Sunday, December 30, 2007

A different Take

Samizdata argues that the only way to make evolution a non-political issue is to remove the state's role in education. We homeschool our kids so this is not an issue for us. My kids will get a good science education. He writes:

Return all schooling to the private sector and the whole issue goes away from the political sphere. Let the market decide if there is demand for schools that teach creationism, I have no problem with that at all.

I still have a problem with that in that I don't think that science education can be left to whatever you "feel like teaching your kids." Maybe he is right in the sense that the market would sort it out but the results would be devastating to science education. I have friends who went to the creation museum in Kentucky and thought it was "neat and cool." As much as I love my friends, their kids are going to learn that the world is flat.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Add Ron Paul to the List

Well, it seems that Ron Paul has thrown in his hat with the anti-evolution crowd of Republican candidates. Oh, Joy!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas

From our house to yours, may everyone have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Barbara Forrest Responds to the Firing of Chris Comer

Barbara Forrest gave a talk on "Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse" in Austin, Texas. Chris Comer of the Texas Education Agency sent a message out advertising this talk. For this, she was fired. Here is Barbara Forrest's response to the controversy. Regarding the rationale for firing Ms. Comer, Dr. Forrest writes:

But why would the TEA be concerned about being biased in favor of teaching children the truth about science? The TEA's proper role is to ensure the quality and integrity of what is taught in Texas science classes. My Austin presentation was most certainly not a threat to that role, but in fact highly supportive of it. I presented the truth about ID as established by years of scholarly research. Has the process of administering the public education system in Texas become so politicized that even the truth is a threat to people's jobs? One can only conclude that it has.

Hat tip to the NCSE.

When Losing Genes Can Be A Good Thing

Apparently, the loss of certain genes can move evolution in different directions:

One previously unknown loss, the gene for acyltransferase-3 (ACYL3), particularly caught [the researchers'] attention. "This is an ancient protein that exists throughout the whole tree of life," said Zhu. Multiple copies of the ACYL3 gene are encoded in the fly and worm genomes. "In the mammalian clade there is only one copy left, and somewhere along primate evolution, that copy was lost."

"In our analysis, we found that this gene contains a nonsense mutation in human and chimp, and it appears to still look functional in rhesus," said Sanborn. Further, they found that the mutation is not present in the orangutan, so the gene is probably still functional in that species.

"On the evolutionary tree leading to human, on the branch between chimp and orangutan sits gorilla," explained Sanborn. Knowing if the gene was still active in gorilla would narrow down the timing of the loss.

The inability to manufacture Vitamin C in higher primates certainly must have led to a change in diet that continued on with early hominid evolution. Fruitful research. Hat tip to the ASA.

Creationism Approved

The request has gone through:

An advisory council of university educators has recommended that Texas approve a master's degree program for science education offered by the Dallas-based Institute for Creation Research.

The council last week endorsed the proposal and submitted it for approval to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which is expected to consider the proposal in January. Approval from the coordinating board would allow the program to operate while the institute seeks full accreditation.

There are still some serious hurdles, as I mentioned in my earlier post about this:

The Institute for Creation Research, which recently moved to Dallas from Santee, Calif., says it teaches graduate students "more typical secular perspectives" alongside creationism.

But students and faculty must profess faith in a literal translation of Biblical creation, that God created the world in six days and that the Earth is much newer than evolutionary science suggests.

"They teach distorted science," said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the California-based National Center for Science Education. "Any student coming out from the ICR with a degree in science would not be competent to teach in Texas public schools."

Sadly, she is right.

The "Wall of Africa"

Two geologists at the University of Utah argue that tectonic movements in the east African Rift Valley led to evolutionary changes that may have involved the origin of hominids. According to the story:

“Although the Wall of Africa started to form around 30 million years ago, recent studies show most of the uplift occurred between 7 million and 2 million years ago, just about when hominins split off from African apes, developed bipedalism and evolved bigger brains,” the Ganis write.

“Nature built this wall, and then humans could evolve, walk tall and think big,” says Royhan Gani. “Is there any characteristic feature of the wall that drove human evolution?”

The answer, he believes, is the variable landscape and vegetation resulting from uplift of the Wall of Africa, which created “a topographic barrier to moisture, mostly from the Indian Ocean” and dried the climate. He says that contrary to those who cite global climate cycles, the climate changes in East Africa were local and resulted from the uplift of different parts of the wall at different times.

