Monday, December 31, 2012

Environment Highly Variable For Early Humans

The Telegraph is reporting a story out of PNAS that suggest that the environment was highly variable during a critical point in our evolution.  They write:
The early landscape shifted between woodland to grassland half a dozen times over 200,000 years, meaning man had to adapt to survive.

Experts from Penn State university say that this may have set the tone for the rapid evolution which then took place.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Clayton Magill said: "The landscape early humans were inhabiting transitioned rapidly back and forth between a closed woodland and an open grassland about five to six times during a period of 200,000 years.

"These changes happened very abruptly, with each transition occurring over hundreds to just a few thousand years."

The findings appear to contradict previous theories which suggest evolutionary changes were gradual, and in response to either long and steady climate change or one drastic change.
The general consensus is that that there was a gradual drying out of the environment that led to the hominins taking over the savanna.  It is not clear that these hypervariable changes will correspond to abrupt changes in hominin form but it could partially explain the somewhat sudden appearance on early Homo.  We shall see.  

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Update on the Indiana Bill

The Lafayette Journal and Courier has run a story on the Indiana bill, in which the motivations of Dennis Kruse become clear.  From an unsigned editorial:
But Discovery Institute officials say the academic freedom bill they’re providing Kruse is not about religion, and they challenge anyone to prove that it is.

The point, they say, is to give teachers safe harbor if they discuss the controversies and debates about evolution, climate change and other topics in the course of covering the science coursework. It’s a new approach. And in the states where it is law — Tennessee and Louisiana — there have been no lawsuits to date challenging a teacher or district that went off the rails and into allegory.

But in case lawmakers think they, too, have been given safe harbor here, they should consider Kruse’s motivation.In November, Kruse told the J and C: “I’d guess 80 percent of Indiana would be oriented with the Bible and creation. Where you’re at, at Purdue or IU, you might have more who are for evolution. But once you get out away from there, out into the hinterlands, I think you’ll see a lot more people receptive to it.”

Here, there is no attempt to come to grips with established science, only to try to get around it and subvert it any way they can.  Kruse is obviously not interested in making sure that the "full range of scientific views" are taught.  He simply wants creationism taught as science and would prefer that evolution was not taught at all.  He should at least be honest about that. And once again, the duplicitous Discovery Institute, which completely understands what Kruse' motivations are, is going right along with it. 

More Hijinks in Indiana

Indiana senator Dennis Kruse has proposed another creationism bill that hews more to the Discovery Institute talking points, in an effort to get the legislation passed.  From an article in HuffPo, here is what Michael Zimmerman has to say:
This year he's come up with a bill that he claims steers clear of creation science but which actually encourages the teaching of creationism. And in apparent recognition of the fantasyland in which he lives, he's opted to call his new motion "truth in education."

Here's how he's described what he's after: "I would refer to it as truth in education, so students could question what teachers are teaching them and try to make sure it's true what they're teaching."

Josh Youngkin, spokesperson for the Discovery Institute, a well-funded creationist organization advising Kruse, fleshes this insanity out even further. "It frees teachers to teach both sides of scientific controversies in an objective fashion. The teacher would not be barred from saying 'Let's look at both sides of the evidence and you guys can basically make a judgment.'"
This is the "Teach the full range of scientific views"  and the "Teach the controversy" strategies outlined in the Wedge document of the DI. This bill is intended to bring up ID and creationism to the level of established science and poke holes in it in the hopes that people will turn to creationism and ID.  The problem, of course, is that by its very nature, ID cannot bring anything new to the table and Young earth creationism is flat wrong.

At its core, however, is the misunderstanding that scientific consensus is, somehow, formed by vote.  "Now raise your hands, who here wants the earth to be 6,000 years old?"  This is yet another bill by a misguided senator who has no knowledge about how science works.  Further, the response from the ID spokesman is opportunistic and vacuous, suggesting that he knows nothing about science either.  The DI will never attain any level of scientific respectability as long as they have spokespeople who spout nonsense like this.  Science groups should oppose this bill at every level.   

Monday, December 24, 2012

Isaiah 11: 1-5 

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

Merry Christmas from the Jim and Melanie Kidder Household

Friday, December 21, 2012

More On the Orleans Parish School Board Decision

The Advocate has a story on the reaction to the decision by the Orleans parish school board's decision to push ID and young earth creationism over the side.  Karen Harden writes:
The day after the Orleans Parish School Board voted to forbid science teachers to teach creationism and banned approval of any science textbook “which presents creationism or intelligent design as science or scientific theories,” board President Thomas Robichaux said he received more than 300 faxes and emails applauding them for their effort.

“That’s more positive feedback on this proposal than anything else we’ve proposed in the past four years,” Robichaux said.

Robichaux said the amendments, which were adopted unanimously by the School Board, are one of the most important things the board has done related to education standards and curriculum.
There are probably more people out there that think like this but they typically don't get the press that the young earth supporters get. Also, the young earth folks tend to be more connected to the communities so have built-in support that way.   This is a welcome development.

Update to Orleans Parish Story

Glenn Branch of the NCSE has this to add to the Orleans Parish move to abolish teaching ID and YEC in the parish schools:
Why were these policies proposed? Noting that they were the brainchild of the outgoing president of the board, Thomas Robichaux, the Times-Picayune (November 20, 2012) previously speculated, "The move can be read in two ways": as a way for Robichaux "to leave his mark on issues he feels passionately about" and as reflecting "a concern that the board may eventually feel pressure to take a more religious bent." The blog of the weekly Gambit (December 19, 2012) reported that the only speaker on the textbook policy at the meeting was Zack Kopplin: "'Creationism certainly is not science,' he said, warning that students not only will not meet higher education standards, but they 'won't find New Orleans jobs in the Bio District.'"
We will certainly see whether or not the new president is of like mind by how he reacts to the (almost certain) future movement to repeal the policies by disgruntled parents and board members.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Orleans Parish Does Away With Young Earth Creationism and ID

HuffPo is reporting that the Orleans Parish school board has informed their teachers that they are not to teach ID or young earth creationism in any science class.  Cavan Sieczkowski writes:
The newly approved policy bans teachers from including "any aspect of religious faith" in science courses and from using history textbooks adjusted to include Christianity.

The first part regarding textbooks reads: “No history textbook shall be approved which has been adjusted in accordance with the State of Texas revisionist guidelines nor shall any science textbook be approved which presents creationism or intelligent design as science or scientific theories."

The second part delves specifically into teaching: “No teacher of any discipline of science shall teach any aspect of religious faith as science or in a science class. No teacher of any discipline of science shall teach creationism or intelligent design in classes designated as science classes.”
Such an act, while not in contradiction to the Louisiana Science Education Act, which specifically stated that local school boards could choose whether or not to include “supplemental” material in the classroom, is clearly not in the spirit of “academic freedom” as envisioned by those championing the bill. It is also in stark contrast to the route that Livingston Parish took when they toyed with the idea of teaching creationism in the schools. It is interesting to see two very disparate approaches to this legislation and it is tempting to suggest that the bad press that has been heaped on Louisiana in the wake of the bill's passing is at least some impetus for the Orleans ruling.

Slightly Off-Topic: Mutating Neutrinos and Other Complete Nonsense


The Los Angeles Times is airing a story describing how NASA is being deluged with calls from people thinking that the world is going to end tomorrow, on December 21, supposedly at the end of the Mayan Calendar.  Such a story is a testament to just how bad science education is in this country and how little scientific inquiry is valued.  Kate Mather writes:
The myth might have originated with the Mayan calendar, but in the age of the Internet and social media, it proliferated online, raising questions and concerns among hundreds of people around the world who have turned to NASA for answers.

Dwayne Brown, an agency spokesman, said NASA typically receives about 90 calls or emails per week containing questions from people. In recent weeks, he said, that number has skyrocketed — from 200 to 300 people are contacting NASA per day to ask about the end of the world.

"Who's the first agency you would call?" he said. "You're going to call NASA."

The questions range from myth (Will a rogue planet crash into Earth? Is the sun going to explode? Will there be three days of darkness?) to the macabre (Brown said some people have "embraced it so much" they want to hurt themselves). So, he said, NASA decided to do "everything in our power" to set the facts straight.

