Tuesday, November 30, 2010

John Freshwater Case Settled

The Mount Vernon News reports that the John Freshwater "branding" case has been settled. Pamela Schehl reports:
The lawsuit was originally filed in the U.S District Court on June 13, 2008, and included as defendants the Mount Vernon City Schools Board of Education and various school employees. The suit alleged that Freshwater violated the constitutional rights of Zachary Dennis and those of his parents, Stephen and Jennifer Dennis, by, among other things, displaying religious items in his classroom, by teaching intelligent design and by expressing his own religious beliefs to students in the classroom.

The board’s portion of the lawsuit was resolved on or about Aug. 26, 2009, and Freshwater was the sole remaining defendant.

With Judge Hoover’s ruling last Tuesday, the suit against Freshwater was officially settled. The settlement of $475,000 to the Dennis family includes $25,000 for attorney fees, $150,000 each to Stephen and Jennifer, and $150,000 to be used for an annuity for Zachary.
What effect this will have on the curriculum in Mount Vernon is anybody's guess. Creationism always manages to find its way in, somehow.

Hat Tip to the NCSE.

Now playing: Anthony Phillips - Catch You When You Fall (1978)
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Monday, November 29, 2010

New Post for CFSI is up

My most recent post for the Center for Faith and Science International is up. It, and the next two will cover different kinds of evidence for evolution.
Wow, that was a long break. I am working on my third post for CFSI and revising my second BioLogos post, which I hope will be up later this week or next. Sorry for the absence.

Friday, November 19, 2010

New Issue of Journal of Evolution: Education and Outreach Deals with Human Evolution

The new issue of Journal of Evolution: Education and Outreach deals specifically with human evolution and contains several general review articles about the australopithecines and the emergence of Homo. It is part of the Springer Verlag package to which most large universities have access. The University of Tennessee has this.

Education Week: Evolution Education Working

According to an article in Education Week, the fallout from the Dover trial in 2005 has been bad for creationism and intelligent design. Sarah Sparks writes:
The National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, and other groups have increased research investment on identifying essential concepts for teaching evolution, including creating the Evolution Education Research Centre, a partnership of Harvard, McGill, and Chapman universities, and launching the first peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the subject, Journal of Evolution: Education and Outreach.
The journal was free for its first two years but now is behind a subscription wall. It is a top notch journal, though and worth seeking out. Sparks goes on to describe the different programs that are being implemented throughout the country but cautions that there are still problems:

Teacher education also has opened up as a new front in the battle over evolution in the classroom, according to Mr. Eberle. The Institute for Creation Research, which promotes creation-based science teaching, recently moved from California to Texas to fight for state accreditation to establish a master’s degree program in science education. Also, Louisiana has passed an “academic freedom” law protecting teachers who supplement their standard science textbooks with other materials; a state committee explicitly rejected a move to bar creationist or intelligent design materials from those supplements.

“If you take this term of ‘academic freedom’ more broadly, does it mean a teacher can teach anything?” Mr. Eberle asked. “It’s been narrowly applied to evolution, and I think it’s another term to accomplish the same goal” to undermine the scientific validity of evolution.

It should be noted that the ICR failed miserably in its bid to get accredited in Texas and has closed their "graduate program" in science. Interestingly, while there are many teachers that are skittish about teaching evolution, if you asked them if they were going to teach transmutation of gold or that the earth is flat, they would respond negatively. Why people feel different about evolution lies mostly in their lack of understanding of what the theory does and does not explain and deep-seated fears that it will upend their faith. The problem is that, if you are a young earth creationist, it will.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Modern Humans Have Slower Developmental Timing than Neandertals

ScienceDaily has a story in which a synchrotron x-ray machine has revealed that Neandertals had faster developmental timing patterns than modern humans and that this may have given modern human an advantage. They write:
A remarkable finding of this five-year study is that Neanderthals grow their teeth significantly faster than members of our own species, including some of the earliest groups of modern humans to leave Africa between 90-100,000 years ago. The Neanderthal pattern appears to be intermediate between early members of our genus (e.g., Homo erectus) and living people, suggesting that the characteristically slow development and long childhood is a recent condition unique to our own species. This extended period of maturation may facilitate additional learning and complex cognition, possibly giving early Homo sapiens a competitive advantage over their contemporaneous Neanderthal cousins.
Or it may just be an evolutionary adaptation to a warmer climate and less of a need to maintain selection for a quicker development. This is especially true in light of the fact that there is no evidence that modern humans were any more intelligent than their Neandertal precursors. As I have said before, if you lived in a world in which the tundra line was at Vienna, you'd have a hard time adapting, too.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Steve Matheson: More on BioLogos and Chrisian Unity

