Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Ulster Museum and Creationism

Fionola Meredith of the Irish Times is reporting that the Ulster Museum is changing some of its exhibits:

But as the museum gears up for business again in the summer, it says it has no intention of slotting in Adam and Eve alongside Charles Darwin – despite born-again Christians in the North demanding that the new evolutionary science exhibits be offset with a literal reading of the origins of life straight from Genesis I in the Bible.

DUP Assembly member Mervyn Storey, a vocal advocate of creationism and intelligent design, and chair of the Stormont education committee, says it’s a matter of fair play, tolerance and equality.

“All I’m saying is that there should be a balance because there are other views out there. I am not against the museum promoting Darwin’s theory, but I think it would be in the public’s interest to give them an alternative theory as well,” says the North Antrim MLA.

“Because of the anniversary we are being bombarded with Darwin’s theory but there are other equally credible scientists who question that. Those interpretations should be on a par with the perceived wisdom of evolution, and heard in publicly funded institutions like the museum.”

I wonder what Mr. Storey's background in science is? As we have seen from Don McLeroy in Texas, the complete lack of scientific knowledge does not disqualify you from being the head of a school board. As more of these stories crop up, it becomes painfully clear that the talking points of the creationists and ID supporters make it into the general public ten times better than any talking points that practicing biologists might have.

Friday, February 27, 2009

"Bobby and the Chimps"

British playwright James Phillips is writing a play about the Dover vs. Kitzmiller decision, sort of. According to a story by Marty Clear in

Bobby and the Chimps is set around a fictitious school board race in Bethlehem, Pa., in which a liberal candidate, whose parents named him after Bobby Kennedy, faces opposition from Christians.

As an Englishman, Phillips was bemused by America creationism vs. evolution debate. In Europe, virtually everyone, including religious leaders, accepts evolution.

But he stresses that the new play is a human drama, not a political polemic. At its core its the story of Bobby, who in the course of the [play] becomes a Christian, which puts him at odds with his supporters.

I'd go see it.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Off the Grid

I am having surgery this morning to remove scar tissue so will likely be off the grid for a few days—possibly as long as a week. We will see. There are lots of good blogs and web sites to read out there. Check the list to the left.

"Pro-Evolution" Blogs at LGF

Little Green Footballs, who has been on an anti-creationism roll as of late, has listed a series of blogs that comment on this issue. I could have sworn that the title of the post yesterday said "anti-creationism bloggers" rather than "pro-evolution bloggers," but, no matter. Most of them just comment on it from time to time instead of, you know, being obsessed with it, like yours truly.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Bobby Jindal Discussion at Volokh Conspiracy

There is a discussion of creationism sympathies in government over at the Volokh Conspiracy. Randy Bennett writes:

Republicans be warned: No demonstrably creationist politician will be elected President of the United States.

I am not sure this is as hot-button an issue for the Republicans as is thought here. Yet. Jindal didn't have trouble getting elected. Neither did W. The public was well-aware of their sensibilities long before they got elected.

Silicone Valley Redneck writes:

Bible-thumping churches offer comfort in hard times; biology doesn't. When predicting which way the electorate will jump, something to believe in is a safer bet than something that's aligned with the facts. And keep in mind: many of those who most vociferously mock religious Republicans harbor creationist beliefs of their own. Listen to some of these people talk about Nature, and how everything in Nature must have some beneficial use to us if only we had the wisdom to find it, or how the answer to every problem lies in turning away from Technology and looking in Nature. Dress up creationism in pseudo-pagan language, and they just eat it up.

I tend to agree, especially after I found out that the Louisiana senate vote was 94-3 in favor of the "academic freedom" bill. I also agree with the other sentiment about the greens. It is amazing how many people absolutely decry any talk about inequalities in humans, when evidence abounds that there is such, most of which is regional and accords with selective pressures (e.g. people of African descent tend to get hypothermia and frostbite more easily in the arctic circle, people of European descent tend to get heat stroke at the equator). Men and woman are different, too, but in different ways.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Darwin Shirts For Your Amusement

Zazzle has some Darwin shirts with variations on the theme of change.

Jerry Coyne on "Why Evolution is True."

Forbes Magazine has an article by Jerry Coyne, an ecology and evolution professor at the University of Chicago, who recently wrote the book Why Evolution is True. He writes:

My recent book, Why Evolution Is True, gives 230 pages of evidence for evolution--evidence from many areas of biology, including the fossil record, anatomy, biogeography and molecular biology. My main problem in writing the book was not deciding what to present, but what to leave out; I could easily have made it three times longer without even beginning to exhaust the data. There is so much evidence and so many kinds of evidence that one would have to be either willfully ignorant or blinded by faith to think otherwise.

I have said as much. The article is, in large part, a rebuttal to an article written by a neurosurgeon, Michael Egnor, who wrote an article for Forbes called "A Neurosurgeon, Not a Darwinist." In it, he recounts that the reading of Michael Denton's book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis as his principle inspiration. As Coyne notes:

If Egnor had bothered to look just a little into Denton's book and its current standing, he would have learned that the arguments in it have long since been firmly refuted by scientists. Indeed, they were recanted by Denton himself in a later book more than 10 years ago.

