Thursday, September 30, 2010

Mammals Not So Extinct After All

A story out of Wired reports that many mammals that have been traditionally thought to be extinct may not be. Brian Switek writes:
In order to determine how often extinct species had been rediscovered, University of Queensland scientists Diana Fisher and Simon Blomberg created a dataset of 187 mammal species that have been reported extinct, extinct in the wild, or probably extinct since 1500, as well as those which have been rediscovered. They also looked at historical data on the threats that caused species to become extinct — or brought them close to it — including habitat loss, introduced species and overkill by humans.

It turns out that rumors of the extinction of more than a third of these species have turned out to be premature, the scientists report in Proceedings of the Royal Society B Sept. 29. At least 67 species — a little more than a third of those presumed to be extinct — were later found again. And in most cases, these were animals that had been hardest hit by habitat loss.
This is encouraging, but that doesn't mean you should pull out your elephant gun:
Humans and invasive species have been significantly more efficient killers. It’s rare that a species reported extinct due to one of these causes has been seen again.

“If you think that a missing species is extinct and the main cause of decline was introduced predators such as feral foxes, cats or rats, then you are very likely to be right,” Fisher said. But, she added, “If the main cause of decline was habitat loss, you are quite likely to be wrong if you say that it’s extinct, unless it was restricted to a very small area.”
Now the catch is if we can stop habitat loss in countries that need to survive and yet need to preserve their biodiversity. Not an easy thing to do in this day and age.

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Complexity Can Evolve Without High Cost

Was R.A. Fisher wrong? It has always been thought that with complexity comes a general lack of evolutionary adaptability. The consensus about human evolution is that early primates were able to exploit their environments because they had a generalized bauplan and could adapt to whatever came down the road. This was true from the teeth to the skeletal structure. Now, in an article for Phys.Org, research by Jianzhi "George" Zhang and colleagues has challenged the idea that the evolution of complexity carries a high cost:
When Fisher first wrote about the cost of complexity, he argued that random mutations---which, along with natural selection, drive evolution---are more likely to benefit simple organisms than complex organisms.

"Think of a hammer and a microscope," Zhang said. "One is complex, one is simple. If you change the length of an arbitrary component of the system by an inch, for example, you're more likely to break the microscope than the hammer."
Looking at pleiotropy, the idea that individual genes can affect a range of traits, the authors found something surprising:
For simplicity, mathematical models of pleiotropy have assumed that all genes in an organism affect all of its traits to some extent. But Zhang's group found that most genes affect only a small number of traits, while relatively few genes affect large numbers of traits.

What's more, they found a "modular" pattern of organization, with genes and traits grouped into sets. Genes in a particular set affect a particular group of traits, but not traits in other groups.

In addition, the researchers learned that the more traits a gene affects, the stronger its effect on each trait.
And how does this relate to the topic of this blog? The author writes:
The new findings help buffer evolutionary biology against the criticisms of intelligent design proponents, Zhang said. "The evolution of complexity is one thing that they often target. Admittedly, there were some theoretical difficulties in explaining the evolution of complexity because of the notion of the cost of complexity, but with our findings these difficulties are now removed."
One of the general complaints that has been made against those who espouse ID is that there is either a persistently simplistic model of evolution employed or an incorrect one. Recent works by Michael Behe, William Dembski and Stephen Meyer have focused on the presumed inability of evolutionary models to account for "specified complexity." They also make the specious argument that there can never be an increase in information under these models. Studies like these, which operate out of a predictive model, show otherwise.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Neandertals as Advanced as Early Modern Humans?

This is something that I have thought for years. In contrast to the preceding story that I posted, it has been advanced that Neandertals were every bit as capable as modern humans. In Science Daily, the author quotes anthropologist Julien Riel-Salvatore and writes:
Riel-Salvatore identified projectile points, ochre, bone tools, ornaments and possible evidence of fishing and small game hunting at Uluzzian archeological sites throughout southern Italy. Such innovations are not traditionally associated with Neanderthals, strongly suggesting that they evolved independently, possibly due to dramatic changes in climate. More importantly, they emerged in an area geographically separated from modern humans.

"My conclusion is that if the Uluzzian is a Neanderthal culture it suggests that contacts with modern humans are not necessary to explain the origin of this new behavior. This stands in contrast to the ideas of the past 50 years that Neanderthals had to be acculturated to humans to come up with this technology," he said. "When we show Neanderthals could innovate on their own it casts them in a new light. It `humanizes' them if you will."
There are three "adaptive" technologies found in Europe at the Neandertal/early modern nexus: the Uluzzian, in Italy, the Szeletian in Hungary and the Chatelperronian in France. These have traditionally been interpreted as attempts by Neandertals to acculturate the technologies of the incoming moderns. Recent evidence has suggested, however, that, at least in the case of the Chatelperronian (also Castelperronean), the Neandertals and modern humans either coexisted at the site or occupied the same site at different times. The technology is sort of a modern/Neandertal hybrid. Interestingly, the same problem occurs in the Near East, where it is clear that the Neandertals and early moderns in the area were using the same tool types—the Levantine Mousterian. The only difference between the sites is that the early moderns appear to have used a higher percentage of knives.