Steve Matheson over at Quintessence of Dust has a follow-up post to his original musings about the Vibrant Dance conference, in which the Discovery Institute revealed itself to be nothing more than a hack organization, interested not in open dialogue but bitter debate. Steve clarifies some things:
What I'm trying to do here is make it clear that I don't think that Darrel Falk and Dennis Venema and Deb Haarsma were mistaken to participate in the Vibrant Dance or to call for respectful engagement with those there who disagree with them. I'm saying that they must make it clear that the DI and RTB regularly violate standards of intellectual integrity. Both the DI and RTB promulgate falsehoods, and they do it knowingly. It should go without saying that such behavior is unacceptable among self-described scholars; that the scholars in question are Christians, functioning as public Christian apologists who seek to influence the thought and actions of millions of fellow Christians, only amplifies this concern.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the Discovery Institute has no intention of treating the data in an honest fashion. The first hints of that came with the Wedge Document and were on startling display at the Dover trial in 2005. Steve has stated in the past that he still holds out hope for RTB, although even here there seem to be problems of integrity.

Perhaps the odd thing about Reasons to Believe is that they treat the astrophysical data in an honest fashion and yet make a complete hash of the biological data and evolutionary theory. It is as if, when it comes to anything involving humans directly, the blinders go on. The Discovery Institute is a one-trick pony. Anything not dealing with evolution is ignored and then the evidence for evolution is twisted and misinterpreted.

It is not clear that there will a change anytime soon regarding any interactions between groups like BioLogos, which seeks to actually honestly interpret the data in a way that is in keeping with the integrity demanded by both science and a Christian walk and groups like RTB and the Discovery Institute, which do not seem to.

Now playing: Anthony Phillips - Guitar Song (Demo, 1973)
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Thursday, November 11, 2010

The 2010 Elections and Science

Alasdair Wilkins over at io9 has been wondering the same thing that I have: how will the Republican takeover of congress and the local statehouses affect science policy. Here is what he writes:
The Republican platform, "The Pledge to America", never mentions the words "science", "technology", "NASA", "research and development", "evolution" or "intelligent design", "climate change", and certainly not "global warming."

That isn't, in and of itself, a bad thing. It just means the 2010 election cycle wasn't predicated on scientific issues. It does, however, make it rather more challenging to predict how government and science are going to interact over the next two years. And while it would be easy to say the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives is bad for science, the truth is a bit more complicated than that.
Wilkins agrees with most other pundits that, in so much as the Republicans turn their thoughts to science, they will focus on climate change and that this area of research will be hit hard. Here, the attempts to link attacks on climate change skepticism with attacks on ID will fall flat. The brouhaha from the emails at East Anglia last year still has legs and will be front and center in any deliberations involving climate change and funding. It doesn't help that many of the detractors of anthropogenic global warming are, themselves, climate scientists. But what about evolution?

Republicans have taken a stand that is certainly non-scientific and arguably anti-scientific. And it doesn't help that other planks of the Republican platform, such as their opposition to evolution, fall so ridiculously far outside the scientific mainstream. (Thankfully, evolution almost certainly won't come up in the next two years. That's the sort of thing that only gets aired out when Republicans have complete control of Congress, and even then it's tough to say what they could actually do about it.)
It is not from congress that the problems for evolution will come. Congress has rarely said anything about evolution and that is not likely to change. The problems will come from the local statehouses—where Republicans have taken 680 seats from Democrats. Even under a Democratic house and president, we still had attacks on evolution education in Louisiana, Utah, Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi, Pennsylvania. Given that there is much data linking anti-evolutionism with being a member of the Republican party, these will not only continue, their proponents will be bolder. Even as the Republican Congress debates climate change on the national level, I suspect that their supporters will be debating evolution at a local level.

