Friday, July 31, 2009

Cornelius Hunter on How Religion Drives Science

The Discovery Institute's newsletter, Nota Bene, has a blog post by Cornelius Hunter titled: Are Evolutionists Delusional (or Just in Denial)? That's a provocative title, so let's see just what he means. He writes:
In one moment evolutionists make religious arguments and in the next they claim their theory is "just science." Their religious arguments, they explain, really aren't religious arguments after all. Gee, that was easy. In light of such absurdity, I don't have much confidence that evolutionists are going to think more deeply about this. But it would be nice if they would stop misrepresenting science. And it would be nice if they would stop using their credentials to mislead the public. In short, it would be nice if they would stop lying.
To what is he referring when he states this? He is taking to task Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True. Coyne has engaged in the classic argument that, if Intelligent Design is the way things are, why do they look so, well, unintelligently designed? Coyne writes:
The reason why the recurrent laryngeal nerve, for example, makes a big detour around the aorta before attaching to the larynx is perfectly understandable by evolution (the nerve and artery used to line up, but the artery evolved backwards, constraining the nerve to move with it), but makes no sense under the idea of special creation — unless, that is, you believe that the creator designed things to make them look as if they evolved. No form of creationism/intelligent design can explain these imperfections, but they all, as Dobzhansky said, “make sense in the light of evolution.”
Hunter correctly points out that this is, in many ways, an argument from personal incredulity. We have no idea how God would or would not design an animal. We can only show how the animal is designed and compare that design with what came before and what comes after. There is a fabled exchange between Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr in which Einstein is reported to have said "God does not roll dice with the universe," to which Bohr remarked "How does Einstein know what God will or will not do?" However, Coyne's secondary point is not addressed by Hunter: if God designed the laryngeal nerve in this way, it sure looks a hell of a lot like evolution. I have long contended that if God did design everything in "progressive creation" fashion, He did so in such a way that it looks so much like evolution that we can't tell the difference.

But then the wheels fall of the wagon. Hunter writes:
But nature's organisms do not look as though they evolved. Except, that is, if one assumes that God would never have designed the recurrent laryngeal nerve. Again, we're back to assumptions about design. Evolutionists are so deep in their own metaphysics they don't even realize it.
The link is to a paper that Hunter wrote called Darwin's Predictions, a lengthy, sprawling paper that I will tackle in another post. Suffice it to say his principle point, that organisms don't look as though they have evolved is patently false. The reason there is theory of evolution is because that is EXACTLY what organisms look like. When Darwin and Wallace first concocted the idea of Natural Selection, it is because the creatures they were examining looked as if they had evolved. Long before they came up with natural selection, naturalists had thought that some form of evolution took place, reflecting what the natural world and the fossil record showed. It doesn't look like evolution if you refuse to accept that evolution happened. Hunter continues:
Evolution has no scientific explanation for how the recurrent laryngeal nerve, or any other nerve for that matter, evolved. It is a vacuous theory. But it knows they must have evolved because God would not have done it that way.

In fact, evolution has no solid basis for even thinking these designs are necessarily poor. This is more religion making its way into the argument, as the assumption of poor design is itself a motif of evolutionary thought. When in doubt, evolutionists assume lack of function or poor design. It is not a scientific finding so much as a consequence of the belief that evolution is true.
This is also absolutely false. Neil Shubin, in his book Your Inner Fish, describes in detail how our common ancestry with fish explains why we have this circuitous nerve arrangement. If you reject evolution, like Hunter has, then this explanation doesn't work. But given the MOUNTAINOUS amount of evidence for evolution involving all of the biosphere, Coyne, Shubin and others are simply applying Occam's Razor to the problem. If you have a ready-made explanation for something, to posit a supernatural one that carries no empirical weight is not parsimonious. Such a statement has no bearing on whether or not God exists, but rather how the nerve was designed: by evolution or by fiat. God could reasonably do either. He writes:
In fact, evolution has no solid basis for even thinking these designs are necessarily poor. This is more religion making its way into the argument, as the assumption of poor design is itself a motif of evolutionary thought. When in doubt, evolutionists assume lack of function or poor design. It is not a scientific finding so much as a consequence of the belief that evolution is true.
This is not precisely true. For example, there are twenty-three different forms of eye in the biosphere, all of them very different, with different developmental trajectories. It is relatively easy to make observations about an animal in its environment and then determine which traits help it to survive and which are disadvantageous. For instance, when the mutation for albinism occurs, it puts the person at a disadvantage because they have to stay out of the sun. That is easy enough to determine.

Some eye designs are optimized for their environment. The human eye, because of the way the optic nerve develops, has a blind spot where the nerve comes into the back of the eye. Other eye designs do not have this problem. It is very easy to determine whether or not something is designed well or poorly. However, to say "if I were an engineer, I would never have designed it this way" is not the same as saying "God would not have designed it this way." Bohr is right in this respect. Hunter continues:
Finally, Coyne makes a standard evolutionary appeal to a famous paper by evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky. Dobzhansky was one of the twentieth century's leading evolutionists and he wrote a paper entitled "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

The title itself reveals the metaphysical message and, not surprisingly, the paper was a tirade against divine creation. It is now a classic example of theological naturalism in action. The paper's title has become one of the most memorable and quoted phrases for evolutionists--another constant reminder of the theology embedded in their thinking.
This is absurd. There is nothing metaphysical about the title of Dobzhansky's paper (the phrase "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" is the title of the paper, by the way. Dobzhansky never actually says that in the paper.) In the 1700s and 1800s, naturalists were scrambling to try to figure out how all of the creatures in the world were connected. While it was certainly true that Linnaeus' classification system was devised to catalog God's creation, it soon became apparent that all organisms were related to each other. This problem was intensified when it became clear that the earth was yielding up the remains of animals that looked similar to the ones that were in existence but were not quite the same. Worse, the further down you dug, the less similar they were until you encountered the terrible lizards, to which there was no modern analogue whatsoever. Was each creature created individually by divine fiat? Or was there some mechanism by which they were all linked? As far back as Count Buffon, naturalists realized that it only made sense if the modern forms had descended, in some way, from the fossil forms. In 1856, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace provided that mechanism: natural selection and common descent.