Good old allopatric speciation.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Interview with Lizzette Reynolds

There is an interview with Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds, the Texas Education Agency member who fired Chris Comer, in the Austin-American Statesman. What comes across in the interview is surprise that it blew up. One of the exchanges goes as follows:

The TEA has received a lot of criticism, especially from scientists, who note that evolution is not a relic or abstract theory, but an important plank in the study of modern sciences and in scientific research. Were you aware of the significance of evolution?

I didn’t recognize the importance of the subject in terms of it being tagged “evolution.” I know now that it has very real importance in modern science and research. I know that it is in our TEKS, and I’ve no reason to believe it won’t continue that way. What I didn’t think about was evolution in terms of a political struggle. That took me by surprise because the science is being utilized in all our schools.

My initial response to this was "how can you be surprised at this? This has been a hotbed issue for decades."

Read the whole thing.

Texas: Never a Dull Moment!

According to the Dallas Morning News, a college associated with the Institute for Creation Research in Dallas is asking the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to allow it to train science teachers in creationism. The story states:

The institute was created in 1970 by the late Henry M. Morris, a Dallas native known as the father of "creation science," the view that science – not just religion – indicates that a divine being created the Earth and all living things.

Patricia Nason, chairwoman of the institute's science education department, said that, despite the institute's name, students learn evolution along with creationism.

"Our students are given both sides," said Dr. Nason, who has a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Texas A&M University. "They need to know both sides, and they can draw their own conclusion."

The institute, through its graduate school, wants to offer an online master's degree in science education.

I somehow doubt that an organization founded by Henry Morris will give evolution a fair shake. He was vehemently anti-evolution during his life. Others, however, argue that the name is what is off-putting:

A group of educators and officials from the state Coordinating Board visited the campus in November and met with faculty members. The group found that the institute offered a standard science education curriculum that would prepare them to take state licensure exams, said Glenda Barron, an associate commissioner of the board.

Dr. Barron said the program was held to the same standards that any other college would have to meet.

"The master's in science education, we see those frequently," she said. "What's different – and what's got everybody's attention – is the name of the institution."

Yes, but a cursory check of the articles emanating from that institution reveal a staunch adherence to recent earth creationism, which precludes any sort of evolutionary scenario. Maybe they can pull it off. We'll see. The principle problem that I see is that even if the board okays the training of science teachers, I doubt if any non-parochial schools will hire them.

Peter Bowler has written a new book, titled Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons: Evolution and Christianity from Darwin to Intelligent Design. Yet another thing to read.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Florida Tackles Evolution

Moving the opposite direction of Texas, the Florida State Board of Education is make a more concerted effort to adopt evolution.

The Florida Department of Education released a revision of the state standards in October that would require public school students to learn about evolution.

The first state standards, adopted in 1996, do not use the word evolution but require the teaching of evolutionary concepts.

In the new proposed benchmarks, evolution will be covered beginning in kindergarten. The first real use of the concept occurs when students start learning about fossils in seventh grade.

Kindergarten strikes me as kind of early, since Madeline, our almost six-year-old is still trying to understand what science is. Fossils in seventh grade, on the other hand, is way too late. Kids have a curiosity about fossils as early as second or third grade.

A Creation/Evolution Debate Ends Badly

In New South Wales, an argument about the creation/evolution controversy cost a backpacker his life.

English backpacker Alexander Christian York, 33, was today sentenced to a maximum of five years jail for the manslaughter of Scotsman Rudi Boa in January last year.

Mr Boa, 28, died on January 27 after being stabbed by York at the Blowering Holiday Park, near Tumut.

Later, the article notes:

The couple, both biomedical scientists, had been arguing the case of evolution, while York had taken a more biblical view of history.

This is tragic loss of life, bad for the argument and a terrible Christian witness, to boot.

The AAAS Weighs In

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has voiced its opinion on the Texas Education Agency mess.

[AAAS CEO Alan] Leshner wrote that if science teachers begin to evaluate "scientific facts based on indisputable physical evidence through nonscientific perspectives" including intelligent design and creationism, educators will "surely wind up confusing students about the nature of science versus religion."

Or they might just teach them bad science.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Texas Heats Up!

The Dallas Morning News has a story on the controversy surrounding the Texas Education Agency. According to the article:

Many conservatives, including the chairman of the State Board of Education, have long wanted biology teachers in Texas to address issues that some national groups and scientists say expose weaknesses in the theory of evolution.

They stress that they aren't pushing for schools to teach creationism or intelligent design, a theory that says certain features of the universe are so complex that they are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

But their opponents argue that there is no debate: Research consistently supports evolution. They argue that attempts to discredit Charles Darwin's theory of evolution amount to sneaking God into the classroom under the guise of intelligent design.

