Monday, June 30, 2008

Your Inner Fish and the Elbow Joint

I am on chapter 3 of Neil Shubin's book Your Inner Fish. The writing is interesting and engaging, but I came across one peculiar section dealing with the elbow joint and how it has evolved from the latest fish to the earliest tetrapods and beyond. He writes:

We humans, like many other mammals, can rotate our thumb relative to our elbow. This simple function is very important for the use of our hands in everyday life. Imagine trying to eat, write, or throw a ball without being able to rotate your hand relative to your elbow. We can do this because one forearm bone, the radius, rotates along a pivot point at the elbow joint. The structure of the joint at the elbow is wonderfully designed for this function. At the end of our upper-arm bone, the humerous, lies a ball. The tip of the radius, which attaches here, forms a beautiful little socket that fits on the ball. The ball-and-socket joint allows the rotation of our hand, called pronation and supination. (p. 42)

Now, say you got an itch on the back of your left arm. How would you scratch it? Easy, you would reach over with your right arm and scratch it. But, why couldn't you scratch it with your left arm? Because the joint at the end of the humerus is, in fact, not a ball-and-socket joint, it is a hinge joint. The process at the distal end of the humerus is not a ball, as Dr. Shubin suggests. It is a cylinder. When you extend your arm, the radio-humeral joint locks! This prevents the joint from bending at more than a 180-degree angle. Further, the pronation and the supination doesn't occur at the elbow joint, it occurs at the scapulo-humeral joint. If you rotate your arm laterally, you will discover that your humerus rotates as well.

I am quite certain that Dr. Shubin knows the difference between a ball-and-socket joint and a hinge joint. That is what makes this error so peculiar. Is this the way the joint works in fish? It sure doesn't work this way in humans. How very odd.

Academic Freedom Bills: a Test Case

Academic freedom legislation has been tested in New Zealand. The story in outlines the problem thus:

Focus on the Family has sent The Privileged Planet CD and booklet to 400 high schools, asking that they be made available to science teachers and school libraries.

Waikato University biological sciences senior lecturer Alison Campbell says the material champions creationism - the belief that God created the world as described in the Book of Genesis - claiming the universe is too perfect to have been produced by chance so must be the work of an intelligent designer.

I have not seen The Privileged Planet, by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, but NCSE did review it a bit back. They say this about it:

Gonzalez and Richards don't realize that unless they can show that what we actually see is more probable, given that an "intelligent designer did it," they have no case. This is because a basic rule of inference is that one has to compare the likelihood of observing evidence E under all relevant hypotheses H1, H2, ..., Hn. Then the hypothesis that has the greatest likelihood is the one best supported by the evidence. Obviously, if you don't say what your hypothesis is -- in this case by specifically describing the nature of the "intelligent designer" and the consequences for the real world if that entity exists, so that actual calculations can be made -- then it is impossible to compute the likelihood of observing E under your hypothesis, and your hypothesis never even gets to the starting gate.

This is the persistent problem of ID. Gonzalez, if you remember, was denied tenure at Baylor University last year. According to the original story the Education Ministry found nothing objectionable in the materials and will not ban them. Is this a test case for the academic freedom legislation in this country?

On the Heels of Tiktaalik!

The fossil of the most primitive 4-legged creature has been found at a depth of 365 million years, which is around the same time as Tiktaalik lived. The LA Times story notes:

While an earlier discovery found a slightly older animal that was more fish than tetrapod, Ventastega is more tetrapod than fish. The fierce-looking creature probably swam through shallow brackish waters, measured about three or four feet long and ate other fish. It likely had stubby limbs with an unknown number of digits, scientists said.

"If you saw it from a distance, it would look like a small alligator, but if you look closer you would find a fin in the back," said lead author Per Ahlberg, a professor of evolutionary biology at Uppsala University in Sweden. "I imagine this is an animal that could haul itself over sand banks without any difficulty. Maybe it's poking around in semi-tidal creeks picking up fish that got stranded."

Another piece of the puzzle. Yay.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Review of Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds

I wrote a review of Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds a few years back but never got around to publishing it anywhere. Here it is. The book is, I believe, a representative offering of "science" from the DI. This review is a bit lengthy but, hopefully, informative. I originally used anchors but they don't seem to work in blogger.

An Easy-To-Understand Guide For
Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds(1)
Phillip E. Johnson


James Kidder, Ph.D.
Human Palaeontology
University of Tennessee/Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Knoxville TN

In his first foray into the world of evolutionary biology, Darwin on Trial2, Phillip Johnson raised the issue that the practice of evolutionary biology did not allow for the formation of non-mainstream ideas on the subject and was, thus, circular in its interpretation of the data. This ought be a valid concern to all scientists and Mr. Johnson's criticisms should not be taken lightly. In his new book, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds1 however, Johnson has gone one step further by proposing that not only is "Darwinism" (a term he never clearly defines) a lie but that its perpetuation in the scientific community must be contested. In his first book, he presented the illusion of being open-minded. Here he does not. This is even suggested by the title. If our minds are to be open, should we not be "assessing" Darwinism rather than "Defeating" it?

The book has two main parts: 1. What people have said about evolutionary theory, and 2. the theory of evolution and the nature of science in general. The first is meant to lead into the second.

In the first part, it is hard to find fault with Johnson's method of attack. He seizes on the statements of well-known individuals and organizations that have stuck their necks out very far in defense of evolutionary theory. His opening example is a statement from the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) from 1995 which read, in part:
The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.(NABT)3
Subsequently, in response to criticisms regarding the use of the words "unsupervised" and "impersonal", the NABT removed these words from their mission statement4

He also makes great use of famed evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley, who wrote:
In the evolutionary pattern of thought there is no longer either need or room for the supernatural. The earth was not created, it evolved. So did all the animals and plants that inhabit it, including our human selves, mind and soul as well as brain and body. So did religion. (Huxley 1960)5. (Mr. Johnson did not provide this citation).
It is in Johnson's best interest to point these things out.  However, while these statements are forceful, neither is scientifically defensible. The reason this is so stems from the nature of science and the nature of philosophy.  As with all other scientific theories, evolutionary theory cannot confer meaning on the world.  One would not use the theory of gravity to examine whether or not angels and demons exist.  The same is true for the theory of evolution.  Huxley's statement that evolution creates a world free of the supernatural imbues evolutionary theory with a power that it does not have, nor could have. 

The biological theory of evolution states that organisms are modified in form through descent and that this modification is a result of changing gene frequencies. Evolution can only describe this in terms of the natural world. The theory is silent about the creation of life or of the world. It simply does not have that kind of explanatory power.

In recent years, A vocal minority of scientists, however, have loudly stated that evolution denies the existence of God. They believe that modern science can relieve us of the "burden" of supernatural ideas (Depew 1995)6. Recent supporters of this viewpoint are PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne.  This is philosophical naturalism. Johnson has focused his attack on this extreme position, and is correct to point out the philosophical errors of these individuals and organizations.  He is also correct to say that if these are the prevailing educational trends, they represent a bias in the scientific establishment. But he is not correct in this assessment. 

Having spent some twenty years working in a biological science, I am not convinced that this is the case.  My experience is that the vast majority of scientists go about their business neither trying to prove or disprove the existence of God. They simply perform science as though things around us behave in an ordered way. This is known as methodological naturalism.  This method of investigation works and it works very well.

Once the reader gets to the second part of the book, the discussion of evolution, the fossil record and science in general, the wheels fall off.   The book, as a whole, suffers from three major problems: 1. misuse of analogy; 2. lack of understanding of the palaeontological record, and 3. mischaracterization of scientific arguments concerning evolutionary theory.

1. Misuse of analogy

Phillip Johnson demonstrates time and again in this book a knack for creating analogies out of potentially complex concepts or events. Unfortunately, in many cases, these analogies are either incorrect or misleading.

Johnson tells a fictionalized account of the Challenger Space shuttle disaster in which a no-name student suggests that tragedy will strike if they do not postpone the launch due to cold weather. Because she is unknown, no one listens to her, although she has worked out all of the calculations completely. Tragedy does strike and all aboard are killed. This analogy is particular effective because it has dual implications. First, as is clear from the context of the analogy, the student is meant to represent the well-thought out critical analysis of the non-evolutionist and the NASA engineers the unyielding, uncritical, non-self examining evolutionary perspective. On the second level, the student represents the anti-establishment whose ideas do not match those of the mainstream and will, therefore, never be accepted. Thus, science will continue like a juggernaut, never questioning its conclusions.

