Friday, April 28, 2006

Discovery Institute Scrambling

The Seattle Times (hometown newspaper for the Discovery Institute) reports that things are not well after Dover.

"Dover is a disaster in a sense, as a public-relations matter," said Bruce Chapman, a former Seattle city councilman and founder of the Discovery Institute, the country's primary supporter of intelligent design. "It has given a rhetorical weapon to the Darwinists to say a judge has settled this," he said.

The Times writer, David Postman, reveals that even staunch conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh have joined in.

"Let's make no mistake," Limbaugh said on his radio show. "The people pushing intelligent design believe in the biblical version of creation. Intelligent design is a way, I think, to sneak it into the curriculum and make it less offensive to the liberals."

Probably the most stinging critique came from Paul Chesser, of the John Locke Foundation, who remarked:

"Why do Christians wage combat over taking Christ out of Christmas but employ weak dodge-and-parry tactics when educating their kids about life's beginnings?" Chesser wrote in a column headlined "Cowering Christians."


Hat tip to Marilyn Savitt-Kring.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

How Evolutionary Biologists Reconstruct History

Robert Cooper, writing a bit back for the American Biology Teacher (2004) makes a few interesting observations regarding how the predictive sciences such as geology and evolutionary biology have been deemphasized in favor of the observable (for lack of a better term) sciences such as physics and chemistry. He cites Rudolph and Stewart (1998), who argue:

The difficulties [19th century] British scientists had reconciling the explanatory success of evolution by natural selection with its apparent methodological shortcomings reveal a great deal about the gap between the nature of science as practiced and the nature of science as perceived.
Cooper notes that this is still the mindset not just of the modern creation movement but of many who practice and teach science, what he calls "widespread myths about the nature of science." (103)

According to Cooper, evolutionary studies fall into two categories, those that analyze the patterns of evolution and those that analyze the processes of evolution. In hominid studies, it could be reasonably argued, process is inferred from pattern. For example, in the studies involving the earliest hominids, we can infer the pattern of speciation based on the fossil remains over time in a particular area. As noted in a post below about the Ardipithecus to Australopithecus transition in the Middle Awash River valley, we have fossil remains that suggest in situ evolution through a range of eight species of hominids. We would then attempt to determine why the speciation occurred and what the factors might have been that triggered it.

Cooper has some recommendations for all science teachers: move beyond the simplistic notion that there is a universal scientific method, and incorporate scientific conclusions based on historical sciences. I have often thought that an analogy to a crime scene investigation is a wonderful way of teaching the historical sciences and have employed it in my teaching. Cooper also mentions this. He concludes with:

The myth that scientists usually perform controlled laboratory experiments to test hypotheses, and that this experiment work is somehow "more scientific" than historical or comparative studies, is simply incorrect. In addition, the belief that it is impossible to know anything about what happened in the past since no one was there to observe is a serious misconception about the nature of science that hinders the acceptance of evolution.

Quite true.

Literature Cited
Cooper, Robert A. 2004. How evolutionary biologists reconstruct history:
patterns and processes. The American Biology Teacher 66(2): 101-108)

Rudolph, J.L. and Stewart, J. 1998. Evolution and the nature of science: On
the historical discord and its implications for education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 35: 1069-1089.

A funny cartoon courtesy of Chris Muir

Chris Muir does the Day by Day cartoon, which tackles a range of issues from a mostly right perspective. Today, he tackled evolution. Quite humorous.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Scientific Illiteracy

Liza Gross of the Public Library of Science has written a piece entitled Scientific Literacy an the Partisan Takeover of Biology. Largely a chronicling of the career of Jon D. Miller, Director of the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University Medical School, the article provides some information that Miller has collected:

Over the past 20 years, the proportion of Americans who reject this concept has declined (from 48% to 39%), as has the proportion who accept it (45% to 40%). Confusion, on the other hand, has increased considerably, with those expressing uncertainty increasing from 7% in 1985 to 21% in 2005.