As far as Dobzhansky's paper is concerned, the title is an observational statement. He writes:
The evidence of fossils shows clearly that the eventual end of most evolutionary lines is extinction. Organisms now living are successful descendants of only a minority of the species that lived in the past and of smaller and smaller minorities the farther back you look. Nevertheless, the number of living species has not dwindled; indeed, it has probably grown with time. All this is understandable in the light of evolution theory; but what a senseless operation it would have been, on God’s part, to fabricate a multitude of species ex nihilo and then let most of them die out!
Theodosius Dobzhansky was a devout Jesuit and firm believer in God. His conundrum, like that of so many of us, was the he could not see how it was in keeping with God's personality to create by divine fiat a species only to kill it off. To him it made more sense that He used evolution. Is this argument from personal incredulity? In a sense, yet it is. But it is also the use, once again, of Occam's Razor. The simplest explanation, all other things being equal, is usually the correct one, especially if you already have a mechanism to explain it. Dobzhansky's paper is a tirade against creation only if you accept that the earth was created six thousand years ago and there is no evolution. Is his reasoning, as Hunter states, theological? No, quite the opposite. It is empirical. Evolution can explain these things, progressive creation has a bit more trouble and recent-earth creationism cannot, whatsoever.

Hunter finishes the paper thus:
Whether evolutionists are liars, delusional or in denial is difficult to say. What is obvious is that evolutionary thought is bankrupt. Religion drives science, and it matters.
Here he has overplayed his hand. He doesn't write religion drives evolution, he writes religion drives science. Evolution isn't the problem, science is. This is peculiar coming from a biophysicist. How does religion drive his science, since by his own admission, it must? I would like to ask Dr. Hunter this question, as well as how much coursework he has had in comparative anatomy, zoology and palaeontology, but there is no mechanism by which to contact him on his blog. That is unfortunate. I would also like to know how much astronomy or astrophysics he has had, since my suspicion is that he is a young earth creationist.

If evolutionary thought is bankrupt, how does he explain the fossil record? How does he explain observable speciation in modern biomes? If "Evolutionists" use religion to drive their science, how does he explain the ERVs that we share with the higher primates? We get no hint of answers to any of those questions from this vitriolic, insulting post in which he clearly has no respect for scientists who, for the last 150 years have produced some of the finest scientific work in trying to understand how modern organisms are connected to each other and how they are connected to those which came before.

Another Discovery Institute hatchet job.

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

As I Was Saying...

Dan Kennedy of The Guardian has a story on how the publicity surrounding the "Birthers" (the mistaken idea that Barack Obama was not born in the United States) is giving the United States a bad name on the world stage. Kennedy's piece is more a glorified book review than anything but he makes some good points along the way. The book he is reviewing is Charles Pierce's Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. Kennedy writes:
Idiot America – not the book, but, rather, a state of mind – is based on what Pierce calls three "Great Premises":

1. "Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings or otherwise moves units."

2. "Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough."

3. "Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it."

These premises, Pierce argues, are at work in absurdities such as the very loud, very public and very idiotic controversies over "intelligent design" (the story of Genesis dressed up as science), the fate of Terri Schiavo (a brain-dead woman who spent years being kept breathing in a Florida hospice thanks to the intervention of talkshow hosts and cynical politicians) and global warming (Pierce spends some time in Shishmaref, Alaska, a once-frozen village now literally melting into the Pacific Ocean).
The problem is that these people are well-funded and their operations are well-staffed. Not a day goes by that there is not a story somewhere about the Discovery Institute and their relentless attacks on the teaching of evolutionary theory, attacks that a large section of the public is quite willing to accept as truth.

Is the DI's principle spokesman a biologist? No, he's a lawyer with no training in biology. When they tout a list of scientists who dissent from evolution, does it matter that there are no field biologists on the list and only one palaeontologist? Not to the general public, many of who are quite willing to believe that the earth was created 6 000 years ago, despite the fact that there is as much evidence for that as there is that the earth is flat. P.T. Barnum once said that people have a tremendous "need" to be fooled. Sadly, that happens all too often here.

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From Bottleneck to Expansion

Once modern humans began to assert themselves on the landscape, data suggests they took off. ScienceDaily is reporting that beginning around 40 000 years ago, the human population began expanding:
Reconstructions of the timing and magnitude of changes in human population size are important for understanding the evolution of our species. There has been a longstanding disagreement whether humans began to increase in number as a result of innovative technologies and/or behaviors formulated by hunter-gatherer groups in the Late Pleistocene, or with the advent of agriculture in the Neolithic. Hammer's research integrates empirical genetics with discoveries in paleontology and archeology to help provide answers to interdisciplinary questions about which kinds of innovations led to the evolutionary success of humankind.
The article appears in PLoS One and can be read here. The authors conclude:
The data from the three surveyed non-African populations (French Basque, Chinese Han, and Melanesians) are inconsistent with the simple growth model, presumably because they reflect more complex demographic histories. In contrast, data from all four sub-Saharan African populations fit the two-phase growth model, and a range of onset times and growth rates is inferred for each population. Interestingly, both hunter-gatherers (San and Biaka) and food-producers (Mandenka and Yorubans) best fit models with population growth beginning in the Late Pleistocene. Moreover, our hunter-gatherer populations show a tendency towards slightly older and stronger growth (~41 thousand years ago, ~13-fold) than our food-producing populations (~31 thousand years ago, ~7-fold). These dates are concurrent with the appearance of the Late Stone Age in Africa, supporting the hypothesis that population growth played a significant role in the evolution of Late Pleistocene human cultures.
The late Stone Age at this point coincides with the recession of the ice at the tail end of the Late Würm glaciation and is coincident with the appearance of modern humans in Europe and several other areas of the Old World. It also accounts (at least in part) why technology takes off at such a fantastic clip beginning with the Upper Palaeolithic period. A critical mass of people drive new ideas and technology. It also helps that your tundra line doesn't begin at Vienna.

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Darwin Was Right

Or at least his grandson was. Apparently, one of the younger Darwin's ideas was that the movement and mixing of water between the equator and poles is influenced by sea life, who swim through the water. This was an idea that was largely ignored until recently. As a report appearing in PhysOrg notes:
Using a combination of theoretical modeling, energy calculations, and field observations, researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have for the first time described a mechanism that explains how some of the ocean's tiniest swimming animals can have a huge impact on large-scale ocean mixing.
The idea was largely discarded because it was felt that the movement of the ocean would overwhelm any movement that was made by the fish. Not so, they say:"
Darwin's grandson discovered a mechanism for mixing similar in principle to the idea of drafting in aerodynamics," Dabiri explains. "In this mechanism, an individual organism literally drags the surrounding water with it as it goes."