The problem is that on the first level, the notion that creation scientists carefully work out their calculations has been shown to be rarely true (For original arguments, see Morris (1989)7, Akridge (1980)8, Slusher (1980)9, and Lubenow (2003)10. For rebuttals of many of these arguments, see Strahler (1987)11 and Foley (1998)12) In the vast majority of cases, the evidence for creation scientists' arguments are found wanting or consist of unwarranted extrapolations of isolated phenomena to global models. Contrary to the claims of many creationists, the scientific community does not reject their claims because of the revolutionary nature, but because they do not withstand scientific scrutiny.  I have personally read Lubenow's book and it can only be described as dreadful.  It is the only book that I can think of that I have read in recent memory in which there are errors on nearly every page.

On the second level, the notion that no-name scientists are never heard simply does not bear up historically. While there certainly are unfortunate cases of suppression, many discoveries and inventions have arisen from work by scientists that were not considered to be in the mainstream. Charles Darwin was an unknown naturalist who started as a divinity student. The names of George Gaylord Simpson, Ernst Mayr, Theodosius Dobzhansky and Sewall Wright were completely unknown in the 1930's before they formulated the new evolutionary synthesis. History is replete with figures who have challenged the prevailing paradigms of their field and, in so doing, have revolutionized science. What sets them apart is that the hypotheses they constructed are supported by the available evidence and have stood the test of time.  In no case has that been shown for a creationist argument. 

Johnson uses the story of Santa Claus to illustrate the argument that belief in the supernatural is unscientific. Little kids start out believing in Santa Claus until that belief is dashed by the knowledge that it is their parents that are leaving the presents for them. As nice as this analogy might sound, it is overly simplistic and misleading. While there are certainly supernatural aspects of believing in both Santa Claus and God, the similarity ends there. There is no evidence suggesting that Santa Claus exists and considerable observational data suggesting he does not. To my knowledge, there is no such evidence for the existence or non-existence of God. No one has ever believed in God only to discover that it was kindly Mrs. Boopfaddle four doors down who was responsible for the operation of the universe.

On several occassions, Johnson equates the acceptance of evolution with a belief in some sort of anti-religious social order. Using an analogy from the movie Inherit the Wind, he makes the following statement:
"At the very end of the film the wise defense lawyer, played by Spencer Tracy, weighs the Bible and On The Origin of Species in his hands, shrugs and then puts the two books together in his briefcase. The implied message is that the two are equivalent and compatible. The Book of Nature and the Word of God are in agreement, provided the latter is interpreted in the light provided by the former. The closing gesture assures the audience that Darwinian naturalism does not aim to abolish Christianity but to liberalize it so that it is compatible with a properly scientific understanding of our origins. Fundamentalist resistance to evolution is thus shown to be not only unintelligent and futile but also unnecessary." (p. 100)
This analogy suggests that "Darwinism" is a social philosophy which dictates behaviour rather than a scientific theory. Properly practiced, evolutionary theory rises or falls on its own merits, not some psychosocial interpretation of it. As mentioned earlier, that Julian Huxley believes that modern science can explain away God does not make it so. Discussions of the sociology of agnosticism by antievolutionists, while purporting to have a base in science, largely occur in the absence of it. Witness the recent reviews of the Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion. It was pasted by scientists who argued that it overreached and transgressed into psychosocial realms to which evolutionary theory could not go. As H. Allen Orr wrote:
Despite my admiration for much of Dawkins’s work, I’m afraid that I’m among those scientists who must part company with him here. Indeed, The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed. Though I once labeled Dawkins a professional atheist, I’m forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he’s actually more an amateur. I don’t pretend to know whether there’s more to the world than meets the eye and, for all I know, Dawkins’s general conclusion is right. But his book makes a far from convincing case.
Creationists such as Henry Morris (1989)13 have recently used the acceptance of evolutionary theory as an explanation of the evils of society. This suggests that before there was Darwin, there was no evil. A cursory glance at the Bible and human history prior to 1859 would strongly suggest otherwise. Evolutionary theory is exactly that, a theory. No more, no less. If it has support, it goes on. If it is found scientifically wanting, it is discarded, like so many theories before it.

2. Lack of Understanding of the Palaeontological Record

On numerous occasions, in attempting the discredit the fossil record, Johnson betrays a general lack of knowledge of this record.

He states on page 39:

So don't be impressed by claims that specific fossils, like the bird/reptile Archaeopteryx and the Hominid Lucy, prove the theory of evolution. All such fossils are at most possible ancestors of living groups (like modern birds and humans), and a lot of interpretation is involved in classifying them.
It is unfortunate that he has chosen Lucy to argue this point. Australopithecus afarensis, of which Lucy is a representative, is, perhaps, one of the best examples of a transitional species in the entire fossil record. There are very few characteristics of this hominid species that are not transitional. To detail but a few:
  • The first premolar in apes (or bicuspid if you prefer) is long and rotated toward the front of the mouth. This is so it can constantly sharpen the maxillary canine as the ape bites down. This is known as a "sectorial premolar". In humans, this tooth is rotated so that the cusp division is parallel to the tooth row and does not stick up beyond it. The maxillary canine is, correspondingly, short. In Australopithecus afarensis, this tooth is rotated HALF-WAY and partially sticks up from the tooth row. The canine is shortened as in modern humans.
  • The palate of the mouth in apes is shaped like a hard "U" with the back teeth parallel to each other. In humans, the palate is more "V" shaped. In A. afarensis, it is intermediate between these two shapes.
  • In apes, there is a distinct space between the canine and the first premolar, called a diastema. In humans, this space is absent. In A. afarensis, a diastema is present but it is remarkably reduced in size over the ape condition.
In other instances, some characteristics are completely ape-like and some are completely human-like. For example:
  • The digits (phalanges) on both the hands and feet are curved, as in apes. In humans, they are straight.
  • The pelvis is flared (wide from side to side) and short from top to bottom, as in humans. In apes, it is narrow and long from top to bottom.
  • The hole in the skull where the spinal chord exits the brain, the foramen magnum, is located on the bottom of the skull in Australopithecus afarensis, as in humans. In apes, the foramen magnum is located more toward the back of the skull. Having a hole at the base strongly suggests a bipedal gait.
  • the knee joint, which preserves the bottom (distal) section of the femur and the top (proximal) section of the tibia shows that the femur is angled, as in humans. In apes, the femur does not angle but goes straight up from the knee. The afarensis position, once again, reflects bipedalism.
These characteristics are exactly what you would expect to find in a transitional species: some characteristics transitional, some ape-like and some human-like. It is difficult to see how these can be dismissed as freely as Johnson has done. Most of the above information was taken from Johanson and Edey (1981)14 and Johanson et al. (1982)15 but can be found in most textbooks about this subject.

A similar scenario is present for Archaeopteryx, which has many intermediate characteristics. For a complete treatment of this fossil, please go to "All About Archaeopteryx", located at . Johnson remarks about the recent find in Java that Homo erectus populations may have coexisted along with archaic human and modern human populations in a fairly circumscribed geographical area. He quotes the article as saying that it is not known whether the three groups could interbreed. He then makes the statement:

Such huge areas of uncertainty support my view that general conclusions about evolution should not be drawn from the human fossil record, where the evidence is scanty and the temptation to subjectivity in interpretation is particularly great. Today's "fact" is likely to be tomorrow's discarded theory.
If we are not to draw our inferences about evolution from the fossil record, from where are we to draw them? Ultimately, our understanding of evolution comes from that very same record. We have nowhere else to go. Further, the statement that "...the evidence is scanty" is vague and unsupported. What does he mean by "scanty"? In 1924, when Raymond Dart discovered the Taung child in limestone, the first thing that struck him were the transitional elements. By the 1970's thousands of bone and tooth fragments had been discovered throughout Africa, representing several hundred individual australopithecines. The same can be said of Homo erectus, with finds of at least 50 individuals throughout China and East Asia. When Neandertal fossils first started being unearthed in the early 1800's, it was thought that they represented abherrant modern humans. By the early part of the 1900's, there were too many of them to support this conclusion. It became clear that they represented a modern human precursor. On some finds of later australopithecines, characteristics can be found that are found on the earliest Homo erectus fossils. At the late end of Homo erectus, there are characteristics that are present on the earliest archaic Homo sapiens. The exact relationships between these groups is, at times, unclear, but the progression is not. In the case of the area of human evolution in which I work, the origins of modern humans, there is no question that archaic Homo sapiens gave rise to modern Homo sapiens. The question is where and when did it happen. For complete treatments of these issues, please see Smith et al. (1989)16, Stringer (1996)17 and Wolpoff (1996)18.