As more information continues to come to light, including the recent revelation that Neandertals contributed to the modern human genome, it becomes harder to relegate them to the class of intellectually inferior species. It also becomes clear that the reasons for their disappearance (volcanoes aside) are complex.

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Volcanoes Responsible for Neandertal Extinction?

National Geographic has picked up a story in which it is argued that the European populations of Neandertals became extinct because of the environmental degradation caused by a number of large volcanoes that erupted over a very short period of time around the Würm interglacial. The author, Ker Tan writes:
The researchers examined sediments layer from around 40,000 years ago in Russia's Mezmaiskaya Cave and found that the more volcanic ash a layer had, the less plant pollen it contained.

"We tested all the layers for this volcanic ash signature. The most volcanic-ash-rich layer"—likely corresponding to the so-called Campanian Ignimbrite eruption, which occurred near Naples (map)—"had no [tree] pollen and very little pollen from other types of plants," said study team member Naomi Cleghorn. "It's just a sterile layer."

The loss of plants would have led to a decline in plant-eating mammals, which in turn would have affected the Neanderthals, who hunted large mammals for food.
The authors argue that the only reason modern humans did not become extinct is that they had "fallback" populations in Africa and Asia.

Some problems:
  • The most recent Neandertal remains at Zafarraya Cave are dated to around 26 ky BP, which means that Neandertals managed to hang around for between 15 and 20 thousand years after these eruptions. This does not argue for an extinction event of any kind, unless the Neandertal populations just dwindled away.
  • There are Neandertal and modern human remains pretty continuously throughout the tale end of the Early Würm glaciation and the Late Würm glaciation (the Würm interglacial was between 34 and 37 ky BP), suggesting that, while the volcanoes may have erupted around this time, their impact may have been limited.
I will be curious to read the Current Anthropology article when it comes out in October. CA is one of the rare journals that not only publishes articles, it also publishes commentary on those articles.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

British Humanists Want Legal Action to Keep Creationism Out of the Classroom

The British Humanist Association is concerned that, while the government has pledged that there will be no creationism in the classrooms, there are no safeguards to see that that happens. They write on their web site:
BHA education campaigns officer James Gray said: 'While we welcome any public statement that the coalition government opposes the teaching of creationism, these assurances do not go nearly far enough. We need clear safeguards, such as legislative change and statutory guidance, to ensure not only that evolution is placed at the heart of the science syllabus for all ages but also that is not contradicted by religious instruction.'

'We know that in some 'faith' schools pupils' understanding of evolution is already being undermined by highly doctrinal and insular RE lessons that present religious myth as scientific fact. If this is happening now in maintained schools, it does not bode well for the new religious 'free schools' which do not have to follow the National Curriculum and are outside local authority control.'
Recent actions by state legislatures and school boards such as those in Texas and Louisiana, are full of so many loopholes that, often, creationism sneaks in the back door.

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The Lack of Correlation Between Anti-Global Warming Advocates and ID

As of late, supporters of ID have argued that they have been persecuted for their positions and that the support of such is no different than the persecution that has befallen anti-global warming advocates. They (Casey Luskin in particular)have argued that both the supporters of evolution and those of global warming have things to hide and that they are both resorting to silencing their critics. Johnathan Pearce of Samizdata has a refreshingly clear-headed article on why this simply is not so. He writes, correctly:
AGW skeptics fall into various camps: those who simply want to trash any suggestion that AGW is a problem; those who say that AGW is a problem but who are unsure about its effects, and those who realise that AGW is probably happening but who debate whether it can be mitigated, reversed or adapted to, and who want to know about the pros and cons (think of the likes of Nigel Lawson, or Bjorn Lomborg, etc). A lot of AGW skeptics pore over immense amounts of data to highlight their doubts; and some of them, such as Lawson, employ powerful economic and related arguments that draw on known facts.

But ID advocates do not have the same kind of facts, as far as I can see, to conclusively press their case. What they have instead is a sort of "We cannot explain X so in the absence of a better idea, we'll assume a Creator got involved". Not terribly convincing, is my reaction. I accept that some scientists might be sympathetic to ID without losing any integrity, but what Booker's article signally fails to address is whether any ID advocate has given a plausible explanation, with proof and evidence, of how a particularly complex phemomenon of nature came to be "created". All they do, it seems from Booker's article, is to state that because there are "gaps" in fossil records, etc, that therefore the gap must imply that some outside agent (like a God), caused X or Y. But his article does not go beyond that to explain what sort of processes these ID folk imagine happened. And the reason for that is simple: they don't know.
This has long been a sticking point in the path that ID has chosen. There simply are no "smoking gun" tests that can be done to show that God created x in exactly that way. Consequently, ID supporters have resorted to attacking the science of evolution with programs to "teach the controversy," "cover all range of scientific views," and other seemingly tolerant academic ideas. The persecution link to anti-global warming advocates has only been the most recent attempt to gain legitimacy for their positions. Such legitimacy will not come in this fashion.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Science and Religion: Always in "Mortal Combat?"

