Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Yup, They Asked It

Youtube has a video of the Miss America 2011 contestants in which they are asked whether or not evolution should be taught in public school. The results?

Some things that stood out in the answers:
  • Most contestants think that “all sides” should be taught, although I don't remember a single contestant using the phrase “intelligent design” in their answer.
  • Only three contestants that I heard seemed to understand the concept of “theory” or that evolution was rooted in science. Miss New Mexico stated that evolution was “based on science,” Miss South Dakota remarked that it was part of basic science and Miss California stated that it should be taught and that she was a science geek. Miss California is also the only contestant to mention human evolution, and did so in a positive way.
  • Almost all contestants equated evolution with a belief system and that all sides should be taught so people could decide “what to believe in.”
  • Only one contestant, Miss Alabama, came out against teaching evolution completely, stating that she didn't believe in it.
  • Miss Arkansas stated that she was never taught evolution.
Did the question make the slightest difference in the outcome? I doubt it, but it is something we will probably never know. What is clear is that public school science has a long, long way to go before it can turn out science-literate future Miss America contestants.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

William Dembski on Michele Bachmann

William Dembski has written a post for Uncommon Descent on the candidacy of Michele Bachman and what her take on science would be. He is typically nasty and insulting:
Back in 2005 George W. Bush supported ID in the same terms as Bachmann. But Bush also had as his science adviser “company man” John Marburger (the “company” being Darwinian naturalists). Like a lackey wiping drool from his master’s mouth, Marburger quickly let the press know that regardless of what his boss had said for public consumption, the fact was that ID wasn’t science and needed to be kept out of the schools.
So much for civil discourse. He continues:
So, far from commending Michele Bachmann for making some favorable remarks about ID (which plays to her natural constituency and can be read simply as a political move), I want to know who her science advisers will be, what concretely she would do as president to advance ID, and just how serious she is about taking on the bureaucrats and administrators (at the NSF? NIH?) who ensure that nothing but Darwinian materialist bilge gets funded. Is she willing to put her neck on the chopping block, and how could we know prior to the election?
Question: What would a grant proposal that promoted the testing of Intelligent Design look like? Yearly the NSF gets thousands of grant proposals that have concrete, hypothetical design constructs on an evolutionary process. There are no such design constructs for intelligent design. It all boils down to the same problem: just because you can show that my hypothesis is incorrect, it doesn't make yours correct.

Oh, and by the way, Dr. Dembski, how would you feel if we called ID bilge? (Here is an almost two hour talk by Ken Miller on why ID is not science.)

*Aside: Regarding the NSF, Dembski brought to light a problem involving pornography at the agency two years ago, a problem that was significantly overstated by the Washington Times (compare its story, where porn surfing was “pervasive” with that of Scientific American where seven cases among 1500 employees were found).

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Population Growth Spurring Evolution?

The Daily Galaxy is reporting on some work by John Hawks at U of Wisconsin, Madison on the rate of evolutionary change in humans. They write:
A team led by University of Wisconsin-Madison anthropologist John Hawks estimated that positive selection just in the past 5,000 years alone -- dati back to the Stone Age -- has occurred at a rate roughly 100 times higher than any other period of human evolution. Many of the new genetic adjustments are occurring around changes in the human diet brought on by the advent of agriculture, and resistance to epidemic diseases that became major killers after the growth of human civilizations.

"In evolutionary terms, cultures that grow slowly are at a disadvantage, but the massive growth of human populations has led to far more genetic mutations," says Hawks. "And every mutation that is advantageous to people has a chance of being selected and driven toward fixation. What we are catching is an exceptional time."
The first caveat to this is that evolutionary biologists have discovered time and time again that small populations undergo evolution faster than larger ones because traits get expressed with a greater degree of frequency, hence the concept of founder effect. In larger populations, genetic load increases and the population bears more selectively disadvantageous traits.

The other caveat is that, as one goes back in time, genetic evidence gets scantier and scantier to the point where we really don't know exactly how fast evolution was happening in some populations, in part because we don't have all the fossil data. I think there is merit in what Hawks is trying to show but the above two concerns need to be addressed.