Egnor reportedly had a bad time of it:

I came to learn why evolutionary biologists are so fiercely devoted to Darwinism. I was vilified on the Internet. Calls came to my office demanding that I be fired.

And much of the venom was ideological. The vast majority of evolutionary biologists are atheists. I'm Catholic, and my religious faith was mocked by my fellow scientists. Many Darwinists openly express their hatred for Christianity--atheist biologist P.Z. Myers desecrated a Eucharistic host on his Web site.

In 1989, Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote in the New York Times book review section that people who don't accept evolution are "ignorant, stupid, insane … or wicked." He has described the religious upbringing of children as "child abuse."

The behavior of P.Z. Myers and Richard Dawkins is worthy of condemnation, and more than a few people have written scathing reviews of Dawkins' book The God Delusion. That doesn't make evolution untrue. It is also quite true that people of faith who accept evolution have been called "atheists who are going to Hell" by their fellow Christians. There is enough vitriol to go around.

It is telling that he is a neurosurgeon but not a "Darwinist." There are no evolutionary biologists who refer to themselves as "Darwinists." Instead, that is a word of choice by the ICR and the Discovery Institute, who's members use it pejoratively. It also suggests someone who has little understanding of evolution. Coyne rightly castigates him for it:

Let's examine Egnor's main criticism of evolutionary theory. "The fossil record," he writes, "shows sharp discontinuity between species, not the gradual transitions that Darwinism inherently predicts."

This is sheer nonsense. As all biologists know, we have many examples not only of gradual change within species but also of "transitional forms" between very different kinds of species. These include fossil links between fish and amphibians, reptiles and birds, reptiles and mammals and, of course, the famous fossils linking apelike creatures with our own species, Homo sapiens. Does Egnor not know this, or is he simply trying to mislead the reader?

I think the answer is that, yes, he does not know this. Especially if his only exposure to evolution is through Denton and Johnson. He claims, however, to have read Richard Dawkins and Tim Berra. Dawkins is, if nothing else, an excellent evolutionary biologist and I am curious (enough to write a letter) at what Dr. Egnor found unpersuasive in either of those two authors. Berra wrote an excellent book a few decades back called Evolution and the Myth of Creationism, which is a clear, concise rebuttal to creationism.

Hat tip to Little Green Footballs

More on the Louisiana Bill

The Washington Times has a story on the passage of SB 561, the "academic freedom" bill that would allow supplemental materials into science classrooms. They note that the vote was 94-3 in favor of the bill—is Louisiana really that conservative?—but that Governor Bobby Jindal has not promised to sign it, but review it. They note:

"It's not about a certain viewpoint," said supporter Jason Stern, Vice President of the Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative group pushing the bill. "It's allowing [teachers] to teach the controversy. It's an academic freedom issue."

Would they think the same thing if someone wanted to teach an alternative to germ theory? Infections are caused by demons, rather than bacteria? If groups like the LFF can continue to promote the "teach the controversy" idea, despite the fact that there is none, they will continue to succeed. The story also notes:

Similar bills allowing teachers to criticize evolutionary theories have been introduced in Michigan, Missouri, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina, though some of them have died for the year as legislatures adjourned. The Discovery Institute, a think tank in Seattle that promotes the "intelligent design" theory, has helped craft many of the bills - a fact that has raised alarm among the bill's opponents.

The Louisiana bill would require the state board of education - at the request of a city, parish or local school board - to "allow and assist" schools to foster an environment that "promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis and open and objective discussion of scientific theories" such as evolution, global warming and human cloning.

Lauri Lebo is correct: the DI seems to have jettisoned the idea of promoting the science of intelligent design and is now consumed by the idea of ramming the "academic freedom" idea through the legal system. Their similarity to the ICR and like organizations just becomes more apparent every day.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

"Academic Freedom" Bill in Missouri

The Discovery Institute has set its sights on Missouri with House Bill 656, as reported by the NCSE. They write:

The bill would, if enacted, call on state and local education administrators to "endeavor to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues, including such subjects as the teaching of biological and chemical evolution," and to "endeavor to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies." "Toward this end," the bill continues, "teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of theories of biological and chemical evolution."

Compare that to the wording on the Academic Freedom Petition web site:

Providing teacher rights and protection for a public school teacher or a teacher at an institution of higher education to present scientific information pertaining to the full range of scientific views regarding biological and chemical evolution in applicable curricula or in a course of learning; providing employment and tenure protection and protection against discrimination for any public school teacher or teacher at a public institution of higher education related to the presentation of such information; and providing student protection for subscribing to a particular position on views regarding biological or chemical evolution.

There is no doubt this is a spearheaded campaign to discredit evolution in a way that will pass constitutional muster. The bill is being sponsored by four Republican state representatives. Why is it always Republicans that sponsor these things?

Lauri Lebo on Academic Freedom

Little Green Footballs called attention to an excellent paper written back in June for the Washington Spectator by Lauri Lebo, the reporter in the Dover township that covered the Dover-Kitzmiller trial. Calling attention to the Discovery Institute, she suggests that its strategy is also evolving:

For the Discovery Institute, much was at stake in its response to the Kitzmiller decision. The organization's Center for Science and Culture owes its existence to intelligent design. So in 2006, the Discovery staff published a peevish critique of Jones's decision in the book Traipsing into Evolution: Intelligent Design and the Kitzmiller v. Dover Decision.

