Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Slow Going

I am on page 33 of Bones of Contention. This is going to take awhile. So far, there has been either a logical error or a factual error on every single page. Yeeeesh.

The AAAS Gets Involved

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is urging mainline denominations to get involved in fighting "policies that undermine the teaching of evolution."

A clarification

The book by Marvin Lubenow, Bones of Contention, was revised in 2004. In the preface, he write that the new edition is "largely rewritten" and that he now has not hesitated to quote from creation scientists, where appropriate. In keeping with this, the back cover has glowing reviews from four individuals, three of which are main line creationists: Henry Morris, Ken Ham and Tim LaHaye. The fourth, Michael Charney, passed away in 1998, so we have to assume his review is of the previous edition. I am having a heck of a time finding it. My review will take place in a separate web page that will likely be broken down chapter by chapter.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Bones of Contention

Following on the heels of OPAP, in a continuing effort to be as mean to myself as possible, I am going to read the creationist classic Bones of Contention by Marvin Lubenow. The subtitle is " A Creationist Assessment of Human Fossils." Sounds promising, does it not? I will get back to you about it. In the meantime, stay tuned for more news.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Ohio Vote

It seems that the Ohio Board of Education has decided against the model plan that singled out evolution for critical analysis and suggested the teaching of ID in classrooms. In an NCSE report, the board voted 11-4 to scotch the model.

Of Pandas and People, Part 3

Two of the central concepts in understanding descent with modification are analogy and homology. Analogy is where different anatomical structures are used to solve the same biomechanical problem. An example of analogy are the differences between the bat wing and the bird wing. While these structures share the same function, a cursory examination of each reveals that they are composed of different skeletal elements and are constructed differently. This, in conjunction with the known information that bats are mammals and birds are in the class Aves, strongly suggests that these structures are not evolutionary related. Homology is similarity of structures due to common descent. An example of this would be the primate arm and bat wing, both of which are constructed from the same anatomical features.

The writers of OPAP get this concept wrong from the get go. On page 115, they write:

The Darwinian definition of homology, however, does not rest upon the two parts being identical, or even similar for that matter, in appearance or function. Darwinists have defined homology as correspondence of structure derived from a common primitive origin, a definition that assumes macroevolution to be true.

For starters, it was the overwhelming evidence of homology in the natural world that allowed Darwin to formulate his theory of descent with modification in the first place. The authors correctly state that homology as a concept had been around since before Darwin's time. Darwin simply used the concept of homology, he did not redefine it.

On page 124, they write this about homology:

But consider how limited the usefulness of the concept is; it cannot replace subjective judgments, nor can it deliver us from the influences of our presuppositions. Notice that the truth of Darwinism must be assumed before such an assessment of relationship can be made. Marsupial pouches and bones are considered homologous because it is assumed that the organisms possessing them descended from a common ancestor.

This is exactly backward. The fact that the animals display homologous traits indicates that they share a common ancestor. Linnaeus formulated his binomial taxonomy based on relationships between organisms based on homology. All palaeontologists do is extrapolate that concept into the past to make inferences about descent.

On the next page, they write:

Why were not the North American placentals given the same bones [as the marsupials]? Would an intelligent designer withhold these structures from placentals if they were superior to the placental system? At present we do not know; however, we all recognize that an engineer can choose any of several different engineering solutions to overcome a single design problem.

We don't know? If something has been intelligently designed, it ought to be obvious, like the truck in the middle of the field. If the placental system is better than the marsupial system and yet the marsupial system is the norm in Wallacea (Australia and New Zealand), how intelligent is that? The only reason the marsupial system is the norm in Wallacea is that the Wallace Trench prevents placentals from entering the region. Where they are transported to the region by other (more modern) means, they outcompete the marsupials for resources--hence the "Rabbit-Proof Fence."

In the "A Note to Teachers" section, the authors state that:

Since the 1970s, for example, scientific criticisms of the long-dominant neo-Darwinian theory of evolution (which combines classical Darwinism with Mendelian genetics) have surfaced with increasing regularity.