3. Mischaracterization of scientific arguments concerning evolutionary theory.

It is here that Phillip Johnson's book fails the most. There are numerous examples in which he makes bald statements about evolution that simply do not reflect current thought.

On page 78, he states:

Most molecular biologists accept Darwinism uncritically because they are scientific materialists and have no alternative, but the Darwinian mechanism plays no role in their science.
This is simply untrue. There are a vast number of molecular biologists (those who study genes and their role in biology), Vincent Sarich19, Alan Templeton20, David Maddison21, Allan Wilson23, Mark Stoneking Rebecca Cann24, Linda Vigilant23, Morris Goodman25 to name a few, who not only accept evolution as the best means of explaining the available data but use molecular biology to test their models. Some of these individuals have been doing so since the 1960's!

Johnson states:

Theories of chemical and biological evolution aim to contradict my hypothesis of intelligent design, by showing that purposeless natural processes can do the creating by evolution.(p. 43)
Evolutionary theory simply states that evolution as it is thought to have occurred is opportunistic. This process is neither random nor is it necessarily purposeless. To say that something is purposeless is to know the moving force behind it. We do not know this. Contrary to the statements of the NATB and Julian Huxley, we cannot know whether or not evolution is purposeless. The theory does not permit it.

On Page 57, Johnson asks us to use terms precisely and consistently.

Evolution is a term of many meanings, and the meanings have a way of changing without notice. Dog breeding and finch-beak variations are frequently cited as typical examples of evolution. So is the fact that all the differing races of humans descend from a single parent, or even that Americans today are larger on average than they were a century ago (due to better nutrition). If relatively minor variations like that were all evolution were about, there would be no controversy , and even the strictest biblical fundamentalists would be evolutionists.
Firstly, I would ask Mr. Johnson to show how the terms have changed. Ever since the turn of the century, evolution as it applies to biological entities has been easy to define: change in gene frequencies in a population over time. It has never meant more than that. That information can be found in any basic textbook on the subject (e.g. Futuyma 1986(26), Grant 1991(27), and Levinton 1988(28), Evolution is thought to act through four major forces: mutation, selection, genetic drift and genetic flow. These have also not changed in more than 100 years. Whether you are a punctuationalist or a gradualist, those four forces make things happen.

The example of dog breeding being evolution is correct. The breeders purposefully chose dogs with certain physical characteristics or temperaments and used them to sire the next generation. Whether it is artificial selection or natural selection, it is evolution. His statement about all humans being descended from a single parent is a peculiar read of the replacement theory of modern human origins. Firstly, no palaeoanthropologist, not even the most ardent replacement promotor, would ever say that the human race is descended from one parent. An effective population size (the smallest number of people to keep a population going for more than a few generations) for humans is around 50 people. The human population likely never got anywhere near this low a number. Secondly, this is only one interpretation of the available data and, therefore, is not a "fact" as one is normally described. Thirdly, the origins of modern humans can hardly be called a "minor variation", since it involves the change from archaic Homo sapiens into modern Homo sapiens, an area many creationists have trouble with.

On page 59, he states

Don't let anybody tell you that mechanism is mere detail; it's what the controvery is mainly about. When critics subject the mechanism to detailed criticism, Darwinists very quickly run out of evidence. That's when they want to substitute a vague "fact" which will later be inflated to include the whole theory. It's another example of bait and switch.
Johnson clearly has not done his homework. If I were to list the available evidence supporting evolution, we would be here a very long time and you would have to read several thousand pages. No vague "facts" here. Johnson is right, the mechanism is extremely important, and the mechanism is sound. Very few palaeontologists debate that evolution has occcurred (including Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, despite some creationists' claims to the contrary). What is debated is the timing of evolution. In some parts of the fossil record, it appears that evolution has proceeded slowly with some species arising from those before. This is known as phyletic gradualism. It appears to have characterized major parts of the human fossil record. In other parts of the fossil record, evolution appears to have proceeded quickly with the fairly sudden appearance of multiple species. In 1972, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge29 formulated a mechanism that could explain this suddenness: punctuated equilibrium. It is likely that all lineages are subject to both gradualism and punctuationism throughout their history. These mechanisms are scientifically sound.

There are numerous other examples in which Johnson's reading of the fossil record or of evolutionary theory is lacking. Additionally, it is worth noting a scholarly problem. Johnson is remarkably selective in the citations he provides. In some instances, they are referred to in the end notes, which serve as a running commentary. In other instances, citations are missing. While this may be an acceptable practice for non-scientific disciplines, it is not acceptable for a book assessing the merits of a scientific theory.

I would encourage anyone interested in this area to read this book, if for no other reason than to find out where creationism is headed. With its sweeping generalizations and half-truths, however, it will likely raise the blood pressure of the average scientist. Johnson, in many ways, represents the new attack against evolutionary theory, which is not just to attack the fossil record but to argue that it represents an evil in the world to be stamped out. While he does not particularly succeed at either point, he does point out the limitations of the science of evolution and what we can and cannot get away with saying. He has rightly called Julian Huxley, the NABT and some others on the carpet for saying things about evolution that cannot be supported. For that, he is to be commended. In many instances, however, he has simply not got his information correct. He must do this if he is to be taken seriously in the scientific community.

(Numbers in parentheses at the end of each citation refer to text notes)

Akridge, R (1980) The Sun Is Shrinking. ICR Impact Series no. 82:i-iv. San Diego: Institute for Creation Research. (8)

Cann, R L (1992) A mitochondrial perspective on replacement or continuity in human evolution. In G Brauer and F H Smith (eds) Continuity or Replacement: Controversies in Homo sapiens Evolution. Rotterdam: A A Balkema (24)

Depew, D (1995) Darwinism Evolving: Systems Dynamics and the Genealogy of Natural Selection. Cambridge: MIT Press (6)

Foley, Jim (1998) Fossil Hominids. The Talk Origins Archive Avalaible at Futuyma, D (1986) Evolutionary Biology. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc. (26)

Goodman, M (1986) Rates of molecular evolution: the hominoid slowdown. Bioessays 3: 9-14. (25)

Gould, S J and N Eldredge (1977) Punctuated equlibria: the tempo and mode of evolution reconsidered. Paleobiology 3: 115-151. (29)

Grant, V (1991) The Evolutionary Process: A Critical Study. New York: Columbia University Press. (27)

Huxley, J (1960) The evolutionary vision. In Evolution After Darwin: The University of Chicago Centennial. Volume III: Issues in Evolution (5)

Johanson, D C, M Taieb and Y Coppens (1982) Pliocene hominids from the Hadar formation, Ethiopia (1973-1977): stratigraphic, chronologic, and paleoenvironmental contexts, with notes on hominid morphology and systematics. Am J Phys Anthropol 57(4): 545-604. (15)

Johanson, D C and M Edey (1981) Lucy, the Beginnings of Humankind. New York: Simon and Schuster. (14)

Johnson, P E (1995) Darwin on Trial. Downer's Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press. (2)

Johnson, P E (1997) An Easy-To-Understand Guide For Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds. Downer's Grove, Illinois:Intervarsity Press. (1)

Levinton, J (1988) Genetics, Paleontology and Macroevolution. New York: Cambridge University Press. (28)

Lubenow M L (2003): Bones of contention: a creationist assessment of human fossils. Grand Rapids,MI:Baker Books (10)

Maddison, D R (1991) African origin of human mitochondrial DNA reexamined. Systematic Zoology 40: 355-363. (21)

Morris, H (1989) The Long War Against God. Ada: Baker-Books. (13)

Morris, J D (1989) "Was 'Lucy' an Ape-man?" Back to Genesis. Acts & Facts November: d. (7)

National Association of Biology Teachers. (1995) Annual Policy Statement. (3)

National Center for Science Education Reports (1997) v. 17(6): 4 (4)

