Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Back to Reading...

A friend of mine gave me a copy of Darwin Strikes Back: Defending the Science of Intelligent Design by Thomas Woodward, who is a professor of theology, communications and the history of science at Trinity College in Florida. I will let you know.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Top 10 Evolution Articles

New Scientist has another list: the Top 10 Evolution Articles. It is a fun list, with complete articles behind every headline. One of them, Evolution, What Missing Link? is written by Donald Prothero, author of Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters. It boils down some of the more dramatic examples of transitional fossils. Lots of information.

Red-Headed Neandertals

The Telegraph has a story about research into the Neandertal genome that suggest that at least some of them had red hair and even freckles. The article states:

After analysing the fossil bones found in a cave in north-west Spain, the experts concluded they had human blood group "O" and were genetically more likely to be fair skinned, perhaps even with freckles, have red or ginger hair and could talk.

The investigating team from Spain's government scientific institute, CSIC, used the very latest forensic techniques to remove the bones for analysis to prevent them getting contaminated with modern DNA

Presumably they found FOXP2 (oddly truncated from "Forkhead Box P2"), one of the genes responsible for the capacity for speech. The article doesn't say. So, it looks like the northern European dermotype traits go back a ways.

New Book

Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending have a new book out called The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. I don't have enough money for all of these books!!

Monday, December 29, 2008

New Scientist Has an Article on Evolution and Unwisely Tackles Religion

I missed this during the year. New Scientist had an article on the 24 myths and misconceptions regarding evolution. It is separated into "shared misconceptions" and "creationist myths," which is aptly named. Each misconception links to an article on the topic and it is very thorough, with links to other articles included. Unfortunately, there is a subtle anti-religious tone throughout which sometimes manifests itself thusly:

So are religion and evolution incompatible? It depends who's judging. The idea that many religious people find most satisfactory - that a deity intervened in and directed the evolutionary process - cannot be disproved but is not supported by any evidence. The interpretations that are most compatible with what we know - that God did not intervene in evolution after creating the universe, or God is nature - are ones that many believers find unpalatable.

Of course, some biologists such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers are well known for dismissing all theistic religions. However, the question of whether religion and evolution are compatible is not the same as the bigger question of whether any theistic religion is compatible with reason and rationality.

This sounds like it was written by someone who doesn't understand a religious perspective. Whether or not it can be supported depends on what you take as evidence. Are the arguments in Evidence that Demands a Verdict worthy of consideration? I doubt that this author would see them that way. The last statement quoted above is simply gratuitous. I suspect St. Augustine or C.S. Lewis would be able to argue circles around Mr./Dr. La Page on theological issues. We have seen how well Richard Dawkins has fared in this regard.

Take what you need from the evolution sections. The theology, on the other hand is a tad facile.

Pleistocene Park Redux

The idea of resurrecting critters from long ago is picking up interest. A story out of Canwest suggests that genetics has been traveling apace.

Would you pay $100 to see a woolly mammoth munching on grass? How about Neanderthals building a fire, or a sabre-toothed tiger streaking across the prairie? The genetic blueprints for such extinct creatures and humans are emerging from labs around the world. U.S. researchers recently unveiled the mammoth genome and a German team is putting the finishing touches on the genome of our Neanderthal cousins, which is expected early in 2009. Scientists, who once dismissed reviving extinct creatures as little more than science fiction, now find themselves with the tools that might make it possible.

Still not sure it is a good idea. We already have a biome that is optimized for the planet at this time. Other ideas won't work, no matter how much Michael Crichton might have had us believe:

Dinosaurs are too far-gone -- degradation of the DNA over millions of years should keep Tyrannosaurus Rex on the shelf indefinitely. The more recently vanished dodo bird, great auk, and ancient bears, wolves and tigers are possible candidates for revival, as is the Neanderthal, which died out about 30,000 years ago.

May we live in interesting times.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

New Studies in Biopoesis

According to a study out of the University of Montreal, the last common ancestor to all life lived around 3.8 billion years ago. The story, in eScience, notes:

The study changes ideas of early life on Earth. "It is generally believed that LUCA was a heat-loving or hyperthermophilic organism. A bit like one of those weird organisms living in the hot vents along the continental ridges deep in the oceans today (above 90 degrees Celsius)," says Nicolas Lartillot, the study's co-author and a bio-informatics professor at the Université de Montréal. "However, our data suggests that LUCA was actually sensitive to warmer temperatures and lived in a climate below 50 degrees."

The early world would have originally contained only organisms with RNA, rather than DNA and that, when DNA evolved, it allowed organisms to move into warmer environments.

Neandertal Discoveries of 2008

Yahoo News has a list of the top Neandertal discoveries of 2008. The story is fairly short but interesting.

Robert Sibley on "Why Faith Matters."

Robert Sibley, writing for the Ottawa Citizen asks "Why Faith Matters." In it, he takes on the new atheism, promulgated by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and others. He makes the following observation about the new movement:

By all appearances atheism is deeply embedded in the contemporary mind. Modern philosophy, natural science and psychology are, more often than not, atheistic in outlook. So, too, are many of our social and political institutions. It is a virtual taboo for a Canadian politician to refer to his or her religious faith in public life. The school system teaches students about sex and drugs, but classroom prayers have largely been cancelled.

Mr. Sibley's central tenet, one that I have long thought to be true, is that it is the upbringing of these new atheists rather than their science that has shaped who they currently are. About the new atheism's take on religion, he writes:

It would take an encyclopedia to fully analyze the new atheists' attack on religion. It is perhaps sufficient here to note that while their arguments have proven popular in terms of book sales and media attention, their grasp of theology, philosophy and, in some cases, science has been criticized as superficial.

"The treatment of religion in these tracts consists mostly of breezy overgeneralizations that leave out almost everything that theologians would want to highlight in their own contemporary discussion of God," says John Haught, a professor at Georgetown University. "Rather, the new atheism is so theologically unchallenging. Its engagement with theology lies at about the same level of reflection on faith that one can find in contemporary creationist and fundamentalist literature." In other words, the militant atheists are no better than the religious fundamentalists they attack in terms of theological substance.

Touche. While evolution poses some problems for certain readings of the Bible, it does not for many others. Read the whole thing.
Hope that everybody had a Merry Christmas. I will start up again today or tomorrow. No news so far.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Earliest Tool Use at 2 Mya in South Africa

According to a story in researchers out of the University of Toronto, working at the Kuruman Hills in South Africa, have discovered stone tools use in layers dated to around 2 million years ago:

"Geological evidence indicates that these tools were deposited in the cave by human ancestors, not washed into the site from the outside," said a University of Toronto statement on Friday announcing the discovery. "The combination of stone tools indicating the presence of human ancestors, and the dating of the lead levels, to the conclusion that human ancestors were in the cave two million years ago. This is the earliest evidence for intentional cave occupation by human ancestors."

Smarter than we thought.

National Geographic's Top Ten Discoveries of 2008

This is an interesting list, including dinosaurs, sea creatures and modern fauna. The best one is the "Frog from Hell" that I included in a post here.

The Guardian interviews Adnan Oktar

The Monday issue of the Guardian carries an interview by religious correspondent Riazat Butt with Turkish creationist Adnan Oktar, who writes under the name Harun Yahya. He is responsible for the Atlas of Creation, Volumes 1-3, a huge effort that was mailed to science teachers the world over last year. Richard Dawkins had this to say about the content of the Atlas of Creation:

I am at a loss to reconcile the expensive and glossy production values of this book with the "breathtaking inanity" of the content . Is it really inanity, or is it just plain laziness — or perhaps cynical awareness of the ignorance and stupidity of the target audience — mostly Muslim creationists. And where does the money come from?

Oktar doesn't say:

Oktar, squeezed into a white trouser suit, declines to reveal how the Atlas industry is funded, nor will he say how much he is paid, or indeed whether he is paid at all. Challenged to explain the apparent contradiction between his beliefs and his plush surroundings, he responds: "I want to resemble Prophet Solomon. Prophet Solomon was like this. He used to be well dressed. He liked being well dressed. His palace was beautiful; there were beautiful people around him. Allah is beautiful. Allah loves those who are beautiful, wants everywhere to be beautiful. Paradise is also beautiful. [The] aim of a Muslim should be beauty."