The sources the authors cite are an amazingly diverse lot. Four of them are creationist sources, Six are general sources and several are journal articles. Three were published prior to 1970. I have read most of the journal articles and they do not criticize the domiant neo-Darwinian theory of evolution as defined here. There are questions about the tempo and mode of evolution but all evolutionary biologists assume that genetics play an important role. The authors do not define "classical Darwinism." This is a standard creationist ploy--make a blanket statement and then support it with references that are either outdated or do not necessarily support what they are saying.

On page 154, the authors state:

In the spirit of good, honest science, Pandas makes no bones about being a text with a point of view. Because it was intended to be a supplemental text, the authors saw no value in simply rehashing the orthodox accounts covered by basal textbooks.

"In the spirit of good, honest science..."? Since when is it good, honest science to promote a particular viewpoint? Science goes where the evidence leads, not where you hope it will lead. Then you report what you find and integrate it into a larger body of knowledge about a particular field.

On page 155, the authors pull the old "double shuffle." They state:

Many people assert that evolution in this second sense [descent with modification] is a fact, just as gravity is a fact. But the two situations are hardly analagous . The fact of gravity can be verified simply by dropping a pencil--an experiment anyone can perform. Common ancestry, however, cannot be directly verified by such an experiment.

In the first part of this section, the authors mention "descent with modification." In the last part, they talk about " common ancestry." The two are not the same. Descent with modification can be observed in just about any population of organisms. A change in gene frequencies from one generation to the next is "descent with modification." This is basic evolutionary theory. It is the theoretical extrapolation through time across the species boundary that the authors object to and they have lumped it all together.

There is this goody on page 160:

For example, the mutational events that allegedly produced reptiles, birds, mammals, and even humans have never been observed--nor will they ever be observed. Similarly, the transitional life forms that occupy the branching-points on Darwin's tree of life are also unobservable. Transitional forms exist now only as theoretical entities that make possible a coherent Darwinian account of how present-day species originated.

By this reasoning, no fossil form could ever be transitional. So when we find Archaeopteryx, with its reptilian body plan and hollow arm bones and feathers, this is not transitional. It is simply a form of animal that was created by divine fiat--despite what its existence STRONGLY suggests.

Other scientists have reviewed this book and a list of those reviews can be found here. These usually proceed from specific subject areas of expertise but, when taken together, form a consistent theme: OPAP is bad science and a bad textbook. If this is the current state of Intelligent Design education, then it surely does not belong in a science classroom, First Amendment issues aside. Reading this book was a truly depressing experience and it shows that many creationists have made little to no progress at understanding basic biological concepts in the last seventy years. If your child is in a school district that is using this book or you know of one, alert them immediately!! This book should be avoided.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Father Jonathan Morris on Foxnews

Father Jonathan Morris, On Foxnews tackles the ID issue in decidedly antagonistic tone. He writes:

Unlike thinkers of ages past, who intertwined gracefully some elements of philosophy with the natural sciences, today we prefer — for reasons of method — to separate one from the other. In these categories, the competence of modern science accepts only what we can observe and measure (empirical evidence). Questions like, “What’s the essence of it?” and “What’s it for?” are sent down the hall to the philosophy department. And that’s fair.

He then ties it neatly with this gem:

Intelligent design theory asks just that type of “down the hall” question. Its proponents claim that a good scientist can’t look at the complexity of the human eye without asking himself, “How did that happen?,” and responding with the answer, “I don’t know, but I do know that it didn’t just happen; there must be intelligence behind that design.” The affirmation is quite logical, but the evidence would be philosophical, not empirical, and for that reason it belongs down the hall.

I might quibble with his definition of Darwinism, but otherwise, he is smack on the money.