Now playing: Supertramp - Even In The Quietest Moments
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Laetoli Footprints To Be Visible Again

AllAfrica.com is reporting that the Laetoli footprint tracks, produced by two side-by-side hominids some 3.6 million years ago, will be visible again and open for tourists. The author writes:
The state's announcement to open the site may see the beginning of the end for stirring debate over how to best protect the 3.6-millionyear- old tracks. In recent years, experts have been expressing fear for oldest human footprints fossilized tracks preservation, saying weathering has begun to undermine those protections, raising concerns that the prints preserved in a volcanic ash bed could be harmed by erosion, livestock or humans. It has prompted Tanzanian anthropologist Charles Musiba to call for the creation of a new museum to reveal and display the historic prints. But foreign anthropologists question this idea ... as they did when the tracks were covered ... because Laetoli is several hours' drive into Ngorongoro Conservation Area, making guarding and maintaining any facility extremely difficult.

A file photo of the tracks is above. It would be a shame if they cannot be saved. Even though we have casts of them, the original is priceless.

Now playing: Stan Freberg - Columbus Discovers America
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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

More Trouble in Louisiana

2The Advocate is reporting that textbooks approved last month by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in Louisiana are being criticized for putting too much emphasis on evolution. Will Sentell writes:
Critics contend some biology I, biology II and other school books under scrutiny for public classrooms put too much credence in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Gee, wonder why that could be? Sentell continues:
“It is like Charles Darwin and his theory is a saint,” said Winston White, of Baton Rouge, who filed a comment with state officials reviewing the textbooks.

“You can’t touch it,” White said.

But others said the textbook criticism is being led by the Louisiana Family Forum, which touts itself as a group that promotes traditional values.

“They had their people going through the books, writing up complaints and sending them,” said Barbara Forrest, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and co-founder of the LA Coalition for Science.
It is a bit scary to think of folks at the Louisiana Family Forum going through textbooks to find problems with evolution, when it has become clear that, given their reliance on the ICR and AiG, they have little understanding of the subject in the first place.

Now playing: Todd Rundgren - Can We Still Be Friends
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The Fountains of the Deep?

11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month—on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. 12 And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.” (Genesis 7: 11-12, NIV)

A story from the Washington Post reports that scientists have seriously underestimated the amount of water underneath the surface of the earth. How did it get there? Here is one idea:
When our solar system began to take shape, roughly 4.5 billion years ago, it was a disk-shaped cloud of gas and dust spinning around a dense core, which became the sun. Close to this core, the cloud was very hot - too hot for compounds such as H2O to condense, so they got blown outward by a powerful solar wind. When they got far enough from the nascent sun, they condensed into water and ice. This happened beyond the orbits of the inner planets, including Earth, which coalesced out of heavier dust particles.
Okay, so how did it get under the earth's surface? The original theory involved cometary impacts, but that left too many unanswered questions. The story continues:
Michael Drake of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, thinks there's a better explanation. The majority of Earth's water, Drake believes, was there from the beginning, despite Earth's having formed inside the solar system's snow line. He and his colleagues have speculated that individual molecules of water vapor could have glommed onto dust particles inside the snow line, much as dew forms on grass. Then, when the dust particles drifted together into larger and larger objects, eventually growing to become the inner planets, the moisture stayed with them. Eventually, there was enough to form Earth's oceans.
So are these the “Fountains of the Deep?” Well, if flood geology hinged on only this one hypothesis, that might be reasonable. But it doesn't. The source of the flood's water is only one problem that flood geologists have to overcome out of hundreds that they cannot. Besides which, the amount of water necessary to flood the entire planet up to fifteen cubits above the tallest mountain would be vastly greater than the largest estimates of the present amount of subsurface water. One would have to employ a model out of the movie “2012” to make it work. How good was the science in that film? NASA felt compelled to put up a web page dispelling the sheer inanities in the film. Interestingly, there is a Christian review of the film that came out at the time by Sheri McMurray of Christian Spotlight which deals largely with the ideas of the end of the earth and the ultimate survival of humankind. Oddly enough, she does not touch on a particular aspect of the film that leaped out at me: that the cataclysmic events on the screen must have been very like that which are purported to have happened in Genesis 7 and 8, complete with sinking and rising continents, if the flood geology model is correct. As of now, there is no evidence that it is.

Now playing: Steve Hackett - Firewall
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Sunday, November 07, 2010

Election 2010: Did Creationism Help Sink GOP Candidate?