Sarich, V (1968) The origins of the hominids: an immunological approach. In S L Washburn and P C Jay (eds) Perspectives on Human Evolution. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston (19)

Slusher, H (1980) Age of the Cosmos. ICR Technical Monograph no. 9. San Diego: Institute for Creation Research (9)

Smith, F H, A B Falsetti and S M Donnelly (1989) Modern human origins. Yrbk Phys Anthropol 32: 35-68. (16)

Stoneking, M (1994) In defense of "Eve"--a response to Templeton's critique. Am Anthropol 96(1): 131-141. (22)

Strahler, A. (1987) Science and Earth History. Prometheus Press. (11)

Stringer, C B (1996) African Exodus: The Origin of Modern Humanity. London: Jonathan Cape (17)

Templeton, A (1981) Mechanism of speciation--a population approach. Ann Review Ecol 12:23-48. (20)

Vigilant, L, M Stoneking, H Harpending, K Hawkes and A C Wilson (1991) African populations and the evolution of human mitochondrial DNA. Science 233: 1303-1307. (23)

Wolpoff, M H (1996) Human Evolution. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. (18)

Jindal Signs Bill

Bobby Jindal signed the Academic Freedom Act in Louisiana yesterday. The blog at reports this:

Jindal ignored those calling for a veto and this week signed the law that will allow local school boards to approve supplemental materials for public school science classes as they discuss evolution, cloning and global warming.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will have the power to prohibit materials, though the bill does not spell out how state officials should go about policing local instructional practices.

Much evil lies in that last phrase. If they do not spell it out, than the local school teachers will teach whatever they want to, with little oversight. Parents will have to monitor very closely what is being taught and act accordingly.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

At the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that promotes intelligent design and backed the new education act, senior fellow John West said he and his colleagues did not directly lobby Jindal. The group did notify its supporters that groups such as the ACLU and the science organizations were pushing for a veto.

West said critics misunderstand the bill, which he said is not about creationism or intelligent design. Rather, he said, it's about clarifying that teachers are free to expose their students to the debates that Darwinian scientists have among themselves.

Instead, too many public school students get a "watered-down" discussion of evolutionary theory or nothing at all from teachers, and administrators are too concerned with not angering parents.

"This bill is not a license to propagandize against something they don't like in science," West said. "Someone who uses materials to inject religion into the classroom is not only violating the Constitution, they are violating the bill."

The bill enjoyed support from the Louisiana Family Forum, a group that is upfront in its push for more religious expressions in the public sphere.

That's the thing. If you read the Wedge Document, so is the Discovery Institute. The DI states publically that they don't want religion injected into the classroom, and yet, the Wedge Document calls for spiritual renewal in all areas of public life. As far as teaching evolution is concerned, Philip Johnson wrote a particularly bad book a few years back called Defeating Darwin by Opening Minds. As with all of Johnson's books, this one betrays a complete lack of knowledge of the fossil record.

They are not interested in promoting alternate ideas to evolution, they seek to remove it from education. It is not the spiritual renewal that bothers me. I think that this country could use a good revival. It is the naked deception that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Parts 3-5 of Gordon Glover's Series on Education

Gordon Glover has posted the third, fourth and fifth video in his series on education over at Beyond the Firmament. These are very informative and, if you home school or have kids in school, would be worth watching and talking about with others.

Slow Friday

There doesn't seem to be much going on today in the world of evolution and creation. There are quite a few reviews around of Expelled! which range from tepid to borderline abusive. Aside from that, we are still waiting for Bobby Jindal to weigh in on the Louisiana academic freedom bill. Off to the weekend.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Neandertals Were Smarter than Most People Think

Science Daily has an article chronicling the excavations at Pulborough, in West Sussex, which shed light on the life ways of Britain's late surviving Neandertals. Archaeologist Matthew Pope is quoted as saying:

The impression they give is of a population in complete command of both landscape and natural raw materials with a flourishing technology - not a people on the edge of extinction.

Neandertals have always gotten a bum rap in the press and popular opinion, but in point of fact, they were as intelligent as we are. Let's face it, when your tundra line starts at Vienna, you got problems. This occupation is during the interstadial between the early Würm and the late Würm glaciation, when areas of Britain opened up for re-occupation. They closed up again around 32 thousand years ago.

A Famous Namesake

The Charleston Post and Courier has an article on Charles Darwin. Not THE Charles Darwin, but rather a distant relative, who lives in Charleston, SC. It is interesting:

Years ago, Charles Darwin wanted to find out exactly where he came from. The idea of a family reunion just sort of ... evolved.

Yes, he is related to the father of evolution. And this weekend, hundreds of his distant relatives will descend on South Carolina — a hotbed of creationism — for their annual meeting.

He remarks that while his life has been tranquil, that cannot be said for his namesake:

Today, the house he shares with his wife, Francis, is filled with family trees, copies of Darwin wills, maps to Darwin family cemeteries. A stray program for the annual Dayton, Tenn., play commemorating the Scopes Monkey Trial — the 1925 Tennessee trial where a teacher was put on trial for teaching Darwinism — lies on his coffee table.

He has Darwin's books "On the Origin of Species" and "The Voyage of the Beagle," and just passed a copy of "Origins" on to his grandson; his son, Tim, honeymooned in the Galapagos Islands, perhaps the most important stop on any tour of Darwin's theories.

But Darwin admits the ribbing he gets from his friends about his name is nothing compared with the hellfire and brimstone hurled at his distant relation.

"Poor old Charles, he's the one who really took a beating," Darwin said.

Yes he has.

"Teach the Controversy" at the Boston Globe

Brainiac at the Boston Globe has a post on the history of the phrase "Teach the Controversy." It is also a plug for the Amorphia t-shirts, which are priceless. He states that, innocently enough:

The phrase was originally coined by Gerald Graff, a (liberal, secularist) professor of English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Graff wanted teachers to remember that taken-for-granted knowledge is not simply given; knowledge is created in a crucible of debate and controversy, he argued, and it's healthy for students to understand that.

The phrase was then co-opted by Philip Johnson of the DI, who turned it into the action cry of the Intelligent Design Movement, manufacturing a controversy out of whole cloth. Sadly, at the tail of end of the article, he reprints a letter from someone who didn't get the joke.

Rights for Apes

Meanwhile, across the pond, the Spanish Parliament has passed a resolution extending basic human rights to our nearest evolutionary relatives, the great apes. The article, in Reuters, notes:

Parliament's environmental committee approved resolutions urging Spain to comply with the Great Apes Project, devised by scientists and philosophers who say our closest genetic relatives deserve rights hitherto limited to humans.

"This is a historic day in the struggle for animal rights and in defense of our evolutionary comrades, which will doubtless go down in the history of humanity," said Pedro Pozas, Spanish director of the Great Apes Project.

Interesting. Here, there is controversy over whether apes are related to us. Over there, no such controversy exists, only how we should treat our nearest relatives.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Douglas Hayworth on Teaching Evolution in Sunday School

Douglas Hayworth has a guest post over at Steve Martin's site, An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution. It is on teaching evolution in Sunday School. He writes:

The creation, garden, and flood narratives are certainly MORE THAN mere stories, but they are NOT less than that. Just as the four gospels cannot be understood properly (or the differences between them reconciled) unless each author's individual theological purpose (i.e., "story-telling purpose") is appreciated as the primary framework, so, too, the creation narratives cannot be understood without keeping in mind the story-telling context.

This is the same point that Conrad Hyers makes in his book The Meaning of Creation.

Reflections on a Bad Science Teacher

There is a postscript in the Columbus Dispatch on the fired science teacher, John Freshwater, who burned the cross into the arm of a student. A few things are seeing the light of day:

Eighth-graders who were taught by John Freshwater frequently had to be re-taught in high school what they were supposed to have learned in Freshwater's class, according to outside investigators hired by the district.

Nothing like being automatically put behind because you don't have the necessary scientific knowledge or skills to compete. There is also this about the cross-branding:

Freshwater told investigators the marks were X's, not crosses. But all of the students interviewed in the investigation reported being branded with crosses. The investigation report includes a photo of one student's arm with a long vertical line and a short horizontal line running through it.

Okay, so that misses the point: why was he burning x's into the arms of students? He doesn't even lie well. He was defended by one of his friends, who said:

"With the exception of the cross-burning episode. … I believe John Freshwater is teaching the values of the parents in the Mount Vernon school district," he said.