That effort included interviews with scientists posted online and a web page Brown said has drawn more than 4.6 million views.
Why should such a page even be necessary? Why has it drawn so many hits? (okay, I would probably go there just to see what is on it).

Here is the video that NASA created.  Humorously, they post-dated it for December 22, 2012.


Many people seem to have bought into the “2012” ideas, even though when that film came out, NASA had to quell rumors then. Obviously, most of those people didn't learn anything at the time. In fairness, I have a copy of 2012 simply because the special effects are awesome. But from the minute the Indian scientist says “the neutrinos have started to mutate,” you know you are in for popcorn fun—or you should.  In a perfect world,  NASA would have a peaceful day and the phones wouldn't ring.  Sadly, we don't live in that world. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Jeffrey Shallit: The Sterility of Intelligent Design

Jeffrey Shallit notes, in Recursivity,  the lack of grounded research in the intelligent design community.  He writes:
Here is a perfect example of this sterility: Bio-Complexity, the flagship journal of the intelligent design movement. As 2012 draws to a close, the 2012 volume contains exactly two research articles, one "critical review" and one "critical focus", for a grand total of four items. The editorial board has 30 members; they must be kept very busy handling all those papers.  (Another intelligent design journal, Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design, hasn't had a new issue since 2005.)
By contrast, the journal Evolution has ten times more research articles in a single issue (one of 12 so far in 2012). And this is just a single journal where evolutionary biology research is published; there are many others.
But that's not the most hopeless part. Of the four contributions to Bio-Complexity in 2012, three have authors that are either the Editor in Chief (sic), the Managing Editor, or members of the editorial board of the journal. Only one article, the one by Fernando Castro-Chavez, has no author in the subset of the people running the journal. And that one is utter bilge, written by someone who believes that "the 64 codons [of DNA are] represented since at least 4,000 years ago and preserved by China in the I Ching or Book of Changes or Mutations".
I noted something like this a bit back. He is correct. It cannot generate new information or new testable ideas because its ultimate goal is to find the conclusion “God did it” which, while being satisfying on a rudimentary theological level is not on a scientific level. Further, it is deductive in the sense that it has a stated goal in mind.  This is antithetical to scientific research and, as such, it is not different from young earth creation “science.”  I have the Talking Heads' “Road to Nowhere” going through my head...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Piltdown Back in the News

The study of palaeoanthropology has, over the course of its existence, two large mysteries: whatever became of the Peking Man remains, and who contrived the Piltdown hoax.  Now, it seems, there is a concerted effort afoot to divine the perpetrator of the Piltdown hoax once and for all.  Stephanie Pappas writes:
Writing in this week's issue of the journal Nature, Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London, explains why he and his colleagues are still investigating a mystery that began 100 years ago.

"Personally, I am intrigued by the question of whether the hoax was driven by scientific ambition or by more jocular or vindictive motives," Stringer wrote. He and his colleagues plan to test the forged bones from the Piltdown case with modern methods, aiming to find out who most likely made them and why.

The Piltdown Hoax is one of the most successful scientific frauds in history. In December 1912, British paleontologist Arthur Smith Woodward and amateur antiquarian Charles Dawson announced to the world that they'd found an amazing early human fossil in Piltdown, England. The curious specimen had a humanlike skull with an apelike jaw. Given the scientific name Eoanthropus dawsoni, it was more commonly called Piltdown Man.
Over the last hundred years, suspicion has fallen primarily on Dawson, with other conspirators being implicated along the way, such as Arthur Keith, who saw others elected to the Royal Society before him and begrudged this, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who knew many of the conspirators and had his spiritualist religion ridiculed by Arthur Smith Woodward, the co-describer of the remains.  Suspicion even fell on the Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin, who found some of the associated artifacts, himself.  Stephen Jay Gould thought that the priest had conspired with Dawson to concoct the skull.   It is also possible that a well-known palaeontologist and fossil expert at the time, Martin Hinton, may have been the perpetrator.  He had feuded with Smith Woodward for years and was also known as a practical joke-puller. 

John Walsh wrote probably the best treatise on the subject in which he squarely implicated Dawson, chronicling the fact that Dawson had been responsible for a string of hoaxes in the late 1800s and early 1900s, some of which were beginning to catch up with him when he died in untimely fashion in 1915.  It is fortunate that, by the time it was discovered to be a fake in 1953, most of the people involved had passed on. 

I think it will be hard to dislodge the general consensus that Dawson is the hoaxer but if he is not, I hope Chris and colleagues find who was.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Floating Dutchman

Johan Huibers, a Dutch creationist, has finished his functional model of Noah's Ark and parked it in Dordrecht harbor.  Toby Sterling of the Associated Press writes:
Translating to modern measurements, Huibers came up with a vessel that works out to a whopping 427 feet (130 meters) long, 95 feet (29 meters) across and 75 feet (23 meters) high. Perhaps not big enough to fit every species on Earth, two by two, as described in the Bible, but plenty of space, for instance, for a pair elephants to dance a tango.

Johan's Ark towers across the flat Dutch landscape and is easily visible from a nearby highway where it lies moored in the city of Dordrecht, just south of Rotterdam.

Gazing across the ark's main hold, a huge space of stalls supported by a forest of pine trees, visitors gaze upon an array of stuffed and plastic animals, such as buffalo, zebra, gorillas, lions, tigers, bears, you name it. Elsewhere on the ark is a petting zoo with actual live animals that are less dangerous or easier to care for — such as ponies, dogs, sheep, and rabbits — and an impressive aviary of exotic birds.
According to a story in HuffPo, this ark took Huibers around four years to build—and it is functional, unlike that land-locked contraption being built by the Revved up Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis.


It would be fun to float around on the thing, if nothing else, to see how seaworthy it really is.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Well, That Didn't Take Long...

Answers in Genesis has a response to the recent comments by Pat Robertson exhorting Christians to accept modern science. Dr. Tommy Mitchell writes:
We know that Creation Week lasted six ordinary days because the Bible says so. A study of the use of the Hebrew word yom in Genesis 1 clearly indicates that God told us He created in six ordinary, twenty-four-hour days. So how do you put millions of years into the text where it plainly does not fit?

Further, Exodus 20:11 tell us, “"For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it."” So again we see that God created everything in six ordinary days. (There was no “before the time of the Bible,” as Robertson claims, in which dinosaurs or anything else could exist, as we will discuss further below.)

So with a six-day Creation Week as our starting point, we can use the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11, along with other information in Scripture such as people’s ages, dates of births, and dates of key events, to come to conclusions about the age of the earth. This is precisely what Ussher did. And we recognize and honor this great scholar for the work that he did. We also owe a debt to many other great men who have done similar work throughout the ages. A number of these scholars—independent of Ussher and relying solely on Scripture—have concluded the age of the earth was in the range of 6,000–7,000 years.
Mitchell does not cite which ones have concluded this.  He also extols the work of James Ussher, who had no scientific body of knowledge from which to work and had no familiarity with what was known at the time.  The problem of relying sola scriptura is that one loses the context of what has been written and when it was written down.  Joshua Moritz, on the other hand, has this to say:
Even more recently, such as at the time of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial (1925), the actual face of biblical literalism was quite different than one might expect—especially if one has in mind young earth creationism with its insistence upon a 10,000 year old recently-created earth and its focus on ‘‘flood geology’’. Around the time of the Scopes trial in the early twentieth century, there is no record of any biblical literalists within normative Christianity who interpreted the Bible as claiming a recent creation in six 24-hour days or that Noah’s flood had anything to do with how one should interpret the record of global stratigraphy. Indeed, literalists at that time saw Noah’s flood as a local phenomenon and ‘‘even the most literalistic Bible believers accepted the antiquity of life on Earth as revealed in the paleontological record.’’
This is similar to what Mark Noll has to say:
Despite widespread impressions to the contrary, [young-Earth] creationism was not a traditional belief of nineteenth-century conservative Protestants or even of early twentieth-century fundamentalists. The mentality of fundamentalism lives on in modern creation science, even if some of the early fundamentalists themselves were by no means as radical in their scientific conclusions as evangelicals have become in the last forty years. For instance, during the century before the 1930s, most conservative Protestants believed that the “days” of Genesis 1 stood for long ages of geological development or that a lengthy gap existed between the initial creation of the world (Gen. 1:1) and a series of more recent creative acts (Gen. 1:2ff) during which the fossils were deposited.1
Most young earth creationists that I know do not know much of this.  They simply tow the party line because that is what they have been taught and, given their general lack of knowledge in the earth and biological sciences, have no reason to think otherwise.  The folks at AiG, on the other hand, claim to have studied the data and still come up with unsupportable scientific statements and vacuous attacks on the age of the earth and evolution.While Robertson is certainly no science scholar, he is correct about evolution and the age of the earth. 