He has also found that:

One-third of Americans think evolution is "“definitely false"”; over half lean one way or another or aren't sure. Only 14% expressed unequivocal support for evolution" a result Miller calls "shocking."”

Perhaps most depressingly:

And in a 2005 survey measuring the proportion of adults who accept evolution in 34 European countries and Japan, the United States ranked 33rd, just above Turkey. No other country has so many people who are absolutely committed to rejecting the concept of evolution, Miller says. "“We are truly out on a limb by ourselves."”

Miller suggests that the current spate of anti-evolutionism is largely Republican-driven (a conclusion that, I think, has some merit but needs more study). What I have found is that scientific illiteracy knows no political bounds. People from all walks of life tend to be remarkably ignorant of scientific knowledge. I have often thought, though, that if the Republican party links itself to pro-ID side, it will be seen as anti-scientific and anti-intellectual and lose voters like myself, who might vote independent or Libertarian. 2008 is going to be interesting.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

No Free Lunch Again

Shortly after William Dembski unleashed No Free Lunch on the world, H. Allen Orr, biology professor at the University of Rochester, wrote an inciteful review of the work. In it, he notes Dembski's principle objection to evolutionary mechanics, that they are incapable of generating specified complexity. No evolutionary outcome would be any better than any other. Only a designer could make an eye or a flagella--Darwinism cannot. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how evolution works. As Orr puts it:

The problem with all this is so simple that I hate to bring it up. But here goes: Darwinism isn't trying to reach a prespecified target. Darwinism, I regret to report, is sheer cold demographics. Darwinism says that my sequence has more kids than your sequence and so my sequence gets common and yours gets rare. If there's another sequence out there that has more kids than mine, it'll displace me. But there's no pre-set target in this game.

He also notes another problem with Dembski's interpretation: the lack of consideration of deep time.

But now change the environment. This shifts the landscape's topography: a sequence's fitness isn't cast in stone but depends on the environment it finds itself in. Each population may now find it's no longer at the best sequence and so can evolve somewhat even if the new landscape is still rugged. Different populations will go to different sequences as they live in different environments. Now repeat this for 3.5 billion years. Will this process yield interesting products? Will we get different looking beasts, living different kinds of lives? My guess is yes. Dembski's is no. And that is, I suppose, fine. He's entitled to his guess. But don't let him tell you that it follows ineluctably from some mathematical theorem because it doesn't.

Orr also notes the logical fallacy in the concept of irreducible complexity:

Some part (A) initially does some job (and not very well, perhaps). Another part (B) later gets added because it helps A. This new part isn't essential, it merely improves things. But later on, A (or something else) may change in such a way that B now becomes indispensable. This process continues as further parts get folded into the system. And at the end of the day, many parts may all be required.

It is a good article, full of answers to questions that very few people want to ask about the logic of the current ID focus. Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Ominous News from Canada

The Journal Nature reports that a researcher seeking to address the question of Intelligent Design belief among Canadian citizens has had his granting request denied in part because members of the granting agency are unconvinced of the veracity of evolutionary theory. Hannah Hoag, writing for Nature states about the rejection:

The letter stated that, among its reasons for rejection, the committee felt there was inadequate "justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not intelligent design theory, was correct."

To this, the researcher, Brian Alters, commented: "It illustrates how the misunderstanding of evolution and intelligent design can go to all levels of Canadian society." Another researcher, Philip Sadler, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, quipped:

"If he was trying to answer the question as to whether all this popularization had had an impact, he just saved the government $40,000. He found the evidence without doing the study."

Troubling indeed.

Monday, April 17, 2006

A New Find in the Middle Awash

A new set of finds of Australopithecus anamensis in the Middle Awash River region have filled in some gaps in the evolutionary sequence of early hominids. As Foxnews reports, notable is the fact that eight successive species are now represented in the region. Berhane Asfaw, one of the principle excavators, states:

"We just found the chain of evolution, the continuity through time...One form evolved to another. This is evidence of evolution in one place through time."