Ohio Reverses its Stance on ID

It seems that the Ohio Board of Education is rethinking its stance on the teaching of ID in classrooms. As the NYT article (free subscription possibly required) by Jodi Rudoren notes, however, such a move seems to go against what is known of popular opinion in Ohio:

On Monday, the institute released a Zogby International poll it had commissioned showing that 69 percent of Ohio voters believed that scientific evidence against evolution should be included in curriculums, and 76 percent agreed that "students should also be able to learn about scientific evidence that points to an intelligent design of life." The institute has also proffered letters from two science professors supporting Ohio's standards and model lesson plan.

The problem is that does not change the nature of the underlying model plan:

Besides the Dover decision, the disclosure in December of documents detailing internal discussions of the lesson plan helped revive debate here. Obtained by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a group considering a suit on the plan, the documents show that department scientists and outside experts condemned the lesson as "a lie," "crackpot," "religious," "creationism" and "an insult to science."

This is especially true is they are using Of Pandas and People. The third part of that review should be up today. As my brother Paul would say, "You can't make chicken salad out of chicken crap."

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Darwin Day at Tennessee

Darwin Day has come and gone and was a rousing success. Dr. Tim Berra spoke on Charles Darwin Thursday Night and then his Australian project, the Nurseryfish, on Friday. He also pointed those present to a web site called ActionBioscience.org that is engaged in promoting science education and is a wealth of information on the basics of evolutionary biology, biodiversity, biotechnology and current issues. It is highly recommended.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Of Pandas and People, Part 2

This is part 2 of my short review of the abyssmal book Of Pandas and People, the preferred textbook of the Discovery Institute. We'll dive right back into the chapter on the fossil record.

On Page 98, the authors write:

The intelligent design hypothesis is in agreement with the face value interpretation and accepts the gaps [in the fossil record] as a generally true reflection of biology and natural history. A growing number of scientists who study the fossil record are concluding that the structural differences between the major types of organisms reflect life as it was for that era.

Herein lies a major problem with the book. Who is "a growing number?" The writers do not tell us. No citation is provided at all, as if they only want us to take their word for it. Throughout the book, there is a startling lack of supporting citations and, it is my opinion that had this book been submitted to a major science publisher, it would have been returned as unpublishable until the missing citations were added. This represents sloppy work and poor attention to detail.

On page 100, we find the following:

Some scientists have arrived at this view [that ID is the correct explanation for the fossil record] since fossil forms first appear in the rock record with their distinctive features intact, and apprently fully functional, rather than gradually developing. No creatures with a partial wing or partial eye are known.

Where to start. First, the same problem mentioned above: "Some scientists." Who in God's green earth are they talking about? I don't know anyone who subscribes to this view of the fossil record. Once again, no citation.

Second, fossils do not first appear in the rock record with their distinctive features intact. As noted above, this proceeds from a standard creationist view of the fossil record that has been rebutted too many times to count.

Third, the idea that organisms would appear with partial anything demonstrates a poor understanding of how evolution works. This idea, which is the central focus of William Dembski's No Free Lunch, incorrectly assumes that organisms are "discrete combinatorial objects," in which all features of a species are regarded as having appeared at the same time. As the reviewers of that book noted, that is not how evolution works. There is not a single fossil example in which all of a particular set of features indicative of a species as a whole appeared at once.

On page 107, we get to the human fossil record. On the second side of the page, the authors write:

Before looking at the fossils recently proposed to be human ancestors, it is well to keep a few points in mind. First, comparatively few hominid fossil remains have ever been found.

What do the authors mean by "comparatively few?" How many would be "a lot?" I can think of at least 100 complete crania off the top of my head and several hundred more that are at least 50% complete. Add to this several thousands of incomplete remains and you have a fair number of fossils. Is this optimal? No, obviously we would like to have more. But it is enough to make some pretty good assessments of human evolutionary history. And more fossils are being discovered all the time. In the last five years, the origin of the human line has been pushed back two million years by the discovery of fossil remains in Chad and the Afar Triangle.

Back to the book. On page 110, they state:

Less attention has been given to the first appearance of morphologically modern humans in Africa and the Middle East, because of their recency, but these may be quite important discoveries.