Cartoon on Evolution

My friend Jon sent me this link to this long but involving cartoon on why evolutionary theory is good science. It is done by Darryl Cunningham and is well worth a look, especially if you are skeptical about evolution.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Expelled! Up for Sale

Via the Panda's Thumb we learn that the company Premise Media, the producers and distributors of Expelled! has gone belly up and the film is up for sale. Wesley Elsberry writes:
The auction promises that besides all available rights and interests in the finished film itself (there is an existing distribution contract), the winner will get all the production materials and rights to them. Want to know what was in the rest of the interviews with Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers? I know I would like to have that material archived and made available to the public, among other things that Premise Media found inconvenient to include in their film.
If some of the participants are correct in their assessments, there will be some very damning information in that material and the whole ID enterprise might get a rather black eye. Elsberry reasons that the price tag might be more than one individual can muster so an unlikely party has come forward:
Today, the TalkOrigins Archive Foundation approved a resolution to use our funds on hand to put in a bid on “Expelled”. We hope to make many of the materials freely available and to collaborate with other groups seeking to produce rebuttals to claims made in “Expelled”. To that end, we would like your help. Our final bid amount will be determined by funds on hand and what has come in via our PayPal donation button by Monday, June 27th. This is because there are delays in transfers between PayPal and the bank, and (hopefully!) we’ll need to pay out of our bank account.
Sounds like a worthy cause to me.

[sorry, Foxytunes is not yet compatible with Firefox 5.0. No musical selection today]

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Michele Bachmann: Schools Should Teach ID

The GOP came closer to making the teaching of intelligent design and the promotion of “academic freedom” a plank of their platform with the public utterance of Michele Bachmann, a GOP presidential candidate. According to Peter Hamby of CNN:
Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann explained her skepticism of evolution on Friday and said students should be taught the theory of intelligent design.

Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota, also proposed a major overhaul of the nation’s education system and said state administrators should be able to decide how they spend money allocated to them by the federal government.

“I support intelligent design,” Bachmann told reporters in New Orleans following her speech to the Republican Leadership Conference. “What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide. I don't think it's a good idea for government to come down on one side of scientific issue or another, when there is reasonable doubt on both sides.”
The problem, of course, is that there isn't reasonable doubt on both sides. The vast majority of individuals working in the biological sciences have no problems supporting evolution, which has over a hundred and thirty years of hypothesis testing behind it, while intelligent design has no testable mechanisms at all. It is, perhaps, too much to expect Ms. Bachmann to know this. Yet another reason why politicians shouldn't be involved in the education process.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

New Dating for Neandertal Remains

I wrote this post a month back and, for some reason, it never got put up. Not sure why.

The journal Science has a blurb by Michael Balter on new dating of Neandertal remains by Thomas Higham. He writes:

For the past several years, radiocarbon dating expert Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom has been working with researchers all over Europe to improve the accuracy of radiocarbon dating at prehistoric sites. The technique relies on the radioactive isotope carbon-14, whose radioactivity diminishes over time in a predictable manner, allowing researchers to calculate the age of ancient human sites using charcoal from fires or the bones of the prehistoric humans themselves. But ancient carbon sources can easily become contaminated with more recent organic material, making prehistoric sites appear to be much younger than they really are.

Higham and his Oxford colleagues have developed several techniques, including “ultra-filtration” of dating samples, to remove more recent carbon. The results are leading to a reevaluation of radiocarbon dates all over prehistoric Europe.
These techniques have been used on the infant Neandertal remains from Mezmaiskaya Cave in Russia. They conclude that the overlap between Neandertals and modern humans in the region was very short. Balter continues:
Neandertals and modern humans were probably like passing strangers, [Ron] Pinhasi says. “At this stage” of this ongoing research, he says, the results “do not support any major overlap between Neandertals and modern humans” much after 40,000 years ago, at which time Neandertals were probably going extinct.
This is, of course, in sharp contrast to the remains in Portugal at Lagar Velho as well as those of Zafarraya, both of which date to between 26 and 28 ky BP. It may be, as Jan Simek once said “in this valley there was probably continuity between Neandertals and modern humans. Two valleys over, there may have been replacement.” It is certain that the transition was complex and involved two groups (species?) that were very similarly adapted to the landscape.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Answers in Genesis and Unicorns

I would never have come across this post if it hadn't been for Barefoot and Progressive. Here is Answers in Genesis’ exposition on the existence of Unicorns in the Bible. The article is written by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell. The Answers in Genesis site has nothing on Elizabeth Mitchell other than other articles written by her (on a variety of topics) list her as “Elizabeth Mitchell, M.D.” She does not have a bio on the site and the link to her name only lists the posts she has authored. Further, if you click on the “authors” list below her name, she is not listed. I find this troubling. It is as if AiG has gone through quite a bit of trouble to keep you from finding out who this person is. If you find out, please let me know.