Using this idea as their basis, Dabiri and Katija did some mathematical simulations of what might happen if you had many small animals all moving at more or less the same time, in the same direction. After all, each day, billions of tiny krill and copepods migrate hundreds of meters from the depths of the ocean toward the surface. Darwin's mechanism would suggest that they drag some of the colder, heavier bottom water up with them toward the warmer, lighter water at the top. This would create instability, and eventually, the water would flip, mixing itself as it went.
This has tremendous implications for evolutionary development. The movement of ocean currents has a large effect on continental temperatures which, in turn, has a large effect on the kinds of vegetation that grow and the kinds of fauna that live there. For example, it is likely that the expansion of the Mediterranean during the Miocene led to cooler temperatures in North Africa, specifically the Afar triangle. This led to reduction in forests and an increase in savannas. A group of late Miocene apes began to exploit the forest fringe area and established their own niche—these became the early hominids. I will be curious to see how this research pans out.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Resources: Evolution at the AAAS

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the group that prints Science Magazine, has a page on evolution resources here. There are many different resources, including videos and online articles. There are resources for reporters and kids as well as archives of news releases. It seems to be updated weekly since some of the information is out-of-date as of today. The news page is updated monthly. From this site, you can get the Evolution Dialogues, a guide to understanding the concepts of evolution and the age of the earth. The book can be ordered here, although there is a discrepancy concerning the price depending on where you are on the site.

Resources: Evolution at the National Academies

The National Academies has a web site devoted to evolution resources. The site has been redesigned to take into account the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and 150th of the printing of On the Origins of Species. The site is split into a number of different areas including those for educators, for business, legal issues, science and religion and so on. The site is well-organized and focuses on the National Academies Press offerings, one of which is free with registration, Science, Evolution and Creationism. This is a must-read, as it explains in clear language why evolution is supported by the evidence and why it need not conflict with religion. Have a look!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The GOP Conspiracy Problem

Politico writes about "The GOP Headache" that the party currently has. In this case it is the conspiracy theorists (badly chosen word there) that believe, in the complete absence of evidence, that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and, therefore, is not qualified to be POTUS. As Lisa Lerer and Daniel Libit write:

As GOP Rep. Mike Castle learned the hard way back home in Delaware this month, there’s no easy way to deal with the small but vocal crowd of right-wing activists who refuse to believe that President Barack Obama was born in the United States.

At a town hall meeting in Georgetown, a woman demanded to know why Castle and his colleagues were “ignoring” questions about Obama’s birth certificate — questions that have been put to rest repeatedly by state officials in Hawaii, where the birth certificate and all other credible evidence show that Obama was born in Honolulu on Aug. 4, 1961.

When Castle countered that Obama is, in fact, “a citizen of the United States,” the crowd erupted in boos, the woman seized control of the gathering and led a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. The video went viral; by Sunday, it had been viewed on YouTube more than half a million times.

Between the Nirthers and the creationist/ID crowd, likely voters who voted democrat are largely going to continue doing just that, reasoning that the GOP has gone off the deep end. Every creationist/ID bill that is drafted is done so by a Republican. Every time a school board considers watering down evolution, it is always the Republican faction that does so. Until the GOP officially divests itself of the creationists and the nirthers, it will continue to be seen as the backward party that promotes ignorance instead of education and conspiracy instead of common sense.
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Monday, July 27, 2009

Of Dinosaurs and Human Rights

Walking with Dinosaurs, an animatronic show aired at the Rexall Place in Edmonton over the weekend, showing kids in vivid 3-D what life with dinosaurs would have been like. Paula Simons in the Edmonton Journal has a write-up. She writes:

What is it about dinosaurs we find so fascinating? What enthralls toddlers and paleontologists alike, what keeps us reading dinosaur books, watching dinosaur movies, packing arenas to walk with dinosaurs?

It starts, I think, with their sheer size, their massive scope and scale. Millions of years after they exited the world stage, they still fill us with a mix of terror and sheer wonder. We never shared this planet with them. But how easy to imagine them chasing us down and gobbling us up.

Yet at the same time, our fear is mixed with affection and fascination. How else to explain Barney, or Dino from The Flintstones, or Little Foot from The Land Before Time or Harry and his Bucketful of Dinosaurs? Children love the idea of dinosaurs they can tame, friendly guardians big and strong enough to protect them from the anxieties of their world. It helps, of course, that so many dinos have such deliciously wacky body shapes. Those spikes, those plates, those armoured tails, those long, long necks! They were born to be cartoons.

How timely is this show? She continues:
In a province where polls say only 37 per cent of us believe in evolution, it's a bold artistic statement.

How crazy, how desperately sad, that we need a touring arena show to teach our kids what our public school system won't--or can't.

Any time I write about evolution, I hear from frustrated science teachers and biology profs who tell me they must censor themselves when they discuss evolution, to avoid hurt feelings and moral indignation.

Bill 44, which just amended Alberta's human rights legislation to give parents a legal right to advance written notice whenever religious issues are addressed in the classroom, will only make that chill worse. Now teachers who dare to discuss Darwin's "radical" 150-year-old truths must worry about possible human rights complaints from parents who see evolution as an assault on their religious beliefs.

The day Bill 44 was introduced, Ed Stelmach specifically said the new law would allow parents to pull their kids from classes on evolution. His government later backed away from those words, a tough task, since the premier made the statement in a room full of reporters with tape recorders and TV cameras -- a news conference leaves more fossil remains than a herd of brachiosauruses.

Like so many bills in the U.S., it is produced by legislators who know nothing of the fossil record and nothing of biology. It is depressing that flat-earth Christianity has seeped into Canada. There is a slightly more chilling aspect to this story, here, though that is indigenous to Canada: the Human Rights Commissions. Recently, Mark Steyn, a Canadian who writes for Maclean's, a Canadian equivalent to The Atlantic Monthly, as well as National Review was charged by the HRC for "hate speech" for a piece he wrote on Islam. Steyn is less than enthusiastic about Canada's complete embrace of the religion and he said so. The NR editorial can be found here. Fortunately, Steyn was cleared by the commission, but it reminded everyone involved how tenuous free speech actually is.

Should parents have the right to pull their kids from evolution classes? Absolutely. They should also have the right to let their kids fail the state exams when questions about evolution come up, as they should. Is it possible, though, that some parents might decide that to subject any kids to evolution might constitute a "human rights" violation? Were such to occur, I have no doubt how state legislators would respond.

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More Praise for Francis Collins

Gary Stern of LoHud (Lower Hudson Valley) has an article on Francis Collins that reflects on the choice that Obama made (likely the only one I have agreed with, so far) to have him head up the NIH. He writes:

Collins is all scientist. He is the former head of the Human Genome Project, which only identified the nearly 25,000 genes in human DNA and mapped out a genetic blueprint for humankind.

He is a firm believer that the universe began with the Big Bang 14 billion years ago, that evolution explains the development of life, that the Book of Genesis is poetry and not history, and that the Bible-based ideas behind "creationism" and "intelligent design" are neither scientific nor intelligent.