Were the authors not paying attention? No fewer than five articles in Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, Science News and Scientific American were published on this topic during 1988 and 1989. And that was just in the mainstream magazines. At least twenty articles showed up in academic journals on these hominids during the same time period. Of course they were important!

On p. 111, the authors write:

The best information we can seek about man's ancestors is that which tells us, not what they looked like, but what they did and how they behaved. Of course, such information is often very fragmentary if found at all, but it is the most important data for which to search.

"...if found at all?" Archaeological information abounds. It is more common than human fossil remains. Every area of the Old World has numerous sites with continuous records of habitation that often extend sixty or seventy thousand years. In the Middle East, one of the persistent questions is how the early modern humans and the Neandertals there interacted. One of the clues is that the abundant archaeological remains at these sites indicates a similar lithic strategy. Not a single worker in this area throws up his or her hands and says, "Boy I sure wish I had more archaeological remains to work with!"

On pages 112 and 113, there is this bombshell:

Darwinists are convinced that Homo erectus was nearly human and directly ancestral to man. Design adherents, however, regard Homo erectus, as well as the other hominids discussed in this section, as little more than apes, and point instead to the abrupt appearance of the culture and patterns of behavior which distinguish man from the apes.

This statement reveals that Design adherents have adopted all of the old, tired creationist arguments about the human fossil record. The obvious, observable fact that the fossils are considerably more than apes seems to have escaped the authors of this book.

Here we have a lateral view of a chimpanzee skull on the left and a cast of the Homo erectus specimen KNM ER 3733. Can you tell the difference between the two? I thought so.

A continual improvement in stone tools assemblages and traditions from Australopithecus to Homo habilis to Homo erectus to Homo sapiens is well-documented in the geological record and books and scientific papers abound in the literature based on these data.

The section on the fossil record can only described as incompetently written at best and, given the wealth of data and literature to the contrary, intentionally misleading at worst. On this chapter alone, Of Pandas and People fails miserably as a reference work.

Part Three of my review to come shortly.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Darwin Day at UT

Darwin Day celebrations are in full swing now. Tonight there is a talk by the Rev. Michael Dowd called "The Gospel According to Evolution" at 7 at the Tennessee Universalist Church and tomorrow night, Dr. Timothy Berra will talk on "Charles Darwin, the Man" at the Cox Auditorium at 7. Come if you can.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Of Pandas and People

I have finished Reading Of Pandas and People. To recap: in the Dover School Board ruling, it was revealed that the disclaimer read to the high school ninth grade biology classes reads, in part:

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.

How good of a reference book is Of Pandas and People? Ladies and gentlemen, it is hands down awful. I do not have the time or space to address all of the problems in the book. That has been done beautifully by Frank Sonleitner here. I will only touch on some of the major errors I found.

The first glaring error is that, while it is being used as a text that promotes an alternative to evolutionary theory, the central focus of the introduction and first section is biopoesis, the origin of life from non-life. Evolutionary theory expressly does not address this issue. Evolution is "descent with modification." It has to have something living to work with. The section on biopoesis is, therefore, irrelevant.

On page 7, the writers state:

To put it another way, breeders can produce sweeter corn or fatter cattle, but they have not turned corn into another kind of plant or cattle into another kind of animal.

Wrong. Broccoli is an intentionally bred offshoot from an ancestral cabbage possibly during the neolithic period. While they are both in the family Brassicaceae, broccoli does not interbreed with any current species of cabbage.

The writers use an analogy of a truck discovered by a native tribe that is similar in vein to that used by William Paley (although no mention of Paley's original example of the watch is given). They suggest that the natives would conclude that it is designed. This sidesteps the possibility that they might conclude no such thing. There are examples of natural features that show the appearance of design because they resemble things that we KNOW are designed. In fact, the natives might simply think that it represents a part of nature that they have never encountered before.

In the opening section in the chapter "The Fossil Record", the authors describe the nature of science. They state that, while there is science based on experiments, Darwin's theory is:

...very different from most other scientific theories. It is a theory about unique past events, events that have come and gone. However life originated in the first place, by intelligent design or spontaneous generation, however the giraffe or aardvark originated, they are not "re-originating." These are one time events.