Onward. Here is what she writes:
The biblical unicorn was a real animal, not an imaginary horse-like creature. The nine Old Testament verses1 which refer to unicorns do so in the context of familiar animals—peacocks and eagles, lambs and lions, bullocks and goats, donkeys and horses, dogs and calves. Furthermore, the biblical unicorns also behave like ordinary animals—skipping like calves (Psalm 29:6 (KJV)) and bleeding when they die (Isaiah 34:7 (KJV)). God reminded Job of the characteristics of a variety of impressive animals He had created, showing Job that God was far above man in power, strength, and understanding. Speaking of the unicorn, God told Job that the unicorn had great strength but could not be tamed for agricultural labor (Job 39:9–12 (KJV)). If God had used an imaginary creature to make His point, Job would have learned nothing.
The first thing of note is that the scripture that she lists in the passage are all from the 1900 King James version of the Bible. In each passage, this particular version of the KJV renders the relevant word “unicorn.” She goes on to write that a single-horned animal should “not trouble us” because we have the examples of the rhinoceros and the narwhal to draw from. She also argues that the writers of the KJV would have used the correct word because that is what the Hebrew writers actually saw. She also justifies the use of the word “unicorn” linguistically because the KJV translators would have been using the original Hebrew texts.

Dr. Mitchell goes on to suggest that this “unicorn” may have been the monocerus, a single-horned mythical creature that it is thought may have been derived from the Indian or African rhinoceros. She, on the other hand, suggests that the correct derivation may have been from the elasmotherium, a “giant, extinct rhinoceros.” She further argues that the unicorn must be a real creature because it found its way into medieval myth. She writes:
The fanciful unicorn is found in ancient Chinese creation mythology. The powerful beast which only gentle maidens can tame enters western literature in an anonymous work called the Physiologus. These writings are thought to have originated in North Africa around the second to fourth century AD. They include an allegory intertwining the biblical Incarnation of Christ and the Virgin Mary with a unicorn which cradles its head in Mary’s lap.
There are three big problems with this:
1.When the unicorn is encountered in mythology, it is always as a lithe, horse-like creature. It is never a hulking behemoth capable of trampling anything in its path. It is difficult to imagine that the medieval describers of the unicorn would have ever confused it for a rhinoceros. If a rhinoceros put its head in anybody's lap, it would crush them, if it didn't gore them first.
2. Elasmotherium is known from fossil remains in Eastern and northern China, steppic Asia and the Ural Mountains. Its remains do not occur as far south as the Levant. While there are rhinoceros precursors found in Greece and North Africa, they are the two-horned variety. What the Hebrew writers saw, then, could not have been elasmotherium or any other one-horned animal.
3. When faced with the same original language, the translators of every other version of the Bible that I checked arrived at “wild oxen” for the passages she cites. Rick Norris writes:
Since the Hebrew word reem is singular at Deuteronomy 33:17, Unger’s Bible Dictionary and Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible also noted that “the reem had more than one horn” (p. 66; Hastings, IV, p. 834). The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible also confirmed that the Biblical animal “was 2-horned (Deut. 33:17), where the word is singular, and not plural, as in A. V.)” (p. 617). The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible also referred to the animal’s “2 horns (Deut. 33:17)” as “its outstanding characteristic” (I, p. 114). Likewise, Peloubet’s Bible Dictionary asserted that the reem had “two horns” (p. 714). The People’s Dictionary of the Bible also noted that “the passages mentioning it, correctly understood, require an animal with two horns” (p. 210). Based on this same verse, Cansdale pointed out that “there is no possibility of it [the reem] referring to a one-horned animal” (All the Animals, p. 82).
This is another example of a well-meaning young earth creationist taking an unworkable hermeneutic to illogical extremes by adhering not just to a literal reading of a passage, but a literal version-specific reading of a passage. The translators of the other versions that I checked understood that the straight literal rendering of “unicorn” for those verses was likely in error because a). a reading of “wild oxen” was perfectly reasonable given the cultural context and b). there has never been any evidence of unicorns whatsoever, anywhere. Dr. Mitchell, on the other hand, simply accepts the flat reading of the text at face value. To require the biblical texts to be literal down to this level is absurd and does little to combat the general notion among scientists and educated laypeople that many purveyors of the young earth model live out there where the bus doesn't run.