1Noll, M. (1995) The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. New York: William B. Eerdmans

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Related: Pastafarians demand equal access to Pennsylvania courthouse holiday display

Tracy McPherson believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  So much so, that she wrote to the Chester County Commissioners in Pennsylvania to include a display during the holiday season.  She writes:
Last December as I drove through West Chester, I was pleased to see holiday displays in front of the courthouse. Prominently displayed were the Jewish menorah and the Christian nativity display depicting the birth of Christ. These symbols represent the meaning of the holiday season for two religious communities in our area. I could not help but feel that the display was incomplete, as there was no acknowledgement of my religion present."
As a Pastafarian, I believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the world and all that is in it,” McPherson explained to the commissioners. “He holds us all to the ground with his noodly appendages and that explains why we do not float away.
The accompanying video is hilarious, if nothing else for the deadpan reaction of the commission.



This, of course, highlights the absurdity of the ID position, which argues from absence of evidence. If evolution cannot explain what we see in the fossil and genetic record then it must be Intelligent Design, the argument goes. That's not how science works, as people like Ms. McPherson know too well.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

WSJ: Acceptance or Rejection of Evolution Not Core Christian Belief

Joshua Swamidass, writing in the Wall Street Journal admonishes us to remember that acceptance or rejection of evolution is not a core Christian belief. Jumping off the recent Marco Rubio flap, he writes:
The evolution debate is not a scientific controversy, but a theological controversy about a non-central Christian doctrine. In terms of policy, neither evangelicals nor Republicans should expect secular schools to litigate doctrinal controversies in science classrooms. And Christians who try to push their view of creation through political coercion are misrepresenting their faith. The "good news" is how God saves us. Not how he created us. And it is through persuasion rather than force that he brings us to knowledge of Jesus.
Republicans have a clear path through the minefield of how-old-is-the-Earth gotcha questions. Let's leave science curriculums to scientists.
As for Democrats: Please ditch the "war on science" talking point. It only pushes Americans apart, into their respective corners. In the two-party system, both sides need to be able to freely embrace science as a cultural common ground.
The sad thing is that, at the core of the messages and platforms of groups like the Institute for Creation Research, Answers in Genesis, and the Creation Research Society, the scientific controversy and the theological controversy over evolution are one and the same.  For people like Ken Ham and John Morris, these are inextricably linked.  You cannot be a Christian and accept evolution.  For them, any movement toward the evolution camp is headed  down the slippery slope.  This is the tragedy of young earth creationism.  The republicans, as a whole, will never accept Dr. Swamidass' ideas because too many of them think like Paul Broun. As long as the two are linked, the vast majority of those espousing a young earth model will never address the evidence for evolution because it violates their theological understanding of the universe. 

While I agree with Dr. Swamidass' admonition to the democrats to “ditch the ‘war on science,’” why would they when it obviously brings in great returns?  Each time a Republican beclowns him- or herself on this issue, it is fodder for the Democrat base and reason enough for the independents out there to be wary of the Republican party. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Pat Robertson Goes Rogue

In a response to a question on the 700 Club, Pat Robertson, head of CBN and Regent University in Virginia Beach, caused many jaws to drop when he remarked that the standard young earth creationism model is not all its cracked up to be. Dan Merica of CNN comments:
The statement was in response to a question Robertson fielded Tuesday from a viewer on his Christian Broadcasting Network show "The 700 Club.” In a submitted question, the viewer wrote that one of her biggest fears was that her children and husband would not go to heaven “because they question why the Bible could not explain the existence of dinosaurs.”

“You go back in time, you've got radiocarbon dating. You got all these things, and you've got the carcasses of dinosaurs frozen in time out in the Dakotas,” Robertson said. “They're out there. So, there was a time when these giant reptiles were on the Earth, and it was before the time of the Bible. So, don't try and cover it up and make like everything was 6,000 years. That's not the Bible.”

Before answering the question, Robertson acknowledged the statement was controversial by saying, “I know that people will probably try to lynch me when I say this.”

“If you fight science, you are going to lose your children, and I believe in telling them the way it was,” Robertson concluded.
This is, of course, exactly contrary to the teachings of Ken Ham, who argues that it is because we aren't teaching creationism that we are losing our children. Robertson's statement is also a paraphrased restatement of what Kenneth Miller once said: Never bet against science.

Interestingly, while the CNN author attempts to tie in the rest of the article with acceptance of evolution, Robertson doesn't say that. He says that he doesn't accept the recent earth model.

This will make waves in both camps and there will be much hand-wringing among young earth supporters.  Humorously, the The Daily Kos' headline reads: “A Sign of The End Times? Pat Robertson throws the Young Earthers under the bus.”

Whether this counts as a renunciation or simply a public statement of long-held beliefs, I am not sure. That this is big news, however, is unquestionable.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Trying to get moved from one house to another, finish up the semester in the next week and finish a BioLogos post.  Not much time for blogging at the moment.  More soon.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Governor Jindal: Please Practice What You Preach

Herb Silverman has written an editorial in the Washington Post that is likely to hack off any readers of the Intelligent Design persuasion.  It is called "The Stupid Party" and deals with the GOP's fraternization with ID.  As much as I hate to agree with the Post's generally left-of-center arguments, he is right.  He writes:
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal recently urged his Republican Party to “stop being the stupid party.” In order to win elections, he also advised Republicans to reject anti-intellectualism. While this sounds like an excellent step forward, it will depend on their interpretation of “stupid” and “anti-intellectualism.”

This is the same Jindal who, in 2008, signed the Louisiana Science Education Act, which also sounds good on the surface. The act allows local school boards to approve supplemental materials for public school science classes as they discuss evolution, cloning and global warming.

Though marketed as support for critical thinking in classrooms, the law was actually designed to open the door to teach creationism and scientifically unwarranted critiques of evolution in Louisiana public school science classes.
If you will remember, the signing of that bill resulted in the law of unintended consequences taking effect. First, the Society of Comparative and Integrative Biology packed up its tent and moved its annual meetings to utah. Then the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology asked the Louisiana legislature to repeal the law, New Orleans CityBusiness wrote that the bill's passage has hurt business in the state, and then, the coup de grace, Livingston Parish elected to test the limits of the bill by attempting to introduce creationism into the school curriculum. Louisiana became persona non grata in the scientific world and the whole escapade reminded your average voter that the anti-science problems that the GOP hav historically had, have not gone away. 

The GOP must take a hard pro-science position and integrate it into its platform, so that when people hear the views of congressman Paul Broun, who won re-election handily, they will recognize them for the dreck that they are. 

Slightly Off-Topic: A PSA From the Australian Metro

This video, which is actually a public service announcement from the Australian Metro service (and referred to by Hot Air as the Unofficial Darwin Award's Theme Song) is a reminder of the shallow end of the gene pool.  It is called "Dumb Ways to Die."




Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Eugenie Scott at UT Tonight

Eugenie Scott, the director of NCSE will be at McClung Museum tonight giving a talk on evolution and climate science.  I have the flu so will not be able to be there.  She is a very good speaker.  The talk begins at 6:00. 