But science is not enough for Collins. Well, maybe it's more accurate to say that his knowledge of science - of intricate codes and formulas that work for no apparent reason - inspires him to believe things that can't be proven by the scientific method.

"The elegance behind life's complexity is indeed reason for awe, and for belief in God - but not in the simple, straightforward way that many found so compelling before Darwin came along," he wrote in his 2006 book, "The Language of God."

As others have, Stern notes that Collins had a revelation reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis (how many people has that book influenced?) and allows Collins to explain himself:
For instance: "The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that."
I find myself torn by that position. On one hand, I agree with it because it is also what I believe: that God created the heavens and the earth. And yet, it also falls under the heading of "belief from personal incredulity." Now, since it is not being posited as a scientific explanation for anything, the sting is removed quite a bit. Nonetheless, it is still the position that we, as scientists and (for those of us that are) theistic evolutionists, find ourselves. We believe in God and accept his Lordship over the universe. But we do this as an act of faith, understanding that science is not equipped to address those issues. Perhaps Collins understands this better than most.
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Friday, July 24, 2009

Human Evolution and the Jews

AllBusiness has an article by Patrick Tucker called How Evolution Is Evolving: Two scientists look at how the Jews got their smarts, which is a review of a relatively new book by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, called The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. The book dispels the myth that evolution has come to a standstill now that humans have covered the face of the planet. Tucker writes:

Cochran and Harpending single out the Ashkenazi Jews as a textbook example of how cultural decisions from just a few hundred years ago (a nanosecond in the conventional view of evolution) have already resulted in new genetic advantages. Prior to the Middle Ages, Ashkenazi Jews lived in the middle of an important cultural route, linking Europe to key parts of Asia. The Jews were the recipients of tremendous genetic variety as ancient people crossed through their territory, settled down, married, or just mated.

As increasing numbers of Jews moved into Europe during the Middle Ages, cultural rules against marrying outside the group, coupled with external social pressures, resulted in a relatively closed genetic circle. The more useful chromosomal traits picked up in the Levant rose to the top as genetic of dilution was contained. More importantly, the difficult conditions in Europe ensured a strong biological imperative to adapt and survive.

Indeed, while most Europeans experienced the Middle Ages as a clear improvement over the preceding dark ages, European Jews were roundly persecuted and, by and large, were locked out of land-ownership. They developed a set of shared survival tactics that happened to be ideally suited for the changes sweeping the continent. Without the legal ability to own large tracts of land, most were relegated to towns and hamlets. This gave them a head start on urban life. The primary occupations available to the Jews who settled in these nascent urban centers were service trades requiring literacy and arithmetic skills. Abstract intelligence and reasoning skills were valued more highly within the group than was the ability to wield an ax or pull a cart. Over the course of multiple generations, a cultural emphasis on developing quantitative intelligence rather than physical strength accentuated one particular genetic trait at the expense of others. The chosen trait in question was intelligence.

Hence the title of the article. The authors go on to suggest that these circumstances led to real genetic changes in the genome of the Ashkenazi Jews that benefited them in ways that are evident today:

The authors go on to show that people of European Jewish descent, regardless of family background, perform better than average on IQ tests. They are disproportionately well represented among lists of major math and science award winners.

Although they account for less than 3% of the U.S. population, they comprise 27% of U.S. Nobel Prize winners over the past two generations, account for about a fifth of CEOs, and about 22% of Ivy League students.

Although this certainly falls under the category of microevolution, it still shows how changes in environments, both topographical and cultural can shape the genetic make-up of a population. This research derives in part from the vast population genetic research that Harpending has been doing for the last thirty years.

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Another Role for the Bill of the Toucan

The bill of the Toucan has always been one of its signatures and naturalists have puzzled over it for several centuries. According to a story by Hadley Leggett in Wired:
Scientists have been intrigued by the oversize toucan bill for centuries. In 1780, French naturalist Georges-Louis Buffon called it a “grossly monstrous” appendage, and Darwin puzzled over its potential role in sexual selection in The Descent of Man. Toucans have the biggest beak-to-body ratio of any bird on the planet, but no one has figured out why the animal evolved a bill one-third the length of its body.
Enter modern science:
Now, using infrared thermography, a type of temperature-sensing video originally developed by the U.S. military, scientists have tracked the pattern of heat distribution across the toucan’s body under changing outside temperatures. When the bird got too hot, it released heat by sending blood to its highly vascular but uninsulated beak. In cooler weather, the toucan constricted blood vessels in its beak to conserve heat and stay warm.
This would be a great selective advantage for the bird and allow it to colonize areas that other tropically-based birds would not be able to. This kind of science likely doesn't fall under the "Eureka" kind of discovery, as much as the "That's funny..." kind, to paraphrase Isaac Asimov. Neat.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Galloping Kangaroos!

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald has shed light on a study examining the evolution of kangaroos in Australia. Apparently, kangaroos roaming the landscape 25 million years ago had shorter legs, galloped around and had long fangs:
The near-complete skeleton represents a species called Nambaroo gillespieae, one of the earliest known predecessors to the modern roo.

The La Trobe University palaeontologist Ben Kear, part of an Australian team that analysed the bones, said the Nambaroo had big, muscly forearms that showed it galloped or bounded like a brushtail possum.

The ancient kangaroo also had opposable big-toes and flexible feet, a sign it had some climbing ability, like today's tree kangaroos. It lived in a dense, forest environment, which suggests a diet of fruit and fungi.

This form appears to be at the beginning of the radiation of the different kangaroo forms present recently and today.

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A Newer, Sexier Charles Darwin

According to the Guardian, the new trailer from the film Creation is a tad racy. Anna Pickard writes that:
There are so many plusses to the idea of Creation: The Movie. For a start, it brings Darwin to life as a fully-rounded person. More than that, by getting Paul Bettany to play him, Darwin is also very sexy. And making Darwin sexy is, for a generation who are used to thinking of him as old and with a ginormous beard, a very exciting step.

But then, there's also the opportunity to plug into both sides of a social, academic and religious argument that gets more and more heated by the day. Could they have made a perfect trailer that would attract both sides of the argument to see the film?
Sounds like a movie to see.

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Was A Shanidar Neandertal Killed by a Modern Human?

Steve Churchill thinks that the person represented by Shanidar 3 may have been killed by a modern human. According to a story in FoxNews:

"What we've got is a rib injury, with any number of scenarios that could explain it," said study researcher Steven Churchill, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University in North Carolina. "We're not suggesting there was a blitzkrieg, with modern humans marching across the land and executing the Neandertals [aka Neanderthals]. I want to say that loud and clear."