Despite the book's defense of intelligent design, its final chapter reveals that the Institute has abandoned the concept—at least that is Discovery's public position. Instead of advocating intelligent design, the authors laid out a plan for the next attempt at subverting the teaching of evolutionary theory, this time using the code words "academic freedom."

This has played out beautifully for them: Louisiana, Missouri, Florida, Texas and a host of other states have all drafted legislation to enforce "academic freedom." As she notes:

Last fall the Discovery Institute and Motive Marketing, the publicists for the Ben Stein movie, launched a joint-venture website that promotes "academic freedom" bills and provides suggested wording for legislators. With minor revisions, the wording of the state bills introduced thus far closely follows the website's model legislation.

Lebo writes that so far (June 2008) none of the legislation has yet made it into law. That is no longer true with the passage of Louisiana Senate Bill 561. Other bills will probably pass and, since they are so vaguely worded, it will be hard to challenge them on their face. As soon as creationism shows up in the public school classrooms, though (and it will), they can be tested. That will happen soon enough.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Return of the Peppered Moth

The Independent has an article on Michael Majerus, the geneticist who recently passed away, and who spent much of his professional life with the oft-belittled Peppered Moth. It is a standard talking point of creationists that the original research on the Peppered Moth was wrong. Henry Morris wrote, in 1984:

The words of this writer, in a book published almost 30 years ago, are still relevant. "The classic example of the peppered moth. . . . was not evolution in the true sense at all but only variation. Natural selection is a conservative force, operating to keep kinds from becoming extinct when the environment changes" (Scientific Creationism, 1974, p. 51).

Majerus wrote in 1997 that the evidence for selection in the Peppered Moth was nominal at best, which set off a firestorm and gave creationists ammunition. So he got to work:

It took him seven years of meticulously planned experiments which tested and compared the predation of the moths by birds and bats by release and recapture, and of the respective behaviour of wild and lab-reared moths. He also redetermined exactly where the moths rest by day, a controversial part of the original research which had been criticised on the grounds that the moths never rested on tree trunks. Majerus proved the critics wrong: they do (it is just that they are hard to see). His work is seen as a significant contribution to the evolution versus creation/intelligent design debate, and has helped to swing the international scientific consensus back in favour of the Peppered Moth as a supreme and easily understood example of evolution.

May he rest in peace.

Louisiana's Loss is Utah's Gain

The Salt Lake City Tribune is reporting that the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology is moving from New Orleans to Salt Lake City for their annual conference. The article, by Brian Maffly, notes:

The Louisiana Science Education Act -- similar to a measure Utah lawmakers rejected three years ago -- allows local school boards to introduce creationist materials into the classroom under the guise of promoting "critical thinking" toward the theory of evolution, critics say.

"This law undermines the integrity of science and science education in Louisiana," wrote Richard Satterlie, president of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, in Feb. 5 letter to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who signed the controversial bill into law last June.

"Utah, in contrast, passed a resolution that states that evolution is central to any science curriculum," the letter continued. "As scientists it is our responsibility to oppose anti-science initiatives."

The 2011 event will bring up to 2,000 biologists to Salt Lake City for the first week of January. For Satterlie, it was a tough call to bail on New Orleans, which twice hosted the society before Hurricane Katrina's devastating 2005 visit.

I wonder how SB 561 would fair if it were put to a referendum? More power to Utah.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Defying Darwin"

In a long post for the Guardian, Stephen Moss asks why creationists are still "Defying Darwin." In it, he contrasts the creationism movement in the U.S. with the one in England with an example:

By contrast, Britain's creation museum, Genesis Expo, is housed in a former bank next to the bus station on the harbour front in Portsmouth. It does not appear to have any connection with Hollywood, and is an animatronic-free zone. The sign stretching across the front of the building is peeling, an elderly volunteer from a local church is manning the front desk, and the museum is only slowly converting its stock of creationist videos to DVD. The upside is that Genesis Expo is free to enter.

The bulk of the article is a history of creationism in England with a few anecdotes thrown in. It is a fascinating read:

"Most scientists believe in evolution because they believe that most scientists believe in evolution," says the evangelical preacher and author Brian Edwards. "We do believe in evolution, that things develop. But there's not a shred of evidence for macro evolution - the jump from one species to another. The fins of a fish can't become the wings of a bird or the arms of a man. All we know of genetics is that you can't have a half-formed eye; you can't have steps towards a fully formed eye. All that we know of the genome system supports creationism, not evolution. It's not just a matter of our faith; it's an intellectual issue. Darwin's had an easy ride. He's not the great hero."

Emphasis on the word "preacher." It is amazing how many stock evolution myths one can throw out in a single breath. These people don't have a clue what evolution actually posits. They take their talking points from organizations that do no scientific investigation and, for some reason, they think that is okay. Read the whole thing.