Friday, November 09, 2012

Judge Sides With NASA and JPL over Coppedge

Newsvine writes:
Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige issued a tentative ruling Thursday saying he was leaning toward finding in favor of JPL, which had argued at trial that David Coppedge was let go because he was combative and did not keep his skills sharp, not because of his belief that life is too complex to have developed through evolution alone.
Concerning ID, and the fact that the prosecution made that the focal point of their case, the judge seems to have carefully worded his ruling:
"It does not specify the court's reasoning and it would be foolhardy to discern from its general language that the court had anything to say about the validity of intelligent design as a scientific theory or as a religious belief," Becker said. "We don't believe it was about religious belief, but David's co-workers perceived it as one and that's equally offensive under the law."
About Coppedge, they continue:
At trial, JPL attorney Cameron Fox contended Coppedge was a stubborn and disconnected employee who decided not to heed warnings to get additional training, even when it became clear the Cassini mission would be downsized and computer specialist positions eliminated.

Coppedge often was confrontational and insensitive to customers and colleagues, who had complained about his behavior and his advocacy of intelligent design, Fox said.
This tracks with testimony given about the tenure of Coppedge at JPL. People typically don't care what you believe if you are hard to get along with. They just want you gone. A very unfortunate situation. 

Thursday, November 08, 2012

What Does The Origin of Life Say About Religion?

Paul O'Donoghue, writing for the Irish Times asks about The ever evolving nature of scepticism. He writes:
Scientists have from time to time been accused of scientism, that is, presuming that science can do no wrong and that it will eventually provide the answers to any questions worth answering. Such accusations have come from traditional opponents of science such as the creationist movement, but the downside of scientism has been pointed out in a more balanced way by others.

Massimo Pigliucci, in his book Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism and the Nature of Science, points critically to episodes of scientism in the writings of well-known and respected scientists such as physicist Steven Weinberg and biologist EO Wilson. Weinberg is scathingly critical of philosophy describing it as a waste of time and even as detrimental to science.
This was tackled some years back by a trio of authors from Calvin College in a book called Science Held Hostage, published by Intervarsity Press (when they were somewhat more open-minded than they currently are). This outlined three instances in which creationism was way off base, scientifically and then how scientists overreached their bounds in declaring no evidence for God. In it, they plead for all to leave science to the scientists and not try to use it to further either a theistic or atheistic cause.I thought the book to be very insightful and one that should sit on the bookshelf of every Christian.  Sadly, it has gone in and out of print in recent years and was not easy to find the last time I checked.

It is interesting that he mentions the somewhat conciliatory position taken by Pigliucci with regard to scientism because just a bit later in the article, we find that Pigliucci is letting scientism in the back door.  He writes:
Pigliucci, in an article in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, points out three reasons as to why an answer to this question is particularly important. Firstly, definitively ascertaining that life originated by natural means would have profound implications for any religious belief, further shrinking the role of any god in human affairs.
How? Given that we live in a physical universe, with physical laws and consequences of them, how else would it start? For those of us who believe in God and don't subscribe to a creation model of "divine fiat," it makes perfect sense for God to have created life in this fashion. Finding this out doesn't shrink God any more than it proclaims from the highest mountain tops that He exists. It just is. We take it on faith that this is God's means of creation. Despite his position earlier, Pigliucci has conflated ultimate causes with proximate causes and he tips his hand when he writes this.

O'Donoghue is correct that we may have the question of the origins of life with us for some time.  Despite what the folks at the Discovery Institute might say, this is no obstacle to evolution.   Even if there was evidence that the earliest life dropped down out of the sky, there is still mountains of evidence that it evolved since that time. 

Friday, November 02, 2012

Asking the Provocative Question: "Who Didn't Have Sex With Neandertals?"

FoxNews also has an article on the North African evidence for Neandertal/modern hybridization. Charles Choi writes:
"The only modern populations without Neanderthal admixture are the sub-Saharan groups," said researcher Carles Lalueza-Fox, a paleogeneticist at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology at Barcelona, Spain.

The researchers say their findings do not suggest that Neanderthals entered Africa and made intimate contact with ancient North Africans. Rather, "what we are saying is that the contact took place outside Africa, likely in the Near East, and that there was a back migration into Africa of some groups that peopled North Africa, likely replacing or assimilating some ancestral populations," Lalueza-Fox told LiveScience.
If there was a back-migration into Africa then the interbreeding had to have been significant enough to establish some sort of Neandertal/modern hybrid genome that can be picked up now, some seventy to one hundred thousand years later.  These were no one-night stands.  It may lend credence to Trinkaus' arguments about Lagar Velho, in Portugal being a result of long-term interbreeding.  This may have been happening everywhere.  Somewhere, I hope Fred Smith is smiling.  

Slightly Off-Topic

There are many, many things worse for science in this world than young earth creationism.  Witness what is going on in Eritrea. 

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Neandertal/Modern Human Hybridization in North Africa?

That is the focus of a new paper in PLoS ONE by Sanchez and colleagues.  Using 780 thousand single nucleotide polymorphisms of 125 individuals from populations in North Africa, they write:
We found that North African populations have a significant excess of derived alleles shared with Neandertals, when compared to sub-Saharan Africans. This excess is similar to that found in non-African humans, a fact that can be interpreted as a sign of Neandertal admixture. Furthermore, the Neandertal's genetic signal is higher in populations with a local, pre-Neolithic North African ancestry. Therefore, the detected ancient admixture is not due to recent Near Eastern or European migrations. Sub-Saharan populations are the only ones not affected by the admixture event with Neandertals.
Well, raise my rent! When we analyzed the modern human remains in the Near East using canonical variates analysis, we found that they showed more of a similarity with North African archaics than they did Neandertals and that this supported a model of a general northern migration of North Africans into the Levant between 100 and 200 thousand years ago. I will be interested to see the reaction to this from the morphologists.

Ironically, the bulk of the evidence supporting the admixture of modern humans and Neandertals has always been based on the fossil record, while the genetic evidence has traditionally been used to argue for a recent African origin. It is interesting to see all of the genetic studies that have turned the tables. There is not a specific level of admixture at which point you can say "hey, these are the same species," but the studies continue to come out suggesting that admixture was taking place wherever these two groups intermingled and that there do not seem to have been biological imperatives to mate.  They simply decided to do so.  Remember the sage words of J. Lawrence Angel: "When two groups of people meet, they may fight but they willl always mate."

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A 'Modern Population Bottleneck?'

NPR has a story on the (almost) disappearance of modern humans here. It is not a hypothesis that I had heard of before. Robert Krulwich writes:
Once upon a time, says Sam [Kean], around 70,000 B.C., a volcano called Toba, on Sumatra, in Indonesia went off, blowing roughly 650 miles of vaporized rock into the air. It is the largest volcanic eruption we know of, dwarfing everything else...That eruption dropped roughly six centimeters of ash — the layer can still be seen on land — over all of South Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Arabian and South China Sea. According to the Volcanic Explosivity Index, the Toba eruption scored an "8", which translates to "mega-colossal" — that's two orders of magnitude greater than the largest volcanic eruption in historic times at Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which caused the 1816 "Year Without a Summer" in the northern hemisphere.
Although this is a provative hypothesis, it does not match modern genetic studies. Dennis Venema writes:
Studies based on SNP/LD approaches have now estimated ancestral population dynamics for various human groups over time in more detail than is possible with mutation-based estimates. African groups have a higher effective population size (~7,000) than do non-African groups (~3,000) over the last 200,000 years. This approach, though based on methods and assumptions independent of previous work, nonetheless continues to support the conclusion that humans, as a species, are descended from an ancestral population of at least several thousand individuals. More importantly, the scalability of this approach reveals that there was no significant change in human population size at the time modern humans appeared in the fossil record (~200,000 years ago), or at the time of significant cultural and religious development at ~50,000 years ago.
When the first mtDNA studies began to come out in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they all supported the recent African evolution of modern humans and they all came to the same general conclusion: that modern humans had originated in sub-Saharan Africa between 140 and 280 thousand years ago. The earliest fossil evidence we have for modernity in Africa are the Herto remains at 160,000, at the site of Bouri, in the Afar Triangle. These remains bear more than a passing similarity to the modern Skhul 4 and 9 remains from the Israeli site of Skhul (dated at around 100,000) and suggest a general northern migration of these populations.