But he added, "We think the best explanation for this injury is a projectile weapon, and given who had those and who didn't, that implies at least one act of inter-species aggression."

As Churchill, himself, says, though, the evidence is scant. In other areas, it appears that they coexisted for quite some time and, of course, anytime you get two groups of people together, there are bound to be skirmishes.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Clothes Make the Man

Although it might seem self-evident (and, therefore, probably isn't), the adoption of clothing has had a pronounced effect on our ability to adjust to our surroundings and, consequently, to deflect the effects of natural selection. An article in DNAIndia reports that research is being carried out to study the effects of clothing on evolution:

In his study, Gilligan wants to understand the physiological, psychological and prehistoric aspects of clothing.

"I'm interested in clothing in a fundamental, novel sense, particularly its prehistoric origins and why it came into being. The reason that it is so important struck me very early on. Clothing is the thing that separates us from nature, literally and symbolically," he said.

"It's the one invention that we have with us almost all the time. It's not just a passive reflection of our personality and our culture. It actually affects us in the way we perceive ourselves and our environment. It's a large part of what distinguishes modern-day humanity from everything else," he added.

In addition to distinguishing humans from other things, Gilligan argues that clothing separates humans from our environment and from our physical selves.

It isn't clear when clothing first was used, but the capacity for it probably dates back well beyond Neandertals, since it is clear that they would not have survived without it in Europe or Russia. It is further likely that any hominid making the trek out of Africa would have needed some covering, suggesting that the very early Homo erectus hominids from Dmanisi probably had something to cover themselves because even at the gates of Europe, it would have gotten cold.

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AU Tells Board That Creationism Should be Banned in Louisiana

American United for Separation of Church and State (now cryptically going by the acronym "AU") has contacted school board officials in Louisiana in an effort to convince them to revise guidelines so that creationism is banned in public schools. According to a story on their site:
The AU missive also recommends that the board streamline its process for dealing with challenges to supplemental materials that promote creationism. AU says the board should put such decisions in the hands of professional educators in the Department of Education rather than create an unwieldy process that, AU asserts, is really designed to be an “opportunity for a show trial to promote the merits of ‘intelligent design’ or other forms of creationism.”
While I agree with the sentiment, I have always been a bit leary of Barry Lynn's organisation because I find its theological stances to be too liberal for my understanding of scripture.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Raining on Other Writers' Parades

Josh Rosenau wonders why people who write books about evolution are both critical of a book lamenting the state of U.S. science education. PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne are both critical of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, despite agreeing with the premise. He writes:

I find it odd that the author of a book intended to bring already published information to a new audience would criticize another author for publishing material already available in the technical literature in a way more accessible to the general public.

I find it doubly odd that PZ would echo this criticism. Not only did PZ rise to fame by rendering the technical literature in developmental biology accessible to those outside his field (adding not argument, but clarity), he is now famous for plowing the fields of atheism with arguments not dissimilar to those already made famous by recent writers Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, Vic Stenger, etc. He is (I believe) writing yet another book in that vein. It is a well-worked vein, with works touting evolution as an attack on theism dating back to Darwin's day, and no discernibly novel arguments in these popular atheist writings since that time. As one student of the field writes: "There's really only a handful of arguments for atheism in the first place."
This kind of squabbling is not helpful at a time when it is becoming clear that the average person knows little about science, even less about biology and next to nothing about evolution. That is exactly the way that groups like the Discovery Institute, the Institute for Creation Research, and Answers in Genesis want it. Why are we trying to help them? A book that is well-written and sourced that is supportive of evolution should be trumpeted.

Furthermore, I have no sympathy for arguments for atheism by evolutionary biologists in the first place. All they do is cement in the eyes of the general public the already perceived link between evolution and atheism. This just makes it harder for everyone concerned who think that evolution and faith can coexist.

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New Global Model for Speciation

ScienceDaily has a report on work done that is adding support to the idea that geographical isolation need not be present for speciation to occur. The article notes:
In a new study just published in Nature, Les Kaufman, Boston University professor of biology and associate director of the BU Marine Program along with a team of researchers from The New England Complex Systems Institute, have collaborated and found a way to settle the debate which deals with the origin of species independent of geographic isolation.

They demonstrated, using a computer model, how diverse species can arise from the arrangement of organisms across an area, without any influence from geographical barriers or even natural selection. Over generations, the genetic distance between organisms in different regions increases, the study noted. Organisms spontaneously form groups that can no longer mate resulting in a patchwork of species across the area. Thus the number of species increases rapidly until it reaches a relatively steady state.

"Our biodiversity results provide additional evidence that species diversity arises without specific physical barriers," the study states.

The computer simulations, the authors, note showed the distribution of species formed patterns similar to those that have occurred with real organisms all around the world.
This is a boost for the sympatric speciation model, although it is likely that both take place all over the world in different populations.

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More on The Dawkins Dogma

New Scientist has a post by Fern Elsdon-Baker, the author of The Selfish Genius, in which she lambastes Richard Dawkins for his narrow perspective concerning evolution and genetics. Focusing mostly on that topic, Elsdon-Baker writes:

Take heredity. If you only read Dawkins, you might think that the case has long been closed on how it works. In fact, there are competing perspectives stretching back over 150 years. Darwin himself was a pluralist and proposed a theory of heredity that allowed not only for the inheritance of latent characteristics but also for the environment to play a role in it. According to Darwin and many who followed, the environment could even have an impact on the germ cells: in other words, the gene line is not necessarily "immortal".

Research reflecting this plurality survived outside the mainstream throughout the 20th century. Today, building on the legacy of work by researchers such as Conrad Waddington or Barbara McClintock, increasing numbers of biologists find it hard to doubt the environment has a powerful impact on gene expression during an organism's lifetime.

According to the author, there are other areas of evolution in which Dawkins' influence has resulted in a skewed public understanding of how things work in the biological world. Read the whole thing.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Gail Lowe: Damned With Faint Praise

The Dallas Morning News has an editorial on the selection of Gail Lowe to head the Texas State Board of Education. The author (whoever it is) writes:

Skirmishes over teaching creationism and defining reading standards have been among the latest meltdowns. Contentious fights have been such a problem that the Texas Senate refused this year to confirm Don McLeroy, a social conservative ringleader, as the elected body's chairman.

Enter Lowe. While we would have preferred someone from the moderate-Democrat side, we fully expected Perry to select a social conservative.

He apparently has picked one of the least objectionable members of that faction. Lowe voted against teaching creationism in science classes. And interestingly, Pat Hardy, a Republican member of the moderate-Democrat side, speaks favorably about Lowe, praising her intelligence and preparation.