Now playing: Genesis - Entangled (2007 Remaster)
via FoxyTunes

Monday, June 20, 2011

Peter Ungar: Homo erectus Ate More Diverse Things than Homo habilis

University of Arkansas researcher Peter Ungar has found evidence that the diet of Homo erectus was more variable than that of Homo habilis, its ancestor. The University of Arkansas Newswire reports:
The researchers used a technique developed by Ungar and his colleagues that combines engineering software, scale-sensitive fractal analysis and a scanning confocal microscope to create a reproducible texture analysis for teeth. The researchers looked at both complexity, the roughness at varying scales, and directionality in the teeth they examined. Hard foods like nuts and seeds tend to lead to more complex tooth profiles, while tough foods like leaves or meat lead to more scratches, which corresponds with directionality.
The analysis indicates that Homo habilis ate more plant material, while Homo erectus incorporated more nuts, berries and possibly meat into its diet. Another piece of the puzzle. Yay.

Next BioLogos Post is Up

Part two of the Dispersal of the Australopithecines is up over at BioLogos. This covers the south African forms as well as the extinction/disappearance of the australopithecines as a whole. Comments welcome.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

New Child's Skull Can Cast Light on Key Evolutionary Period

A child's skull discovered last year in Morocco may provide much needed insight to the evolution of modern humans in north Africa. UPI reports:
A team led by Harold Dibble, a curator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, unearthed the child's skull and upper body in Morocco last year.

Even though the skull hasn't been released to the scientific community and the team hasn't published any peer-reviewed papers, information about the find will be aired on television by National Geographic, which funded the dig, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Thursday.

By analyzing teeth, Dibble's team estimated the child was 6- to 8 years old. Dibble named the remains "Bouchra," Arabic for "good news," the newspaper said. While the name is feminine, Dibble said it more likely is a boy.
More information on the find has not yet been released but it should prove to be very exciting.

Friday, June 17, 2011

More Evidence For Archaic Homo sapiens/Modern Homo sapiens Interbreeding

The New Scientist has an article on more evidence that modern Homo sapiens and archaic Homo sapiens may have interbred and that this interbreeding may have helped modern humans increase their colonization of the planet. The article, by Michael Marshall, has this to say:
[Peter Parham] focused on human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), a family of about 200 genes that is essential to our immune system. It also contains some of the most variable human genes: hundreds of versions - or alleles - exist of each gene in the population, allowing our bodies to react to a huge number of disease-causing agents and adapt to new ones.

The humans that left Africa probably carried only a limited number of HLA alleles as they likely travelled in small groups. Worse, their HLAs would have been adapted to African diseases. When Parham compared the HLA genes of people from different regions of the world with the Neanderthal and Denisovan HLAs, he found evidence that non-African humans picked up new alleles from the hominins they interbred with.
As I mentioned in another post, it is not clear just how “specific” the Denisovans really are. Parham's work shores up the work by Svante Paabo earlier that suggests that Neandertal DNA makes up between 4 and 6 % of modern DNA, a finding that can only occur within the context of hybridization on some level. It also vindicates the work in Lagar Velho, which indicated the presence of a Neandertal/early modern hybrid grave. The weight of evidence is slowly shifting away from the straight “out-of-Africa,” replacement model that has been so dominant for the last few decades.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Modern Humans Extinction-Proof?

Darren Curnoe is in the news again. Last year, he coined a new species at the boundary of late Australopithecus/early Homo, named Homo gautengensis, which made such a large splash in the community that there have since been ZERO articles on it from other researchers. It is classified as Homo habilis by everyone else. I asked my advisor about Homo gautengensis and he replied “Homo what?”

Curnoe is now arguing that humans are extinction-proof. Gavin Allen of the Mail Online writes:
There were around 100,000 hunter-gatherers in the Ice Age and now the worldwide population stands at approximately seven billion.

Curnoe says: ‘Seen in its broadest context, the history of life on Earth soberly demonstrates that the vast majority of organisms that ever lived, perhaps 99 per cent of them, no longer do’ wrote Curnoe.

‘It also shows that mammal species normally last 1-2 million years before extinction inevitably bumps them off.

‘Yet, unlike most mammals, including our dozens of extinct hominin cousins, we have escaped the vulnerabilities of a small and massively fluctuating population.