Louisiana: the Second Casualty

The Times-Picayune has an editorial on the recent decision of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology to spurn New Orleans for its 2011 convention. James Gill writes:

In his letter to Jindal, Satterlie says the society will be urging other scientific organizations to "reconsider any plans to host meetings in Louisiana."

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is already committed to New Orleans for this year, but that will be it. Its president Gregory Petsko has declared, "No future meeting of our society will take place in Louisiana as long as that law stands." "That law" is the Louisiana Science Education Act, which is named for what it is designed to destroy. Jindal signed it last year, clearing the way for creationism to be taught in biology class.

Satterlie wants Jindal to work for a repeal of the act in this year's session, but parting the Red Sea would be child's play by comparison. The bill received only three nay votes in the House last year, and none at all in the Senate, so even if Jindal were prepared to heed the voice of reason, he could probably never twist enough arms in the corridors of the Capitol to engineer a repeal.

But the voice of reason cuts no ice with Jindal anyway, at least on this issue. He refused to veto the bill last year, ignoring the pleas not only of Satterlie's group, but the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a slew of other learned bodies and even his old genetics professor from Brown University.

Perhaps he really does feel as strongly about ID as Kenneth Miller feels about evolution. If so, Louisiana is in for a bad time.

Louisiana: the First Casualty

There is a story in BeliefNet news reporting that a major scientific organization is bypassing New Orleans for its annual convention in 2011. Bill Barrow writes:

A national organization of scientists has informed Gov. Bobby Jindal that it will not hold its annual convention in Louisiana as long as the recently adopted science curriculum standards remain on the books.

The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology told Jindal that its executive committee chose Salt Lake City for its 2011 convention over New Orleans "in large part" because of the science standards. The letter from society president Richard Satterlie is posted on the group's Web site under the headline: "No Thanks, New Orleans."

Here is a link to the letter, in which he states that SB 561 undermines science and science education. One hopes that Jindal will take notice. One also hopes that other scientific organizations will consider doing this as well. When science is co-opted by politicians, nothing good can come of it.

Trouble in Hong Kong

There is an editorial by Alex Lo in the South China Morning Post responding to the story of a professor at the University of Hong Kong, Chris Beling, who is upset that the administration, with support of the faculty, threw out a course he had developed on intelligent design. Compounding the problem is that he showed up on a radio debate arguing the case for ID. The story, itself, only shows up in the SCMP and they want money to read it so I will not link it. Here is the editorial, in somewhat peculiar form. He writes, charitably:

No one is questioning his faith. As a Hong Kong resident, he must be free to believe in, and openly practise, whatever religion he subscribes to. He should be completely free to teach intelligent design in a church, or even in university classes for theology or philosophy. He should enjoy the same freedom if he were a devotee of fung shui or astrology. Indeed, I applaud him for taking part in an RTHK radio debate last week about creationism and evolution to mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday. By arguing for the contentious doctrine in public, he has performed a valuable service to the community.

Then the other shoe drops:

But intelligent-design theory today is often clothed in modern biological or physics terminology to make it sound more scientific. Its leading advocates at the Seattlebased [sic] Discovery Institute argue “ certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection”. But beneath their rhetoric, they are creationist at the core. They insist on the theory’s scientific status because of the peculiar culture and politics in the US.

He is correct on both points. I wonder how correct he is about the "peculiar culture" of the U.S. The most vocal creationist in this country, builder of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, is a native Australian. Creationism is, apparently, alive and well over there.

Completed Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome

The Max Planck Institute has completed a draft of the Neandertal genome in the hopes of determining just how different Neandertals were from modern humans. The story in Business Wire notes:

The Neanderthal project, spearheaded by Dr. Svante Pääbo, Director of the Institute’s Department of Evolutionary Anthropology and Michael Egholm, Chief Technology Officer at 454 Life Sciences, developed from the results of a study published in Nature in 2006, detailing the ability of 454 Sequencing to determine large amounts of nuclear DNA sequences from late Pleistocene animals such as cave bears, mammoths, as well as the Neanderthal. The goal of the project is to identify areas in the genome where humans have undergone rapid evolution since the split from Neanderthals: the genetic changes that define us as human. This analysis is achieved by comparing the Neanderthal reference to the human and chimpanzee reference genome sequences as well as to the genomic variation among humans today.

Let the fun begin.

Evolution and Misinterpretation

William Reville of the Irish Times reminds us (and some need it more than others) that any theory can be misinterpreted and used badly. He writes:

The eugenics movement was started by Darwin’s cousin, the polymath Francis Galton (1822-1911). He reasoned, after reading Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species, that human society thwarts natural selection by allowing the less desirable varieties to survive. Eugenics (from the Greek meaning “good birth”) aimed to improve the quality of the human race by selective breeding, just as animal breeders selectively breed to enhance desirable characteristics. Galton didn’t prescribe that coercion be used to further his aims, assuming that a widespread knowledge of the principles of eugenics would automatically favour “sensible” breeding patterns.

Eugenics was enthusiastically taken up in the US and Europe. However, it gradually degenerated into notions of racial superiority and racial hygiene. The concept of racial hygiene was vigorously promoted in German biomedical circles. It was enthusiastically adopted by the Nazis who used it to “scientifically” rationalise their racist ideology. The whole thing ended up in the horror of the concentration camp gas chambers.