Matthew Reicz of the Times Higher Educational Supplement has an interesting article on the conflict between religion and science.He writes:
One person who has looked closely at this issue is Elaine Howard Ecklund, assistant professor of sociology at Rice University in Texas. She surveyed nearly 1,700 natural and social scientists in elite American universities - "Arik" is a pseudonym for one of the academics she interviewed in depth - and she presents the results in her new book, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. By asking them about how religion and spirituality have had an impact on their lives, she hopes to offer "a balanced assessment of information gathered scientifically from scientists themselves".

Although they are undoubtedly less religious than the American public as a whole, the scientists Ecklund interviewed are far from a uniform band of militant atheists. Only 34 per cent say they concur with the statement "I do not believe in God" (and 30 per cent confess to agnosticism), 71 per cent believe "there are basic truths in many religions" and 18 per cent attend religious services at least once a month. Close to half could be said "to have a religious tradition" in some sense, and the age data in Ecklund's survey suggest that levels of faith among US scientists are rising.
This is similar to the numbers that Neil De Grasse Tyson was quoted as using and is encouraging, if nothing else because scientists are normally thought to be outside the norm of mainstream religion in the US. This has especially become a problem as of late with the GOP's more moderate members embracing the party line of the Discovery Institute while the evangelical base of the party leans toward the young earth creation perspective.

Reicz quotes Karl Giberson of the BioLogos Institute, who has a special dislike for young earth creation groups. Of people in the United States, he writes:
Many, notes Giberson, are left with "the impression that there is a religious objection to every scientific advance. Yet the most aggressive critics of the Creation Museum are more moderate Christians, not militant atheists. They believe young-Earth creationists have to be rejected, for turning Christians into anti-intellectual hillbillies."
Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, typically ignore the YEC groups and go after the mainstream population, pointing out how ridiculous these groups are. Increasingly, as the GOP continues to go down this path, these atheists will point out how ridiculous it is to be a Republican. As long as those of us who are EC are considered by many evangelicals (including people like Ken Ham) to be apostate, the battle will be an uphill one.

The article is long but very illuminating. As Glenn Reyolds would say: "Read the whole thing."

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Huge Fossil Find in California

BBC America is reporting on a find in California that will be a boon for researchers in the area. According to the story:
The fossil haul includes remains from an ancestor of the sabre-toothed tiger, large ground sloths, deer, horses, camels and numerous small rodents.

Plant matter found at the site in the arid San Timoteo Canyon, 85 miles (137km) south-east of Los Angeles, showed it was once much greener
It will also give us a window into mammal development in the North American continent. Neat.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Richard Dawkins' Problem

It is that none of his opponents seem to be coming to his lectures. As Andrew John in Digital Journal writes:
Of his travels in the USA’s Bible Belt, he said that no one who disagrees with his view “ever comes to my lectures – or, if they do, they keep very quiet afterwards.” And the often mild-speaking professor doesn’t always keep his cool when confronted by those who refuse to believe the scientific evidence. But, in his defence, he quoted a favoured sentence once written by the Independent’s feature writer, Johann Hari: “I respect you as a person too much to respect your ridiculous beliefs.”
Gee, can't imagine why nobody is coming.

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Christine O'Donnell: Trouble For Science Education In Delaware?

New York News and Features has an article on Christine O'Donnell, the woman who surprisingly upset GOP favorite Mike Castle to win the primary in Delaware. In what has become tiringly predictable, the author writes:
In a discussion moderated by anchor Miles O'Brien, O'Donnell squared off against Michael McKinney, a University of Tennessee professor of evolutionary biology. Not only was O'Donnell in favor of teaching creationism alongside evolution, but she wasn't even sure evolution was real. According to a transcript, via Nexis:
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL, Concerned Women for America: Well, as the senator from Tennessee mentioned, evolution is a theory and it's exactly that. There is not enough evidence, consistent evidence to make it as fact, and I say that because for theory to become a fact, it needs to consistently have the same results after it goes through a series of tests. The tests that they put — that they use to support evolution do not have consistent results. Now too many people are blindly accepting evolution as fact. But when you get down to the hard evidence, it's merely a theory. But creation —
Great Googlymoogly! Yet another person in elected office for whom science education has completely failed. Where do people learn this nonsense? O'Donnell, all at once, doesn't seem to know the difference between theory and hypothesis or between conclusion and fact. Theories don't ever become facts in this sense. They become very high probabilities. It isn't a fact that when I drop something it will land on the floor but the probability of it doing so is so great that we consider it a certainty. Where does she get the idea that these "tests" of evolution don't have consistent results? Not from any science textbook, that's for sure. To get an idea of where it does come from, we get to this:
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: Well, creationism, in essence, is believing that the world began as the Bible in Genesis says, that God created the Earth in six days, six 24-hour periods. And there is just as much, if not more, evidence supporting that.
This is a woman who's only exposure to biological and geological sciences has been the ICR and AIG. No wonder she doesn't know the difference between theory and hypothesis. She also states that scientists use carbon dating to prove something was "millions of years old." Uh, no. They don't. Radiocarbon dating can stretch back 60-70 thousand years at the outside.