‘The simple, but profound act, of growing our own food delivered us the food security that ensured most of our children survived and our population grew.

‘In effect, farming gave our species level assurance that the biological isn’t always inevitable. The odds have shifted to such a degree that we may now be, with or without climate change, extinction-proof.’
Curnoe is certainly right that the advent of farming and agriculture significantly changed the environment and led to humans being able to control the landscape to a much greater degree but I would argue that as important was a change that took place much earlier in our history: the loss of estrus.

At some point in our past, humans acquired the ability to be continously sexed. We can procreate any time we want. This is important, given our reproductive strategy. Primates fall into the class of organisms that are “k-selected.” We usually have only one offspring at a time and we invest much energy and time in getting that child to reproductive age. The counter to this is an r-selected animal like the sea turtle, which lays over a hundred eggs in the hopes that some of them survive into adulthood. By the time they hatch, the mother turtle is long gone.

While it is certainly true that human babies born in winter had less of a chance of survival before the advent of modern technology and heating, to be able to mate at any opportunity vastly expands the ability of the population to increase quickly. Gorillas, on the other hand, can only procreate once every three years.

There have been extinctions in human history but there has also been species evolution resulting in the appearance of modern humans between 150 and 170 thousand years ago. Further, the technological advances with which we have surrounded ourselves were likely not an outgrowth of increasing intelligence but rather an increasing population, driven by the loss of estrus. Without some high level of food security, k-selected populations do not increase that fast.

It could, therefore, be equally argued that agriculture was an outgrowth of the need to feed large populations, and that it might not have been agriculture that made us "extinction-proof" but simply a large enough increase in the population to the point where it made us almost impossible to kill off.

P.S. As to whether or not we are extinction proof, one really large meteorite and we're toast.

Found a New Blog

It looks like I don't have to question the papers that come out of Answers in Genesis. Questioning Answers in Genesis will answer all of your questions about the research work that comes out of that organization that masquerades as science. Check it out.

New BioLogos Post Is Up

The next BioLogos post on the Dispersal of the Australopithecines is up. As always, comments are welcome both there and here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Earth Magazine: “Creationism creeps into mainstream geology”

So goes the scary heading in the article from Earth Magazine sent to me by a reader. It began innocently enough. Steven Newton writes:
Together with about 50 attendees, I attended field trip 409 at the GSA meeting last October. The trip took us from Denver, where the meeting was held, to the area surrounding Garden of the Gods National Natural Landmark in Colorado Springs. The point, according to the field trip guide, was “to observe and discuss the processes of sedimentation and tectonics at superb exposures near the Garden of the Gods.”

Many attendees seemed unaware of the backgrounds of the five trip co-leaders: Steve Austin, Marcus Ross, Tim Clarey, John Whitmore and Bill Hoesch. Austin is probably the most well-known; he is chair of the geology department at the Institute for Creation Research, which describes itself as the “leader in scientific research from a biblical perspective, conducting innovative laboratory and field research in the major disciplines of science.” Austin has been very active in promoting a Noah’s Flood interpretation of the geology of the Grand Canyon.
This is, in some senses, similar to the “academic freedom” legislation that is, on the face of it, not objectionable, until you discover that its true intention is to eliminate evolution from the science curriculum. It is sly and deceptive and represents a new tactic by YEC leaders to get students to accept standard Noah's flood models of geological formation. Newton states that at no point were the tour leaders up front about the fact that they were young earth creationists and, when dealing with rock formations and outcroppings, they used evasive language:
Subtext about the age of formations was a big part of the Young-Earth Creationist rhetoric on the trip. As we moved on to each field trip stop, a narrative began to emerge: the creationist concept of Noah’s Flood as explanation for the outcrops. Although no one uttered the words “Noachian Flood,” the guides’ descriptions of the geology were revealing and rather coy. For example, at the first stop — a trail off Highway 24 near Manitou Springs — Austin stated that the configuration of the units was “the same over North America,” and had been formed by a massive marine transgression. “Whatever submerged the continent,” Austin went on, it must have been huge in scale.
When asked, one of the YEC tour leaders, Marcus Ross admitted that he phrased his talks for the GSA in “millions of years”-speak but used “thousands of years”speak for YEC audiences, a practice that is as misleading as it is cognitively dissonant. The Grand Canyon was either created in six million years or it wasn't. If I started describing hominin fossil sites in the Middle Awash River Valley as being several thousand years old, there would rightly be confusion, as well as questions about my competence as a palaeoanthropologist.

