Monday, August 25, 2008

Update - required evolution reading/ Harmon story/ Mickey Mouse

Yesterday I posted about Amy Harmon's excellent story in the NY Times about evolution education.  For more on it see my post - Required evolution education reading - Amy Harmon on Florida Evolution teaching

I just wanted to give an update here as I have seen a few postings out there discussing the Mickey Mouse example in the story.  In the story, Harmon described how David Campbell, the Florida high school science teacher uses the evolution of Mickey Mouse as an  example of natural selection.  

From the Times article:

He started with Mickey Mouse.

On the projector, Mr. Campbell placed slides of the cartoon icon: one at his skinny genesis in 1928; one from his 1940 turn as the impish Sorcerer’s Apprentice; and another of the rounded, ingratiating charmer of Mouse Club fame.

“How,” he asked his students, “has Mickey changed?”

Natives of Disney World’s home state, they waved their hands and called out answers.

“His tail gets shorter,” Bryce volunteered.

“Bigger eyes!” someone else shouted.

“He looks happier,” one girl observed. “And cuter.”

Mr. Campbell smiled. “Mickey evolved,” he said. “And Mickey gets cuter because Walt Disney makes more money that way. That is ‘selection.’ ”

Some bloggers have questioned using this example (see john hawks weblog for example as well as Bora's excellent post about this story here) because it seems more like Intelligent Design than natural selection.  I disagree and wanted to point out that this is a classic Stephen Jay Gould teaching case study which he detailed (see A BIOLOGICAL HOMAGE TO MICKEY MOUSE Stephen Jay Gould).  

In fact, when I was an undergrad at Harvard and was taking Gould's class, we played around with a cool new computer program called MacClade to track the evolution of Mickey Mouse. Little did I know I would still be using Macclade and its descendants today.


  1. It's not intelligent design, but it is not evolution either. It is metamorphosis. Populations evolve, individuals metamorphose.

  2. I disagree. The Mickey you see is like the fossil record - a sparse sampling of the population. If you looked at ALL of the drawings of Mickey and all of the concepts of Mickey - you would see populations and you would even see some forms coexisting in time and space.

  3. OK, I see. But nobody knows about the unknown Mickeys and Campbell does not treat it that way. Everyone thinks of Mickey as an individual who changes over time, even myself. So even if the metaphor is correct, it misleads the unprepared mind and I do not see Campbell preparing it.

  4. Yes, sure, it is an imperfect lesson. But the key in the story in the Times was the need to draw students in. Even if the example is imperfect it seems the drawing in worked

  5. Agreed - and said so in my post. Id rather them have funny Mickey Mouse ideas but accept evolution then balk and go back into straight-up Creationism.