This lack of basic knowledge is truly troubling for someone who, as an elected official will have an influence on the education policies for the state of Delaware. Now this interview was conducted in 1996 and it is possible these views have changed since then. I applaud her conservatism as it applies to fiscal responsibility but it is hard to support this kind of ignorant Christian folk science.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Evolution Wars: A Guide to the Debates

Research and Markets has expanded their holdings to include a new report called Evolution Wars: A Guide to the Debate. If you have access to this database, check it out. Otherwise, they will be happy to sell it to you for 155 pounds.

The Creation Museum - Three Years In

Dennis O'Conner over at HuffPo has a report on Ken Ham's Creation Museum in Kentucky and its three-year anniversary. He writes:
Ham, who was instrumental in the startup of the museum's sponsoring organization, Answers in Genesis, said that despite the economic recession, families, individuals, church groups and even bus tours continue to pour into the Creation Museum, often spending a couple of days in the region to sample other attractions in the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky market.

"The recession has not in any way affected us," Ham said. "Many people who were going to come here were going to make this their destination anyway. Add to that people who decided instead of taking an expensive vacation in Florida, they wanted to either stay in this area or make the trip here. Either way, the museum has really helped the local economy more than people may realize."

Tom Caradonio, president of the Northern Kentucky Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that one of the Creation Museum's greatest strengths is the interest and support it has garnered from evangelicals, a large demographic group.
I was sitting in Rob Zimmer's office the other day and he remarked that, while the built-in audience of evangelicals will come out of the museum with their views reinforced and with renewed enthusiasm for anti-evolutionism, others who visit will look around and say "You have got to be kidding me. These people think that????" They will then laugh and walk out the door, perhaps never to darken the door of a church again. That, to me is what is so scary about the Creation Museum.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sorry that I have posted lightly. I have been focusing on my second editorial for the Center for Faith and Science International, which should be up in a few days.

Review of I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution

Lexis-Nexis is providing a free link (I think) to an American Scientific Affiliation review of the book by Denis Lamoureux called I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution, the book that I am currently working through. The reviewer, Callee Soltys, writes:
If you struggle to connect with young-earth creationists beyond agreement that "it's not how God created, it's that he created," fear no more. In I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution, ASA Fellow Denis Lamoureux is on a mission to engage anti-evolutionists in the process of coming to terms with evolution, his main premise being "God created the universe and life through evolution, and this fact has no impact whatsoever on the foundational beliefs of Christianity" (p. 149). Lamoureux is the right man for the job: who better to meet these readers where they are than someone who, twenty-five years ago, left a professional career to become a creation scientist "with the intention of declaring war on everyone who accepted evolution!" (p. 2)
This is not unlike the story of Michael Dowd, the author of Thank God for Evolution, who wrote that it was not until he studied evolution that he began to see the mystery and grandeur of the whole process. I am about a third of the way into the book and have not really gotten to the meat of it. He makes an impassioned argument for using the term "evolutionary creationist" instead of "theistic evolutionist" because he argues that the emphasis is on creation rather than evolution. After having discussed this with my wife, I believe he is correct in this assessment. This way, we think of "young earth creationist," "progressive creationist," and "evolutionary creationist." Whether I change the name of my blog or not remains to be seen.

Ms. Soltys points out that the main sticking point for most Christians who read this book will be that Dr. Lamoureux does not accept an historical Adam. A bit back, Steve Martin held a symposium on the nature of original sin with a lead paper by George Murphy. I know that Denis did not arrive at this conclusion in a vacuum and am curious to read how he came to this conclusion. I will let you know.

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Friday, September 10, 2010

AIG: Evolution: Not Even a Theory

Usually, what emanates from Answers in Genesis barely passes for logically-constructed arguments. In this new post called Evolution: Not Even a Theory, however, even that goes out the window. Two questions: why doesn't AIG ever identify who writes these articles and why don't they leave room for comments? This is out of the Discovery Institute playbook. The anonymous author writes:
Two problems prevent anyone from legitimately calling evolution a theory. First, there’s no direct, observable experiment that can ever be performed. Scientists can measure bones, study mutations, decode DNA, and notice similarities in morphology (the form and structure of animals and plants), but they can never test evolutionary events in the past.

Some point to natural selection as a form of “evolution in action,” but natural selection can only act upon the genetic potential that already exists. What we do observe from natural selection fits perfectly with a recent creation and does not point to common descent.

Secondly, and related to the above, evolution misses the mark as a theory because all the supposed “tests” to confirm Darwinism do not necessarily and distinctively correspond to the idea. In other words, each has an alternate and equally viable explanation. A theory requires that the confirming experiments correspond to one specific hypothesis. Otherwise, the experiment cannot establish legitimacy. Evolution has no such legitimacy.
This isn't just badly written, it is nonsense. The writer, whoever he or she is, has no working knowledge of evolution or even of biology. Direct, observable experiments occur daily in labs all over the world. Direct, observable experiments exist in the form of identifying genetic drift and flow in populations. These include studies on sickle cell anemia, Down's Syndrome, twin studies and thousands of other studies in which genetic variation is quantified. Those all deal with evolution.