Newton finishes with a call to the geological community to let young earth creationists be young earth creationists and not bar them from the meetings. He writes:
Geology will not suffer if creationists participate in our meetings, but the public relations damage from the misperception that we are systematically hostile to any view — especially religious views — is real.
He is correct and it is important to remember this. One of my contentions is that if they really got what they wanted, for the young earth model to be taught in public schools by competent teachers, it would backfire on them in ways they can only begin to imagine. The vast majority of young earth arguments are so fragile that it takes very little examination for them to fall apart and most proponents of them only speak to friendly crowds. When people like Steve Austin come out and give tours, they must couch their real beliefs in words that do not give them away. If one of the tour leaders actually stated that they think the Grand Canyon was created in two weeks during a single, world-wide flood, most of the students would have looked at them like they had sprouted an extra head. That they do not actually state what they think in this environment is disturbing.

Now playing: Yes - Homeworld (The Ladder)
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Christianity Today Joins the Historical Adam Question

In the most recent issue of Christianity today, Richard Ostling takes a stab at the question of the historical Adam, a vexing question in science/faith circles. I used to have a subscription to Christianity Today a number of years ago but after a particularly ham-fisted, inaccurate editorial by Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcy on evolution was printed, I lost my appetite and canceled my subscription. I figured that if that was the way the magazine was going, I wanted no part of it.

Times have changed. I doubt that the Christianity Today that I once subscribed to would have anything to do with the question of the historical Adam. Yet, here it is.

I am working on a CFSI post on this topic so won't comment more. Both the article and the BioLogos response are good and should be read by anyone interested in the debate.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Ark Encounter to Possibly Begin Building in August

According to, ground-breaking on the new Ark Encounter might begin in two months. Mark Hansel writes:
Groundbreaking for the $172 million Ark Encounter project could be as early as August, now that tax rebates for the attraction have been green-lighted.

The approval of incentives virtually assures the project will be built on the Grant County site identified by developers at a December press conference in Frankfort.

One funding source that has been easy to track is what Zovath refers to as the "pegs, planks and beams" program, which allows contributors to sponsor those items at a cost of $100, $1,000 and $5,000 each respectively.

"This was the site that we really liked and everything was predicated on getting this approval," Mike Zovath, senior vice president for Answers in Genesis and project manager for the Ark Encounter LLC project, said
What is interesting is that the Ark Encounter is now being called a “partnership” between Ark Encounter, LLC and Answers in Genesis. Recall that Ken Ham stated on the air that “The Ark Encounter is a profit organization. Answers in Genesis is just a member. You need to understand that.” Also from the article:
One funding source that has been easy to track is what Zovath refers to as the "pegs, planks and beams" program, which allows contributors to sponsor those items at a cost of $100, $1,000 and $5,000 each respectively.

A running total of donations is kept on the Ark Encounter website and the program has generated more than $3.2 million since December for the ark itself, which is projected to cost $24.5 million.

“I'm actually a bit surprised at how strong the donations are from that program,” Zovath said. “That's the entry-level program for people who want to get involved, but can't afford too much.”
Most of those amounts are generally out of my price range but there must be some very wealthy benefactors out there. I would prefer to see them contribute their money to World Vision or Operation Rescue but there it is.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Yet Another Republican Shows How Science Education Has Failed Him

I saw this in another place, but Panda's Thumb has a video of amateur historian David Barton who, well, let's let Mother Jones tell us:
On Wednesday, Right Wing Watch flagged a recent interview [David] Barton gave with an evangelcial [sic] talk show, in which he argues that the Founding Fathers had explicitly rejected Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Yes, that Darwin. The one whose seminal work, On the Origin of Species, wasn’t even published until 1859. Barton declared, “As far as the Founding Fathers were concerned, they’d already had the entire debate over creation and evolution, and you get Thomas Paine, who is the least religious Founding Father, saying you’ve got to teach Creation science in the classroom. Scientific method demands that!” Paine died in 1809, the same year Darwin was born.
Here is the video

Barton runs the website WallBuilders. Here is part of their mission statement:
WallBuilders is an organization dedicated to presenting America's forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built – a foundation which, in recent years, has been seriously attacked and undermined.
Let's hope the rest of their “forgotten” history is better than this.