Surely he knows that at that point in Solomon's life, he was having some issues with his faith:

As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been. 5 He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech [a] the detestable god of the Ammonites. 6 So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the LORD; he did not follow the LORD completely, as David his father had done. 7 On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. 8 He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods. (1 Kings 11: 4-8 NIV)

No matter. Onward. The interviewer notes:

What he thinks, unashamedly and unapologetically, is that Darwin was lying and that there has been no evolution. He repeats this point throughout the interview.

"Almost 100 million fossils have been unearthed so far. All of these show that plants, animals, humans and insects have never undergone evolution whatsoever and they were all created in the same way by God. We can see this fact in each fossil we come across. There is no fossil proving the contrary. If they can show one, I will reward them 10 trillion Turkish Lira [£4.4 trillion]."

Around a minute later he adds: "There exists no fossil to prove the Darwinian theory. If they can show a few fossils, I will reward them 10 trillion. But there are almost 100 million fossils proving creation. In Turkey, we have exhibited thousands of them."

Although somewhat guarded in their response to these claims, the writer quickly points out:

How does he reach these conclusions, I wonder, imagining him to have laboratories and researchers at his disposal. Oktar himself, by his own admission, has no scientific experience or background. He is not an academic. He studied interior design.

Interior design? That is as bad as having a degree in hydraulic engineering. On his site, there is a section on Letters of Appreciation written by individuals who have received the book. There are no biologists, palaeontologists or geologists listed, only politicians, cultural ministers and ambassadors. Meet the new face of creationism.

Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones on the MORI Poll

See the post below this for more details.

Both Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones, also writing in The Guardian, weighed in on the MORI poll results today. Jones is professor of genetics and heads the biology department at the University College of London, where Michael Day also works. He writes:

I find this very depressing. Do those teachers believe that they should also teach the possibility that water is H3O, that Bacon wrote Shakespeare and that babies are brought by storks?

The logic is exactly the same: and there is just as little, or as much, scientific controversy about the idea of evolution as there is about those of physics and chemistry.

Dawkins is a tad less charitable:

If 29% of science teachers really think creationism should be taught as a valid alternative to evolution, we have a national disgrace on our hands, calling for urgent remedial action in the education of science teachers. We are failing in our duty to children, if we staff our schools with teachers who are this ignorant – or this stupid.

I agree with Dawkins on very little when it comes to theology, but as far as science goes, he is right this time.

Poll: 29% of Specialist Science Teachers Support Teaching Creationism

Great Googlymoogly! The first couple of paragraphs in the story in the Guardian read:

Almost three out of ten specialist science teachers believe that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in school science lessons, according to a national poll of primary and secondary teachers.

The survey also reveals strong support for the views of Michael Reiss, the Royal Society's former director of education. Reiss resigned from that position in September over his views on how to include creationism in science lessons. Some 73% of science specialists endorsed his position that creationism should be "discussed" in science lessons.

However, the finding that a large minority of science teachers advocate the active teaching of creationism will dismay many scientists who believe that supernatural explanations for the origin of life and the universe have no place in science lessons at all. At the height of the row over creationism teaching, two Nobel prize winners and Fellows of the Royal Society – Sir Harry Kroto and Sir Richard Roberts – publicly called for Reiss to be sacked over his views.

Never mind that Reiss was no creationist and wanted to teach it in class so it could be shot down. One wonders what "specialist" science teachers are, since the article does not exactly say. As far as bringing up creationism just so that it can be shot down, the article continues:

The Ipsos/MORI poll also canvassed support for the more hard-line position of only mentioning creationism in the context of dismissing it. It found that 26% of all teachers and 46% of science specialists agree with the views of Prof Chris Higgins, vice-chancellor of the University of Durham, who is quoted as saying "creationism is completely unsupportable as a theory, and the only reason to mention creationism in schools is to enable teachers to demonstrate why the idea is scientific nonsense and has no basis in evidence or rational thought."

Only 46%. that may be misleading, though, because it may be that the other 54% don't want it brought up at all. This is nothing short of astounding and suggests that the problem in England is much worse than here in the United States, where the numbers are much lower. It also suggests that, like here, the teachers are being taught how to teach, rather than what they are teaching. I don't think that is going to change any time soon.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Completely Off-Topic: Continuity Error in Star Trek Trailer

My son Marcus pointed out a continuity error in the new J. J. Abrams Star Trek trailer. The trailer has a young James Tiberius Kirk driving a roadster out in the (presumably) Iowa countryside. He is clearly very skilled at doing so. I showed this trailer to my son, who said "but dad, in [the second season episode] A Piece of the Action, he doesn't know how to drive a car." In fact, it looks as if he has never even seen a car. People don't forget things like that in twenty years.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Creation Moments II

The ICR page has an article written by Brian Thomas, a science writer, on why Neanderthal Men Were Modern Men. It is an object lesson on how to misread the fossil evidence. Here is how it starts:

A set of fossilized human remains has been discovered in Iberia that shows partial Neanderthal characteristics, proving again that Neanderthals interbred with anatomically modern men.1 This adds to a growing list of evidence, consistent with biblical history, that demonstrates Neanderthal to have been fully human, rather than an evolutionary transition.2

The first cited article is Walker et al. (in press). Here is the conclusion from that article:

The human remains from the Sima de la Palomas in southeastern Iberia therefore document the presence of Neandertals, relatively late in the Middle Paleolithic. They help to substantiate that the Middle Paleolithic of the region was the product of Neandertals, even though diagnostic human remains associated with the very latest phases of this technocomplex in Europe remain elusive. At the same time that the Palomas humans exhibit a suite of derived Neandertal features and archaic Homo configurations long since lost among early modern humans, their morphological variation indicates that they deviate from the expected Neandertal ranges of variation. This pattern may be result of genetic drift in relative isolation, directional change or, perhaps more likely, population contact to the north. (emphasis mine)

The Palomas Neandertal remains do not represent "partial" Neandertal characteristics. They show a Neandertal population with some modern characteristics. Does this mean that they were the same species? Maybe, maybe not. This does not change the fact that they were clearly different from modern humans in appearance. As Dave Frayer has pointed out, even though there are traits present in modern Europeans that are reminiscent of Neandertal traits, there are no modern humans with the full suite of Neandertal characteristics. If you saw a Neandertal on the subway, you would know good and well he wasn't a modern human. They might be Homo sapiens, but they were certainly not modern humans.


He also writes:

Anthropologist Marvin L. Lubenow has shown that Neanderthal, other than having a larger cranial capacity, was anatomically the same as Homo erectus.3 Their fossils do not fit into the depiction of a linear evolutionary ape-to-man transition that is iconic today, but were simply comingling variations of humankind. Furthermore, a fossil elbow (KP 271) and the Laetoli footprints of Neanderthal man are indistinguishable from modern man, and both have been dated by evolutionary scientists at 4 million years or older—predating the earliest Neanderthals!4 Thus, within the published evolutionary dates, “anatomically modern Homo sapiens, Neandertal, archaic Homo sapiens, and Homo erectus [as well as Lucy-like Australopithecinces] all lived as contemporaries.3

I have read Lubenow's book. It is not good and that is being charitable. This paragraph suffers from what Hugh Ross characterizes as "failure to consider alternative explanations." To Lubenow, the presence of a fossil elbow with some modern characteristics proves that modern humans and australopithecines coexisted because he chooses to look at the elbow in isolation, instead of with the rest of the fossil assemblage at the site. Here is a list of what was found at that site:

KNM-KP 29281 1, 2 Holotype mandible & L temporal fragment
KNM-KP 29282 — LM1 or M2
KNM-KP 29283 3 Maxilla
KNM-KP 29284 4 RC & RP3 germs
KNM-KP 29285 14, 15 R proximal & distal tibia
KNM-KP 29286 5 Mandible fragments & associated dentition
(RI1, L & RI2-M3)
KNM-KP 29287 6 Mandible with teeth
KNM-KP 30498 7 L & R maxillary fragments & associated dentition
KNM-KP 30500 8 Mandibular fragments & associated dentition
KNM-KP 30502 4 Associated mandibular tooth fragments
KNM-KP 30503 16 Proximal manual phalanx
KNM-KP 30505 4 Partial M germ
KNM-KP 30942 — 5 tooth fragments
KNM-KP 31712 9 Associated juvenile mandibular & dental fragments
KNM-KP 31713 10 R mandible with tooth fragments
KNM-KP 31714 4 Ldm2
KNM-KP 31715 — LM1 or M2 fragment & two other tooth fragments
KNM-KP 31716 — P3 or P4 fragment & C/ fragments
KNM-KP 31717 4 LM3, RM3 & LM2 fragments
KNM-KP 31718 — R Mandibular fragment (M2–3)
KNM-KP 31719 — I1
KNM-KP 31720 — Maxillary M fragment
KNM-KP 31721 — RM2 & M3 partial crowns
KNM-KP 31723 4 RM3
KNM-KP 31724 17 L capitate
KNM-KP 31726 4 RP4
KNM-KP 31727 — RC
KNM-KP 31728 4 LM1
KNM-KP 31729 4 Rdm2
KNM-KP 31730 4 LM2 & RP3
KNM-KP 31732 — Tooth fragments
KNM-KP 34725 11 Associated juvenile dentition and skull fragments
KNM-KP 35838 — LM3
KNM KP 35839 12 Associated LI1, RC & LP3
KNM-KP 35840 — LM3 & maxillary M fragments
KNM-KP 35841 — M crown
KNM-KP 35842 4 R maxillary M
KNM-KP 35844 — M fragment
KNM-KP 35845 — M fragment
KNM-KP 35847 4 LM2
KNM-KP 35850 — Maxillary M fragment
KNM-KP 35851 — LM2 or M3 fragment
KNM-KP 35852 4 LC
KNM-KP 37522 — L mandibular molar
KNM-KP 37523 — M fragment
KNM-KP 37524 — Tooth fragments

Here is the conclusion from that article:

Australopitheus anamensis predates all other taxa that have been assigned to Australopithecus, and in most ways it appears to be more primitive than any other. Although it is readily distinguishable from A. afarensis, this is because A. anamensis is generally more primitive in all except its uniquely large maxillary canine basal tubercles and rounded inferior contour of the external surface of its mandibular symphysis. The possibility that A. anamensis represents an
ancestor of A. afarensis is not precluded by the evidence available to date. (Ward, Leakey and Walker, 2001)

That was their conclusion after looking at all of the data, not just one bone. Why didn't Lubenow look at all of the fossil data before making his conclusion that modern humans lived with australopithecines? I will venture it is because Lubenow has dismissed evolutionary scenarios out of hand. Since he has done so, it is inconceivable to him the fossil remains that the individuals at this site represent mosaic evolution. He must view them independently. Therefore, to him, it looks like there are several different species of hominid present at the site, which validates his premise that evolution is false. The problem is that he can't see the forest for the trees. The data doesn't disprove evolution, it supports it.

This also presents a perfect example of the creationists' catch-22 claim that there are no transitional forms. Taken in total, the material from this site shows, as the conclusion above notes, that this form is intermediate to what came before (perhaps Ardipithecus, perhaps Sahelanthropus, perhaps Orrorin or none of the above), and what came after, A. afarensis. Yet, by claiming that one of the bones represents a modern human, Lubenow has effectively said, "there's no transitional form here, just a collection of different hominids." Damned if you do, damned if you don't. It reminds me of what Frank Sherwin said about Tiktaalik, the intermediate form between the late fish and early tetrapods—that it wasn't an example of a transitional form because it was incomplete. This despite the fact that every part of the fossil that was complete screamed "transitional form!!!"

Conveniently lost in the ICR's interpretation of this material is that these fossils are found in strata that are over three million years old and that there are no Neandertals anywhere at this depth, just as there are no australopithecines in the same strata as Neandertals. What you do find is that just above the strata containing the last australopithecines, you find early archaic Homo. Above strata containing these hominids, you find Homo erectus/ergaster. Above strata containing these hominids you find archaic Homo sapiens, and above them you find modern humans. The important thing to remember, though, is that many of these species overlap and, perhaps, coexist across the landscape. That is how evolution works. Unfortunately, the folks at the ICR will never see that.


Walker, M., Gilbert, J., Lopez, M. et al. (in press) Late Neandertals in Southeastern Iberia: Sima de las Palomas del Cabezo Gordo, Murcia, Spain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. n.p.

Ward, C., Leakey, M., and Walker, A. (2001) Morphology of Australopithecus anamensis
from Kanapoi and Allia Bay, Kenya. Journal of Human Evolution. 41: 255-268.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Marvin Lubenow's Site

Marvin Lubenow, the author of Bones of Contention, a treatise on the human fossil record that will form the basis of my hopefully soon to be written book Bones of our Ancestors, has a section of the Answers in Genesis site that asks that you support the Creation Museum by giving a message and your name and email. This was my message:

I am afraid that I cannot support the creation museum because I firmly believe that it does not teach an intellectually honest account of the creation of the universe. As a Christian and as a scientist, I am troubled that this world view is seen by scientists and lay people alike as the equivalent to that of support for a flat earth. As Davis Young has said, we do harm to the Christian cause by promoting a view of science that is indefensible. Please accept this dissent in the spirit in which it is meant. Yours in Christ, Jim Kidder

I then put down my name and email address. I wonder what sort of response I will get.

Nuts and Bolts Study Group

Here is another blog called the Nuts and Bolts Study Group that deals with the same kind of issues that this one does. I believe they come at things from a pro-ID perspective but I need to read more. The boiler plate is considerably more well-thought out than mine:

Welcome to this forum where you can join our journey through the intersection of faith and science. We want to explore the state of current human knowledge and examine how it impacts traditional theology, and build a framework of belief that maintains intellectual integrity and theological consistency.

There are four contributors, at least one of which has read The Meaning of Creation by Conrad Hyers, a book that EVERY CHRISTIAN should read.
Read up.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Francisco Ayala Plug for Michael Dowd's Book

Michael Dowd, who has been nothing but gracious since I questioned his Christology a few posts back, sent me this little blurb by Francisco Ayala about his book Thank God for Evolution:

"Thank God for Michael Dowd! That was my reaction as I finished reading Thank GOD for EVOLUTION. How wonderful that a Christian pastor takes the time to understand evolution and discovers that evolution and religion need not be in conflict. Rather, much religious inspiration can be drawn from contemplating the immensity of the universe and the magnificent beauty and diversity of the living world. More yet, Michael Dowd is dedicating his life to preaching that the dialogue between evolution and religion can be fulfilling, surely for people of faith, but also for scientists." —FRANCISCO J. AYALA, PROFESSOR OF EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, IRVINE, AND AUTHOR OF DARWIN'S GIFT TO SCIENCE AND RELIGION

High praise indeed.

Homo floresiensis: More Evidence for Speciation in East Asia

According to a story out of Biology News Net, Kieran McNulty and Karen Baab of SUNY Stony Brook have demystified some of the fog surrounding the "hobbit" species (I hate that term) that was discovered in the Indonesian island of Flores.

Comparing the simulation to the original Flores skull discovered in 2003, McNulty and Baab were able to demonstrate conclusively that the original "hobbit" skull fits the expectations for a small fossil hominin species and not a modern human. Their study was published online this month in the Journal of Human Evolution.

The cranial structure of the fossilized skull, says the study, clearly places it in humanity's genus Homo, even though it would be smaller in both body and brain size than any other member. The results of the study suggest that the theorized "hobbit" species may have undergone a process of size reduction after branching off from Homo erectus (one of modern day humanity's distant ancestors) or even something more primitive.