Palaeoanthropologist Tim White also notes:

"It's like 12 frames of a home movie, but a home movie covering 6 million years."

The corresponding Nature article (White, et al., 2006. Asa Issie, Aramis and the origin of Australopithecus. Nature, 440: 883-889) is a bit more illuminating. The photo that is provided shows maxillary and mandibular remains, associated teeth and a right femoral shaft. The teeth are larger than that of Ardipithecus ramidus but are similar to those of Au. afarensis and Au. anamensis. The authors also write:

In an assessment of fossils from Kanapoi (3.9-4.2 Myr ago), the anagenetic series Ar. ramidus, Au. anamensis and Au. afarensis has been hypothesized. The evidence reported here from the Afar Rift consitutes a strong test from a single stratigraphic succession that fails to falsify this hypothesis. Middle Awash Au. anamensis is anatomically intermediate in many characters between the earlier Ar. ramidus and the later Au. afarensis from the same study area. (White, et al. 2006)

The readers are also treated to an exposition on anagenetic speciation versus punctuated equilibrium and how each can be recognized in the fossil record. This is described by Stephen Jay Gould:

We can distinguish the punctuations of rapid anagenesis from those of branching speciation by invoking the eminently testable criterion of ancestral survival following the origin of a descendant species. If the ancestor survives, then the new species has arisen by branching. If the ancestor does not survive, then we must count the case either as indecisive, or as good evidence for rapid anagenesis--but, in any instance, not as evidence for punctuated equilibrium. (Gould, S.J. 2002. The Structure of Evolutionary theory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p. 795)

White, et al. do not venture a guess as to which the Middle Awash deposits represent. Interestingly, according to the authors, a trigger has not been identified for the origin of the australopithecines. In other words, we have a pretty good idea when it happened. We do not, at present, know why. ID perhaps?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Catching up again: Clarence Menninga and Apparent Age

I am digging into the past almost twenty years for an article on the creationist doctrine of "apparent age" because it seems that no progress has been made since then. There are still creationists that subscribe to this position.

In 1988 Clarence Menninga (Calvin College, again!) wrote a piece called Creation, Time and "Apparent Age" in which he assesses this viewpoint. He lays it out thusly:

In the face of mounting evidence that the Earth and the universe are billions of years old, some Christians have tried to preserve the traditional notion of a recent creation of the universe by appealing to Scripture, with a highly literalistic understanding of the early chapters of Genesis, and a view of the genealogies found in the Bible as being fairly strictly continuous. Meanwhile, the conclusion that the universe is very old has become more and more firmly established on the basis of consistent and persuasive evidence from the study of our world carried on in several diverse fields of science. In an effort to preserve an interpretation of the Bible as telling us that the universe really is young and still recognize the existence of the scientific evidence of the age of the universe. some Christians have suggested what has become known as the "apparent age" view. That view holds that the universe was created recently with a built-in appearance of age, and so it looks old by whatever means of age measurement we apply to it, but in reality it is young.

Menninga lists several "objections" to the argument of apparent age. Probably the most important one, though, is the loss of confidence in God's covenant with His children. Others have complained that the argument from appearance of age puts God in the position of deceiver, a view i have sympathy with. Hugh Ross, in his book Fingerprint of God, points out that if the universe really is young but looks old, then it raises other problems. If the stars are recently created, the record of the light traveled from them to us is fabricated as well--God didn't just magically make the stars appear, but made it look as though the light took x-light years to reach us. This is deception of the highest order.

Alan Hayward takes a different tack. In Creation and Evolution, he suggests that, if the universe really does present the appearance of age, then what are we to make of all of this "evidence" that the recent earth creationists find? Does this evidence actually reflect places where God forgot to age things? God is then reduced from the omnipotent God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to the bumbling, incompetent god of Time Bandits. You can hear Randall saying:

You see, to be quite frank, Kevin, the fabric of the universe is far from perfect. It was a bit of a botched job, you see. We only had seven days to make it.