Richard Dawkins: Not So Bad After All?

The independent has an article on Richard Dawkins which casts him not as the devil incarnate but rather, not such a bad guy. As Kevin Myers writes:
The popular meme of Dawkins The Bigot is the creation of the Christian Creationist Right, who loathe him for the power of his advocacy of the idea that Darwinian natural selection is the sole creator of our living world.
The focus of the article, however, is the idea that natural selection can work wonders over the vast amounts of time. He writes:
The key element here is not the emerging species, but the mutating genes guiding them. One of many delightful revelations that Dawkins makes in his latest book, 'The Greatest Show on Earth', is that the gene which makes haemoglobin is a mutation of the same gene that makes the root-pod in legumes, wherein bacteria fix nitrogen: and what they visibly retained in common, across millions of years of separation, is their colour. Yes, both the ultimate sources of pea and pee are blood-red.

Dawkins is simply not the austere and proselytising dogmatist of myth. Such people expect and almost seek confrontation, whereas he merely wishes to make his case.

Moreover, he is quite clearly baffled by the extraordinary vituperation to which has been subjected, usually by the nameless thugs and religious skinheads who stalk the lightless slum-corners of that strange and troubled city, the internet. Take my advice. Forget the meme. Buy the books
All well and good, but this sidesteps a whole host of absolutely nasty things that Dawkins has said about Christianity and parents who bring up their children in a religious home, comparing the latter to sexual abuse. To portray him as a scientist only interested in the science of natural selection is disingenuous at best and deceptive at worst. Nobody that is only interested in the science puts out a book called The God Delusion. The meme is there for a reason.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Meteorite With an Organic Signature?

ScienceDaily has an excellent story on the Tagish Lake Meteorite, known as a carbonaceous chondrite. It seems that the great rock from the sky has chemicals that are similar to the proposed prebiotic organic material on earth, lending more credence to the idea that early life may have had an extraterrestrial impetus. The story notes:

If--as many have speculated--the organic material in meteorites had a role to play in the origin of life on Earth, the attraction of the common-source hypothesis is that the same organic material would have been delivered to all bodies in the Solar System. If the common source was the interstellar medium, then similar material would also be delivered to any forming planetary system.

The research team -- led by Christopher Herd of the University of Alberta, Canada, and including Carnegie's Conel Alexander, Larry Nittler, Frank Gyngard, George Cody, Marilyn Fogel, and Yoko Kebukawa -- studied four meteorite specimens from the shower of stones, produced by the breakup of a meteoroid as it entered the atmosphere, that fell on Tagish Lake in northern Canada in January 2000. The samples are considered very pristine, because they fell on a frozen lake, were collected without hand contact within a few days of landing and have remained frozen ever since.

According to the story, If these meteorites were part of a larger group of meteors or one larger body, it may be that they were part of the original body that formed the solar system. Sort of takes the “how could life on earth happen by pure chance” argument and turns it on its ear.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

This is Ridiculous...

There is an article over on Fox News about the Miss USA Contest and the fact that contest organizers are considering broadening the range of questions that are asked of the contestants. You will remember that Carrie Prejean, Miss California, was asked whether or not she approved of gay marriage. She said she didn't and the backlash (mostly from pretentious people like Perez Hilton) likely cost her the crown.

Well, now they are considering adding questions about whether or not evolution should be taught in class or whether it is okay to pose nude for pictures. There is, likely, a moral question involved in the second issue. But asking contestants in a beauty contest whether or not evolution should be taught in school is absurd. If they were asking the question of Miss School Board USA or Miss Educator USA, it might be different, but most of these ladies will go into the work world in jobs for which the answer to such a question, whatever it might be, is irrelevant.

Holly McKay writes:
According to Paula Shugart, President of the Miss Universe Organization (MUO), which also operates Miss USA, these “topics are very relevant and in the news.”
Relevant to who? One is tempted to suspect that the contest organizers know good and well that such a question has no bearing on your average contestant but also that the answer will very likely identify and, potentially, isolate conservative contestants like the gay marriage question did for Ms. Prejean. You might also recall that, after she stated that marriage is between a man and a woman, Mr. Hilton, a contest judge, called her “a dumb bitch.” Nice.

So, as for the question about evolution: Relevant? absolutely not. Political? Absolutely.
Now playing: George Winston - Tamarack Pines
via FoxyTunes

Due out July 12

Been waitin' ten long years...