Here is the conclusion from the Journal of Human Evolution article that is currently in press:

The numerous primitive features of the mandible (Brown, in this issue) and postcranial skeleton (Brown et al., 2004; Morwood et al., 2005; Argue et al., 2006; Larson et al., 2007; Tocheri et al., 2007; Jungers et al., 2008), combined with the shape of the cranium, suggest that the ancestor of H. floresiensis was more primitive than the majority of Asian H. erectus specimens, perhaps resembling the oldest Sangiran dome fossils (Kaifu et al., 2005). Here, the overall shape of the LB1 cranial vault was most similar to the East Turkana hominins and D2280 from Dmanisi (see also Brown et al., 2004; Argue et al., 2006). These results concur with the hypothesis that the Liang Bua fossils may have descended from a hominin population more primitive than Asian H. erectus that underwent a process of size reduction.

Any way you shake it, the evidence is adding up that this does indeed represent a species of hominin/hominid that is separate from what else is going on in Wallacea at this point in time and further supports this "bush" notion of hominid evolution. As modern humans, we have grown accustomed to the idea of being the only species of Homo running around. As far as fauna are concerned, that is the exception to the rule. I think we also cling to this unilineal notion of human evolution in East Asia that is turning out to be unwarranted. There was, evidently, a bit of experimentation going on. What is stunning is the sheer primitiveness of the H. floresiensis fossils.

Baab, K and McNulty, K (2009) Size, shape, and assymetry in fossil hominis: The status of the LB1 cranium based on 3D morphometric analyses. Journal of Human Evolution. (in press)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Donald Prothero Reviews A Flock of Dodos

Donald Prothero, the author of the top-flight book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, has written a review of the book A Flock of Dodos by Barrett Brown and John Alston for Skeptic Magazine. This is not the same as Randy Olson's film of the same name. He (and they) are very forthright and caustic in their analysis:

Brown and Alston are frank about their approach from the first chapter, where they warn that they will not only step on toes, but cut them off. “This will not be a polite book. Politeness is wasted on the dishonest, who always take advantage of any well-intentioned concession, and the leaders of the so-called “Intelligent Design” movement, as we shall see, are so incredibly dishonest that they could cause a veteran heroin addict to blush — not out of any moral objection on the part of the addict, but rather out of the embarrassment that anyone could be so darned bad at lying. And, as we shall see, the Intelligent Design folks are bad liars indeed”.

They are not the first people to say so. Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Scientific American on Creationism

There is an article in the December issue of Scientific American that is available to everyone. Written by Glenn Branch and Eugenie Scott, it is titled The Latest Face of Creationism in the Classroom. The focus of the article is how creationism has changed over the years in terms of the tactics used by its supporters. They start with the Scientific Education Act, signed by Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and its repercussions:

On June 26, 2008, the governor’s office announced that Jindal had signed the Louisiana Science Education Act into law. Why all the fuss? On its face, the law looks innocuous: it directs the state board of education to “allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied,” which includes providing “support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied.” What’s not to like? Aren’t critical thinking, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion exactly what science education aims to promote?

As always in the contentious history of evolution education in the U.S., the devil is in the details. The law explicitly targets evolution, which is unsurprising—for lurking in the background of the law is creationism, the rejection of a scientific explanation of the history of life in favor of a supernatural account involving a personal creator. Indeed, to mutate Dobzhansky’s dictum, nothing about the Louisiana law makes sense except in the light of creationism.

The problem, of course, is that this kind of bill is far-reaching:

Vast areas of evolutionary science are for all intents and purposes scientifically settled; textbooks and curricula used in the public schools present precisely such basic, uncomplicated, uncontroversial material. Telling students that evolution is a theory in crisis is—to be blunt—a lie.

Moreover, it is a dangerous lie, because Dobzhansky was right to say that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution: without evolution, it would be impossible to explain why the living world is the way it is rather than otherwise. Students who are not given the chance to acquire a proper understanding of evolution will not achieve a basic level of scientific literacy. And scientific literacy will be indispensable for workers, consumers and policymakers in a future dominated by medical, biotechnological and environmental concerns.

If you are familiar with Scott's work in this area than very little of this is new but it is nice to have it boiled down in one place.

"Is it Right to Ask Questions About Evolution?"

Ken Mercer asks this question in the San Antonio Express-News. Mercer is an "elected member of the State Board of Education" in Texas. He asks:

Is evolution a fact? Most people of faith agree with what is commonly referred to as “micro” evolution,” small changes that are clearly visible. We see this in new vaccines and new strains of flu. You can witness evidence of microevolution downtown in any city via the thousands of varieties of stray dogs and cats.

The controversial “macro” evolution was commonly understood as those major changes that could occur if one species jumped to another. For example, have you ever seen a dog-cat, or a cat-rat? The most famous example of macroevolution is the Darwinian “man from an ancestral primate.”

Realizing the weakness in macroevolution, Darwinists changed the meaning. Whatever their new definition, where is the evidence for one species changing to another?

Here was my comment to the article: "Well, Ken, here's the problem. Macroevolution is only controversial to those not familiar with evolutionary theory. Nowhere does is postulate a "dog-cat" or "cat-rat." Those sorts of things only spring from the mind of creationism. Dogs clearly show a close relationship to wolves and evidence exists to show that they came from a common ancestor. Microevolutionary changes lead to macroevolutionary changes. The discovery of Hox genes which control entire regulatory complexes shows that large-scale changes can occur in short periods of time. This is evolution at work. Evolutionary biologists haven't changed the meaning of macroevolution. It has always meant change at the species level. Creationists don't ever seem to get this one right. There is a huge amount of evidence for transitional forms. Go to the local bookstore and pick up Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters for this evidence. "

Hopefully not too snooty. I am just getting tired of the same tired arguments put forth by people who won't get off their butts to see if they are actually correct, especially since they are school board members who ought to know better.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Scanning Archaeopteryx

Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC), one of ORNL's sister organizations has taken an Archaeopteryx fossil and will scan it. As the article in the Mercury News relates:

At SLAC's Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource in Menlo Park, the scientists are using the beams to scan one of the world's most valuable fossils, delicately transported by pickup truck from its home in a Wyoming dinosaur museum.

The X-rays, generated by a particle accelerator, cause tiny amounts of a dozen chemicals to glow without harming the ancient fossil, believed to be the earliest representation of a bird.

It is likely that Archaeopteryx was not on the line that gave rise to birds but was rather one of many different saurischians that had feathers. It is further likely that dinosaurs originally developed feathers for insulation rather than flight but that was a practical application later on. The article mentions one terrifying aspect of the account:

Last weekend, scientists packed the creature into a small wooden box, loaded it into the cab of a white Chevy Silverado truck and drove the 850 miles to SLAC. Upon its arrival Monday night, it was moved into a helium-filled tray for analysis.

Holy cow! A Chevy Silverado. Hat tip to Little Green Footballs.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Somehow Appropriately Named...

My wife is part of a home schooling network that gets offers and emails from various organizations, one of which is, evidently, The reference in the Bible to this animal is Job 40:15:

"Look at the behemoth, [a]
which I made along with you
and which feeds on grass like an ox.

Anyhoo, the in line advertisement, aimed squarely at home schoolers, has, front and center, guess who?

I find it absolutely astounding how entrenched the young earth position is in home schooling curricula and private Christian schools. It is practically the only perspective. If we continue to homeschool our children, or put them in a private Christian school (which we are considering) this will become a problem later. In the early grades, the general scientific theoretical perspective is secondary to learning how things work. Eventually, it will become apparent to other home schoolers that we know that, charitably, we don't share the scientific perspective they hold. Hopefully, they will be understanding about this. My experience is that this will not be the case.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Neandertal Genome: Halfway There!

New Kerala is reporting out of London that the Neandertal genome has been halfway sequenced. The team, from the Max Planck Insitute in Leipzig, has some preliminary findings:

Preliminary results suggest that Neanderthals were lactose intolerant, hardly surprising since the ability to digest dairy products in adulthood only became common in humans after the domestication of cows, 10,000 years ago.

Neanderthals also seem to lack a mutation associated with increased fertility, identified in Icelanders. A 2005 paper suggested that this mutation had entered humans through inbreeding with Neanderthals.