It is still mystifying to me how an educational agency can muddy the waters with regard to established scientific theory. It shows how well the "teach the controversy" smokescreen has worked.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Kostenki: Earliest Modern Human Site in Europe?

The town of Kostenki has a new claim to fame: earliest site of modern humans in Europe:

Kostenki previously has yielded anatomically modern human bones and artifacts dating between 30,000 and 40,000 years old, including the oldest firmly dated bone and ivory needles with eyelets that indicate the early inhabitants were tailoring animal furs to help them survive the harsh climate.

But recent archaeological and chronological data from the Kostenki site have convinced researchers that beneath a previously identified 40,000 year-old component representing Early Modern Humans is an early, previously unknown Initial Upper Paleolithic component, with secure dates at least as early as any other known modern human occupation in Europe. This conclusion supports the notion that Early Modern Humans migrated to central Eurasia and out from Africa before 45,000 years ago, carrying a fully developed Upper Paleolithic tool kit with them.

The human evolution article is not in PNAS yet. The Dec. 11 issue is up. Maybe Dec. 18...

Human Evolution Accelerating?

Foxnews is reporting that researchers now believe that human evolution has accelerated in the recent past:

"If evolution had been proceeding steadily at the current rate since humans and chimps separated 6 million years ago, there should be 160 times more differences than the researchers found.

That indicates that human evolution had been slower in the distant past, Harpending explained.

"Rapid population growth has been coupled with vast changes in cultures and ecology, creating new opportunities for adaptation," the study says. "The past 10,000 years have seen rapid skeletal and dental evolution in human populations, as well as the appearance of many new genetic responses to diet and disease."

Well, the first problem is that humans and chimpanzees didn't split at 6 million years ago--not if the dates on Sahelanthropus and Orrorin are correct. It had to have been more like 8 million years ago. The second thing that strikes me is that one of the first things I learned in graduate school is that teeth have shrunk in size 11% since the neolithic. That seems like a striking change to me. I have not read the PNAS article yet, but the changes in culture and ecology can be largely attributed to increases in population. Anytime you get more people working on a problem independently, the problem gets solved faster.

Meanwhile Back at Woods Hole...

"Christian biologist fired for beliefs, suit says." Reuters has reported a story of an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Institute that has been fired for rejecting evolution:

Nathaniel Abraham, an Indian national who describes himself as a "Bible-believing Christian," said in the suit filed on Monday in U.S. District Court in Boston that he was fired in 2004 because he would not accept evolution as scientific fact.

The latest U.S. academic spat over science and religion was first reported in The Boston Globe newspaper on Friday. Gibbs Law Firm in Florida, which is representing Abraham, said he was seeking $500,000 in compensation.

The zebrafish specialist said his civil rights were violated when he was dismissed shortly after telling his superior he did not accept evolution because he believed the Bible presented a true account of human creation.

He seems to have ended up on his feet, though:

Abraham, 35, is now a biology professor at Liberty University, a Baptist school in Virginia founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a Christian pastor and televangelist.

I don't believe he will have a problem there.

Professor Disciplined For Teaching Evolution

As the troubles for Baylor simmer, you might have guessed that it would happen in reverse in other places. Courtesy of Eugene Volokh by way of Instapundit:

[Richard Colling]'s a professor at Olivet Nazarene University, in Illinois, who has been barred from teaching general biology or having his book taught at the university that is his alma mater and the place where he has taught for 27 years. A biologist who is very much a person of faith, these punishments followed anger by some religious supporters of the college over the publication of his book in which he argues that it is possible to believe in God and still accept evolution.

I suspect he had to sign some sort of agreement with the university when they hired him. How transparent that was should be examined. It is disappointing that the university did not attempt to determine whether Prof. Colling's arguments had merit or not. The AAUP seems to feel the same way. The AAUP's Johnathan Knight states:

“If a private, church-related institution says that to be a member of this faculty, you must believe in the inerrancy of the biblical account of the origins of life, we would scratch our heads on whether it’s going to be very productive in terms of science education, but we wouldn’t say that they have violated academic freedom. They are entitled to set out the rules of the game, and they have done so, and so be it.”