Eugenics was an awful chapter in the history of science and a permanent reminder of how careful we must be when we interpret social organisation in evolutionary terms.

The back of the late Michael Crichton's book State of Fear, has a wonderful exposition of how science, when used outside of scientific practice by non-scientists can go horribly wrong. Now then, repeat after me: Darwin does not equal Hitler.

Back to work

I have been off the grid for a few days, babysitting, working here at the lab and the like. Time to get back to it.

Monday, February 16, 2009

"Why Not Bring a Neanderthal Back to Life?"

John Tierney of the NYT (yes, I am going to have to come to grips with the fact that I like the science section of the Times but can't stand the rest of the paper) asks the question "Why Not Bring a Neanderthal Back to Life?" Time to drop the "h" in Neandertal, John. The Germans did that a century ago. Anyhoo, here is what he says:

Now that the Neanderthal genome has been reconstructed, my colleague Nicholas Wade reports, a leading genome researcher at Harvard says that a Neanderthal could be brought to life with present technology for about $30 million.

So why not do it? Why not give Harvard’s George Church the money he says could be used to resurrect a Neanderthal from DNA?

I’m bracing for a long list of objections from the world’s self-appointed keepers of bioethics, who must see this new Neanderthal issue as a research bonanza. Think of the conferences to plan, the books to publish, the donors to alarm! I can imagine an anti-Neanderthal alliance between the religious right and the religious left, like James Dobson and Jeremy Rifkin — what I like to call the holier-than-thou coalition opposed to new biological technologies.

Yes, John, there will be many, many objections. First, to what end? He continues:

But I’m afraid I can’t see the problem. If we discovered a small band of Neanderthals hidden somewhere, we’d do everything to keep them alive, just as we try to keep alive so many other endangered populations of humans and animals — including man-biting mosquitoes and man-eating polar bears. We’ve also spent lots of money reintroducing animals into ecosystems from which they had vanished. Shouldn’t be at least as solicitous to our fellow hominids?

Here's the problem that I see: Neandertals are also Homo sapiens, but extinct Homo sapiens. And everyone knows it. How would they be resurrected in a way in which they would not be treated as second-class citizens, if citizens at all? The old racial arguments would resurface in a way in which they have not done so for a century or more. Where would we put them? As Dave Frayer points out, there are no humans on the face of the planet that have the whole suite of Neandertal traits. They would be instantly recognizable.

Furthermore, what Tierney doesn't say is that in the places where we have reintroduced animals into environments in which they have vanished, it hasn't always worked. And where animals have been introduced where they weren't there to begin with, it has been disastrous. To be sure, this is not exactly Jurassic Park but, quite simply, there is a reason Neandertals didn't survive beyond 26 ky BP. The world changed, and they didn't change with it. Maybe there was hybridization between the Neandertals and the incoming moderns, maybe not, but Neandertals as they are defined between 100 and 26 ky ago, were outcompeted as a hominid and consigned to the dustbin of history. Lets leave them there.

Editorial on the Texas State Board of Education

The Houston Chronicle has an editorial in their Outlook section by State Senator Rodney Ellis and State Representative Patrick Rose on the State Board of Education and the continuing efforts of some of the members to push both creationism and ID. They write:

Last session, the Legislature committed to investing $3 billion over the next 10 years in making Texas the global leader in cancer research and finding cures. This historic investment is certain to bring economic and academic opportunities to our state.

Sadly, even as our state takes one step forward, the SBOE moves us two steps back by continuing to support a diminished standard or science education. Texas’ credibility and its investment in research and technology are placed at risk by these ongoing, unproductive debates.

This is a critical issue and a critical time. Study after study has demonstrated that states which do well in science education have the brightest long-term economic future. According to Gov. Rick Perry’s Select Commission on Higher Education and Global Competitiveness, despite improved scores in math and reading, Texas’ students continue to lag alarmingly behind other states in science proficiency.

It probably doesn't help that the same Rick Perry, who isn't listening to his committee, just recently reappointed the manifestly unqualified dentist Don McLeroy as head of the SBOE. Here is something hopeful:

To ensure that the SBOE works as it should, we have filed legislation to place the board under periodic review by the Sunset Advisory Commission and hold them accountable for their performance, just as we do the Texas Education Agency and other state agencies.

Not a moment too soon.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The ICR and Charles Darwin

The ICR has written a rebuttal to the celebration of Charles Darwin's birthday. They write:

Much of the world will celebrate the life and work of Charles Darwin during his 200th birthday on February 12. "Celebrate" is an understatement; "worship" better describes the veneration given to the man who popularized the notion that God had nothing to do with the origin or development of the universe and all it contains.

"Notion" is an appropriate description; "theory" is too generous. For the philosophy of science called "evolution" is just that--a philosophical system of belief that cannot be substantiated by any observable evidence, either in action today or through nature's record of the past. Even Darwin admitted that certain evidence might later be uncovered that would contradict his conclusions.

To say that Charles Darwin influenced his world greatly cannot be disputed. To say that he was a great man is an unfortunate exaggeration.