They are quick to state that this is nothing more than a first draft, though. Still, it is great to have this kind of information. Cherished theories may fall by the wayside.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Harris Poll on Religion

The Harris Poll organization interviewed 2, 126 individuals about their religious beliefs. The results were not surprising if you follow these things:

- 80% of adult Americans believe in God - unchanged since the last time we asked the question in 2005. Large majorities of the public believe in miracles (75%), heaven (73%), angels (71%), that Jesus is God or the Son of God (71%), the resurrection of Jesus (70%), the survival of the soul after death (68%), hell (62%), the Virgin birth (Jesus born of Mary (61%) and the devil (59%).
-- Slightly more people - but both are minorities - believe in Darwin's theory of evolution (47%) than in creationism (40%).
-- Sizeable minorities believe in ghosts (44%), UFOs (36%), witches (31%), astrology (31%), and reincarnation (24%).

There was one amusing finding:

Slender majorities of all adults believe that all or most of the Old Testament (55%) and the New Testament (54%) are the "Word of God." However, only about a third of all adults (37% and 36%) believe that all of these texts are the word of God.
Interestingly, only 26% of all adults believe that the Torah is the word of God, even though it is the same as the first five books of the Old Testament. Presumably many people do not know this.

Yup, that 's today's educated, clear-thinking American.

Friday, December 12, 2008

George Bush on Nightline

Little Green Footballs has unearthed a video of George W. Bush on Nightline in which he mentions his relationship with God, his beliefs and the dreaded "evolution." He comments that his relationship with God is on a personal level and that he has a lot of problems that he needs help with. He also says "The call is to live out your life and better understand the will of God" and also to "have a thoughtful prayer life."

Then he says about evolution: "I think you can have both." The problem here is, as Todd Rundgren puts it: "The last thing you said is the last thing I heard." The biblical literalists won't hear that he has a personal relationship with God, that He sent his son to die for us, that we are called to live our lives according to the will of God. No, they will hear that he supports evolution and that will be enough for them to condemn him.

Is Bush a bit of a universalist? Yes, he appears to be, and, yes that is troubling but during the interview with Charles Gibson, he clearly says:

But I will, I, I want you to understand, I want your listeners to understand, I don't get to decide who goes to heaven. The almighty God decides who goes to heaven. And I am on my personal walk.

So, rather than pray that he gets it right and understands the importance of the salvation of Jesus, the evangelical community will likely just throw him under the bus. See, for example, the comments at this site. No wonder evangelicals are getting a bad reputation.

Salman Hameed on Islamic Creationism

The New Scientist has an interview with professor Salman Hameed of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, on the spectre of creationism in predominantly Islamic countries. To the question of how evolution is perceived in these countries, he replies:

If you ask the question of whether you accept evolution or not, we find that a large portion of people, vast majorities, reject evolution. Compared to the US, where 40% are comfortable with evolution, in the Muslim countries that would go down to 10, 15, or 20%. In Turkey, one of the more secular Muslim countries, the level is between 22 and 25%.

As to why this is the case, he says:

In some instances, evolution becomes a symbol for Western dominance and a sign of modernity. Evolution can act as a lighting rod, as a symbol of the West and everything that is bad about the West - usually translated as material culture or materialism.

He also points out something that seems to be missing in this country:

There is tremendous respect for scientists in the Muslim world, and I think biologists and other scientists should write in newspapers and magazines for Muslim audiences - write why we accept evolution, what is the evidence for evolution. I think this will be a great service.

As he and others have also noted, Harun Yahya is EVERYWHERE! Read the whole thing. Hat tip to Little Green Footballs.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Evolutionary Control Systems

Work out of Princeton suggests that there may be control mechanisms that control how much evolution occurs in some organisms. The report, from News at Princeton by Kitta MacPherson, states in part:

The researchers -- Raj Chakrabarti, Herschel Rabitz, Stacey Springs and George McLendon -- made the discovery while carrying out experiments on proteins constituting the electron transport chain (ETC), a biochemical network essential for metabolism. A mathematical analysis of the experiments showed that the proteins themselves acted to correct any imbalance imposed on them through artificial mutations and restored the chain to working order.

"The discovery answers an age-old question that has puzzled biologists since the time of Darwin: How can organisms be so exquisitely complex, if evolution is completely random, operating like a 'blind watchmaker'?" said Chakrabarti, an associate research scholar in the Department of Chemistry at Princeton. "Our new theory extends Darwin's model, demonstrating how organisms can subtly direct aspects of their own evolution to create order out of randomness."

The story mentions that this was an idea first proposed by Alfred Russel Wallace who thought that evolutionary mechanisms acted like a governor on a steam engine, ensuring that it operates optimally. If this kind of mechanism can be found in the flagellar motor, would that be the nail in the coffin for ID? Is it built-in design? The article also notes:

Chakrabarti said that one of the aims of modern evolutionary theory is to identify principles of self-organization that can accelerate the generation of complex biological structures. "Such principles are fully consistent with the principles of natural selection. Biological change is always driven by random mutation and selection, but at certain pivotal junctures in evolutionary history, such random processes can create structures capable of steering subsequent evolution toward greater sophistication and complexity."

Read the whole thing.

An interview with Judge Jones

The Public Library of Science—Genetics has an interview with Judge John E. Jones, III, the judge responsible for the Dover-Kitzmiller ruling against Intelligent Design in Pennsylvania. It is an interesting interview and along the way, he sheds light on how our rule of law works:

Gitschier: So now it's on your docket, and you must have been curious. Did you Google intelligent design?

Jones: No. I got what I needed in the context of the case. And it was the monster on my docket.

To your question: I think laypersons apprehend that when we get a case, it's incumbent upon us to go into an intensive study mode to learn everything about it. Actually that is the wrong thing to do. The analogy is that when I have a jury trial in front of me, I always instruct jurors, particularly in this day and age when you can Google anything, not to do that. I don't want you to do any research or investigation. Everything you need to decide this case you'll get within the corners of this courtroom.

So it is with me. And I knew that by the time the case went to trial and during the trial, that I would get expert reports.

Gitschier: From whom?

Jones: Everybody. The way expert opinion works is that I get a summary of their testimony first, and that I can read in advance. So I have a flavor for it. So then the question is, why also have them testify? That is because they are subject to cross examination and everything they say may not hold up that well. And, as it turned out, some of it didn't during the trial.

In any event, I was taken to school. From the earliest point in the litigation to the time the briefs were filed, it was the equivalent of a degree in this area. Folks who disagree with my opinion will tell you I never got it right, but I'm confident that I did.

Go back to your last question. It's very critical. I have to decide cases on the facts that are before me. I can't decide a case based on my own opinion, gleaned from outside the courtroom. That's why I don't engage in my own independent investigation. If you look at other systems in other countries throughout the world, they do that. But in our system of justice in the US, we let the parties try their cases and we find the facts from what is presented to us in the courtroom. And the law, presumably we know and we apply the law. That's our job. But the facts that we apply the law to are covered at that time.

He also says something absolutely damning about the witnesses for ID:

In the realm of the lay witnesses, if you will, some of the school board witnesses were dreadful witnesses and hence the description “breathtaking inanity” and “mendacity.” In my view, they clearly lied under oath. They made a very poor account of themselves. They could not explain why they did what they did. They really didn't even know what intelligent design was. It was quite clear to me that they viewed intelligent design as a method to get creationism into the public school classroom. They were unfortunate and troublesome witnesses. Simply remarkable, in that sense.

That seems to be clear with regard to the "academic freedom" bills as well. As I have noted in other posts, the people promoting those bills don't give a dang about other theoretical science disciplines. They focus only on evolution. The fact that they come about it from a creationist perspective was badly disguised during the "cdesignproponentsists" error in the drafts of Of Pandas and People, the truly dreadful ID textbook. About the effect the decision had on the nation as a whole, he states:

Kansas at that time was having [state-wide] school board elections. And this became an issue in Kansas, and Kansans did not elect proponents of ID, utilizing my decision I think, saying that it was improvident to do this. In Ohio, they had begun steps that would have allowed the teaching of ID, and the school board ruled the policy back because of my decision, not because they had to, but they thought it was persuasive. Florida had a debate last year, into this year about changing some of their standards or adopting new standards of science, again citing my decision.