That is sort of like saying "well, with the exception of the child molestation charges, he really is a good guy." If I were the parents of some of these students, I would hold the school board and the school complicit in this fiasco. Some of these kids will be in school longer than 12 years and the ones who do graduate won't know anything about evolution. Incredible.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Clashing Cultures on William Dembski's Post

Clashing Cultures has a post on the Dembski diatribe attacking theistic evolutionists that is smack on the money. He writes:

ID raises interesting (if shopworn) questions about design and information, but its raison d’etre is not design. The IDM is a social and political movement against naturalism (HT: Ted Davis of Messiah College). And Bill Dembski, one of the movement’s most prominent spokespersons, makes it clear that the goal is total war — “culture war” to be exact.

He is correct. Dembski's response to Miller's book was not to say "Hey, look. Here's the science," it was to wage culture war. This is once again where the anchor of the Wedge Document drags them down to the bottom.

William Dembski Takes on Theistic Evolution

Much ballyhoo has been raised about William Dembski's post on his blog Uncommon Descent that rails against theistic evolution. It is time I weighed in. He writes:

Theistic evolutionists hold that Darwinian evolution is God’s way of bringing about the diversity of life on earth. They used to be content to criticize ID on scientific grounds. But that’s no longer enough. They are now charging ID with undermining the very fabric of civilization and even the Christian religion itself.

Dembski's gripe, it seems, is with the new book by Kenneth Miller (who can be a tad caustic—see the appearance on the Colbert Report for an example) called Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul. He argues that those that support Miller's supposition that ID is bad science are willing to sidle up to people like Richard Dawkins against the Christians that support ID. Perhaps, in fact, what is going on is that both Dawkins and we see the same problems with ID. There is a serious lack of operational models and hypothesis testing. This is an unavoidable problem. He continues:

You know, I would be happy to sit down with theistic evolutionists and discuss our differences. I think they are wrong to baptize Darwin’s theory as God’s mode of creation. But I don’t think they are immoral or un-Christian for holding their views. But ID proponents, for wanting ID to have a place at the table as a scientific alternative to Darwinism, are, according to Miller, Collins, Alexander, etc., immoral, undermining Western civilization, and destroying America’s soul. Well, you want this fight, you’ve got it.

Time to pick up Miller's new book. Dang, I have to get through Your Inner Fish first! Miller can be arrogant and condescending and needs to be called on the carpet for that. On the other hand, the whole Dover trial reeked of creationism trying to be ID. Dembski is upset about the attacks on ID? As of yet, no one has explained why Of Pandas and People took such a prominent role in the ID movement when it was clearly a creationist textbook. In that case, it really was a Trojan Horse. If Dembski wants ID to be taken seriously, he has to suggest they completely cut ties with creationism. Until this happens, and until ID has some working scientific models, I can't take it seriously either. Game on!!

"What Can Science Learn from Google?"

Now that is a terrifying question. Chris Anderson, The author of a particularly silly story titled "The End of Theory" in Wired wonders if the standard scientific method is outdated. He writes:

The models we were taught in school about "dominant" and "recessive" genes steering a strictly Mendelian process have turned out to be an even greater simplification of reality than Newton's laws. The discovery of gene-protein interactions and other aspects of epigenetics has challenged the view of DNA as destiny and even introduced evidence that environment can influence inheritable traits, something once considered a genetic impossibility.


The new availability of huge amounts of data, along with the statistical tools to crunch these numbers, offers a whole new way of understanding the world. Correlation supersedes causation, and science can advance even without coherent models, unified theories, or really any mechanistic explanation at all.

Okkkkaaaayyyyyy..... First, I am not sure where he learned his biology. I suspect he has vastly oversimplified what ever notion he was trying to convey in the first quote. Environment always influences heritable traits. That is what natural selection is. You know, the idea Darwin and Wallace came up with 150 years ago. Second, without any coherent models, there is no science. There is only "data deluge." Mr. Anderson's suggestion that we do away with models invokes nothing more than inductive science. That is exactly counter to the example that Neil Shubin gives us about the Tiktaalik discovery: you take the information you have and construct a model that allows for greater discovery. In the 1930s, Louis Leakey went to Africa to find hominid ancestors because that is where the best evidence led him. Guess what he found?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Science Teacher Fired

Before it came to this end, this story made it to Foxnews and CNN, from which this article comes. Here is the salient part:

The Mount Vernon School Board passed a resolution to terminate the employment of John Freshwater, an eighth-grade science teacher for the past 21 years.

Freshwater, according to an independent report, used an electrostatic device to mark a cross on the arm of one of his students, causing pain to the student the night of the incident and leaving a mark that lasted for approximately three weeks.

According to the Ohio Department of Education, the student's family has filed a lawsuit.

Freshwater was also reprimanded several times for refusing to move his Bible from his classroom desk and teaching creationism alongside evolution, according to the 15-page independent report.

Great. Just Great. 1. how this this guy ever get hired to teach biology???? 2. how did this go on for 21 years?? 3. Why was he simply reprimanded and never fired the first time this happened?? This just gives those who argue for more government control of education more ammunition. The thing is, even though he knew what he was supposed to teach, he didn't, and there was no oversight to see that he did.

Friday, June 20, 2008

New Dinosaur Fossil Site

The BLM has found a huge cache of dinosaur bones, trees and fossilized clams has been found. The story notes:

The mix of dinosaurs, trees and other species in the area may help scientists piece together what life was like 145 million years to 150 million years ago, including details about the ancient climate, Foss said.

It is nice to get a large intact collection like this. It fills in more of the puzzle.

Kenneth Miller on the Steven Colbert Report

Kenneth Miller showed up on the Colbert Report on June 16. The episode can be seen here.

Open Letter from the Louisiana Coalition for Science

The Louisiana Coalition for Science has written an open letter to Governor Bobby Jindal about SB 733. They write:

Since you hold a biology degree from Brown University, one of the nation’s most prestigious schools, you certainly appreciate Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous insight, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” You also surely understand that there is no scientific controversy over the fact of evolution. The current controversy is a political one, manufactured nationally by the Discovery Institute and here in Louisiana by the LA Family Forum, which does not represent the majority of Louisiana’s citizens but would impose its agenda on our entire state, even our children.

This is the crux of the letter. It is the same thing those of us that are familiar with the fossil record have been saying for some time: "Surely you must see that there is nothing to this creation science and ID. Surely, it must be obvious." The problem is that it is not obvious to most people outside the discipline of biology. The additional problem is that this is preyed upon by people who take advantage of this lack of biological knowledge on the part of the general public. Expelled! is a classic example of this.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Scientific American on Expelled!

Scientific American has a web page devoted to the movie Expelled! The site includes a podcast as well as some reviews by different folks, including Michael Shermer and Scientific American Editor in Chief John Rennie.

Amorphia T-Shirts

Now these are funny. Amorphia Apparel has a series of t-shirts devoted to the "Teach the Controversy" line that creationists are using. My favorite is the one of Satan burying the dinosaur and human bones. It reminds me of Henry Morris' idea that the craters on the moon are the result of a war between God's angels and Satan's demons in The Remarkable Birth of Planet Earth.

News the Anti-Evolution Crowd Won't Want to Hear

According to a story in New Scientist, research has uncovered a major evolutionary shift in an organism right as it was happening. The research involved 12 populations of E.Coli, a bacterium we have all come to know and love, that have been growing in a lab for 20 years. The story notes:

But sometime around the 31,500th generation, something dramatic happened in just one of the populations – the bacteria suddenly acquired the ability to metabolise citrate, a second nutrient in their culture medium that E. coli normally cannot use.

Indeed, the inability to use citrate is one of the traits by which bacteriologists distinguish E. coli from other species. The citrate-using mutants increased in population size and diversity.

"It's the most profound change we have seen during the experiment. This was clearly something quite different for them, and it's outside what was normally considered the bounds of E. coli as a species, which makes it especially interesting," says Lenski.

Lenski further determined that the ability to metabolise citrate was the result of one or more earlier mutations that opened up the possibility. The punch line comes in the last paragraph:

Lenski's experiment is also yet another poke in the eye for anti-evolutionists, notes Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago. "The thing I like most is it says you can get these complex traits evolving by a combination of unlikely events," he says. "That's just what creationists say can't happen."