Fish? Barrel? Nobody worships Charles Darwin. He was a great thinker who came up with a unifying theme for biology, much like Newton came up with a unifying theme (sort of) for gravitation. To say that his "philosophical system of belief" (it is no such thing) has no observable evidence is willful ignorance which reflects absolutely no knowledge of the fields of biology or geology. To say such a thing in the face of the vast amount of evidence for evolution is, quite frankly, stupid. Yes, Darwin was a great man, in the same way that Newton, Einstein, Kepler, Copernicus and Maxwell were.

The rest of the article is a plug for their recent issue of Acts and Facts. In it is an advertisement for Henry Morris' The Vanishing Case for Evolution, which has a publication date of 2009. Here's the problem: Henry Morris died in 2006. When was this article written? At the bottom, it states that the article is adapted from an article written in 1986. Not exactly timely.

The Houston Chronicle Comments on Charles Darwin's Birthday

There is an editorial in the Houston Chronicle on the birthday of Charles Darwin. Commenting on the recent Gallup poll and Texas science standards, the author writes:

Americans are, of course, free to believe in evolution or not, as a private matter. But when it comes to public policy, the Supreme Court has barred public authorities from prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools. The teaching of creation science is also prohibited.

Which brings us to the Texas Board of Education and the consistent efforts of several of its members to undermine the teaching of evolution in public school science textbooks and courses. (Please see today’s Outlook piece, “State Board of Education must be held accountable.”)

Darwin wouldn’t be surprised. In The Descent of Man, he acknowledged that his conclusions that humans evolved from lower organisms “will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many.”

Apparently so.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Creation/Evolution Debate Through Art

The Orlando Sentinel has an article on an exhibit at Florida Atlantic University on "Designing Intelligence?: Continuing the Intelligent Design Project" by AdrienneRose Gionta, co-curator of the show. The article notes:

She said her catastrophe pieces relate to the creationism/evolution debate, "because they're about creation as well as destruction. I think my work definitely deals with the idea of artists playing God. In that respect, it does relate, because artists create things out of nothing in general."

Organized as an independent curatorial study, "Designing Intelligence?" is the first exhibition Gionta curated, on a topic that has obsessed her for more than a year and a half. Raised Catholic, she never heard about evolution until college. It was then that she began to question her long-held beliefs in creationism. It wasn't until recently that she heard the phrase "intelligent design," which tries to reconcile the unanimity of evolutionary belief in the scientific community with the overriding hand of God.

Well, that is not what ID is trying to do. They are trying to do away with evolution. That is the point. An interesting take.

Robert Schlesinger Comments on Gallup Poll

Robert Schlesinger has a short column in U.S. News and World Report that has a link to some of the debates that have been held in the pages of the magazine. This says it all, though:

Less than 40 percent of Americans believe Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Seriously?

I guess the upside is that the figure—39 percent—is a plurality of respondents in a new Gallup poll. Fully a quarter of Americans said that they reject evolution, while 36 percent say they don't have an opinion.

Again: Seriously? More than 1 in 3 Americans, asked about evolution, respond with a shrug? Maybe that's one where the science and faith sides of the issue can find common ground—come on, people.

As my coach from high school used to say: "Get With the Program!!"

Friday, February 13, 2009

Short List of Transitional Fossils

Yahoo News has a story from LiveScience editor Robin Lloyd on the record of transitional fossils in the geological column. Most of it is taken from Donald Prothero's excellent book Evolution: What The Fossils Say and Why it Matters. For example:

  • Tiktaalik, aka the fishibian or the fishapod, is a large scaled fish that shows a perfect transition between fins and feet, aquatic and land animals. It had fish-like scales, as well as fish-like fin rays and jaw and mouth elements, but it had a shortened skull roof and mobile neck to catch prey, an ear that could hear in both land and water, and a wrist joint that is like those seen in land animals.
  • Last year, scientists announced the discovery of Gerobatrachus hottorni, aka the frogamander. Technically, it's a toothed amphibian, but it shows the common origins of frogs and salamanders, scientists say, with a wide skull and large ear drum (like frogs) and two fused ankle bones as seen in salamanders.
Read the whole thing. Better yet, pick up Prothero's book.

Ken Ham on Charles Darwin's 200th Birthday

There is a short article on France 24, which highlights the stupendously uphill battle that science education has in this country. Ken Ham says it straight out:

Ham said, “What this museum is saying is that God created the world in 6 days, about 6000 years ago.”

Now the scary part:

The Page family, visitors of the museum, had theories of their own. Kelly Page, the father, claims that dinosaurs never went extinct. “Humans used to live 900 years, so reptiles actually never stopped growing. Dinosaurs are just big lizards. Now the lizards don’t live as long, so they don’t get as big.”

Great Googlymoogly!! Science education has completely failed Kelly Page. How do you combat nonsense like that?

Gallup Poll on Evolution

The Gallup organization has released a poll on the "belief" in evolution:

On the eve of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, a new Gallup Poll shows that only 39% of Americans say they "believe in the theory of evolution," while a quarter say they do not believe in the theory, and another 36% don't have an opinion either way. These attitudes are strongly related to education and, to an even greater degree, religiosity. The poll was based on a random sample of 1018 adults, 18 and over.