A finger in the dike, I sometimes think. Read the whole interview. It is very enlightening. Hat tip to Little Green Footballs.

A Growing Intelligence

IndiaBlitz and the Hindustan Times are reporting on a re-dating of the Ethiopian Gademotta site, which contains Middle Stone Age tools, containing blades and scrapers. The story states:

In the 1990s, for example, archaeologists dated a Middle Stone Age site in Ethiopia called Gademotta to 235,000 years ago, implying that the technology had been maturing for a while before the arrival of modern humans, although the accuracy of that dating has been questioned.

A second site, Kapthurin in Kenya, was more reliably dated in 2002 to 285,000 years ago, but researchers have been very reluctant to accept just one site as evidence that the Middle Stone Age started so early.

Both sites are in Africa's volcanic Rift Valley, the birthplace of many hominid species.

Now, according to a report in Science Now, two geochronologists from the University of California, Berkeley, Leah Morgan and Paul Renne, have redated Gademotta using the argon-argon method, an improved technique for dating volcanic rock that is considered more accurate than the potassium-argon method previously employed at the site.

The new results push the artifacts at Gademotta back to at least 280,000 years ago, essentially the same age as those at Kapthurin.

These two sites suggest that stone tool technology evolved continuously from Homo erectus/ergaster through early Homo sapiens to later archaic Homo sapiens, rather than in fits and spurts. It also suggests that there was more of a subtle transition between the different species of hominid.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cincinnati Zoo/Creation Museum Deal: An Opposing View

Steve Goble writes in the Mansfield News Journal that people overreacted with regard to the Zoo/Museum deal:

News reports portrayed it as a short-term deal centered around Christmas displays. The zoo's Festival of Lights isn't a science thing, and Bethlehem's Blessings isn't a science thing, either. It doesn't seem so horrible to me to promote the two jointly for a few weeks, and families looking for things to do no doubt would appreciate saving some money.

I imagine a lot of people who might enjoy seeing the zoo all lit up for the holidays would also like to see a live Nativity like the one at the Creation Museum. Bethlehem's Blessings is billed as a re-creation depicting the city of 2,000 years ago. Considering the money the Creation Museum spends on its exhibits, Blessings probably will be an impressive display. It might be the kind of thing even a scientifically minded Christian, or a non-believer who simply adores Christmas displays, would like to see.

Likely this is true, but the mission of the Creation Museum is to teach young-earth creationism. That is its goal in life. It has the Christmas display to bring more people around to that way of thinking, either overtly or covertly. It is kind of like reading "Days of Praise," a daily Bible reading guide that is put out by the Institute for Creation Research. Most of the time, it is good, straight biblical teaching, but every so often, a dig at the evolutionary, old-earth crowd pops up, jarring you from your reverie. It is their central perspective. Biblical teaching is almost secondary to it. That is the case with the Creation Museum as well. Mr. Goble continues:

The Creation Museum and the Ham-sponsored Web site Answers in Genesis are key weapons in an all-out assault on scientific thought, so much so that science people are outraged, and they're operating on a hair-trigger to the point of missing the nuances of what might have been a brief joint holiday venture.

These aren't nuances. Science education is already in dire straits in this country. Places like the Creation Museum are at the forefront of that decline. A better venture would have been between the Cincinnati Zoo and with a 10%-off coupon for Francis Collins' The Language of God. That wouldn't have helped with the Christmas displays but it would have opened up people with a scientific bent to the possibility of believing in God. The Creation Museum just makes Christians look silly.

Bush: Evolution is Okay

George Bush rattled the ID world yesterday when he said, in an interview, that evolution was not at odds with religion. According to a story in Breaking News, he said:

I think you can have both. I think evolution can – you’re getting me way out of my lane here. I’m just a simple president. But it’s, I think that God created the earth, created the world; I think the creation of the world is so mysterious it requires something as large as an almighty and I don’t think it’s incompatible with the scientific proof that there is evolution.

Asked if the Bible was literal, he replied:

You know. Probably not. ... No, I’m not a literalist, but I think you can learn a lot from it, but I do think that the New Testament for example is ... has got ... You know, the important lesson is ’God sent a son.'

The debate is clearly not something he thinks about much, which is fine—I am not sure I would want my president giving it much thought. This is sort of on a par with Ronald Reagan saying of evolution "well, its just a theory." Yes, it is, and a dang good one, at that.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A Review of Evolutionary Creation

Gordon Glover over at Beyond the Firmament has written a review of Dennis Lamoureux's new book Evolutionary Creation. Here is some of what he has to say:

I don’t typically do a lot of book reviews or make many book recommendations, but I just finished Dennis Lamoureux’s Evolutionary Creation and I feel compelled to promote it to my readership. In fact, the whole time I was reading EC, I felt as though I were reading an expanded scholarly edition of Beyond the Firmament. While I make no apologies for the conversational, non-academic, non-scholarly tone of BTF, many advanced readers will prefer something more meaty; something that dives much deeper into some the theological and hermeneutical implications that I could only barely familiarize my readers with; something like Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution by Dennis Lamoureux.

Glowing words indeed. Go grab it. I intend to. Go get Gordon's book too.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Zoo Deal: A Case of Bigotry?

Barry Cox writes for the "Other Voices" section of the Cincinnati Enquirer and argues that the criticisms of the deal between the Cincinnati Zoo and the Creationism Museum are an example of intolerance and bigotry. He writes:

The debate, on the surface, seems to focus on creationists vs. evolutionists, but that, my friends, is a smoke screen created by the false "tolerance" of the left.

The creationist philosophy espouses that man and dinosaur walked together, and that all things are created via divine intervention. Evolutionists, on the other hand, maintain Darwin's theory of natural selection contradicts the creationist beliefs.

It really doesn't matter. The Cincinnati Zoo and the Creation Museum were collaborating only to draw attention to their respective attractions. Period.

The zoo caved in due to "dozens of angry calls and e-mails." Huh? Neither institution endorsed the other. The zoo gave in to bigots who cannot stand anyone who professes a faith in anything remotely divine in nature.

Here's the problem: a large part of the zoo's mission is a scientific one. All zoos house animals, but a good zoo (and I have heard that the Cincinnati Zoo is one of the better ones) also teaches about the animals, including their ranges, their habitats and, in some cases their histories. The creationist viewpoint specifically states that all animals over the earth are direct descendants of a pair of animals that traveled aboard an ark during a world wide flood a scant 4500 years ago and subsequently dispersed over the entire planet in that time. This is plainly at odds with modern science, especially modern zoology and biology, which teach an evolutionary history of modern animals from palaeoancestors. Unless the zoo endorses this viewpoint, it cannot be a party to it. I stand by my earlier post that if you enter into a joint agreement with someone else, you are tacitly endorsing the viewpoints of the other party.

As far as bigots who cannot stand anyone who profess a faith in anything remotely divine in nature, this has little to do with that either. The creation museum promotes a particular reading of the Old Testament that I and many other Christians do not share. I don't support it and, due to its reading of modern science, I do not think the Cincinnati Zoo should either.

God and the Multiverse

New Scientist has a column by Amanda Gefter on the hypothesis that the fine tuning that we find in the universe is either the result of a designer or a multiverse, called Why it is not as simple as God vs the multiverse. The article notes:

"Short of invoking a benevolent creator, many physicists see only one possible explanation," writes journalist Tim Folger. "Our universe may be but one of perhaps infinitely many universes in an inconceivably vast multiverse." Folger quotes cosmologist Bernard Carr: "If you don't want God, you'd better have a multiverse."

There are plenty of reasons to take the multiverse seriously. Three key theories - quantum mechanics, cosmic inflation and string theory - all converge on the idea. But the reason physicists talk about the multiverse as an alternative to God is because it helps explain why the universe is so bio-friendly. From the strength of gravity to the mass of a proton, it's as if the universe were designed just for us. If, however, there are an infinite number of universes - with physical constants that vary from one to the next - our cosy neighbourhood isn't only possible, it's inevitable.