Bernard Schoenburg, writing for the Springfield Journal Register opines that it may have been creationism that helped to sink GOP candidate Bill Brady. He writes:
Less than a month before Election Day, Brady appeared before the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board, where some of his conservative social views were discussed. The lead sentence on that newspaper’s story about the meeting mentioned that Brady told the board “he would not stand in the way of a public school board should it want to teach creationism.”

That was reminiscent of late 2005, when Brady started an unsuccessful run for his party’s nomination for governor in 2006.

“I think we should teach the Bible in our schools,” he said then on WMAY-AM. “One of the basic, fundamental voids we have in our school system is bringing God into the system.” Brady told me later he thought local school boards shouldn’t be prohibited from having the “historical significance of the Bible or any religion” taught.

Despite the spin, Brady’s startling talk of the need for God in public schools was part of what formed the impression that Brady was more conservative than many Illinois voters are comfortable with. The horrific economy and state budget this year pushed such issues into the background, but it’s easy to believe Brady’s creationism comments in the Sun-Times story pushed some possible Brady voters into Quinn’s camp.
This is, admittedly, speculation and it is the first such story I have heard about this issue in the election. I have maintained that if the Democrats had hammered this point to the electorate, that the GOP, in general, suffers from a science gap, more races might have gone Democrat. In reflection, how true that is in the heartland is debatable. Explaining that the opponent is a young earth creationist is one thing. Explaining that being one is bad for science education is another. This is especially true when a sizable segment of the population doesn't think young earth creationism is half bad.

Now playing: Keith Emerson - Motor Bikin'
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Saturday, November 06, 2010

Dan Margoliss on Glenn Beck and Evolution

Dan Margoliss of the Morning Star UK has an issue with Glen Beck, who took a pot shot at evolution the other day:
"I think [evolution's] ridiculous," Beck said recently on his radio show. He went on to make a number of statements to bolster his claim that Darwinian natural selection is nonsense - but his claims showed only how little he knows of the subject.
Well, he wouldn't be the first conservative talk show host that completely botched evolutionary theory. Fox news regularly has on people like Kirk Cameron who doesn't know the first thing about the subject. Along the way, though, Margoliss writes something involving the human fossil record that, I will venture, is completely unknown to this group of evolution-haters:

We are Homo sapiens. The species before us was Homo erectus. If you were to revive a Homo erectus and put him next to a modern human being, it would be easy to tell the difference which was which.

However, if you were to revive all of our preceding generations and put one member of each in line, until it reached the generation of our recently revived ancestor Homo erectus, you'd have a problem of classification.

It would be virtually impossible to mark where Homo erectus ended and where Homo sapiens began. Each generation would be slightly more like the next species than the previous one.

Evolution is a process of gradual change - very gradual - over thousands of generations. It's not as if a Homo erectus gave birth to a Homo sapiens. Every single generation is, in a sense, intermediate.

It's precisely because whole generations are missing that we are able to label the different species. Otherwise we'd have no idea where to draw the line between humans and our ancestors.

Some would argue that Homo erectus did not give rise to Homo sapiens and that Homo sapiens neandertalensis is a separate species, but I will follow Wolpoff on this lead.

When Kirk Cameron stood there in front of the cameras and said he couldn't possibly believe in evolution because he had never seen "one of these, a crockaduck," I thought he was joking. Then I realized that this level of knowledge about evolutionary theory is commonplace.

The human fossil record is so good and there are so many transitions that we have trouble telling one species apart from another. Is the Bodo cranium (shown here on the left) late Homo erectus or is it archaic Homo sapiens? I have seen it classified as both. The point is that evolution happens in mosaic fashion, regardless of whether you employ a systematics model or a phenetic one. The fossil record is what it is and for humans and their precursors, it is quite good.

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I have added Sandwalk to my list of blogs on the right hand side. This is a good blog by a biochemist at the University of Toronto by the name of Laurence Moran, that addresses themes in evolution and science in daily life. He might be a bit religiously skeptical for my tastes but has concise commentary on the science.