Sort of takes the air out of things, doesn't it? Read the whole article.

A Voice for Evolution as Science

Once upon a time (1992) the American Scientific Evolution tackled the question of evolution in an official way. Although it doesn't actually say much, they do note:

Science teachers and scientists concerned about the future of science should (a) recognize the limited scope of science and resist exploitation of science by persons with political, philosophical, or religious agendas; and, while celebrating scientific accomplishments, (b) point out unsolved problems and encourage the investigation of such problems.

Good words of wisdom.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Bill Nye, the Science Guy!

Bill! Bill! Bill! Now we will enter our (reverb)Blog of Science! Bill Nye spoke at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. As Tribune-Herald staff writer Tim Woods notes, apparently during a talk on all kinds of cool topics like Mars exploration, global warming and energy, he also mentioned that God had created two lights, one to rule the day and one to rule the night. He then, correctly, pointed out that the sun was the only actual light. The moon simply reflected the light of the sun. Woods states that, at that point, several of the audience left the room, irked at the notion The Science Guy thought the Bible was not word for word literal. One woman is reported to have said, as she left the room: "We believe in God."

C'MON PEOPLE!!! Is your faith that shallow?? If the moon really is a star like the sun, why is it only half there sometimes?

Slacktivist has a good commentary on the event here. I would also encourage you to read Glenn Morton's Why I Left Recent Earth Creationism. Glenn writes a good deal about this topic. Many of his pieces and other hair-raising stories can be found here.

Hat tip to Jon Reid.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

WAY off topic!!

Father Jonathan Morris has written a wonderful piece in Foxnews about the "Gospel of Judas." He uses as his springboard, an execrable article on the subject (which I read) by the Grey Lady, herself. Here is a bit of what he had to say:

For all their purported progressive thinking, one would surmise the 17 centuries separating the Gnostic authors of the “Gospel of Judas” (self-proclaimed “progressives” of their day) and the editors at the Times would produce greater evolution of thought. But the paper’s Friday edition read like the diary of an anti-Christian Gnostic apologist of the late second century AD. For when it comes to Christianity, both are incapable of distinguishing between fact and fiction.

As Father Morris notes, the New York Times spin machine was in full swing for the article. Typically, they got few things correct. The Times has been doing a lot of that lately. He also notes:

But on this story about the foundation of Christianity, the paper’s unwillingness to trust eyewitness accounts is baffling. I must say, the silliness of giving the same credibility to the “Gospel of Judas” as to the Christian Gospels is unworthy of the venerable tradition of my morning paper. When I read dumbed-down, ideology-driven articles like this one, the coffee, even good coffee, just doesn’t taste the same.

He has given the paper more credit than they, perhaps, deserve. The Times has become increasingly agenda-oriented and ideologically-driven in recent years.

Eugene Volokh also has some scathing words of wisdom for the media's coverage of the "Gospel of Judas" here.

I have written about Father Morris before. He wrote a nice little article on Intelligent Design in December which I linked on this blog. When I wrote to him, thanking him for it, he responded with the following:
"James,  thanks for the e-mail and for posting the link.  God bless all of your work.
Father Jonathan"

Nifty!! Thanks again, Father Morris.

"Taking Darwin and Creation Seriously"

Michael Roberts, writing for the American Scientific Affiliation, tackles the seeming contradictions in Genesis and evolutionary theory in the article Taking Darwin and Creation Seriously. As Roberts notes:

The genius of Darwin in "The Origin of Species" (1859) was that he brought together previously unrelated aspects to biology; Variation and selection (leading to Natural Selection), the geological record, Geographical Distribution and the "Mutual Affinities of Organic Beings."

Darwin worked off of the writings of Thomas Malthus, Charles Lyell and all of the naturalists that came before him. Unfortunately, genetics was unknown to Darwin at the time.