Louisiana "Academic Freedom" Bill Goes to Jindal

The Louisiana SB733 has passed and now goes to Governor Bobby Jindal. According to the story:

Opponents, mostly outside the State Capitol, contend the legislation would inject creationism and other religious themes into public schools.

However, the Senate voted 36-0 without debate to go along with the same version of the proposal that the House passed last week 94-3.

The measure, Senate Bill 733, now goes to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is expected to sign it.

Part of the problem is that the opposition to this bill comes in the form of the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (don't they have an acronym?) both of which are (sometimes rightly) seen as bogymen, opposed to any religious expression. Many people who are tired of activist courts legislating God out of the public sphere will fight this if for no other reason than it represents yet another attempt to remove control over their lives.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Is ID Religion?

Josh Rosenau, over at Thoughts From Kansas, wonders if the Discovery Institute is beginning to consider ID religious. Seems to me that their "cdesign proponentsists" already proves that case.

And If You Thought That Was Bad...

Words cannot describe this cartoon of Jesus riding a dinosaur. It is from the Beginner's Bible Coloring Book, which I have not be able to locate, and am not sure what I would do with if I did. No wonder they think Christians are idiots.

This is Nothing Short of Awful!

A court case is pending in Ohio in which a biology teacher, who refuses to teach evolution in the classroom, branded a cross into the arm of a student. Here is the news item:

COLUMBUS, OHIO (CN) - An eighth-grade science teacher culminated a religious crusade in his classroom by burning a cross into a student's flesh, and the school principal responded to parents' complaints by writing the teacher a letter, but promised not to put it in the teacher's personnel file unless he did it again, the parents claim in Federal Court.

The story also notes:

The John Does claim Freshwater has unconstitutionally taught his religious beliefs in his science classes for more than a decade. They claim that in 2003 Freshwater sought, and was denied permission, to teach "intelligent design," but does it anyway. They claim his classroom is festooned with Biblical posters, that he tells his students that "although he is forced to teach from the textbooks, the teachings are wrong or not proven according to the Bible."

One can only hope there is little to no truth to the story, but I am not betting on it.

New Video Series by Gordon Glover

Gordon Glover over at Beyond the Firmament has come up with a new video series, the first installment, called Seeing Through a Glass Darkly, deals with our limited understanding of both the natural world and God's word. It is excellent.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Doug Hayworth On Science Education in a Home School Environment

Over at An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution, Doug Hayworth has a guest post on teaching children in a homeschool environment. That is what we are doing with our kids now and it will be a challenge in the coming years. He hits the nail on the head here:

In summary, good curricula and resources for teaching middle and high school science at home are scarce to nonexistent. Although there are some good supplementary books and study guides about creation-evolution issues that have been published recently (e.g., Origins by Deb and Loren Haarsma), these are high school level materials and are not integrated topically with an ordinary sequence of science topics. These also do not address some of the other science-theology issues, including those to relating to the practice of medicine. (A good world literature and history-based curriculum that covers the spectrum of Christian responses to medical advances is helpful here. By the way, this is the strength of the Sonlight Curriculum my wife uses for our children.)

That has been my experience as well. Most publishers don't even consider the idea of publishing a curriculum that does not follow the YEC model. Some just do it less blatantly. It is clear that there are quite a few people out there struggling with this question.

Chris Smither on ID

This witty little song, courtesy of Charles Johnson's Little Green Footballs site is a cute little summation of the controversy involving ID, creationism and evolution. Give it a listen.

"Hobbits" Descendants of Early Migration?

Well, this would explain a lot. Hindustan Times is reporting of an Australian National University student's work that suggests that the reason the Flores hominids look the way they do is that they are direct descendants of an early migration of late Australopithecus or early Homo habilis out of Africa about 2.5 mya. The story notes:

For her research, Argue compared anatomical structures of the type specimen of H. floresiensis, LB1, with several modern humans, and many ancient hominins such as H. erectus, H. ergaster, H. habilis, and the Dmanisi specimens.

What they found was that H. floresiensis had long arms in proportion to its legs, and is close to the primitive arm-to-leg ratio of the gracile australopithecine, Australopithecus garhi.

"Floresiensis seems to have evolved around the time of A. garhi, given its primitive arm-leg ratio, whereas H. habilis was moving towards the modern human ratio around the same time," said Argue.

"If we're right, it means some hominin must have moved out of Africa about two million years ago, which is half a million years earlier than the Dmanisi hominin, which is supposedly the earliest out of Africa," she added. (ANI)

The initial problem that I have with this model is that, up to this point, we have discovered no fossil evidence outside of Africa of any of these critters, which you would expect if some of them dropped dead on the way over to Indonesia, or the crude stone tools that they may have made. On the other hand, we were saying that all the way up to the discovery of the Dmanisi remains a few years ago.

Monday, June 16, 2008

More on the Link Between ID and "Academic Freedom Bills"

David Murray of The Grand Rapids Press has also noted the disturbing link between the wave of "academic freedom" bill proponents and ID.

Gregory Forbes, a Grand Rapids Community College science professor, said there is nothing in the bills that demand teaching intelligent design with or in place of evolution. But he said the lawmakers who sponsored the bills -- including state Sen. Bill Hardiman, R-Grand Rapids, and Dave Agema, R-Grandville -- previously backed bills promoting intelligent design, and a version of the bill appeared on the Web site of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that has supported similar attempts.

"What this shows is that they're getting better and better at writing cryptically worded bills," said Forbes, who sits on the Michigan Citizens for Science advisory board. He said similar bills were submitted in other states.

The Trojan Horse is not working.

Strengths and Weakness Should Be Taught

Barton Hinkle of the Richmond Times-Dispatch thinks that the strengths and weaknesses of evolution should be taught. He says so with a wink, though. About the supporters of ID, he writes:

A balanced discussion is not what they're after -- and is not going to change their minds.

You know what, though? That's OK.

IT'S OK FOR two reasons. The first is that the theory of evolution is strong enough to withstand skepticism. And it keeps getting stronger, because the evidence supporting evolution continues to grow. If creationists were right about the ease of refuting evolution, then scientists would continue to find more reasons to doubt it. They don't. They find just the opposite.

What's more, a robust discussion of the strengths and supposed weaknesses of evolution could help clear up some misconceptions. For example, science teachers might gently point out that natural selection -- the process through which genetic mutations give some offspring a greater ability to survive and reproduce -- simply doesn't bear on whether God created the universe. They're entirely unrelated questions, even though creationists often confuse the two. If science classes met such red-herring objections head-on, then perhaps public understanding of the issue might improve.

The second reason it's OK to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of evolution is that we shouldn't mind when non-scientists want to employ scientific principles. In fact, that should be encouraged as much as possible, because it is so instructive.

This is sort of the opposite end of the spectrum of teaching creation science to expose all of the weakness in it. Both would be equally effective.

Academic Freedom and ID

Brian Angliss at Scholars & Rogues has a lengthy post on the wave of "academic freedom" bills that are sweeping the country. After a mildly humorous introduction in the style of Genesis, he writes:

On the face of it, the language quoted above for these two laws isn’t really a problem. Of course, as it stands, most science teachers in the country already work hard to have an “open and objective discussion” of any scientific theories they teach, and to help their students “understand, analyze, critique, and review” those theories. So, on the face of it, both of these laws are entirely unnecessary.

But a little research reveals the state legislators who introduced the Michigan bill once introduced intelligent design-teaching legislation in Michigan. And that the religious Louisiana Family Forum was responsible for convincing the Louisiana bill’s sponsor to introduce it in the first place. Of course, the fact that the two bills have nearly identical language means that there’s a good chance they come from the same source, possibly the Discovery Institute, which has the text of the Louisiana bill on its website.

This hearkens back to the Dover Trial and "cdesign proponentsists" Although the sponsors of these bills claim to want critical teaching in science, in reality, they just don't want evolution taught. Read the whole thing.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The ROM Darwin Exhibit: A Visit by Steve Martin

Steve Martin visited the Royal Ontario Museum's Darwin exhibit earlier this year. Here is what he had to say:

Overall, the exhibit is extremely well done. It provides a brief sketch of Darwin’s life, from a young boy absolutely fascinated by the natural world around him, to a young man trying to fulfill this passion; from his famous 5-year voyage on the Beagle, to the long years putting together the pieces of his simple, yet revolutionary theory; from his initial hesitancy to publish the theory, to his feverish writing of “On The Origin” once he realized another naturalist had simultaneously worked out a similar evolutionary framework. Since his death, Darwin has been alternatively demonized and given the scientific equivalent of divine veneration. The exhibit effectively puts “flesh and bones” on the mythological Darwin.