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Friday, November 05, 2010

Dembski/Hitchens Debate

Christopher Hitchens, who is battling esophageal cancer, and William Dembski will debate whether or not God is good at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, TX on November 18. Here is the blurb in the campus newspaper from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It reads, in part:
Dembski and Hitchens will debate the existence of a good God during a conference for the Biblical Worldview Institute at Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas. The debate will be hosted in the worship center at Prestonwood Baptist Church from 8:40 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. It will also be webcast on www.pcawebcast.com.
I hope that Dembski can go toe to toe with Hitchens but given his reluctance to defend his own research from criticisms, I fear the worst.

Now playing: The Alan Parsons Project - GBH Mix (Unreleased Experiments)
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Thursday, November 04, 2010

Our Cheatin' Ancestors?

A new study suggests that modern humans are considerably less promiscuous than their forbears. In a story that appeared in the University of Oxford site, the culprit seems to be androgen levels:
Previous studies by the research team have shown that promiscuous species have low index to ring finger ratios while monogamous species have high finger ratios. High levels of androgens, such as testosterone, increase the length of the fourth finger in comparison to the second finger. It is thought that prenatal androgens affect finger length during development in the womb, which in turn is linked to adult behaviour. High levels of prenatal androgens are linked with competitiveness and promiscuity.
I would love to know what the r2 on that analysis is. I am always extremely suspicious of a study that links a single process to a complex social behavior, especially something like this. Later, the article has this:
Dr Susanne Shultz, from the University of Oxford, said: ‘Social behaviours are notoriously difficult to identify in the fossil record. Developing novel approaches, such as finger ratios, can help inform the current debate surrounding the social systems of the earliest human ancestors.
They are notoriously difficult because they often leave few to no clues. This analysis also sidesteps the problems involved in trying to ascertain what other selective forces might have been at work in early hominid development. For example, in Ardipithecus, given that they exhibited incipient bipedality and were, at least in part, arboreal as well, there may have been selective pressures on metacarpal and phalanx length. Also, is finger length one trait dictated by pleiotropy? Or is it polygenic? Is there linkage disequilibrium going on? These sorts of questions could be extrapolated to other hominid species as well and need to be addressed before arriving at the conclusion that is stated in this study.

Update on "Nifty Videos" Post

I have been informed that AronRa is the author of the 12 Foundational Falsehoods of Creationism series.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Nifty Video on Transitional Fossils

Karl, writing from the blog Athens and Jerusalem, has posted a long series on the "foundational falsehoods of creationism." Here is his video on transitional fossils.

He has a very good explanation of what a transitional fossil is as well as how many we actually have. The slides go past pretty quickly so you will probably need to pause the video to read them. The best line, regarding extinction: "practically everything that ever was, ain't no more."

Now playing: William Ackerman - The Opening of Doors
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Post-Election Wednesday

Well, the Republicans won 58 seats in the house that they didn't have and now have a 239-185 majority and they gained five seats in the senate resulting in a 49-46 minority. The media is painting the tea party as extremist and, to be sure, there are some extreme elements in it, but the same can be said for the "Rally for Sanity," (about which Mary Katherine Ham demonstrates that there is idiocy on both sides of the electorate). In any event, the next two years ought to be interesting. Here are some predictions:

Good things:
  • more fiscal responsibility
  • a thorough reading of Obamacare (which even many Democrats admit they hadn't read) to see just what exactly is in it.
  • a relaxation of the stranglehold that the unions have over jobs and businesses
  • less willingness to bail out entities that do not deserve it (e.g. California)
  • more accountability in spending (The WaPo discovered that the TARP money went from the taxpayers to the companies to the politicians who voted for TARP. Neat circle there.)
Bad things:
  • the introduction of more "academic freedom" bills in statehouses across the land
  • more attempts by emboldened young earth creationists, under the cover of "a mandate from the people," to introduce creationism in public schools all across the country
  • less science funding in areas of biology and genetics—anything that can be connected to evolution.
I hope I am wrong about the bad things but I am betting not.

Now playing: Steve Hackett - Gavottes, BWV 1012
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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Its Tuesday

Go out there and vote. If you are like me and follow the science education question "religiously," I cannot advise you on how to vote. It seems as though the candidates that agree with fiscal conservatism also tend to be creationists, or lean that way. So do we live in a country that has great science education but is due for imminent financial collapse? I don't know. For those of you who read this are Christians or believers in a higher power, I would suggest that you pray before you pull the lever. I did.

Now playing: Steve Hackett - Concert for Munich
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