Roberts also notes:

To allow evolution by purely "natural" means is often seen to be reductionistic, and often God is brought in to "intervene" at suitable moments, such as the formation of life itself, or the first human. I have much sympathy with a concern over a reductionist outlook on life, which is fairly common today. However to attempt to disprove Darwinism to keep reductionism out is doomed to failure. All science is methodologically reductionist, it has to be.

In some senses, this is a bit like atomic theory and application. One might disapprove of the use of atomic power and protest about it, but that is irrelevant to whether or not atomic power exists. Evolution, even to the level of macroevolution is observable, despite the protestations of some creationists to the contrary. It is amazing the number of people who remark that "evolution is dead" who wouldn't know evolution if it bit them on the backside.

Another point not often remarked upon by Christians is the amazingly ungodly picture that nature presents. As Roberts observes:

The natural world is incredibly wasteful of life; just consider frogspawn. The spawn will produce hundreds of tadpoles, and if TWO survive to become frogs and breed, that is success. Three is a population explosion. The fate of the tadpoles is varied, some, to the horror children, are eaten by other tadpoles. Then, one of my joys in late spring is to hear the Cuckoo calling. The music of the adult is not matched by the morality of its offspring casually heaving out its adopted kin. Life is shot through with suffering and death.

The notion of suffering has always been a thorny one in Christian circles. To the average biologist working in the natural world, it is a good deal worse because they see this seemingly undirected pattern of life and death. To the average biologist, evolution not only is observable, it makes sense. A good article.

Monday, April 10, 2006

More Catching Up

In 2002, William Dembski wrote the book No Free Lunch, which he subtitled Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased Without Intelligence. Dembski, as you will recall, is one of the prime movers behind the current incarnation of creationism, ID. Dembski is somewhat less strident in his attacks on evolutionary theory than say, Phillip Johnson or the writers of Of Pandas and People, but he does take whacks at it, nonetheless. If you can wade through it, it is a dense but interesting read.

Howard Van Till, professor emeritus of physics and cosmology at Calvin College (from whence a good deal of right thinking seems to emerge) wrote a somewhat lengthy article reviewing Dembski's work. Entitled E. Coli at the No Free Lunchroom: bacteria flagella and Dembski's case for Intelligent Design, Van Till enjoins us to think critically about how wise it is to employ certain mathematical models as explanatory tools for biology.

According the Van Till, Dembski and others in the movement argue that design ought to be detectable in the known universe. If it is not, then our notions of God's sovereignty and omnipresence are pointless. On thought, this is perhaps a fair criciticm. On second thought, that seems to be the way the world works. It often seems that, to my way of thinking the world behaves with such natural order that there must be an "economy of miracles." Chairs behave like chairs, walls like walls and such. We can build things to work precisely because all of our experiments on the raw materials turn out the same. The forces of physics do not vary from one place to another. Even though the natural "laws" have probabilities associated with them, the probabilites are so high as to be virtually certain.

It is this "economy of miracles" that has led to the various forms of naturalism in science over the last several hundred years. It has also informed our understanding of the past. Uniformitarianism was proposed simply because examination of present processes always yielded understandable causes and few, if any events could be construed as "miraculous." If present actions can be explained, there is no a priori reason past actions cannot be explained the same way. Onward.

Van Till notes, correctly, that not all proponents of ID are "in full agreement" about what evolution entails. Some reject all of it, others just the macroevolutionary elements. Part of this stems from the fact that the creationism umbrella includes two absolutely dichotomous views of reality: one in which the universe was created 20 million years ago and the other in which it was created 6000 years ago. This is analogous to believing that the moon is either made of rock and dust, or swiss cheese.

Van Till hammers at the central problem in ID philosophy: actualization:

But mind-action alone does not produce a working watch. The watch must also be actualized by hand action. As an artisan, the watchmaker must not only conceptualize the configuration of gears and dials that comprise a watch; he must also form the various parts and assemble them into a working mechanism.