The other problem is that this does not correspond to a die-out of Neandertals either. The Neandertals didn't go away until around 30,000 and interbred with the incoming moderns anyway. Indeed, it looks as if the incoming moderns simply swamped the Neandertal genome and assimilated them. It is hard to do this if you have a very small effective population size.

I have not read this book so he may have counters for all of these arguments but I would be really curious to know what they are.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Yet Another "Beside the Point" Post From the Discovery Institute

Michael Flannery pens yet another tiring post about the theology of Charles Darwin, as if, somehow, the religious persuasions of Darwin have any bearing on evolutionary theory.  He writes:
Darwin frequently claimed to be in a theological muddle. He often assumed this posture in letters to close friends and colleagues. But when it came to taking a stand on religion, the separation of the Atlantic Ocean seemed to have emboldened him. This is evident in his staunch support of American freethinker Francis Abbot (1836-1903), founder of the Free Religious Association and editor of its radical weekly voice, The Index. In the December 23, 1871, issue Darwin gave a rare and unequivocal glimpse of his religious beliefs. Responding to Abbot's radical manifesto Truths for the Times, he wrote that he admired Abbot's "truths" "from my inmost heart; and I agree to almost every word," adding, "The points on which I doubtfully differ are unimportant." So what exactly were those "truths" to which Darwin gave his complete -- even passionate -- approval?
It is fairly well known that Darwin rejected the idea of a personal savior due, in large part to the death of his beloved daughter Anna.  Darwin made no secret of this and no secret of the fact that he thought that intelligence and religious understanding had evolved.  Flannery continues:
Darwin's secular humanism and radical materialism was no late additions to his thinking either. In the spring of 1838, long before he had unveiled his theory to the world, Darwin asked in his private notebook, "Why is thought, being a secretion of brain, more wonderful than gravity a property of matter? It is our arrogance, it is our admiration of ourselves." Ironically, by dethroning god Darwin committed the greatest hubris of all: admiring only his theory and pacing his faith in man.

In light of this there would seem to be only three choices for theistic evolutionists. First, simply accept the incompatibility -- learn to live with the contradictory idea that a God of purpose and intentionality has created and sustained a universe of (in John Herschel's famous phrase) "higgledy-piggledy." After all, God can do what He wills.
His other two options are humanism and nihilism.

This is nonsense. Albert Einstein contributed more to the study of relativity and quantum physics than anybody before or since. Yet we know that, despite his belief in a higher power, he also rejected a personal God. Should all physicists adopt his theological perspectives as well? Of course not. His theological views are divorced from his studies in physics, just like our study of evolutionary biology have no bearing on our theological views, unless it is to show us the grandeur and inventiveness of God's creation. Some who accept evolution are Christians, some are deists, and some are atheists, just as there are some of each that practice physics.

He closes with this gem:
But then why trust the theory that emanated from Darwin's mind any more than those of a monkey's? Whether it's his theory of evolution or his ideas about god that emanate from it, the monkey is still on Darwin's back.
Aside from being insulting, I wonder if Mr. Flannery is aware that the idea of natural selection was co-authored by Alfred Russel Wallace. Would he also fit Wallace into his thinking?  Furthermore, I wonder if he is aware of the 150 years of evolutionary research that have not only corroborated Darwin's and Wallace's theoretical constructs but extended them to include population mathematics, genetics, biogeography and a whole host of disciplines.  Probably not.  Like David Klinghoffer and David Berlinski, also from the Discovery Institute, he seems trapped in the late 1800s. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Off Topic: Perilous

I just picked up a (signed) copy of Glass Hammer's new CD Perilous.  After two listens through, I think it is as good as their last two, If and Cor Cordium but it is very different, having shorter song construction.  Good mystical Christian prog rock. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Plea From Dennis Venema

Dennis Venema, who has written many good posts for BioLogos has written an article for the Colossian Forum titled “What I Would Like To Hear A Young-Earth Creationist Say.”  Rather than wax scientifically, he focuses, instead, on the things that we should have in common:
...the most important thing I would like to hear a YEC say to someone of my views isn’t a scientific statement at all – it’s a statement of unity in Christ. It’s the simple “brother” or “sister” that says – “we’re both part of the same family.” Even if we disagree on the mechanism of creation, affirming our unity in Christ needs to be the starting point for the conversation.
For those of us who are Evolutionary creationists/theistic evolutionists, he writes about a hypothetical conversation which, for some of us, is a constant fear:
“So, what do you do for work?”
 
“I’m a biologist. I teach up at the local Christian university.”

“Oh, really? You must really love the work that (insert the individual’s favorite anti-evolution ministry) does. It’s so good to have Christians like you who fight against evolution.” 

“Well, actually…”
 I have many friends in church to which I dare not bring up the evolution/creation debate.  I remember when one of of my friends from Bible Study was looking at my poster of the Tower of Time, a small version of the one by John Gurche that hung in the Smithsonian for years.  She remarked "How can you believe any of this?"  Implicit in her comment that was the poster represented an anti-God, anti-biblical  view of the world.  How do you bring someone like my friend, who had little to no scientific background, up to speed on the evidence.  Even if you could, would it matter?

Venema suggests (and I agree) that this issue should always be of secondary importance to the call of Christ and the unity that we should feel and express with each other:
So, to my YEC brothers and sisters, I would make this request. Without minimizing the importance of the exegetical issues that the creation/evolution controversy raises, let’s first and foremost sit at the Lord’s table and break bread together, recognizing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ and members of the same body. Those of us who see things from an EC perspective may need to repent of belittling our YEC brothers and sisters as scientifically ignorant or theologically naive. Those of a YEC perspective may need to repent of condemning their EC brothers and sisters as “compromisers” or theologically liberal.
I confess that belittling is easy to do and that is where the problem lies. It is too easy to do that and not to see the unity in Christ. We enjoy arguments and we enjoy disagreements. It gets the blood flowing and the dander up. But at some point, we have to see beyond that. Are the Christians that espouse the YEC viewpoint going to heaven? Yup. Are those of us that are EC going to heaven. I certainly believe so.

Having said all of this, we do have a responsibility to honestly treat the evidence that we encounter and to learn about God's creation from it. That does not change. To point out the variances from this is a worthy cause, but we should never believe that those who espouse those positions are not saved by grace, because, when the dust settles, we are all in need of that. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Going on Vacation

I am going on vacation with the family for the week so probably will not be able to post anything.  Keep checking NCSE, BioLogos and Panda's Thumb as well as others that may come to mind.

Wouldn't You Like To Be A Pepper Too?

Another brouhaha has erupted, this time over a Dr. Pepper commercial on Facebook that features someone becoming more human after encountering Dr. Pepper.  Here is the ad.


Here is what Time Magazine had to say:
This is, of course, still the Internet — so plenty of comments in question are loaded with snark from people who mainly appear to be provoking for the sake of provocation. Several commenters, however, expressed disapproval of Dr. Pepper — believing, apparently, that the ad showed support for the scientific theory of evolution — and vowing to boycott the product. “I ain’t no freaking chimp. No more Dr Pepper for my household. God Bless y’all,” one user wrote. Another chimed in with, “I have lost all respect for Dr Pepper and if Dr Pepper wants business from thousands of people they will need to apologize.”
Yahoo had this observation:
One person wrote, "I love Dr Pepper but hate this photo. Forget evolution." Another person wrote, "Well, there goes my support for this company." It's unclear how many of the entries were sarcastic, but the post now has more than 3,000 comments, with most of them debating evolution. Among those supporting evolution were people encouraging everyone to calm down. One person wrote, "It's just a joke. People gotta lighten up and just live life."
Ya Think?????

Is It My Imagination...

...or is the ID community slowly abandoning the fossil record as being unfruitful in promoting their arguments?

Monday, October 08, 2012

Another Republican Congressman Beclowns Himself

The Associated Press is reporting on a speech given by Georgia congressman Paul Broun, who is quoted as saying:
“God's word is true,” Broun said, according to a video posted on the church's website. “I've come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”
Evidently, he was also quoted as believing that the earth is around 9 000 years old and was made in six days.