Along the way he points out some very interesting things about the exhibit and some personal reflections. A good read.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Royal Museum of Ontario Picketed!

Protesters gathered in front of the Royal Ontario Museum to protest the Charles Darwin exhibition, according to the National Post:

Waving pamphlets that suggest Darwin "showed a certain disdain for 'savages,'" and claiming "many evolutionists are outspoken racists," the protest was part of an odd campaign to stake out the higher ground for creationists, using the unlikely racism card.

Funny, I don't know of any evolutionists that are racists. In fact, the very essence of the synthetic theory of evolution is anti-racist at its core. The article continues:

"I wrote to the president of the Royal Ontario Museum," Dr. McVety said. "I didn't ask him to stop the exhibit. I just asked him to expose the truth, to expose [Darwin's] writings about genocide, the hateful writings about the aboriginals and the negroes. He refused, and that's why we're here today."

One wonders if the good reverend has actually read Darwin. See this post from the TalkOrigins site about Darwinism and genocide.

More on SB733

The Washington Times has an article on the passing of SB733, the academic freedom bill in Louisiana. One of the supporters is quoted thus:

"It's not about a certain viewpoint," said supporter Jason Stern, Vice President of the Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative group pushing the bill. "It's allowing [teachers] to teach the controversy. It's an academic freedom issue."

This notion of teaching the controversy is not new and is a classic ploy by many groups seeking to ameliorate the effects of teaching evolution. The problem is that there is no controversy. That part has been constructed out of whole cloth by the DI and YEC groups.

Louisiana Coalition for Science: Reject SB733!

The Louisiana Coalition for Science has issued a press release decrying the new academic freedom bill and calling upon science school teachers to reject it. This quote sums it up:

Patsye Peebles, a veteran biology teacher from Baton Rouge and a founding member of the Louisiana Coalition for Science, agrees that the bill should be rejected. “I was a biology teacher for 22 years, and I never needed the legislature to tell me how to present anything. This bill doesn’t solve any of the problems classroom teachers face, and it will make it harder for us to keep the focus on accurate science in science classrooms. Evolution isn’t scientifically controversial, and we don’t need the legislature substituting its judgment for the scientists and science teachers who actually know the subject.”

This is what happens when non-scientists get involved with science education.

Academic Freedom and the ACLU

I wondered when these guys would get involved. According to, the ACLU is considering filing lawsuits to keep religion out of public schools in Louisiana. As it eventually came down, the bill is remarkably vague about how the controversy should be addressed:

Heavily amended since it was first introduced, the bill now specifies that teachers in public school science classes will have to teach from state approved science textbooks. However, it also allows local teachers and school boards to introduce "supplemental materials" in science classes. The bill specifically mentions evolution, global warming and human cloning as topics on which such materials might be introduced.

Louisiana's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education would be able to prohibit the use of such materials if they are deemed inappropriate, under an amendment added in the House.

As of late, there seems to be a link between teaching about global warming (anthropogenic) and teaching about evolution, as if both are examples of scientists who have got it wrong and need top be straightened out. If the creationists are smart, they will push this because there is enough doubt in the minds of many people about global warming models. Interestingly, Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas has thought of this as well. As far as what the ACLU will do, the article notes:

Esman was asked Thursday if the ACLU might file suit against the Nevers measure once it becomes law or wait to see if religious materials are introduced into classes as a result of the law. "We're not going to say now what we may or may not do. That's a legal strategy," said Esman.

Scientists Gone Wild!!

CBS news has a video about some shenanigans that occurred at Oak Ridge National Laboratory involving some overspending and abuse of public funds. The video is here. The notion of scientists gone wild is amusing but, on a more serious note, plays into this notion that scientists need to be watched and that there is something sinister about what they do. Not a shining day for the lab.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Louisiana Academic Freedom Bill Passes (Everything New Orleans) has informed us that the bill sponsored by Ben Nevers on academic freedom has passed. According to the story:

The Senate already has agreed to the bill, but it heads back to that chamber for approval of a provision that would allow the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to prohibit supplemental materials it deems inappropriate. Nevers said he will ask the Senate to approve the amendment. He stressed that the amendment does not require BESE to review all the materials. The state board would only step in if someone raised a question about whether the material was appropriate.

Well, I guess the question now is who would deem material appropriate or inappropriate? As I mentioned earlier, critical thinking should always be part of the classroom and it is very hard to believe that this bill is not aimed at the teaching of evolution.

Alister McGrath on Richard Dawkins, Part II

I didn't get to finish my reading of Alister McGrath's treatise on Richard Dawkins. Here we go. McGrath characterizes Dawkins' reaction to the widespread belief in God thus:

Since faith in God, for Dawkins, is utterly irrational, it remains to be explained why so many people share such a faith. The answer lies in the `meme', which Dawkins defines as an intellectual replicator. People do not believe in God because the intellectual case for such belief is compelling. They do so because their minds have been infested with a highly contagious and highly adapted `God-meme'

As McGrath correctly points out, there is no concrete thing such as a 'meme.' Unlike a gene, one cannot identify a meme. It is like quantifying a thought—"I like ice cream." Aside from the declarative statement, there is no way to prove that what I said is true. McGrath continues:

Not only is there a total absence of any observational evidence that ideas are like viruses, or spread like viruses - a decisive consideration that Dawkins glosses over with alarming ease. It is meaningless to talk about one kind of virus being `good' and another `evil'. In the case of the host-parasite relationship, this is simply an example of Darwinian evolution at work. It's neither good nor bad. It's just the way things are.

This is a remarkably frank, evolutionary way to look at it and yet cuts to the heart of the weakness of Dawkins' position. His idea that religion is bad and evil, like a virus is simply not logical and, worse, is non-Darwinian in explication. McGrath closes by pointing out another irregularity in the writings of Dr. Dawkins:

But there is another issue here which we need to note. Dawkins is quite clear that science cannot determine what is right and what is wrong. What about evidence that religion is bad for you? And what criteria might one use to determine what was `bad'? Dawkins himself is quite clear: `science has no methods for deciding what is ethical.

Quite simply, if religion is bad, then that decision is not based on science but rather on an emotional response to one's experiences, which in the case of Dawkins, have been bad. I have often thought that if polled, most scientists would say that whether or not they believe in God has very little to do with the practice of science but rather much more to do with their sociocultural upbringing and experiences. It seems that Richard Dawkins is just one such person. Read the whole piece.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

NASA is Going to the Sun!

So quoth the NASA web site:

"We are going to visit a living, breathing star for the first time," says program scientist Lika Guhathakurta of NASA Headquarters. "This is an unexplored region of the solar system and the possibilities for discovery are off the charts."

But they're going at night.
Now playing: George Winston - Night
via FoxyTunes

New Louisiana Bill Will Create Problems, AAAS Says

Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has written an open letter to the Times-Picayune protesting the new "academic freedom" legislation. He writes:

The 21s t-century economy will require a new generation of scientist and engineers, and signs point to trouble ahead for New Orleans and Louisiana. Employers already are struggling to fill science and tech jobs, and recent test scores show that 53 percent of the state's eighth -graders-the workforce of tomorrow-lack basic competence in science. It is therefore alarming that the Louisiana Senate has passed a bill that directly threatens science education. Proponents offer deceptive arguments about encouraging students to think critically But Louisiana's education standards already do that.

He argues that such a fight would expend needless money that could be used to further science education. He is right. Sadly, they don't see it that way.

The Discovery Institute Responds to Laura Beil

The DI is responding to a New York Times article by Laura Beil (that I am now going to link to because it is very important but i am not happy about it) here. She writes:

Now a battle looms in Texas over science textbooks that teach evolution, and the wrestle for control seizes on three words. None of them are “creationism” or “intelligent design” or even “creator.”

The words are “strengths and weaknesses.”

Starting this summer, the state education board will determine the curriculum for the next decade and decide whether the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution should be taught. The benign-sounding phrase, some argue, is a reasonable effort at balance. But critics say it is a new strategy taking shape across the nation to undermine the teaching of evolution, a way for students to hear religious objections under the heading of scientific discourse.