The graphs are inciteful and show a results that are in keeping with other polls that have been conducted on the topic. Depressing.
Hat tip to LGF.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Comment on the Evolution Forum at U.S. News and World Report

Ralph from Massachussetts has the right idea here:

Schools absolutely should teach creationism. And also faith healing, astrology, flat earth, alchemy, UFO visitations, and the theory that a giant bowl of spaghetti circles the earth and keeps watch on all of us. Boards like Texas's are just not thinking big enough: we need to study the controversies in all science classes.

Good going, Ralph.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"Darwinism Must Die"

the NYT (yes, I know about my moratorium, but this article is too good to pass up) has an article by Carl Safina called "Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live." The focus of the article is that the vast majority of what we have learned about evolution is in the 150 years since the publication of The Origin of Species. He writes:

Science has marched on. But evolution can seem uniquely stuck on its founder. We don’t call astronomy Copernicism, nor gravity Newtonism. “Darwinism” implies an ideology adhering to one man’s dictates, like Marxism. And “isms” (capitalism, Catholicism, racism) are not science. “Darwinism” implies that biological scientists “believe in” Darwin’s “theory.” It’s as if, since 1860, scientists have just ditto-headed Darwin rather than challenging and testing his ideas, or adding vast new knowledge.

It is telling that when one reads articles by promoters of ID, they call it "Darwinism." I have long pointed out that when someone calls it that, it is a sure sign that they know little about evolution. He continues:

Charles Darwin didn’t invent a belief system. He had an idea, not an ideology. The idea spawned a discipline, not disciples. He spent 20-plus years amassing and assessing the evidence and implications of similar, yet differing, creatures separated in time (fossils) or in space (islands). That’s science. That’s why Darwin must go.

If promoters of ID can keep the discussion focused on the "cult of Darwinism," they can continue to promote the idea that "Darwinism" has been harmful to society. Once you drag in the vast amount of research that has been done in the last 150 years, they have little response.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Florida: the Battle Renewed

The Florida Times-Union is reporting that Stephen Wise, a Jacksonville representative is going to introduce a bill requiring teachers who teach evolution to also teach intelligent design.

Wise, the chief sponsor of the bill, expects the Senate to take it up when it meets in March. He said its intent is simple: "If you're going to teach evolution, then you have to teach the other side so you can have critical thinking."

Wise said that if the Legislature passes the bill, he wouldn't be surprised if there's a legal challenge.

"You just never know. They use the courts all the time. I guess if they have enough money they can get it in the courts," he said. "Someplace along the line you've got to be able to make a value judgment of what it is you think is the appropriate thing."

The Dover position statements of Barbara Forrest, Robert Pennock and Kenneth Miller should be required reading for anyone promoting this kind of bill. What "theory" does he propose teaching? There isn't any. The DI has pretty much admitted this.

"Strengths and Weaknesses" Bill in New Mexico

Not the sort of place that I expected this to happen, but according to the NCSE, a bill has been introduced into the New Mexico state legislature asking that school teachers be allowed to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of biological evolution.

The phrase "academic freedom" is not present in the bill, but it is clearly in the mold of the recent spate of antievolution "academic freedom" bills. As NCSE's Glenn Branch and Eugenie C. Scott recently wrote in Scientific American, "'Academic freedom' was the creationist catchphrase of choice in 2008: the Louisiana Science Education Act was in fact born as the Louisiana Academic Freedom Act, and bills invoking the idea were introduced in Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Missouri and South Carolina." Oklahoma, with its Senate Bill 320, joined the list in 2009.

Why doesn't someone promote a bill addressing the strengths and weaknesses of gravitational theory once in awhile? There is nothing in evolutionary theory that is not as well supported as gravity. How about a bill addresses the problems in germ theory? I have to agree with the NCSE that this is stealth creationism and that these bills don't appear in a vacuum. There is a guiding force behind them, which appears to be the Discovery Institute.

U.S. News and World Report on Evolution

U.S. News and World Report has a forum on the teaching of evolution in the public schools and invites your comments. I certainly invite you to read the comments. It is an interesting commentary on our "educated" society. Compare and contrast this:

Evolution is being taught as dogma to protect the Atheist religion from the obvious facts of science. As your article points out, a Christian can be a Christian if Evolution is proved. An Atheist cannot remain an Atheist if Darwin is disproved. I can begin to understand your fear.

We now have the Scopes Monkey Trials in reverse. Christians merely want to believe what the facts of science teach. We can see more and more clearly that the facts of science do not teach Evolution. Darwin was smart for 150 years ago, but recent discoveries have left him and his disciples behind. Let go of your stranglehold on our children and let them observe, experiment and Reason! Let them follow where the facts lead them.

with this:

Creationism, in all its various guises, has no scientific merit whatsoever and so should be barred from public school science classes. Creationists have another alternative however. Creationism could be legally taught in a comparative religion/philosophy course in any public school. Creationists have never availed themselves of this opportunity and the reason they have not is instructive: They would have to share the stage with other religions and with non-religious philosophical systems, a prospect they find to be intolerable. Moreover, such a course would almost certainly be an elective. This will not do. They must have no competition and it must be in a class that all students must take. No more clear evidence of their proselytory intent is needed.