The writer states that we can never test evolutionary events in the past. How is this so? As with any predictive science, evolution predicts what we should find in given circumstances. Darwin predicted that we would find the precursors of modern humans in Africa because that is where we find our nearest relatives. Guess what? That is exactly what we found. Prediction confirmed. It is hypothesized that modern-day salamanders and frogs share a common ancestor. Last year the fossil remains of a "frogamander" were found, having the basal characteristics of each. Prediction confirmed. Sorry. Yes, we can test evolutionary events in the past.

He continues by writing that evolution has no legitimacy without backing up the statement with any evidence whatever and then goes on to write that, since it doesn't have legitimacy, how can it be called a theory. Is this what passes for scholarship at AIG?? It is hard to take someone seriously when they cannot even muster a compelling argument for their position. At least the ICR attempts to make it convincing. AIG doesn't even try.

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Christopher Hitchens Takes On David Berlinski

Christopher Hitchens, the outspoken atheist, who is battling esophageal cancer reserved special energy for a debate with the Discovery Institute's David Berlinski. Berlinski occupies that niche that is even stranger than evolutionary creationism: an anti-Darwinian secular Jew. The account, by Greg Garrison, is in He writes:When
Berlinski linked Nazism and Darwinism while connecting atheism with violent government regimes of the 20th Century, Hitchens bristled and went on the attack in his next turn at the podium.

Connecting Nazism with Darwinism "is a filthy slander," Hitchens said. "Darwinism was derided in Germany."

Hitchens said Adolf Hitler claimed in "Mein Kampf" that he was doing God's work with his policies against the Jews and that the first Nazi treaty was with the Vatican.

"To say that there is something fascistic about my beliefs, I won't hear said, and you shouldn't believe," Hitchens said to the audience, almost thundering despite his diminished voice.

Berlinski responded that fascist and Communist governments including Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia held in common the proposition that "No power was greater than their own, and they acted on that." They were godless governments, despite some "infiltrations of religious thought," he said.
This seems to be a particular sticking point with the Discovery Institute and several posts here and elsewhere have dealt with this subject. Writers such as Berlinski and David Klinghoffer (and here, also) seem compelled to ascribe all of the world's evil to evolution and they do not seem to care how much they get correct or how much academic and intellectual dishonesty they commit in the process.

It has been established that Hitler did not use Darwinian principles during the Third Reich. The problem is that if the Discovery Institute admits that, then it is hard to paint evolution in a moral light. It becomes what it should have always been: a scientific theory. Nothing more, nothing less. I am not a fan of Hitchens' theology. In many ways, he gets exactly the same things wrong for different reasons. He accuses Berlinski of using Darwin as a scapegoat for the world's evils then proceeds to argue the same thing for religion. The truth is that violence is committed both for secular and religious purposes and it is simplistic to point to one or the other as the culprit.

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Perils of "Darwinian" Indoctrination

Christian NewsWire has a story about the efforts of a filmmaker to show the negative effects of "Darwinism" on the school students of today. Joaquin Fernandez writes:
Colin Gunn's school bus tour of America arrives at the Creation Museum today, shooting footage for the upcoming film, 'Indoctrination: Public Schools and the Decline of Christianity in America'. Gunn will interview biblical apologist, Ken Ham, about the effects of Darwinism on Christian youth.

As founder of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum, Ken Ham will share insights from his book 'Already Gone' -- a book which explains why many young people are leaving the church. Research shows that youth are leaving Christian churches in droves, due largely to the failure of Christians to adequately answer the Darwinian propaganda taught in public schools.
Really?? What research is that? I have never seen such research. There certainly is research showing that young people are leaving the church but that has largely been in the context of the church not being relevant. I would counter (also without data, mind you) that it is just as likely that young people are leaving the church because they are finding out that the church they grew up in propounds the belief in something that modern science doesn't support in the least. Fernandez continues:
Gunn believes Darwinian evolution is a key element of government school indoctrination because it conditions students to accept popular ideas promoted by a morally bankrupt culture -- a culture which has embraced Darwinian assumptions.

Gunn considers it ironic that over 80% of Christians send their children to a school system that undermines their values. He says, "There is no neutrality in education. All education is intrinsically religious. It's no victory if we just get creation taught alongside evolution. What we need is Christian education in every subject."
The problem with this argument is that those who promote it have a very poor understanding of the moral bankruptcy that literally pervaded Israel and Judah during the reigns of the kings. If the evil that was present during the reign of the kings is the same kind of evil that is present today, then evolution cannot be the cause of it because evolutionary theory is less than 200 years old. This is a standard creationist tactic using the logical fallacy of false cause. This was first promulgated early in the 20th century and had, as its most ardent supporter, Henry Morris.