And later, with regard to the formation of the bacterial flagellum, itself:

How, for instance, might an unembodied intelligent agent act on a bacterium with no flagellum to actualize a flagellum where none had been before? How does inteliigence (now meaning the action of an unembodied, choice-making agent) accomplish that? Does the unembodied agent somehow force the various atomic and molecular components into their proper configuration? How does a non-physical agent exert physical forces?

Van Till also notes that the imposition of the NFL theorums does not match biological reality--evolution does not proceed in an all-or-nothing fashion. This is a really good article and I have waxed on too long about it. Read the whole thing.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

"Arctic fossils mark move to land"

The BBC has an article on some new finds in the Artic that "blurs the distinction between two forms of life - between an animal that lives in water and an animal that lives on land." The finds, of a species called Tiktaalik roseae are found in the Nunavut Territory, in northern Canada. According to the writer:

The creature shares some characteristics with a fish; it has fins with webbing, and scales on its back.
But it also has many features in common with land animals. It has a flat crocodile-like head with eyes positioned on top and the beginnings of a neck - something not seen in fish.

Neil Shubin, the principle palaeontologist, is quoted as saying:

"We are capturing a very significant transition at a key moment of time. What is significant about the animal is that it is a fossil that blurs the distinction between two forms of life - between an animal that lives in water and an animal that lives on land."

The article also notes:

Professor Jennifer Clack, from the University of Cambridge, said that the find could prove to be as much of an "evolutionary icon" as Archaeopteryx - an animal believed to mark the transition from reptiles to birds.

This certainly takes the creationists' notion of "Kinds" and kicks it around a bit. Hat tip to R.L. Macklin.

Lubenow again

I have picked up Lubenow again, after a week and a half break. I think my blood pressure had gone back down enough. I have read twenty pages this morning. My blood pressure is going back up.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

ID in its infancy?

Dylan Lovan of the AP notes that William Dembski, one of the architects of the current ID initiative states that ID is in its infancy. Nonetheless, he states that in ten years it won't matter because Darwinism will be dead. "I see this all disintegrating very quickly." This is probably news to most biologists. As with the earlier post on the news media, this story is indicative of the perceived level playing field between ID and evolutionary theory. Dembski states that the theory of evolution put forth by Charles Darwin 150 years ago will be "dead." News flash! It died in the 1920s with the birth of the synthetic theory of evolution. Every biologist knows that. It is not immediately clear that ANY proponent of ID does.

More disturbing is this:

According to a 2004 Gallup poll, about 35 percent of Americans believe Darwin's theory is well supported by evidence, another 35 percent said it is not and 29 percent said they didn't know enough about it.

Great! Teaching science by public opinion poll.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Media Coverage of "Intelligent Design"

Jason Rosenhouse and Glenn Branch, writing in the March 2006 issue of BioScience (sorry, once again only accessible by subscription) have noted a striking trend in the way the media cover the ID controversy. It is clear from the article that the authors regard ID as a religious movement, rather than a scientifically-based endeavor. Nonetheless, some of the insights are interesting. They note:

The journalistic need for succinct definitions also distorts the treatment of young-earth creationism and ID. The reporter typically makes a clear distinction between the two, which has the effect of making ID seem like a science-based critique of evolution, not a religion-based attack on it. (p. 248)

This is a common problem with most of the coverage, because the authors of the news pieces only have time to brush the surface of the controversy. They are also keenly aware that their audience will be composed of people who hold to both sides of the issue. Time is also a problem. As they state:

Antievolutionists have a very attractive message to market. They do not tell journalists that they want a certain myopic religious viewpoint presented as legitimate science. Instead, they talk about presenting both sides, being open-minded, opposing censorship, and presenting all the evidence. The only way for the evolutionist to counteract this is to show that creationism's scientific pretensions are nonsense. That is precisely what cannot be done in a brief newspaper article or television appearance. (p. 251)

One-sided language aside, this is an important observation. Often, it simply is not possible to get people up to speed on evolutionary theory. Entire graduate programs are devoted to, and Ph.D.s are granted in evolutionary theory. A half-hour program is simply not sufficient to even scratch the surface. And a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.