There are several problems with this statement. Amid the persistent misunderstanding of the nature of evolutionary theory (it does not deal with the origin of life), the authors are dismissing large branches of organized, carefully practiced science, namely palaeontology, astronomy, geology, zoology and many others that don't readily come to mind. Essentially all of the "predictive" sciences. While these are mentioned in the next section, their integrity is sharply impugned. Using the analogy of a murder investigation, the authors write:

The case built on circumstantional evidence is not proof, though it may sound plausible and incriminating. Even so, the jury's belief that [the defendent] Smith is guilty may be more a product of their subjective feelings than they realize. That is why Smith is entitled to defense counsel, so that both sides of the issue can be considered.

Aside from the fact that science doesn't deal in "proof" (that is a pretty basic concept), all of the historical, or predictive sciences have always had their arguments deliberated for their veracity. That is basic to science of any kind, historical or otherwise.

Following this section, three "major" features of the fossil record are noted. They are, briefly: 1. the vast majority of known phyla appeared within a brief period of time, 2. most fossils appear to change little over the course of their history, and 3. Fossils appear fully formed and there is a "conspicuous lack of evidence of graded series of in-between fossils. Instead, numerous gaps exist throughout the fossil record."

Because so much of the rest of the book proceeds from these three observations, it is important to evaluate them.

1. This is not true. Not all phyla are present at the beginning of the Cambrian. New phyla continue to show up after the Cambrian
2. This is only partly true. There are many instances of stasis in the fossil record, but there are also many instances of persistent change over the course of a lineage and other lines that appear to change very quickly. There are other instances of anagenesis--accumulated change in one species leading to a new species.
3. This is the biggest howler in the book. Here, it is evident that the authors of this book have consulted only creationist sources for their information. The notion that there are no transitional fossils in the fossil record is the single most persistent canard in the creationist arsenal. Despite the wealth of information to the contrary, this statement and similar ones continue to appear in creationist literature and, worse, gets recycled within that literature.

Transitional forms abound.  George Gaylord Simpson records an almost continuous record of species in the horses. The syapsid group of reptiles are also called "mammal-like reptiles" for exactly that reason. Fossils of these species display characteristics of both mammals and reptiles. As one moves through the mesozoic, fossils in this class have fewer reptilian characteristics and more mammalian ones.

The human fossil record is replete with transitional forms. In fact, that is the norm. Often, different researchers will disagree on where one particular fossil ought to be put (Homo erectus vs. Homo ergaster) not because of which characteristics are present, but because of a disagreement over which characteristics are more important phylogenetically.

I will continue this in the next post.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Sky Guy on Evolution

Sky Guy in the Knoxville News Sentinel (free subscription required), tackles evolution in advance of Darwin Day here at UT. He uses exactly the illustration I often use when talking with people about evolution:

Consider, for example, gravitation. That gravity exists is a fact. What it is and how it acts is a theory. Albert Einstein expanded Isaac Newton's work, and modern developments in physics are acting to change the theory even further. But no matter how gravitational theory changes, gravity is still a fact.

The piece is a bit scattershot but informative.

Friday, February 03, 2006

"Intelligent Falling"

The Onion reports on a new take on Intelligent Design, known as "Intelligent Falling." I leave it to the reader to determine how serious the writers are.

Evolution in the Lab

Scientists have forced evolution to occur in caterpillars. This story from Fox News relates the attempts to alter the color of the caterpillars over time by subjecting them to different environmental stresses. As is noted:

Because the variations are based on temperatures, and thus in the wild would be dependent on seasons, the two types would tend to occur at different times of the year and may never meet in nature, he said.

The next step, the researchers said, is to see if the variations do indeed occur in the wild.

The researchers are quick to note also that this appears to have no selective bearing on the caterpillars, themselves. Interesting.

Sorry about the silence

Blogging has been light. I am digesting Of Pandas and People, which figured so heavily into the Dover School Board decision. So far, I am underwhelmed.