But to suggest that if this theory doesn't pan out our only other option is a supernatural one is to abandon science itself. Not only is it an unfounded leap of logic, it suggests intelligent design offers as valid an explanation as a cosmological theory does, and lends credence to creationists' mistaken claim that the multiverse was invented to serve as science's get-out-of-God-free card. Indeed, Folger's article was immediately referenced on creationist websites, including the Access Research Network, an intelligent-design hub, and Uncommon Descent, the blog of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute's William Dembski.

There is an elephant in the room that she is trying very hard not to see. Multiverse hypotheses are untestable—just like Intelligent Design. This is in a true sense, a Mexican Stand-off. Both sides recognize fine tuning and both sides have untestable hypotheses to explain it. Gefter continues by arguing that it is not an "either-or" problem but that there may be other explanations to the problem. She suggests a third hypothesis—that we create the universe we see. This is a hypothesis that Stephen Hawking has warmed to. He has called this "top-down" cosmology. Same problem. There is simply no way to test this. If we hypothesize that we are influencing what we see, then the very observations are being influenced by our test, whatever that would be. A gentleman by the name of Steven Pederson wrote a masters thesis on this topic called Flawed Nature Cosmology. It is long but it is here. Gefter finishes, remarking about Hawking's ideas:

That's speculative, but at least it's science.

Uh, no its not. Its speculation, based on no evidence whatsoever. Is this where modern astrophysics is going? I hope not, or else they are going to find themselves in creationist territory pretty soon.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Roger Ebert on Ben Stein

Roger Ebert has written a column on Ben Stein. He once wrote a column on creationism that was so subtle that most people (including myself) probably would have taken it seriously, had there not been some advance warning. That post is here. This new column is not subtle:

Ben Stein, you hosted a TV show on which you gave away money. Imagine that I have created a special edition of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" just for you. Ben, you've answered all the earlier questions correctly, and now you're up for the $1 million prize. It involves an explanation for the evolution of life on this planet. You have already exercised your option to throw away two of the wrong answers. Now you are faced with two choices: (A) Darwin's Theory of Evolution, or (B) Intelligent Design.

Because this is a special edition of the program, you can use a Hotline to telephone every scientist on Earth who has an opinion on this question. You discover that 99.975 of them agree on the answer (A). A million bucks hangs in the balance. The clock is ticking. You could use the money. Which do you choose? You, a firm believer in the Constitution, are not intimidated and exercise your freedom of speech. You choose (B).

Squaaawk!!! The klaxon horn sounds. You have lost

He is not exaggerating on the percentage of scientists who agree on it. Biologists and geologists at any rate. Ebert spends the rest of the column taking apart Ben Stein's approach to making the picture but ends with a haunting paragraph that strikes at the heart of those of us who have accepted evolution and are Christians:

He takes a field trip to visit one "result" of Darwinism: Nazi concentration camps. "As a Jew," he says, "I wanted to see for myself." We see footage of gaunt, skeletal prisoners. Pathetic children. A mound of naked Jewish corpses. "It's difficult to describe how it felt to walk through such a haunting place," he says. Oh, go ahead, Ben Stein. Describe. It filled you with hatred for Charles Darwin and his followers, who represent the overwhelming majority of educated people in every nation on earth. It is not difficult for me to describe how you made me feel by exploiting the deaths of millions of Jews in support of your argument for a peripheral Christian belief. It fills me with contempt.

I have stated that I want to see this film. With a review like this, I am not so sure, anymore. Those that have taken the Hitler=Darwin meme do not wish to correct their information. It is easier to hate Darwin when you think he was responsible for one of the largest genocides in history. Why bother to get it right? Hat tip to Little Green Footballs.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Friday, December 05, 2008

Pleistocene Park

Margaret Munro of Canwest is reporting that the entire DNA of a Woolly Mammoth has been sequenced and that this could mean a resurrection of this animal. According to the article:

The team, led by Stephan Schuster and Webb Miller at the Pennsylvania State University, describe the feat -- which makes the mammoth the first extinct creature to be sequenced -- in today's issue of the journal Nature.

Resurrecting the iconic creature would not be easy, but scientists say genetic and reproductive technology is advancing so quickly that the idea of bringing the mammoth back to life is not as implausible as it sounds.

As a first step, they say mammoth look-alikes could be genetically engineered by adding genes for giant tusks and shaggy coats to modern-day elephants.

Not dead sure why you would want to do this since you are basically bringing back to life an animal in isolation, without the environment in which it thrived (or didn't) and displacing current animals that have evolved from that population or sympatrically with it. I guess science marches on.

Evolution Gone in Romania

Macedonia Online reports that the theory of evolution is being removed from the school curriculum in Romania. The article notes:

The theory of the Origin of Species and the evolution of humans is no longer present in the compulsory curriculum, through a nationwide decision made under the previous Government in 2006. Before the change, Darwin's theory was taught to pupils aged 18 or 19 years old. This was also in the curriculum during the Communist period of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Information on natural selection, how fish turned into lizards and, more or less, a summary of the first 4.5 billion years of the world until man walked the earth is now optional.

"We don't teach the theory of evolution anymore," said one 38 year-old Bucharest-based biology teacher.

This is the first instance of this that I am aware of from behind the old Iron Curtain and, one hopes, only temporary. Teaching basic geology, biology and physics should never be optional.

Hat tip to Little Green Footballs

No Cincinnati Zoo/Creation Museum Deal

According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, a reported deal between the Cincinnati Zoo and the Creation Museum has fallen through. The deal, which would have given people discounts on tickets if they went to Christmas Celebrations at both places, came under extraordinarily heavy fire:

The zoo pulled out of the deal Monday after receiving dozens of angry calls and e-mails about the partnership, which offered reduced prices to anyone who bought tickets to the zoo's Festival of Lights and the museum's Christmas celebration, Bethlehem's Blessing.

Most of the protests echoed the same theme: The Creation Museum promotes a religious point of view that conflicts with the zoo's scientific mission.

Some complained that the zoo, which receives public support through a tax levy, should not become involved with a private museum dedicated to the teachings of the Bible's Book of Genesis. Others said a scientific institution shouldn't link itself to a place that argues man once lived side by side with dinosaurs.

"They seem like diametrically opposed institutions," said Dr. James Leach, a Cincinnati radiologist who e-mailed zoo officials about his concerns. "The Cincinnati Zoo is one of this city's treasures. The Creation Museum is an international laughingstock."

The zoo claimed that this sort of promotion had no religious underpinnings but was just a promotional gimmick to raise money.

It is difficult to believe that there was no awareness on the part of zoo officials of the lightning rod that is the Creation Museum. They must have, on some level, known that such a deal would surely not go unnoticed. The article also quotes another amazing statement from the zoo, itself:

"It's not about us endorsing them or them endorsing us," Chad Yelton, a zoo spokesman, said. "That wasn't the intention of anything we were doing."

That is patently ridiculous. If I own a business and have a promotional tie-in with the American Nazi Party, who is not going to associate my business with that organization or think that I implicitly or explicitly endorse them? Ken Ham's response is also somewhat less than genuine:

Ham said he was "personally saddened" by the negative response.

"It's a pity that intolerant people have pushed for our expulsion simply because of our Christian faith," Ham said in a statement. "Some of their comments ... reveal great intolerance for anything having to do with Christianity."

This is also patently ridiculous and borders on dishonest. Ken Ham promotes a particular reading of the Old Testament and he knows it. This has very little to do with Christianity and everything to do with science education. I am a Christian and have absolutely no intention of supporting the Creation Museum. Bad business all around.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

How to Teach Genesis by "Fabulously Observant"

David Benkof of Fabulously Observant over at the Jerusalem Post has some intriguing ideas about how to teach Genesis in the classroom and makes some pithy observations along the way, the first being:

Not very helpfully, Christian conservatives in America have responded to the US Supreme Court rulings against creationism by promoting a fake scientific doctrine ("intelligent design") that even they don't believe in - or it would be taught, instead of creationism, in the schools their children attend.