Already, legislators in a half-dozen states — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri and South Carolina — have tried to require that classrooms be open to “views about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory,” according to a petition from the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based strategic center of the intelligent design movement.

After the fiasco that was Dover, one wonders how successful these movements will be. There is still funny business going on, though:

The chairman of the state education board, Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist in Central Texas, denies that the phrase “is subterfuge for bringing in creationism.”

That is nothing short of malarkey. Teaching "strengths and weaknesses" has been applied only to evolutionary theory because people don't like evolution. If this were an honest effort, that language would be applied to other theoretical constructs that we teach in science class, such as germ theory, gravitational theory and quantum theory. To say that evolution has not been singled out is deceptive at best and lying at worst.


Here is how the Discovery Institute replies:

The central premise that teaching "strengths and weaknesses" of Darwin's theory (and chemical origin of life theories) is a new, post-Dover innovation is flagrantly false.

That this is false can be proven with only a minimal amount of research, which makes it so much more surprising that Beil would blindly follow the assertions of the NCSE and others without bothering to call the people they're attacking – Discovery Institute and Texans for Better Science Education.

Here's the problem: Ms. Beil doesn't say that it is new. She clearly says:

The “strengths and weaknesses” language was slipped into the curriculum standards in Texas to appease creationists when the State Board of Education first mandated the teaching of evolution in the late 1980s. It has had little effect because evolution skeptics have not had enough power on the education board to win the argument that textbooks do not adequately cover the weaknesses of evolution.

The rest of the piece is devoted to arguing that the notion of teaching strengths and weaknesses is not new, something Ms. Beil never said. Beyond that, in typical DI fashion, there is no substance to the piece. Oops. screwed that one up.

Now playing: William Ackerman - The Opening of Doors
via FoxyTunes

JDL Up In Arms Over Expelled!

The Jewish Defamation League has waded into the controversy surrounding the film Expelled, narrated by Ben Stein, an orthodox Jew. According to the story in JTA:

The Anti-Defamation League blasted the film Tuesday, saying in a statement that it “misappropriates the Holocaust and its imagery as part of its political effort to discredit the scientific community.” The ADL adds, “Hitler did not need Darwin to devise his heinous plan to exterminate the Jewish people.”

The Oakland, Calif-based National Center for Science Education, which defends the teaching of evolution in the public schools, has “had its eye on” the film for a few months, according to spokeswoman Susan Spath.

“We are concerned about the long-term impact of this film and its irresponsible misrepresentation of a terrible history,” she said. “It propagates the message that Nazis were Darwinist, with the implication that today’s Darwinists are proto-Nazis, and that’s not OK.”

As Glenn Reynolds would say: Ouch!

Oops! Got That One Wrong.

The Australian is reporting a story of a discovery of the fossilized partial remains of a megaraptor not where it ought to be:

The 19cm bone was found in southeastern Australia but it comes from a very close cousin to Megaraptor, a flesh-ripping monster that lorded over swathes of South American some 90 million years ago.

The extraordinary similarity between the two giant theropods adds weight to a dissident view about the breakup of a super-continent, known as Gondwana, that formed the continents of the southern hemisphere, the authors say.

The thought is that if Australia had broken away from South America when it was thought to have, then evolutionary pressures of selection and drift would have resulted in a dinosaur that had phenotypically diverged from its Australian cousins.

The investigators, led by Nathan Smith of the University of Chicago, say the two dinosaurs are so similar the two land masses of South America and Australia could not have been separated for so many millions of years beforehand.

Back to the drawing board.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Alister McGrath on Richard Dawkins

On a site called Science, Religion and Society, Alister McGrath takes on Richard Dawkins. It is a transcript of a lecture given at Cambridge in November 2004. He writes what I and others have often thought:

If Darwinians choose to dogmatize on matters of religion, they stray beyond the straight and narrow way of the scientific method, and end up in the philosophical badlands. Either a conclusion cannot be reached at all on such matters, or it is to be reached on other grounds.

He argues that Dawkins has put up a straw man in the form of his definition of faith as "blind trust in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence." He then states that this definition is false and is one that no theologian would support. I am reminded of the opening verse of Hebrews 11, which reads:

1Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2This is what the ancients were commended for.

Christ also speaks of those who have not seen and yet believed as being blessed in John 20. In some sense, we do believe in things not seen and have no evidence that God exists. The evidence for Christ being who he is is circumstantial and we do have "faith." That is why they call it that. More tomorrow.

Slightly Off Topic But Relevant

Last week's Parade Magazine had a small story on Home Schooling. In their "Intelligence Report," the writers quote Richard Kahlenberg, the "author of a number of books on education." He states that the homeschooling controversy

...pits those who believe parental rights are paramount against those place a premium on well-educated citizens."

That is astounding. My wife has a bachelors degree and a masters degree in Art Education. I have two masters degrees and a Ph.D. As I noted a few posts back, my son Marcus, who is homeschooled, just took the second grade Stanford Achievement test and blew it out of the water compared to public school children who took it. My wife and I have come to view the homeschooling controversy as not being an "educated versus uneducated" one but one that reflects the state not having control over what my children are taught.

Despite numerous studies to the contrary, the NEA continually wants more control over what children are taught in this country. One of the problems is that they can get their foot in the door by pointing out to legislators that creationism is being taught at home. That raises the red flags, as well it should. This is where creationism is at its worst. I will fight to the death for my right to home school our children, and I know that they and the vast majority of the kids that are home schooled get a great one, but when I see the debate over evolution, I can kind of see the other side's point.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Michael Ruse in the Miami Herald

Michael Ruse, the philosopher of science, has a guest column in the Miami Herald called Knowledge and its discontents: Darwin passes his own test

He very clearly and concisely lays out the case for predictive science:

Darwin realized full well that often we don't have direct evidence, but that doesn't stop us from talking about facts. Indirect evidence can be overwhelming. It can trump direct evidence even! Take a murder, or some other crime against the person. What would lead you to point a finger at a culprit? Sure, eyewitness testimony is going to be very powerful. But we all know that people under strain can be very unreliable about remembering faces. That is not a weakness; it is a very understandable aspect of human nature.

Much better in such cases is the indirect evidence -- the clues, the bits and pieces that point to the culprit. Today, DNA evidence is nigh definitive and with good reason. Any good judge and jury would much sooner know about the molecules on the weapon than the recollections of someone who caught a fleeting glance and whose prejudices may be coloring memory.

It is funny that such an obvious example is lost on people like Ken Ham, who famously asks "Were you there?" Ruse also posits a stunningly simple case for the argument of evolution from homology:

Why -- and this was really powerful evidence -- are the front leg of the horse, the arm of the human, the wing of the bat, the flipper of the porpoise, the paw of the mole, all apparently molded from the same bones connected in the same order when the functions that these forelimbs serve are so very different? Because these animals share common ancestors, and evolution took the early forelimbs and shaped them in different ways, according to need.

Ruse does not share my religious convictions but he writes very easily and clearly. Read the whole article.


There is a glowing tribute to P.Z. Meyers' blog Pharyngula in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (intelligencer??) Meyers is similar to Dawkins in his outlook:

"It's true that a number of good scientists also have religious beliefs," he said. "I'm not saying they are not good scientists. I'm just saying they also appear to believe in a magic sky fairy."

The genesis of Meyers' religious convictions is also outlined:

Myers, 51, said he didn't start out to wage a war on religion. He was raised a Lutheran, he said, and went to Sunday school as a boy growing up in Seattle's suburbs. In 2003, he launched Pharyngula (the word refers to one stage in vertebrate embryonic development) as a tool to assist his students' writing projects.

"I just see science as a wonderful thing that everyone should be excited about," Myers said. But he soon discovered that presenting even the most basic facts of his particular branch of science, evolutionary biology, provoked angry denunciations and even personal attacks by those who saw it as an assault on their religious beliefs.

The war was on. The Lutheran boy from Kent became one of the world's leading atheists, speaking from the pulpit of science.

So once again, we have another scientist who has a bad experience with creationists and, using somewhat twisted logic, throws belief in God out the window. Does anyone else have a problem with this? Myers is at once insulting and irrational in his attacks on religion. That he had such bad experiences with Christians does not excuse their behavior which can be abominable and very unChrist-like. I know this from personal experience. It does not, however, qualify as a logical position.