The truly scary thing about this is that he has a post on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. How does someone this scientifically stupid get on a committee like that?? Once again, this calls for some kind of rudimentary test of basic science knowledge and understanding to weed people out before they are appointed to these kinds of committees. In any sort of formal discourse, he will be next to useless because he doesn't accept the basic tenets of so many different scientific theories.

It is yet another example of a Republican congressman demonstrating for all to see that his education in science has completely failed him.

It is also an example of the narrow mindedness of modern fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, a movement that seeks to divorce itself from any deep historical roots or modern academic understandings of the world in which it finds itself.  I am reminded of what Bruce Waltke said about this movement:
“If the data is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us a cult ... some odd group that is not really interacting with the world. And rightly so, because we are not using our gifts and trusting God's Providence that brought us to this point of our awareness,...”
Amen.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Hominin Meat Eating As Early As 1.5 Mya

Science Daily has a story detailing evidence that early hominins (and by this I mean probably Homo habilis or Homo ergaster) eat meat.  Although it is almost in the form of negative evidence. They write:
The two-inch skull fragment was found at the famed Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania, a site that for decades has yielded numerous clues into the evolution of modern humans and is sometimes called `the cradle of mankind.'

The fragment belonged to a 2-year-old child and showed signs of porotic hyperostosis associated with anemia. According to the study, the condition was likely caused by a diet suddenly lacking in meat.

"The presence of anemia-induced porotic hyperostosis…indicates indirectly that by at least the early Pleistocene meat had become so essential to proper hominin functioning that its paucity or lack led to deleterious pathological conditions," the study said.
This is common in dietarily compromised populations today.The general consensus is that hominins' brains expanded when they began incorporating meat into their diet, although it has been commonly thought that that did not occur until Homo erectus, for which there is direct evidence of hunting. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

In Case You Happen To Live in Texas...

The Texas Freedom Network has released a voter's guide to the up-coming State Board of Education elections.  The astonishing thing about the first statement: "Science classes should NOT present creationism and/or "intelligent design" alongside evolution as credible scientific theories" is that, of nineteen candidates, only ONE agreed with that statement. This is a far cry from the Don McLeroy-dominated board of even a few years ago and, assuming some on the list are not prevaricating, a welcome change.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Fossil Record According to Creationism

Popular Science usually has some outlandish articles and truly goofy science news.  They ran this howler yesterday.  It is the Geological Time Scale According to Creationists as an infographic.

My favorite part is the comment that King Henry VIII was the last king of the Devonian period.  A tad irreverent in places but very funny, nonetheless. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Fossil Data and Genetic Data More Concurrent Than Thought

It is now coming out that the “clocks” that are used to calculate mutation rates are badly calibrated. Ewen Callaway of Nature writes:
Geneticists have previously estimated mutation rates by comparing the human genome with the sequences of other primates. On the basis of species-divergence dates gleaned—ironically—from fossil evidence, they concluded that in human DNA, each letter mutates once every billion years. “It’s a suspiciously round number,” says Linda Vigilant, a molecular anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The suspicion turned out to be justified.
Now it seems that the clock is off by half. This means that a bunch of divergence dates can be recalculated. One is particular is mentioned:
Take the 400,000–600,000-year-old Sima de Los Huesos site in Atapuerca, Spain, which yielded bones attributed to Homo heidelbergensis, the direct ancestors of Neanderthals. Genetic studies have suggested that earlier ancestors of Neanderthals split from the branch leading to modern humans much more recently, just 270,000–435,000 years ago. A slowed molecular clock pushes this back to a more comfortable 600,000 years ago.
It isn't a magic bullet, there are still some kinks to be worked out but it has remarkable potential for getting a handle on when the Denisova genome might have arisen.It might also give us a believable figure for the LCA of apes and humans since the current, 5 million year date is plainly not so.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Very Busy...

I am working on my next BioLogos post and trying to not fall behind in teaching my class, which, because of the new online format, is eating my lunch. I will try to get something up in a bit.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

One of My Favorite Quotes

My wife and I have been invited to a bible study tonight and, to hear of it, the topic might be the creation/evolution debate. I think it is time to remember a favorite quote of mine by a giant in the evangelical world: Billy Graham. He once upon a time wrote:
“I don't think that there's any conflict at all between science today and the scriptures. I think that we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we've tried to make the Scriptures say things they weren't meant to say, I think that we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course I accept the Creation story. I believe that God did create the universe. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. ... whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man's relationship to God.”

Billy Graham: Personal Thoughts of a Public Man, 1997. p. 72-74
Amen.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Nature: “Science wins over creationism in South Korea”

Nature News is reporting that the South Korean government has gone on the offensive, urging textbook makers to ignore requests to remove information on evolution from high school textbooks. Soo Bin Park writes:

The move follows a campaign earlier this year by the Society for Textbook Revise (STR), which argued that details about the evolution of the horse and of the avian ancestor Archaeopteryx should be removed from the books (see ‘South Korea surrenders to creationist demands’).

The STR, an offshoot of the Korea Association for Creation Research, says that students should learn “various” theories about the development of life on Earth. It argued that the textbooks used flawed examples of evolution that are under debate by evolutionary scientists.

A victory for the home team, hopefully.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Discovery Institute Science and Faith Conference

The Discovery Institute is running a conference titled Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? on October 12-13 at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. A quick look at the speakers reveals that the conference is heavy on the ID side, with Paul Nelson, Ann Gauger, Jay Richards and John West featured prominently. Attend at your own risk.

Friday, August 31, 2012

More on Modern Human Origins

Scientific American is running a story on more news from the Max Planck Institute. Now, the entire genome of the hominins represented by the material from Denisova Cave has been sequenced. Here is what we find:
Unfortunately, the Denisovan genome doesn't provide many more clues about what this hominin looked like than a pinky bone does. The researchers will only conclude that Denisovans likely had dark skin. They also note that there are alleles "consistent" with those known to call for brown hair and brown eyes. Other than that, they cannot say.

Yet the new genetic analysis does support the hypothesis that Neandertals and Denisovans were more closely related to one another than either was to modern humans. The analysis suggests that the modern human line diverged from what would become the Denisovan line as long as 700,000 years ago—but possibly as recently as 170,000 years ago
.
Given the amount of genetic similarity in the three groups, it makes more sense that the number is closer to 170,000, especially since there is evidence of hybridization between the three groups. What also seems to be true is the Denisova group shows some level of founder effect in the sense that the genetic variability is more restricted than that found in modern humans. Who the population split off from is anybody's guess right now.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Bill Nye on Evolution

Here is a YouTube clip by Bill Nye on the denial of evolution.



It is short and doesn't include a whole lot of information but it is heartfelt and some of the warnings are certainly good.

ABC News covered this here. The best quote is:
“And I say to the grownups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that's completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that's fine, but don't make your kids do it because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need people that can - we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.”
The parents don't get this information in a vacuum. It is groups like the ICR and AiG that should be held accountable for the distortions of science. They are the ones that are doing so much harm.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Baton Rouge Advocate on Louisiana and the Loch Ness Monster

In an editorial dated August 19, the editors of the Baton Rouge Advocate address the controversy surrounding the Louisiana voucher program and the Loch Ness Monster. They write:
The state has no intention, apparently, of launching any serious investigation of the Loch Ness monster in school curriculums. Instead, it will pay and pay, for years, and — if students do poorly on science tests at some future date — the state Department of Education might raise the question of why mythology is part of a school’s curriculum.

“In the event that there is basic academic incompetence, the state (education) department can intervene,” White says. “The most effective way of testing all of this is to literally see what do the students know and what do they achieve, and we’re doing that through the state test.”

A more-effective way would be for the department to open its eyes to this kind of educational malpractice before children’s futures are endangered.
The problem, of course, is by the time you get academic incompetence, how do you go about re-educationg these kids? By then the damage is done. Then what you have is kids that go to college (if they go to a mainstream college) who get their faith rocked by the scientific “real world.”

Then supposing you do find academic incompetence because of the curricula. How do you go about getting rid of the bad curricula without lawsuits, court cases, injunctions, and other delay tactics?