She will not have a fun time of it, that's for sure. While Rick Perry didn't select Cynthia Dunbar, she is still on the board, along with several other creationists.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Neandertal Population Size: The Cause for Extinction?

The Max Planck institute has released findings that suggest that Neandertals became extinct because they were below effective population size. Live Science reports that:

Neanderthals are of course extinct. But there never were very many of them, new research concludes.

In fact, new genetic evidence from the remains of six Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) suggests the population hovered at an average of 1,500 females of reproductive age in Europe between 38,000 and 70,000 years ago, with the maximum estimate of 3,500 such female Neanderthals.

"It seems they never really took off in Eurasia in the way modern humans did later," said study researcher Adrian Briggs of the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.

The research, which will be published in the July 17 issue of the journal Science, suggests the small population size of our ancestral cousins may have been a factor in their demise.

It wasn't for lack of intelligence. As the story notes, Neandertals were far from stupid:
Rather than the dumb cavemen characters starring in Geico car insurance ads, accumulating archaeological and genetic evidence shows Neanderthals were pretty sophisticated. They apparently hunted with blades and spear tips rivaling those of modern humans, ate marine mammals like seals and dolphins and sported brains that grew like ours. Their bodies likely looked similar to ours, and some Neanderthals showed off red locks on their heads.
I am still of the mind that Neandertals did interbreed with the arriving moderns, based on evidence at Arcy Sur-Cure where you have Aurignacian and Chatelperronian tool industries interdigitated, suggesting a somewhat fluid landscape for these hominids. The evidence at Lagar Velho, in Portugal, also suggests interbreeding. But if that didn't happen all over, or if there were conflicts regarding land or food resources, it is easy to see that there may have been a time of admixing and replacement, subsequent to which the Neandertal genome disappeared in the wake of selective pressures for that of modern humans.

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Dissent From Darwin: So, Who Are These Geologists?

The Dissent from Darwin list, which has been hawked ad nauseum by the Discovery Institute has one lone palaeontologist on it. It does, however, have nine geologists on the list. Who are they?

Fred Schroeder
- Columbia University. Columbia University has no listing of such a person. No published record since 1993, when he was working for Exxon as a petroleum geologist.
Seth Edwards - Associate Faculty at the University of Texas El Paso - UTEP has no listing of such a person - whereabouts unknown. Checks of Google Scholar and Web of Science turned up no papers by a Seth Edwards.
WJ Hedden - Missouri University of Science & Technology - There is is no faculty listing at this university for a WJ Hedden. A check of Google Scholar and Web of Science turned up one paper, written in 1980.
Richard Erdlac - He is a structural geologist with a specialization in geothermal energy. He has had most of his experience in the private sector and with government contracts, especially with the Department of Energy. Web of Science and Google Scholar list twelve publications in the last thirty years, with the most recent in 1994. The Clean Technology Conference and Expo lists him as a an energy consultant and the University of Texas at Austin no longer has a listing for him.
Susan L.M. Huck - Clark University. She is listed as a geologist although she has taught in geography and sociology. Neither Google Scholar or Web of Science lists papers by this person, although several papers in political activism can be found. Clark University has no listing for her and I cannot find her at another university.
Scott T. Dreher - listed as being at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, is now at the University of Durham in the UK. He is a specialist in isotopic geology and petrology. Web of Science lists nine papers dating back to 2000, with the bulk of them coming in the last five years.
Peter William Holyland - University of Queensland (Australia) - His speciality is mineral exploration. No papers found in Google Scholar, three papers found in Web of Science, most recent being 2000. By this time, he was working for Terra Sancta Inc. in Western Australia. Worked at one time for the Center for Strategic Mineral Deposits in Western Australia.
John H. Whitmore - Listed as being at Cedarville University, is now at the University of Minnesota's Department of Forest Resources after a short stint at the University of Ottawa. By 2006 was publishing in The Journal of Creation. It is clear from his writings (here for example) that he accepts the biblical flood model. To paraphrase Bill Murray, that's a big no.
Terry W. Spencer - Dr. Spencer is a seismologist, dealing mostly with wave propogation and compressive strength of rock. As such, this would not take him into the fossil record much, if at all. He does, however, seem to be a bona fide scientist.

So, what can we conclude from the above list and the relevance of each signatory to evolution? Only two are active, practicing geologists (one could say the same thing about me based on my output, though) but none have a specialty even close to palaeontology and one is a practicing creationist (and hence, not a practicing geologist). Therefore, like the physicists and medical doctors, their signatures are meaningless because they have little to no familiarity with the fossil record or evolutionary theory.

Once again, the Discovery Institute is blowing smoke in the hopes that no one will notice that there is nothing behind it. As with the new Zogby Poll, they can't go out and try to get palaeontologists and biologists to sign the Dissent from Darwin statement because they know good and well that very few will.
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A New Poll from Zogby on Intelligent Design and Darwin

A new poll from the Zogby Institute has surfaced dealing with Intelligent Design and evolution. The poll was commissioned by the Discovery Institute and their report is provided here. The poll originally consisted of 44 questions, but only four were chosen from the report. Those that were chosen are very slanted, consisting of either false dichotomies or questions phrased in such a way that those who teach evolution are seen as being against "academic freedom." The first question that the DI focuses on states:
7. Now, I am going to read you two statements about the development of life. Please tell me which statement comes closest to your own point of view—Statement A or Statement B?

Statement A: The development of life came about through an unguided process of
random mutations and natural selection.
Statement B: The development of life was guided by intelligent design.
Statement A 33%
Statement B 52
Neither 7
Other/Not sure 8
It is disturbing that only seven percent saw through that one. This is a false dichotomy. The DI refuses to admit that there might be people out there (despite having some of them in their own midst) that are Christians who accept evolution (although it is questionable these days just how much Michael Behe accepts. His two anti-evolutionary books, Darwin's Black Box and The Endge of Evolution have been so horribly received in the scientific community. See here for a a review of the latter) and who reject both options. There is no evidence for either of the first two options. The second question that they focused on goes like this:
4. Would you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree that teachers and students should have the academic freedom to discuss both the strengths and weaknesses of evolution as a scientific theory?

Strongly agree 54%
Agree 80%

Somewhat agree 26
Somewhat disagree 6 Disagree 17
Strongly disagree 11
Not sure 4
Although it is a badly worded question, the problem lies in the interpretation of the question, as opposed to the actual results. As numerous scientists have stated, you always want to address the weaknesses of any scientific theory, no matter how sound it may be. But the Discovery Institute is using the answer here to insinuate that there are problems with the theory and that scientists are trying to quash that.

