

*Live Blog* Ramon Cantu — Caught Between Good and Evil: “A Gang member’s View on Life, Death, Religion, and Uncertainty”

Ramon Cantu is the son of gang members and was himself a gang member for 16 years, and has been through some of the harshest things that any of us can think of.

When he was a young child he would look up to his father because every night he would see his father count thousands and thousands of dollars in cash. However, neither himself or his mother knew that this was because of his father’s drug deals.

At the age of 12 Ramon joined a gang where one of the initiation rituals was to walk down a line of gang members who beat him. His goal is to make it down the line, twice. Later on, he was around with some fellow members in a park. They noticed a rival gang was driving around and pretty soon that car started to fire upon Ramon and his fellow members. Ramon was hit in the ankle and couldn’t go to the hospital because then members would go to jail, instead his wound was burnt shut with a cigar.

Is it God to have over a hundred and sixty stitches in your body? Is it God to have doctors perform ten hour surgeries on you to save your life? What is your God? A pistol in my pocket is my God. Because if I put a gun to your head I have the F***ing power over your life.

Is it not true that Charles Darwin speaks of “survival of the fittest”? Who do you think is the fittest? The man with a gun to your head? Yea, he’s probably the “fittest” person. In a gang, with all of the violence, you want something to pray to, and something to look to. Often that’s the virgin Mary herself, she’s your mother in the gang.

It’s not that nature causes misery, but that our institutions cause misery that we suffer through. Why are there so little Waterloo students at UNI? Why are UNI graduates over 90% white? We so often fight against the idea that people have intrinsic equal footing.

Gangs know how to attract and lock in young kids, and institutions of privilege need to do the same. Right now a young kid without much to live for are sought out by gangs who can give them something to live and fight for. However, there are countless chances not given to young kids as early as gangs can get to them.

Can you tell me why Latin America is not covered in our history classes? It is because we’re raised in European culture, or just a disregard for cultures that aren’t like ours. People from Latin America are coming to the US in hope of getting a better future for themselves and their offspring, yet it’s not as easy as saying a few words and having it magically work.

Members of the Latin community work hard in our lives and we so often never remember or mention their contributions. Right now they’re discriminated against, and that’s just horribly wrong. “The worst thing you can call an Mexican a spic, and the question is, what’s the worst thing you can call a white person? You’re a damn racist. Bottom line, I’ve been a gang member, left in a hole to survive, shot once, twice, and a third, and I’m nervous right now because in 80 days I’ll be the first in my gang to make it out and achieve a degree. I’m nervous because I don’t know what will happen when I get home, will they appreciated me? I’ve changed, and I’ve been accepted into post-secondary schooling, but how many gang members have such a degree? Do I look back? Hell no. But, will I have to go back? Of course.” — Ramon

Ramon, your talk was absolutely amazing. You have a story that few of us could even begin to imagine! Absolutely stunning!

*Live Blog* “How To Be an Effective Ally” By Prof. Harry Brod

By ally, Brod is referring to people who support LGBT people and their causes.

He states that to be an effective ally, we must first answer “why” before “how.”
Why one is an ally: equality, justice, fairness…there isn’t much to be said, Brod points out (even though he recognizes some people might disagree). Being an ally is something one *gets* to do, not something that one *has* to do. It is a privilege, an honor, and it makes one a better person.
Those of us who have privilege learn to walk through the world with blinders on, and we don’t see the labor of oppressed groups that make it possible for us to live with such ease. Brod says that he makes a point to notice diversity so that he doesn’t cut himself off from the rest of the world. There are many ways it is in his own benefit to enlist himself as an ally.
ABC. Always Building Connections. That is how he approaches diversity in the world.
When it comes to racist, sexist, or homophobic comments, we need to make a differentiation between what the person said and who said it. It’s the equation of the two that makes us stuck–we can’t progress from there. So, when we want to interrupt someone making one of these comments, we need to approach it as an ally of the person whose behavior we are trying to change. We cannot come off as if we think we are better than they are, because they will just reject what we say because they will see our arrogance before our just cause. Even if our ideas are right in this instance, that doesn’t mean we are better people. We likely had the good fortune of education or socialization to be able to come to our views, rather than bigoted ones.
On the same line of thinking, we need to distance ourselves from our ideas. This gives us leverage to enter into a more useful conversation with those who are in the oppressing group.
Regarding the person making the bigoted comment who is then called out, they tend to get defensive. “I didn’t mean anything by it” and similar responses indicate to the ally that they are hurt by what they said. They are shifting the conversation from their intent to the intent of the person correcting the offensive comment.
We end up defending ourselves because we take personal credit for our ideas, the classes with which we identify, etc. If we can detach from that, we can better connection with people and have a more human interaction.
Change happens one person at a time. Yes, there can be large-scale components like a demonstration, but it takes many conversations and many people for true change. It’s necessary to make being an ally a serious part of one’s life if one is serious about change.
We have a model of oppression that involves an unlevel playing field. It’s not enough for us to make a commitment to respect women, but I must use my voice and privilege to speak against that which wrongs people. We need to be aware of the privileges we have and actively work against them.
Thank you Prof. Brod for coming and speaking at Darwin Week 2012! The advise you gave was fantastic and very helpful!