“Darwin just made it up.” Great googlymoogly!

Hat Tip to Glenn Branch.

Science News: Tangled Roots

Bruce Bower of Science News has written a great column that highlights all of the current discoveries/revelations/uncertainties in modern human origins research. The article focuses on the new developments in genetics that have revealed mating patterns between Neandertals and modern humans and the existence of the third strand of humanity, the Denisovans. It is modern human origins research in a nutshell. He writes:
The question is no longer ‘When did ancient populations such as Neandertals go extinct?’ but ‘What happened to those populations and to modern humans as a result of interbreeding?’ ” says anthropologist John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Clear signs of interbreeding have left archaeologists and other students of the Stone Age scrambling to revisit existing ideas about Homo sapiens’ evolutionary past. A dominant theory holding that humans evolved in Africa and left on neat one-way routes to Asia and Europe has to be revised. Instead, these ancient people must have followed a tangled web of paths taking them to other continents and sometimes reversing course. During these travels, humans encountered Neandertals, Denisovans and probably other humanlike populations that were already traipsing interconnected avenues through Asia and Europe.
Even though it seems likely that modern humans as a whole, owe their ancestry to these African populations, it is gratifying to see genetic evidence in support of what some of us have been hanging onto for all these years—some variant of the multi-regional evolution model. I don't think that a strict center/edge model will work but it is obvious that there was considerable interbreeding between population groups, be they Neandertals, moderns or Denisovans. More and more, everyday, it looks my former adviser, Fred Smith, was right. Some form of assimilation seems to be the best model to go with.

I am also reminded that, once upon a time, Geoff Pope argued that there were traces of Neandertal characteristics in some of the Chinese archaic Homo sapiens material. If, as John Hawks remarks, Neandertals interbred on a grand scale, then Pope's position, which was largely rejected at the time, has some credence.

“Not Responsible”

A friend of mine sent me this. Here is a sign seen at a restaurant.


It reminds me of a sign I saw in Rocky Mountain National Park that read “Mountains Don't Care!” I saw a similar sign in Japanese climbing Mount Fuji. Heartless, perhaps, but true nonetheless.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Shocked! Simply Shocked!

An amusing (or not) story is coming out of Kentucky where some state representatives have discovered that students are actually being tested in evolutionary theory. Kentucky.com reports:
Kentucky's Senate Republicans pushed successfully in 2009 to tie the state's testing program to national education standards, but three years later, they're questioning the results.

Several GOP lawmakers questioned new proposed student standards and tests that delve deeply into biological evolution during a Monday meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Education.

In an exchange with officials from ACT, the company that prepares Kentucky's new state testing program, those lawmakers discussed whether evolution was a fact and whether the biblical account of creationism also should be taught in Kentucky classrooms.

"I would hope that creationism is presented as a theory in the classroom, in a science classroom, alongside evolution," Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, said Tuesday in an interview
.
Oh, I would certainly hope not.

This is at once an example of two things: 1. the general cluelessness of state (and national) lawmakers as to what, exactly, is in the bills that they pass and 2. the complete lack of adequate science education on the part of representatives like Mr. Givens. Two idiocies for the price of one. How can you top that? Here's how:
Another [House Education] committee member, Rep. Ben Waide, R-Madisonville, said he had a problem with evolution being an important part of biology standards.

"The theory of evolution is a theory, and essentially the theory of evolution is not science — Darwin made it up," Waide said. "My objection is they should ensure whatever scientific material is being put forth as a standard should at least stand up to scientific method. Under the most rudimentary, basic scientific examination, the theory of evolution has never stood up to scientific scrutiny."
And Mr. Waide is a member of the House Education Committee????? How does something like that happen when he cannot even identify what a theory is or have any familiarity with the evidence for evolution? Who puts these people in office? Why is there not at least a rudimentary test for people who seek to be on these committees? Why has this ignorant individual not been asked to step down immediately for these comments? The Kentucky legislature has a mess on their hands.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Todd Wood on the Neandertal Interbreeding Question

Todd Wood has weighed in on the Neandertal hybridization results in ArXiv with some of his own thoughts and he raised the spectre of incomplete lineage sorting...something that entirely escaped my thought process when I was waxing about the ArXiv paper yesterday. But as he, himself, points out, there are problems with this explanation. He writes:
Since incomplete lineage sorting is a random process, I would not expect to see any modern human population significantly more similar to Neandertals than any other modern human population. Modern human populations diverged well after the Neandertal divergence, so whatever genes were still very similar to Neandertals should have been evenly divided. Even more interesting is the geography: the ancestors of the modern humans with Neandertal-like genes come from the same geographic region as the Neandertals. If incomplete lineage sorting is to blame for Neandertal-like genes in modern humans, that geographic pattern would just be a weird coincidence. That's not to say that one couldn't make a case for incomplete lineage sorting, but we would need some new evidence to really seal the deal (such as new samples of Eurasians that don't have Neandertal-like genes or Africans that do).
He is right. If modern humans and Neandertals diverged as much as 250 ky BP as many people think, then drift would ensure that the two genomes would be more highly divergent than they appear to be. He is also correct about the geographical coincidence. As I wrote yesterday, the interbreeding conclusion would tend to be supported by the appearance of Neandertal-reminiscent traits in the earliest moderns from the area.

The authors argue that linkage dis-equilibrium, which is when you have allele combinations that are present in two related populations in higher percentages than can be accounted for by chance, supports the recent interbreeding model, a conclusion that Wood agrees with (although how a young-earth creationist can agree with that kind of model, I will never know).

Monday, August 13, 2012

More on Neandertal Interbreeding from ArXiv

For some time, Cornell University has been running a pre-print server for physicists so they can bounce papers off of each other. It now seems that geneticists are getting into the act. As a result of this, the good folks at Max Planck have written an abstract of a forthcoming paper, in which they describe research involving more on the Neandertal genome. Here is the abstract in its entirety:
Comparisons of DNA sequences between Neandertals and present-day humans have shown that Neandertals share more genetic variants with non-Africans than with Africans. This could be due to interbreeding between Neandertals and modern humans when the two groups met subsequent to the emergence of modern humans outside Africa. However, it could also be due to population structure that antedates the origin of Neandertal ancestors in Africa. We measure the extent of linkage disequilibrium (LD) in the genomes of present-day Europeans and find that the last gene flow from Neandertals (or their relatives) into Europeans likely occurred 37,000-86,000 years before the present (BP), and most likely 47,000-65,000 years ago. This supports the recent interbreeding hypothesis, and suggests that interbreeding may have occurred when modern humans carrying Upper Paleolithic technologies encountered Neandertals as they expanded out of Africa.
This corresponds to the range of dates of the classic Neandertals from La Chapelle, La Ferrassie, Feldhofer Cave and La Quina, and may in fact partly explain the morphology of the earliest modern humans from Europe that people like Dave Frayer have been arguing for years have Neanderthal-reminiscent traits. It certainly refocuses interest on sites like MladeĨ (34 ky BP), where the faces are modern but the vaults for some of the individuals are long and low, with small buns.

I think the demographic picture in central and western Europe is a whole lot more complex than we currently understand. I look forward to reading this paper when it comes out.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Not As Off-Topic As It Might Seem...

The Tennessean ran a story today about how Thomas Nelson publishers, famous for their line of bibles, is dropping a new book on Thomas Jefferson by David Barton because the book “contains historical errors.” Bob Smietana writes:
Barton’s book, The Jefferson Lies, claims to expose liberal myths about Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third president.

But a group of conservative scholars says Barton’s take on Jefferson is factually untrue. And a group of ministers from Cincinnati called on Nelson to cancel the book.

Casey Francis Harrell, director of corporate communications for Thomas Nelson, said the publisher had gotten several complaints about the book and found enough errors to cancel it.