The third question that they picked is this:

5. Charles Darwin wrote that when considering the evidence for his theory of evolution,
“…a fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.” Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with Darwin’s statement?

Strongly agree 45% Agree 76%

Somewhat agree 31
Somewhat disagree 6 Disagree 18
Strongly disagree 12
Not sure 5
As Ed Babinski notes, in this instance, Darwin is talking about his theory of natural selection and the fact that many more years of work would be needed to verify his observations and theoretical construct. Here is the complete quote:
This abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect. I cannot here give references and authorities for my several statements...I can here give only the general conclusions at which I have arrived, with a few facts in illustration, but which, I hope, in most cases will suffice. No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references on which my conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this. For I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived. A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question; and this is here impossible."

What one discovers, when reading more is that Darwin had no trepidation about his theory:
I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists until recently entertained, and which I formerly entertained -- namely, that each species has been independently created -- is erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable [changeless]; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendant of some other and generaly extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged variations of any one species are the descendants of that species.
He knew that much evidence was lacking but was convinced that one day it would be found. He was right. As Prothero, Shubin, Strahler and thousands of others have shown, there is plenty of evidence for it.

The last question picked goes like this:
6. I am going to read you two statements about Biology teachers teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. Please tell me which statement comes closest to your own point of view—Statement A or Statement B?
Statement A: Biology teachers should teach only Darwin’s theory of evolution and the scientific evidence that supports it.
Statement B: Biology teachers should teach Darwin’s theory of evolution, but also the scientific evidence against it.
Statement A 14%
Statement B 78
Neither 5
Other/Not sure 2
Once again, if you ask John or Jane Q. Public which one should be taught, you will get results like the ones above. On the other hand, if you aim that question towards biologists, palaeontologists, and geologists which viewpoint they have, the overwhelming answer would be "A" because they know that there is no evidence against evolution that survives even the most cursory critical scrutiny. This is like asking your average person whether or not string theory is adequately supported by the available evidence. Most people don't know anything about string theory so they can't make an informed choice.

The simple fact is that, over the course of the last twenty years, the Discovery Institute has failed to produce ANY papers that provide evidence against evolution. In fact, the DI has pretty much abandoned the idea of writing papers that counter evolution and focused its attention on getting the courts and school boards to either gag teachers who teach evolution or get the schools to teach Intelligent Design or Creationism alongside it. This isn't science, it is politics, just like this poll.

This is a massive smokescreen to try to make it seem to the average person as if there is a conspiracy against people who don't accept evolution. There isn't. This is no different from their Dissent from Darwin list, which contains ONE palaeontologist. The DI doesn't dare ask the questions in this poll to practicing geologists, palaeontologists and biologists because they won't get the answers they want to hear. How is this approach different from young earth creationism?

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The Genesis Enigma and the Evolution of the Eye

A new book that has been described as "Jaw dropping" has been produced, called The Genesis Enigma. Christopher Hart of the Daily Mail reports that the author is convinced that, although written down 3 000 years ago, the book of Genesis accurately records evolution. The story notes:

The revalation [sic] came to Professor Andrew Parker during a visit to Rome. He was in the Sistine Chapel, gazing up at Michelangelo's awesome ceiling paintings, when a realisation struck him with dizzying force.

'A Biblical enigma exists that is on the one hand so cryptic it has remained camouflaged for millennia, and on the other so obvious one cannot miss it.'

The enigma is that the order of Creation as described in the Book of Genesis, and so powerfully depicted in the Sistine Chapel by the greatest artist of the Renaissance, has been precisely, eerily confirmed by modern evolutionary science.

Yet how on earth could this be possible? And why had nobody noticed it before?

How indeed did this come about? Writers for the last 1500 years have been addressing how Genesis can be read in some way that corresponds to the natural world. It has resulted in concordism, in which the creation story is seen as being written from the viewpoint of someone on the earth, and accomodationism, in which much of the creation story is not taken literally. How has Parker done it? A very simple way:

On the fourth day, Genesis famously becomes confusing. On the first day, remember, God has already created light, and made Day and Night. But it isn't until day four that he makes the lights in heaven, the greater light to rule the day and the lesser the night.

Hang on - so he made 'Day' three days before he made the Sun? Houston, I think we have a problem. Yet the writers of Genesis were just as well aware as us, surely, that the sunrise causes the day. You don't need a degree in astronomy to work that one out. What on earth did they mean? Here, The Genesis Enigma comes up with a stunningly ingenious answer. For Parker argues that day four refers to the evolution of vision.

Until the first creatures on earth evolved eyes, in a sense, the sun and moon didn't exist. There was no creature on earth to see them, nor the light they cast. When Genesis says: 'Let there be lights... To divide the day from the night,' it is talking about eyes.

'The very first eye on earth effectively turned on the lights for animal behaviour,' writes Professor Parker, 'and consequently for further rapid evolution.' Almost overnight, life suddenly grew vastly more complex. Predators were able to hunt far more efficiently, and so prey had to evolve fast too - or get eaten. The moment that there were 'lights', or eyes, then life exploded into all its infinite variety.

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Dinosaur National Monument Waiving Entrance Fees for Weekend

Dinosaur National Monument is waiving its fees for the weekend to boost visitorship. If you're in the area, stop by.

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The Evolution of Turn-Taking

ScienceDaily has a story on research done at the University of Leicester on the evolution of turn-taking. How this happened is far from clear:

Professor Andrew Colman and Dr Lindsay Browning carried out the study due to appear in the September issue of the journal Evolutionary Ecology Research. The study has helped to explain the evolution of cooperative turn-taking.

Professor Colman said: “In human groups, turn-taking is usually planned and coordinated with the help of language. For example, people living together often agree to take turns washing up the dishes after meals or taking their children to school. But turn-taking has also evolved in many other species without language or the capacity to reach negotiated agreements. These include apes, monkeys, birds, and antelopes that take turns grooming each other, and mating pairs of Antarctic penguins that take turns foraging at sea while their partners incubate eggs or tend to chicks.

But how it evolved in the animal world is, according to these researchers, another matter:
Using evolutionary game theory and computer simulations, Professor Colman and Dr Browning discovered a simple variation of “tit for tat” that explains how turn-taking can evolve in organisms that pursue their individual self-interests robotically.

The researchers state: “Turn-taking is initiated only after a species has evolved at least two genetically different types that behave differently in initial, uncoordinated interactions with others. Then as soon as a pair coordinates by chance, they instinctively begin to play ‘tit for tat’. This locks them into mutually beneficial coordinated turn-taking indefinitely. Without genetic diversity, turn-taking cannot evolve in this simple way.
I find this a bit fuzzy and it is easy to see how a group like the Discovery Institute would pounce on it and say that this behavior is part of design in nature. They might argue that evolutionary explanations are arbitrary because the researchers approach the problem from an evolutionary perspective only, especially when it is described as an evolutionary "invisible hand" that is behind the turn-taking behavior.