Friday, June 03, 2011

Did Australopithecines Have Bonding Patterns Like Modern Chimpanzees?

The Guardian has a story on research done with Australopithecus africanus and A. robustus teeth that suggests that, while the men did not wander far from their birth site, the women did. Ian Sample writes:
“Here we have the first direct glimpse of the geographic movements of early hominids, and it appears the females preferentially moved away from their residential groups,” said lead author, Sandi Copeland at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

A similar situation is seen among modern chimpanzees, where females tend to move out of their groups, in part because males form strong ties that help them protect a troop's territory.

“By virtue of the fact that the males choose to remain, the females are indirectly forced to leave their communities in order to avoid close inbreeding. It could be that among these early hominins, female dispersal has some correlation to close cooperative behaviour between males,” Copeland added.
Another piece of the puzzle.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Louisiana Continues to Open the Door to “Academic Freedom”

The Louisiana State Senate Education Committee voted on May 27 to kill a bill that would repeal the much maligned SB-70, the “academic freedom” bill that allows teachers to bring additional materials into the classroom to supplement standard curricula in an effort to examine all areas of a scientific topic. Sounds great, huh? Witness Livingston Parrish, where the school board, under cover of the bill, started advocating young earth creationism. According to the current story:
A state Senate committee Thursday rejected a bill to repeal a 2008 law that critics say could change the way evolution is taught in public school classrooms. The measure, Senate Bill 70, failed in the Senate Education Committee. The vote was one for the repeal and five opposed after nearly two hours of discussion. The repeal effort is aimed at the Louisiana Science Education Act, which backers said has paved the way for freewheeling classroom discussions on evolution and other topics. Critics noted that the law has been denounced by the scientific community, including 43 Nobel laureates. “It is fundamentally embarrassing to have the law on the books,” said state Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans and sponsor of the legislation.
Barbara Forrest, as usual, put a fine point on this legislation:
This law was promoted only by creationists. Neither parents, nor science teachers, nor scientists requested it. No one wanted it except the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), a religious organization that lobbies aggressively for its regressive agenda, and the Discovery Institute (DI), a creationist think tank in Seattle, Washington, that couldn’t care less about Louisiana children.
While I think this is, perhaps harsh in its characterization of the LFF, it is true that it lobbies for young earth creationism, which is the matter at hand. Her section on how the LFF got involved and its attitudes toward evolution is particularly insightful. The 2theAdvocate story also notes:
Senate Education Committee Chairman Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa and chief sponsor of the law under fire, said the measures requires that supplemental materials brought into science classrooms have to be supported by empirical evidence.
That is a smokescreen. Sites like the ICR and AiG would not exist if they didn't think they had empirical evidence for the young-earth model. That the evidence consists of warrantless extrapolations of local events to global ones or distortions of the fossil record and genetics, is of little matter in this debate.

As the NCSE's commentary notes, this effort to repeal SB 70 was the brainchild of high school student Zack Kopplin and was taken up by other supporters. It was a momentous task which was, given the current climate, perhaps doomed to failure.

Once again, the only “no” vote was from a democrat and the five “yes” votes were from republicans. My conviction that I need to be politically an independent is growing.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

New Post at CFSI

My latest post at the Center for Faith and Science International is up. It is thoughts on Evolution, Randomness and Worldview. Comments are welcome.

The Grand Canyon and Young Earth Creationism

At the Grand Canyon it was my sworn duty to go to the bookstore at the Welcome Center and look up Tom Vail's The Grand Canyon: A Different View. At $17.99, it was not my sworn duty to pick up a copy of it. I did leaf through it, though. It is more of an anthology than anything else, having different entries by a veritable cavalcade of Young Earth Creationists. Almost at random, I opened to a page that had several different arguments, two of which were prominent: in recent years many geologists have begun rejecting uniformitarian arguments and accepting catastrophic explanations for geological formations and that there are no transitional fossils.

I was struck by the casualness with which these outright fabrications were put to paper. There was, of course, no support for either position listed, despite the fact that the book, itself, was surrounded by no fewer than thirty books arguing that, yes, there are transitional fossils and, no, mainstream geologists are not embracing catastrophic explanations for the formation of the canyon.

The book exists in its own little island, the only one of its kind on any of the book shelves in the bookstore. That it is there at all is remarkable, given the controversy surrounding it. One can only hope it has little influence on those that enter the park.