“Because of these deficiencies, we decided that it was in the best interest of our readers to cease its publication and distribution,” Harrell said.
The story goes on to detail some of the disputed information in the book, none of which I am remotely qualified to assess. That is not why this is important. I bring this up because Barton has also been active in the creation/evolution debate. Those of you who read up on that might remember this exchange:



Now, it is quite true that the idea of biological change has been around for some time but it was only with Lamarck in the very late 1700s and early 1800s that any sort of mechanism was attributed to biotic change and even then, the vast majority of people believed in fixity of species. Even Darwin did when he set out on his trip aboard the Beagle in the 1830s. But that is not what Barton is getting at here.

In his own writings on the subject, Barton consistently confuses evolution at a cosmic level with evolution at a biological level. These are not the same. Did the founding fathers debate whether or not the cosmos had a grand design? Yes they probably did. Did they debate the theory of biological evolution? No they did not. Yet that is how Barton frames his response. Subsequent to his thoughts on cosmic evolution, he writes:
As confirmed by Dr. James Rachels, professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham: Mivart [1827-1900, a professor in Belgium] became the leader of a group of dissident evolutionists who held that although man’s body might have evolved by natural selection, his rational and spiritual soul did not. At some point God had interrupted the course of human history to implant man’s soul in him, making him something more than merely a former ape. . .
Lost in the shuffle is that Dr. Rachels lived and wrote in the 1800s, quite some time after the founding fathers debated “intelligent design versus evolution.”

Barton spends a good bit of ink writing about how many of the founding fathers have argued that the universe looks designed. That is a very different thing from the idea that evolution, even in a cosmic sense, does or does not happen. I doubt that there is a person alive that does not accept evolution of some kind. One only has to look at the changes in a river's path or the location of the shoreline at Ephesus (where once Paul gave a speech but that is now twenty miles inland). Evolution, after all, is change over time.

I do think that, based on what Barton has said in public and what he has written in more in-depth fashion, that he is being misunderstood. The problem is that neither are very clear. To his credit, Barton seems to view the theistic evolution perspective in a not-unkind light, although it is not clear what, exactly, he thinks from this post. He is also quite correct that the four viewpoints he delineates have not altered much in recent years in their adherents. He just needs to articulate his viewpoints more clearly with regard to evolution in general and biological evolution in specific. He may agree with one and not the other but there is no way to tell from what he has either written or said.

This might just be my own personal take on what I find in Barton's writings. If your take is different, let me know.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The Discovery Institute vs. The Peppered Moth

The Discovery Institute claims that a new paper in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology has “debunked” the peppered moth icon of natural selection. They write:
A new paper in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology helps debunk the peppered moth icon, and cites Discovery Institute's Jonathan Wells in the process.

You wouldn't know it from the summary on PhysOrg, or from the abstract of the paper in the
Journal of Evolutionary Biology, but some South Korean scientists have joined in the cause to dismantle a celebrated "Icon of Evolution," the myth of the peppered moth. That's right; in the first paragraph, Kang, Moon, Li and Jablonski set right to work, pulling the rug out from Kettlewell (1955) and all his copycats who made the peppered moth Exhibit A for the power of natural selection.
The focus of the post is that the Korean authors observed the moths Hypomecis roboraria and Jankowskia fuscaria to see where they rested on tree trunks and concluded that once they rested, they moved around on the bark, changing their orientation in order to more carefully conceal their appearance. Thus, they argue that it is a combination of color and resting behavior that contribute to their camouflage, not just the color alone. To this, the writer of the post responds:
In the real world, as opposed to the staged peppered-moth photos we have all seen in textbooks, the moths would not have stood out like sore thumbs on the tree trunks. They would have wandered about for a place to blend in; most likely, they would not have landed in such conspicuous spots in the first place (Wells, p. 148). Letting the moths do what comes naturally is what the experimenters should have done. The old peppered moth experiments, consequently, have been invalidated (again).
First, the authors seem to forget that Majerus (whom they cite) actually conducted comprehensive experiments that did not involve nailing moths to trees and his results corroborated earlier results that wing color was highly selective. The DI post author even admits that.

The odd thing about this post is that the author(s?) have made the logical non sequitur that behavior and morphology are completely divorced from each other. I know of no evolutionary biologist that would make that claim. Behavior always plays a role in evolution. If you take any animal out of its environment, it behaves differently. Sometimes that behavior can adapt to new environments, sometimes it cannot.

When Homo ergaster started using stone tools as weapons and started hunting, it changed what they could eat (and reduced the number of animals that could eat them), which allowed them to expand their home range. It also allowed them to outcompete their neighbors, in this case Australopithecus boisei, which likely caused the latter's extinction. Behavior and selection have always been intricately linked and there are literally thousands of examples of this.

The post writers argue that supporters of natural selection have “yielded some highly significant ground.” How? We already know from Majerus' work that the earlier results, if not technically or scientifically rigorous, were corroborated. The work of the Korean scientists simply adds the explicit role of behavior. Nobody doubts that selection is acting on wing color.

The author ends by writing:
And finally, the paper shows that criticisms of Darwinism by ID writers like Dr. Wells are having an impact -- even in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology.
It does no such thing. Wells is cited three times, and only in passing. His work is never discussed in any depth. The author remarks that the Korean scientists have picked up the word "iconic" from Wells. So? When I write for BioLogos, I regularly cite anti-evolution authors. I might even use one of their phrases. That does not mean that I agree with them or endorse their views. To say that Wells is having an impact might be true and it might not be. From this paper, however, that, like the claim that the peppered moth research has been debunked, is not in evidence

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Two Hominin Species Running Around At 1.9 Mya

Meave Leakey and some colleagues1 have unearthed and described some new fossil hominins from Koobi Fora that seem to confirm that, yes, there were two very different critters running around 1.8 to 1.9 million years ago on the plains of eastern Africa. From the Turkana Basin Institute:
Found within a radius of just over 10 km from 1470’s location, the three new fossils are dated between 1.78 million and 1.95 million years old. The face KNM-ER 62000, discovered by field crew member Elgite Lokorimudang in 2008, is very similar to that of 1470, showing that the latter is not a single “odd one out” individual. Moreover, the face’s well-preserved upper jaw has almost all of its cheek teeth still in place, which for the first time makes it possible to infer the type of lower jaw that would have fitted 1470. A particularly good match can be found in the other two new fossils, the lower jaw KNM-ER 60000, found by Cyprian Nyete in 2009, and part of another lower jaw, KNM-ER 62003, found by Robert Moru in 2007. KNM-ER 60000 stands out as the most complete lower jaw of an early member of the genus Homo yet discovered.
The skull being referenced (heavily throughout the press release) is that of KNM-ER 1470, discovered by Richard Leakey in 1972 and dated to 1.9 million years ago. 1470 has a very flat face and is large, so much so that when it was discovered and compared to the Homo habilis material that Richard's dad, Louis Leakey and Napier and Tobias were pulling out of the ground, it was felt that it represented a new species, Homo rudolfensis.

For a short run-down on the material from this time period, go to my BioLogos post, The Human Fossil Record, Part 7: The Rise of Early Homo.

Anyhow, these new fossils add a new level of what Bernard Wood2 calls “complexity.” For quite some time, 1470 existed in its own little world, with no fossil remains being similar to it in size or in shape. Questions began to rise about the veracity of its reconstruction and its provenance. These new fossils fit 1470 to a “T” and it now seems clear the 1470 does, in fact, represent a different form than that represented by skulls like ER 1813, which is small and gracile and gives support to the idea that there were two competing species of hominin on the landscape even before Homo erectus/ergaster arrived on the scene some two hundred thousand years later. Below, on the top is KNM-ER1813 and below it is KNM-ER 1470















As you can see, there is considerable difference in overall size and robusticity between the two and when the new material is compared to the mandible KNM-ER 1802, which is similar to 1813, there is a considerable mismatch. What remains to be seen is where Homo ergaster came from.

1Leakey, M. G., Spoor, F., Dean, M. C., et al. (2012). New fossils from Koobi Fora in northern Kenya confirm taxonomic diversity in early Homo. [10.1038/nature11322]. Nature, 488(7410), 201-204.
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v488/n7410/abs/nature11322.html#supplementary-information

2Wood, B. (2012). Palaeoanthropology: Facing up to complexity. Nature, 488(7410), 162-163.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/488162a