This is one of those points that is so glaringly obvious that nobody has thought of it up to now. Hat tip, Mr. Benkof. Come to think of it, I can't think of any of my fundamentalist Christian friends who say "Oh, no, we don't teach recent earth creationism but we do teach intelligent design." This is why ID occupies that nether region belonging to those that have eschewed the young earth interpretation and those who cannot wrap their heads around evolution, although Michael Behe seems to have made his peace with it. A small group, indeed. He continues:

School districts that want to fix the imbalance in which only some parents have their views represented in the curriculum can declare, for example, that the origin of man should not be taught at all except in specially designed, interdisciplinary units for 4th, 8th, and 12th graders. During these units, students will study age-appropriate scientific, literary, anthropological, philosophical, and religious ideas about the origin of the universe, the nature of life, and where human beings come from. Subjects studied may include: the ideas of Charles Darwin, creation myths of the Maya, Lakota, Yoruba, and Norse peoples, the Genesis story and its literary and religious echoes through the centuries, the evidence for species change, and controversial aspects of the theory of evolution.

While I like the idea, in principle, advocates of science will be quick to point out that evolutionary principles that apply to other species also apply to humans and that the evolution of humans is an extension of primate evolution in general, which began in the Eocene period. How would this be treated? It would be hard to do so without conflating the purposes for which each kind of literature was written. Darwin wrote The Origin of Species to propose a scientifically testable method of explaining biodiversity and palaeobiodiversity, while most creation myths are not meant to convey scientific truth but rather religious truth. BTW, "myth" in this sense is, as WordNet defines it: "a traditional story accepted as history; serves to explain the world view of a people."

Interestingly, he writes:

Doubtless, the forces on the secular Left who have had a monopoly on how the origin of man is taught in public schools for nearly a generation will never cooperate without a fight. They think their ideas are objectively true. But secularism is a minority in America, and its rivals think their own ideas are just as true.

Science is what it is. If the data leads you a particular direction, you go there. You don't vote on whether or not you should because it might offend someone's sensibilities. If evolution can be shown to happen and that it has occurred in the past and that it extends to humans, then it should be taught in science class. It is not a matter of objectivity. Science explains how things work. Nothing more, nothing less.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Neandertals Couldn't Adapt to the Cold?

Yahoo News India is reporting on research that indicates that harmful mutations rendered Neandertals more susceptible to the cold weather in Europe. The article notes:

In all cells, from yeast to human, a mitochondrion's main job is to produce the energy that powers cells. This takes the form of a chemical called ATP.

In the case of modern humans, the mitochondria do this quite efficiently under ideal conditions, making 36 ATP molecules with the energy stored in a single molecule of glucose sugar.

Mutations that sap this efficiency would generate heat instead, which is a potentially useful trick for Neanderthals who are known to have had adaptations to cold weather, according to Chinnery.

However, a warmer and less climatically stable habitat could have spelled trouble for Neanderthals with such mutations.

Perhaps the Neanderthals' mitochondrial DNA adapted them to the cold, and they couldn't cope when the climate started to change, hypothesized [Patrick] Chinnery.

The authors are quick to point out that all we have is one Neandertal sequence so it is simply not known how wide-spread the mutations are. The article also doesn't say which Neandertal was sequenced. As it turns out, it is the type specimen from the Neander Valley, discovered in 1856 by Fulrott. The authors also point out that more sequences are coming soon. It is an intriguing hypothesis but unless similar selection can be found in modern day cold-adapted populations, it remains extremely provisional. I would also be curious to see whether or not the Levantine Neandertals have positive selection for this adaptation.

Why doesn't Yahoo news in the United States pick up on any of these stories?
I have changed the title of the Harun Yahya post upon correction by a regular reader. Sorry for any offense created. Unintentional.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Barbara Forrest at SMU

Little Green Footballs has a video of Barbara Forrest's talk at Southern Methodist University, where she talks off of her book Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. If you've not heard her speak about this, you need to do so.

The Moral Ape?

The Gazette has an article by Margaret Somerville on research into whether or not apes have ethics. This is her perspective:

Ethics can, however, be linked to a metaphysical base without needing to invoke religious or supernatural features or beliefs - it could be of a secular "human spirit" nature or, as German philosopher Jurgen Habermas describes it, an "ethics of the human species." I propose that ethics necessarily involve some transcendent experience, one that humans can have and animals cannot.

I am not sure I agree. I know some people that are very ethically-driven and yet have no belief in God or any "spirit", whatever. This is more of a "do unto others" sort of ethic and the notion that a community is more important than self. Here, the intellect takes the transcendent role. Those of us that are Christians are convinced that a higher power does, indeed, exist and that we as humans are incapable of acting in the best interest of all and need that higher power to guide us. Clumsily put, but basically "if you believe in me, do as I say." This is, oddly, where I think that the Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens arguments do not hold water. Can you point to religious violence and intolerance? Yes, but you can also point to the Pol Pots of the world. Humans are, at heart, animals. I think that it is a matter of degrees but that, at one point, God made himself aware to us. It is our souls that make us unique. Can't show it empirically but that is where my faith in God leads me. She also says:

And I want to make clear that we can believe in evolution and also believe in God. The dichotomy often made in the media between being "atheist-anti-religion/pro-evolution," on the one hand, and "believer-pro-religion/anti-evolution," on the other, does not reflect reality. Evolution and a belief in God are not, as Richard Dawkins argues, incompatible.

True enough. Read the whole thing.

Whew. Long Thanksgiving break. Let's get back to it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Harun Yahya: Leader of the Turkish World

Arab News has their own take on Harun Yahya, otherwise known as Adnan Oktar, in a recent article. He has some "interesting" ideas. On Israel:

“The real problem in Israel lies in the fact that it is governed by atheist Zionists from behind the scenes. We have to get rid of these Masonic forces so that Muslims and Jews can govern it. Judaism is an old version of Islam. With the passage of time, it underwent a lot of distortions and changes. The true believers of Judaism are not the ones governing Israel now,” he pointed out.

Uh huh, right. On evolution:

A fierce opponent of Darwinism, Yahya takes the credit for defeating the theory of evolution. “First, we offered Darwinists around the world 100 million fossils, which prove that this world came into being as a result of God’s creationism and not because of evolution. Second, Darwin wrote in his books that people have to find transitional forms to prove the theory of evolution, but nobody has been able to find a single transitional form. Third, Darwinists claim that the first cell came into being as a coincidence. But it is impossible for even a single protein to be formed by chance. Fourth, we have proved that the skulls that were displayed as evidence of evolution are fake. Darwinism cannot explain how we can see or hear or sense with the support of our brain.”

Not sure what "defeat" he is talking about. Seems alive and well to me. The bit about transitional fossils is demonstrably false and the rest can be categorized as "rambling." There is also this nugget, apparently written by the author:

Polls conducted by newspapers in Germany, France, Switzerland and Denmark showed that 85-90 percent of Europeans no longer believed in the theory of evolution.

What polls is he talking about? Support for evolution is far more entrenched in these countries than in the United States even. I find it amazing when I read statements like these. It is as if they are walking through life with blinders on. Incredible!

The Reluctant Charles Darwin

The Star has a story on the Charles Darwin exhibit at the Natural History Museum. Written by Mitch Potter, the story begins:

LONDON–Wandering through this biggest-ever reappraisal of Charles Darwin, you do not get a sense that here lies the enemy of God. A doubter? Unquestionably. A man born to the clergy, yet one who lived in quiet agony as the evidence of science and the articles of faith did battle for decades between his ears? That too. And finally, a man so wary of societal outrage that he held his silence a full 22 years before reluctantly publishing the revolutionary theory that upended our understanding of the world.

Charles Darwin has been much maligned in creationist circles, all the way from claims that he was an atheist who reveled in upending religion to the "deathbed confession" to ties of his work to Hitler. Most of Darwin's work had nothing to do with humans and is almost pedestrian compared to the reputation he has garnered.