The other problem here is, of course, that once again, acceptance of evolution is pitted against belief in God, which makes the mistake of elevating evolution to a first cause, which is biologically nonsensical and conflates theological goals with scientific ones. Whether or not finches in the Galapagos Islands are separate species or not makes no difference to my walk with God. By confusing the issues like this, those that do not understand or support evolution can remove it from the scientific realm and force people to make the choice between God and evolution, a choice that is not logical. More nonsense from well-meaning Christians.
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Center for Faith and Science International

I have started writing regularly for the Center for Faith and Science International and am adding it to my list of sites on the right hand side. Rob and Reuel are still in the process of populating the site but it has quite a bit of really good content and new stuff is added daily. My next post should be up in a week and some.

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The ICR Gives Up in Texas

As reported a few days ago in Panda's Thumb, the Institute For Creation Research has closed its graduate school after being firmly denied accreditation by the Texas Higher Education Committee. As the NCSE reports:
Information about the graduate school vanished from the ICR's website over the summer of 2010, but writing in Creation Ministries International's Journal of Creation (forthcoming 2010; 24 [3]: 54-55), Chris Ashcraft reported (PDF), "On 25 June 2010 the ICR board of directors voted to close the Grad School," citing a June 30, 2010, e-mail from Henry Morris III. Replacing it, apparently, is the ICR's School of Biblical Apologetics, which offers a Master of Christian Education degree; Creation Research is one of four minors. The ICR explains, "Due to the nature of ICR's School of Biblical Apologetics — a predominantly religious education school — it is exempt from licensing by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Likewise, ICR's School of Biblical Apologetics is legally exempt from being required to be accredited by any secular or ecumenical or other type of accrediting association."
Score 1 for higher education in Texas. Instead, the ICR has opened a new School of Bible Apologetics that may or may not be exempt from licensing from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. NCSE thinks it is not. We may yet see another law suit.

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Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Discovery Channel Incident: The Real Culprit

As if on cue, Classical Values points us to another culprit for the motives of the gunman at the Discovery Channel: Al Gore. Eric writes:

In the wake of the psychotic environmentalist gunman who took hostages at the Discovery Channel, a lot of people are wondering what it is with Al Gore and his vast power to do what the left so loves to accuse Rush Limbaugh of doing?

As Glenn puts it sarcastically in his roundup,

"Won't Al Gore please stop it with his extremist, eliminationist rhetoric before he inspires still more violence?"
It's painfully obvious that there's a double standard where it comes to eliminationist rhetoric.
It is certainly as possible that Al Gore is responsible for this behavior as Charles Darwin.The point is that you can fit just about any ideology into the manifesto that the gunman wrote. It makes Klinghoffer's argument all the more ridiculous.

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Friday, September 03, 2010

The Mendacious David Klinghoffer

To borrow a phrase: Either David Klinghoffer isn't very bright or he doesn't think his readers are. Over at Evolution News and Views, he has taken the tragic circumstances at the Discovery Channel involving the unhinged gunman who took the station hostage and turned them into an anti-evolution tirade in a post titled "James J. Lee, Hostage-taker and Darwinist". The gunman made a list of demands, many of them written in terse, angry tones. One such demand demanded we stop showing programs of the "
...birth of any more parasitic human infants and the false heroics behind those actions. In those programs' places, programs encouraging human sterilization and infertility must be pushed."
Another demand reads:
"Civilization must be exposed for the filth it is. That, and all its disgusting religious-cultural roots and greed. Broadcast this message until the pollution in the planet is reversed and the human population goes down! This is your obligation. If you think it isn't, then get hell off the planet! Breathe Oil! It is the moral obligation of everyone living otherwise what good are they??"
The point here is that the gunman clearly had a psychotic break with reality. What precipitated this can only be guessed. It is not the first time a mentally unstable person took hostages and it will not be the last.

But what got our esteemed Dr. Klinghoffer upset was demand number 7, which reads:
"Develop shows that mention the Malthusian sciences about how food production leads to the overpopulation of the Human race. Talk about Evolution. Talk about Malthus and Darwin until it sinks into the stupid people's brains until they get it!!"
He mentions Thomas Malthus three times, always in the context of overpopulation. One of the influences of Charles Darwin was the essay that the Reverend Malthus wrote about human overpopulation. Darwin understood that the reason that overpopulation HAD NOT happened was because there was competition for resources. Malthus' essay on population growth1 was a hypothetical model only. The gunman wasn't concerned about evolution. That was not what was driving his anger. Overpopulation and pollution were driving his anger. That is obvious on the face of it—to everyone except David Klinghoffer, who then uncorks this:
My purpose here, of course, isn't to suggest that Darwinism drives people mad or anything like that, but merely to point out, as I've done in the past, the strange attraction Darwinian theory exerts on some people who are crazy, or wicked, or both. This is a truth that's suppressed again and again, yet it remains true.
This is a blatant misrepresentation of what the gunman's concerns were and if Klinghoffer doesn't know that he should. If he does, and I suspect he does, then that is mendacious behavior. His point may not be to suggest that Darwinism drives people mad but it is to suggest that there is a connexion between adherence to the theory and the kind of behaviour exhibited by the gunman.