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Dachsunds, Corgis and Stumpy Feet

The Australian is reporting that the reason that Dachsunds, corgis and other short-legged dogs are the way they are is a mutation in a growth gene. The story notes:

A team from the American National Human Genome Research Institute, in Maryland, examined DNA samples from 835 dogs from 76 breeds, including 95 animals with short legs.

The scientists found that dogs from all the short-legged breeds had an extra copy of a gene that produces a growth protein called FGF4, which is known to be implicated in dwarfism in humans. The extra gene is a mutant of a type known as a retrogene, which lacks parts of the normal DNA code.

The extra retrogene leads to an overproduction of the FGF4 protein, which appears to alter the times at which bones grow in embryonic development. This, the scientists believe, causes the legs of small dogs to remain short and out of proportion to their bodies. The findings are published in the journal Science. As the same gene is shared between all the short-legged breeds of dog studied, the mutation is likely to have emerged early in the evolution of dogs.

Most dog breeds are the result of selective breeding using artificial selection. It is interesting that particularly well-known breeds of dogs arose in this way. This also serves to show that mutation plays a large role in the diversity of a species.
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Friday, July 17, 2009

Josh Rosenau on Francis Collins

Josh Rosenau of Thoughts from Kansas has a post on the appointment of Francis Collins as head of NIH. His reaction to the move is mostly positive. He writes this:
Collins favors stem cell research and evolution. He's [sic] won't be pushing for research on intercessory prayer or other religious hokum masquerading as science. He's a good scientist, a good administrator, and a good politician. He'll work hard to keep NIH funding flowing smoothly, and he won't let his personal beliefs interfere with his agency's work.
As Rosenau points out, Collins walks a fine line between the anti-evolutionary crowd and the anti-religious crowd. He will likely get slings and arrows from both.

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Tampa Teacher's Workshop

Tampa Online notes that local teachers will be able to attend a workshop on how to navigate "Controversial Issues in the Science Classroom." The story, by Ronnie Blair, has this to say:
Speakers will guide science teachers through such topics as "The Glorious History of Creationism in Florida," "Cognitive Biases and Misconceptions of Students" and "Controversial Issues Outside of Evolution."

Among the groups participating are the National Center for Science Education, Florida Citizens for Science and the Coalition for Science Literacy.
As much as this is laudable, the problems typically stem from the school boards and the parents, both of which, typically, have very little biological education and couldn't spot the theory of evolution on a map. This is especially true when science standards are being drafted, such as last year:

At that time, the state Board of Education held hearings throughout Florida to seek public input. Much of that input focused on the fact evolution was mentioned by name in the science standards for the first time.

After the standards were approved, the Legislature weighed in both this year and last with bills that tried to challenge the validity of evolution.

One bill would have prohibited school officials from punishing teachers for using "scientific information" to challenge evolution. Another would have required schools to teach "critical analysis" of evolution.

The bills didn't pass.

The YEC lobby is well organized and most legislators are not equipped to refute their arguments, so the bills get drafted. It is then up to the teachers and scientists to hold the line.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Dating Hominids Based on What the Animals at the Sites Ate

ScienceDaily has a story on how to date fossil hominid sites based on the dental remains of the animals that lived around them. As the story relates:

Florent Rivals is the main author and a researcher from the Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA), attached to the IPHES in Tarragona. "For the first time, a method has been put forward which allows us to establish the relative length of the human occupations at archaeological sites as, up until now, it was difficult to ascertain the difference between, for example, a single long-term occupation and a succession of shorter seasonal occupations in the same place", he explained to SINC.

In the study, recently published in the Journal of Human Evolution, the researchers analyze the dental wear of the ungulates (herbivorous mammals) caused by microscopic particles of opaline silica in plants. These marks appear when eating takes place and erase the previous ones. This is why they are so useful.

This almost qualifies as a taphonomic technique and to have it as an extra tool in trying to figure out how these people lived and what they ate is good news.

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Creation Opens Toronto Film Festival

According to Jane Stevenson of the Toronto Sun, the movie about Charles Darwin and His Wife, Emma, called Creation, will open the Toronto Film Festival. The store notes that Organizer, Cameron Bailey stated:

"We fell in love with one film that we found to be moving, beautifully crafted, and full of ideas that may be 150 years old but have never been more current. We love it when our films get people talking and this one promises to do just that.

"It's especially interesting to watch real-life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly play husband and wife here."

Creation, described as "part ghost story, part psychological thriller, part heart-wrenching love story," is directed by Jon Amiel (The Core, Entrapment, The Man Who Knew Too Little) and comes on the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth.

I will admit that my trepidation at seeing this film is a bit higher than normal because Christianity is rarely portrayed correctly in cinema (even Christian-based cinema). On the other hand, I am much more inclined to see this film that I was Expelled, which I knew was going to be agenda-driven. We shall see. And ever since I saw Jennifer Connelly in Dark City, I have been a fan.

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Creationism in Pennsylvania

Chambersburg, PA has taken on the debate. In a story for the Chambersburg Public Opinion, Rob Luff writes that adoption of the new biology textbook has not happened without a fight. The story notes:
The creationism-versus-evolution debate may have hit Franklin County late last month, when Chambersburg Area school board divided on whether to buy evolution-heavy high school biology textbooks.

School board President Stanley Helman voted against the textbook proposal on June 24, comparing the material in the recommended book to "science fiction movies."

The board's seven remaining members (Norman Blowers was absent) voted in favor of the purchase, which includes science textbooks for all of the district, in several subjects.

The majority vote gives administrators permission to buy "Biology" by Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine.

Helman voted against the previous biology textbook in 2000, the last time the district bought science textbooks, for largely the same reasons: Inconsistency in the textbook regarding whether evolution is a theory or a fact, and the failure to present any alternative theories.

That might be because there are no competing theories. The last time there was a competing theory to evolution was in the 1860s. As for why Helman is concerned about the adoption of the Miller/Levine textbook, Luff writes:

Helman does believe in evolution within a species. It is something he has become familiar with as a dairy farmer, seeing how cows have been artificially bred over the last century to improve their milk production. The new textbook refers to that practice as artificial selection.

As for evolution between species, Helman doesn't buy it. He believes all species were created as they are.

Creationism. Hook, line and sinker. How do these people become school board heads without understanding the least bit about biology?

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