As much as I think that their position is obscurantist and regressive, it is their right to hold it. I do not think this argument can be applied to the public schools, however, since they are government-run institutions and that is where students begin to learn about science. The schools need to be scientifically up-to-date. If college-bound students make the choice to then reject that teaching, so be it.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Richard Dawkins' Use of "Sleight of Hand"

Mustafa Akyol, writing for the Turkish Daily News accuses Richard Dawkins of sleight of hand. Toward the tail end of the article, he includes this bit of sage advice:

And I think that is the correct theistic attitude to take vis-à-vis Dawkins and other preachers of atheism. A faith's strength comes from not its fervor to silence critics, but its ability to refute them. If Muslim believers in Turkey are annoyed by Dawkins' book, then they should bring counter-arguments to his theses, instead of asking for censorship by prosecutors.

True words.

Florida: the New Battleground

Just as Dover begins to recede into memory (but not really), trouble is brewing in Florida. As the St. Petersburg Times reports:

Let the culture war begin.

If anybody thought Florida's proposed new science standards would slip under the radar -- standards that embrace Darwin's theory of evolution -- that illusion was shattered over the weekend when a religious newspaper in Jacksonville published critical comments from a state Board of Education member.

The big guns are also getting involved:

Last week, the national, faith-based group Focus on the Family called on supporters to weigh in, as did the column in the Florida Baptist Witness, which is influential among Florida's 1-million Baptists. Meanwhile, both sides of the debate are peppering Board of Education members with e-mails and commenting by the thousands on a special DOE Web site.

This will get worse before it gets better.
Jonathan Gitlin of Ars Technica has posted a flickr tour of the creation museum--since he cannot recommend spending twenty dollars on it. It is here. His article on the trip is here. My wife tells me that some of our church friends have gone and were very impressed. Boy, am I dreading those conversations!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Discovery Institute Defends Guillermo Gonzalez

The DI seems to have caught Iowa State talking out of both sides of its mouth.

The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that promotes intelligent design, said it has thousands of pages of internal e-mails and other documents showing how employees conspired against Gonzalez. The group received the material in June after a request through Iowa's open records law, said Casey Luskin, a lawyer for the group.

``The university has been claiming, as you know, for months that ID (intelligent design) had virtually nothing to do with Dr. Gonzalez's tenure decision,'' Luskin said at a press conference at the state Capitol. ``Now after reviewing thousands of pages of documents, we're prepared to say that this is a blatant misrepresentation, even perhaps a lie.''

Much will hinge on Gonzalez' actual academic output and grant production. Showing a hostile work environment is almost irrelevant to the tenure question.

A Mummified Dinosaur

This is as cool as it gets:

Scientists revealed Monday a partly "mummified" dinosaur, complete with fossilized skin and muscles, an incredibly rare find that sheds new light on the species that once ruled the Earth.

The remains of the duck-billed Hadrosaur were first discovered in 1999 by a schoolboy in a treasure trove of fossils called Hell Creek, in North Dakota, and were brought to the attention of British paleontologist Phil Manning.

The level of preservation is, apparently, unheard of.

Armed with that three-dimensional insight into Dakota's muscle mass, the scientists have estimated that its backside was 25 percent larger than previously thought for a Hadrosaur.

With a larger rear end, it could have reached top speeds of 45 kilometers per hour (28 miles per hour) -- quick enough to outrun a T. rex.

Dakota's skin envelope also suggested evidence of stripes that would have produced a camouflage pattern, also handy for evading predators.

Because the Hadrosaur was so well preserved, the researchers could more accurately estimate the spacing between its vertebrae, giving a gap of about one centimeter (0.4 inches) between each bone.

This is one of those fantastic discoveries that drives a discipline forward by leaps and bounds.

Mike Huckabee Responds to Critics

Mike Huckabee is getting hacked off at the media's fascination with his religious beliefs:

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher who has surged in Iowa with evangelical Christian support, bristled Tuesday when asked if creationism should be taught in public schools .

Huckabee—who raised his hand at a debate last May when asked which candidates disbelieved the theory of evolution—asked this time why there is such a fascination with his beliefs.

"I believe God created the heavens and the Earth," he said at a news conference with Iowa pastors who murmured, "Amen."

He clearly has a Federalist perspective on education, though.

"That's an irrelevant question to ask me—I'm happy to answer what I believe, but what I believe is not what's going to be taught in 50 different states," Huckabee said. "Education is a state function. The more state it is, and the less federal it is, the better off we are."

As I mentioned in my response to Walter Williams, I am conflicted about this because you just cannot treat science that way.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Austin Statesman is highly critical of the Texas Education Agency's decision to fire Christine Comer. No "Spot the Party" problems here.
The New York Times has an article on the Christine Comer dismissal down in Texas. I read enough to catch the Times slant on things before i moved on.