Toward the bottom of the piece, he lists a litany of names of people supposedly informed by Darwin who have gone on rampages and killed multiple times before being either arrested or themselves, killed. That all of these individuals are mentally unbalanced is something that Klinghoffer conveniently leaves out. He also mentions both Hitler and Stalin as being inspired by Darwin, connexions that are easily rebutted, something else that Klinghoffer fails to notice.

But just for the sake of argument, lets say he is right and that "Darwinism" is an ideology that leads people to violence against their fellow man. I wonder what other ideologies might do the same thing? As I mentioned in a post several months back, Jeffrey Schloss has addressed this issue. He writes:
The historical record amply and indisputably confirms the fact that references to Darwin and to ideological principles attributed to the evolutionary process were frequently employed by the intellectual architects of the Reich, at the very least in this way. That Darwin was used (or abused) in Holocaust thinking seems uncontestable. But it is also not necessarily very interesting. Darwin has been used in this way for many other social movements very different from fascist eugenics: e.g., racial egalitarianism, feminism, anti-feminism, Marxism, and free enterprise capitalism. Big ideas can be used, or misused, for all manner of big causes, and Darwinism – like the Bible – has been claimed to justify or inspire many.
Klinghoffer seems to think the connexion between Darwin and Hitler is worthy of mention. What about the connexion between Christianity and Hitler? Richard Steigmann-Gall, in his article Apostasy or Religiosity? writes:
Many bishops of the Lutheran state churches saw in Nazism the explicit fulfillment of a Protestant politics. In 1931 the Lutheran Landesbisch of Mecklenburg, Heinrich Rendtorff, proclaimed:

"Many members of the Protestant Church today live with their complete thought and
feeling in the National Socialist movement. The Protestant Church is therefore obliged, by its calling, to seek out the individual and to serve him, to seek him in his own circle, which means especially in the National Socialist movement.... The National Socialist movement passionately affirms social thought and brotherhood. Therefore it stands for a concern which is also one for the Protestant Church.... The Protestant Church must, for the sake of its calling, hear and thankfully greet the great intent coming out of the National Socialist movement."

After Hitler's appointment, Rendtorff was no less enthusiastic: 'The Protestant communities of Mecklenburg should know in this hour that their state church in its faith says ajoyful and strong yes to German Volkstum ... to the German nation'.
Even many confessional Lutherans who would later join the Confessing Church subscribed to these political views. The most noteworthy in this regard was Otto Dibelius, the General Superintendent and later Bishop of Brandenburg. After the NSDAP's electoral breakthrough in September I930, he certified the Nazi movement as Christian: 'The National Socialists, as the strongest party of the right, have shown both by their programme and their practical deportment in Thuringia that they have a firm, positive relationship to Christianity ... We may expect that they will remain true to their principles in the new Reichstag.' After the seizure of power Dibelius continued to view Nazism this way, even to the point of excusing Nazi brutality.2
From this account, it is clear that the organized church was not just aware of Nazism but had wholeheartedly embraced this ideology that was responsible for the killing of over 6 million jews. What are we to make of this? If "Darwinism" is responsible for Hitler, than surely "Christianity" is as well. Are we to take from this that both ideologies are evil and we should actively fight against them and their followers?

Or is it just possible that Schloss is right: that just because someone misapplies a scientific theory or even an ideology is not necessarily a reflection on those that promulgated it or even of the theory or ideology, itself. Darwin was no more responsible for the killings at Colombine than was Jesus for the gassing of the Jews. I, somehow, don't think that Klinghoffer would be willing to place the blame for racism, genocide and the evil of the twentieth century at the foot of Jesus Christ. Nor should he. The problem is not with the ideologies but with Klinghoffer's facile argument.

1Malthus, T. (1817). An essay on the principle of population, as it affects the future improvement of society. With remarks on the speculations of mr. Godwin, m. Condorcet, and other writers. By TR Malthus.
2Steigmann-Gall, R. (2000). Apostasy or religiosity? The cultural meanings of the Protestant vote for Hitler. Social History, 25(3), 267-284.

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Thursday, September 02, 2010

Zombie: The Problem of Conservatism and the Anti-Science Movement

Zombie over at Pajamas Media has a long post on "What is Wrong with Texas?" The post deals with the influence of the Texas State Board of Education. It is part two of a five part series, which deals with the problem of liberal influence in textbooks. In part two, along with quite a few other topics, he addresses the areas that I find near and dear: science in general and evolution in specific.

Although painted in rather broad brush strokes (all the resolution of a "blunt stick" as William Howells once wrote), Zombie argues that the TSBE is trying to push patriotism rather than conservatism I find a good deal to disagree with there. In most instances in which "patriotic" viewpoints are promoted, they are invariably conservative. And they have reason. It takes very little to show that the public school system from the top down leans heavily to the left. From the fact that the NEA is the single largest voting block at the Democratic National Convention to examples such as that from Amherst High School in Massachusetts—which eschewed a performance of "West Side Story" on the grounds that it was racist but had little trouble green-lighting "The Vagina Monologues"—the left's agenda is in open display.

Consequently, it is not surprising that some local school boards are rising up in indignation at this. In many ways you can't blame them. They feel penned in and that their values are being dismissed and mocked. It is no secret that we homeschool our kids in part for these very reasons. The public school curricula in the high schools has some serious problems. How serious? He continues:
For example, it was recently revealed that famed historian Howard Zinn was a communist — and not just a casual half-hearted communist, but a lifelong fierce and unapologetic advocate for Marxist-Leninist revolution, and a leading member of the Communist Party. Why should you care? Because Zinn was the author of the bestselling A People’s History of the United States, which is now considered a basic textbook in many school districts.
In my opinion, these are people that need to be supported for many reasons. The problem is that, in trying to promote a patriotic and conservative viewpoint, there is a distinctly "less-educated" veneer about their positions. This is nowhere more apparent than their attempts to remove "Darwinism" from the school curricula across the country. As Zombie writes, in a decided break with his conservative brethren:
  • The debate about the reality of evolution is over. Evolution happens, and it happens through natural selection. The evidence is beyond overwhelming and is conclusive.
  • If you quibble about the meaning of the word “theory” without knowing its definition in a scientific context, then you unintentionally have disqualified yourself from the conversation.
  • Intelligent design, creationism, or any other euphemism you care to use to describe “directed evolution,” are not scientific theories; they are religious beliefs, and as such have no place in a science class.
  • Denial of evolution is not a necessary adjunct of being Christian or having religious sentiments; it is entirely possible to be religious and to accept scientific realities like evolution, and many evolutionary scientists are also Christians.
  • “Darwinism” is not some sort of faith-based religion in its own right nor is it competing with Christianity, and anyone who claims so is either seriously misinformed or is purposely deceiving you.
  • The scientific community takes an extremely dim view of any official in a position of power who tries to undermine the teaching of evolution; this is a make-or-break “litmus test” issue for most scientists.
  • Therefore, the insistence by officials such as the Texas State Board of Education on tampering with evolution curriculum unnecessarily creates enemies out of many clear-thinking science educators who might otherwise applaud the TSBE’s pro-America and pro-factuality stance on other issues.
Zombie is absolutely correct about his last point. At present, I cannot support the anti-science bandwagon that the conservative movement has embraced like grim death. All of the great ideas that they have are almost at the expense of any sort of intellectually honest view of science and the universe. This is quite a debate within me because, sociologically, I agree with most of what the school board in Texas and organizations in other places are trying to do. I just wish they would leave evolution alone. That is a losing battle and not one that they should be fighting in any event. Whether or not this is a "litmus test" for my willingness to politically support these people, I am not sure. It is scary to see yourself standing on the other side of the fence.

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Evolution in Action

National Geographic News has a story that shows exactly what evolution is capable of accomplishing. The story, by Brian Handwerk, is about the Yellow-Bellied Three-Toed Skink. He writes:
Evolution has been caught in the act, according to scientists who are decoding how a species of Australian lizard is abandoning egg-laying in favor of live birth.

Along the warm coastal lowlands of New South Wales, the yellow-bellied three-toed skink lays eggs to reproduce. But individuals of the same species living in the state's higher, colder mountains are almost all giving birth to live young.

Only two other modern reptiles—another skink species and a European lizard—use both types of reproduction.
This has shown that the transition from eggs to live young happens much more quickly than had originally been thought and presents no barriers for evolutionary theory.

Over at Uncommon Descent, however, Denyse O'Leary wonders what all the hubbub is about. Of this "supposed live birth" she writes:
I don’t get how this shows that live birth is evolving.

Animals that produce their young in eggs have way different systems from those that produce them via placentas, as do mammals.

With eggs, live birth is just a technicality.

Some snakes lay eggs, and others give live birth.

In other words, the eggs hatch indoors instead of outdoors.

Maybe some snakes or skinks are in between, but so?

To me, a more significant interest is the reptiles that protect their eggs or young, like crocodiles, alligators and cobras. that suggests that the theory of the unfeeling reptilian brain is not true.
It is hard to respond to this in a cogent fashion since it seems to have been written without much thought in the first place. If one species can be caught in the act of switching from one birthing process to another, they plainly are not "way different systems." Egg-laying is the primitive way of having offspring. This is a means of reproduction used by amphibians and the vast majority of reptiles. As you move up the evolutionary ladder, placental development becomes more and more common to the point where the only mammals to lay eggs are the monotremes, which are universally understood to be the most primitive mammals in existence.

How is egg-laying selectively advantageous? If you live in a colder climate, it is harder to keep eggs warm and mobility is restricted: you have to create a nest and then stay with it once the eggs are laid. If your fetuses are within you, you can move around and escape predation. When you go look for food, your children-to-be go with you. As the article notes, the evidence from the skink presents an evolutionary snapshot. Over time, given the changing environment, the live-bearing skinks will likely out-compete the egg-laying ones.

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