Mr. Morris complains that since a majority of Americans believe in creation, that alone is reason to teach it. Rubbish! Science does not function on majority rule, but on facts. Moreover, public opinion that arises from ignorance, whatever the subject being considered, should not be the basis for any action. That Mr. Morris is all too willing to use ignorance as a weapon in his evangelical arsenal speaks volumes about both him and the ideas he espouses. The facts are incontrovertibly against creation and equally incontrovertibly in support of evolution. This is no impediment to Mr. Morris. He trots out all of the usual (and fully discredited) creationist arguments.

A plurality of ideas and then some.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

A Creationist Bill in Alabama?

NCSE is reporting on a bill that is being drafted in the Alabama legislature that it is thought would open the door to creationism in the public schools. Here is the bad language:

Section 3. Every K-12 public school teacher or teacher or instructor in any two-year or four-year public institution of higher education, or in any graduate or adult program thereof, in the State of Alabama, shall have the affirmative right and freedom to present scientific information pertaining to the full range of scientific views in any curricula or course of learning.

As we have seen in other areas of the country, the "full range of scientific views" might mean that Of Pandas and People will show up in the classrooms, as it did in Dover County, Pennsylvania. Here's the hopeful language:

Section 7. Nothing in this act shall be construed as protecting as scientific any view that lacks published empirical or observational support or that has been soundly refuted by empirical or observational science in published scientific debate. Likewise, the protection provided by this act shall not be restricted by any metaphysical or religious implications of a view, so long as the views are defensible from and justified by empirical science and observation of the natural world.

The second part of that section is a tad rickety, but this section is what will give science curriculum writers a chance to slam the door on creationism. The problem is the Don McLeroys of the world who will argue that creationism is science and point to the nonsense that the ICR puts out as "science."

The language suggests that the writers of the bill intend, as the folks in Texas have admitted about their bill, to squash the teaching of evolution. It is all aimed there. The other science disciplines are of secondary to tertiary importance. When you leave the writing of the curriculum to the local school boards, trouble inevitably ensues.

Hat tip to LGF.

More Association Fallacy at the the DI

John West writes a column for Forbes magazine arguing that the views of Charles Darwin laid the groundwork for the social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and the like that came after. He writes:

Darwin did oppose slavery, but his evolutionary justification of racism influenced the scientific community well into the 20th century. While most scientists have jettisoned Darwin's scientific racism, there are notable exceptions. In 2007, for example, Nobel laureate James Watson, who co-discovered the structure of DNA, sparked a furor by asserting that black Africans are biologically inferior to whites because of evolution.

What he doesn't mention in this paragraph is that the scientific community of biologists, evolutionists all, roundly condemned Watson for his positions, which are not scientifically founded. But this sidesteps the fact that Darwin was right about evolution, regardless of what his social views were. As Mark Isaak writes:

Virtually all Englishmen in Darwin's time viewed blacks as culturally and intellectually inferior to Europeans. Some men of that time (such as Louis Agassiz, a staunch creationist) went so far as to say they were a different species. Charles Darwin was a product of his times and no doubt viewed non-Europeans as inferior in ways, but he was far more liberal than most: He vehemently opposed slavery (Darwin 1913, especially chap. 21), and he contributed to missionary work to better the condition of the native Tierra del Fuegans. He treated people of all races with compassion.

West continues:

Perhaps Darwinism's most lasting cultural legacy has been the cultivation of a virulent strain of fundamentalism that treats modern science as the solution to all of humanity's problems.

From Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, who confidently asserts that according to science God is a "delusion," to Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer who cites Darwin to justify his view that "the life of a newborn baby is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee," Darwinism has evolved into a blunt club to silence discussion by equating any dissenting views on science issues with superstition.

Where is this virulent strain of fundamentalism? As anyone who reads the news knows, Dawkins and Singer, despite being well-known in their fields, are on the fringes socio-politically. There were massive protests to Singer's being hired at Princeton. Dawkins' book The God Delusion has received very few positive reviews.

But this sidesteps the problem of the "Association Fallacy" in which West is engaging. A knows B, B thinks X, therefore A thinks X. Anybody's ideas can be misused. Many people would argue that the existence of nuclear weapons is a manifest example of the misue of nuclear technology, yet I will grant you that no one disputes the existence of that technology. Evolutionary thought doesn't lead to the idea that other ethnic groups are inferior any more than embracing nuclear technology leads to the idea that you should go bomb your neighbors. But even if it did, it wouldn't change the existence of nuclear technology. More arrant nonsense from the DI.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Snake from Hell

First we had the "Frog from Hell." Now we have the "Snake from Hell." The fossilized remains of a snake have been discovered in Colombia that was absurdly large. The story, in Scientificblogging, notes:

Surrounded by huge trucks extracting coal from Cerrejon, one of the world's largest open-pit mines, researchers discovered fossilized bones of super-sized snakes and their prey, crocodiles and turtles, in the Cerrejon Formation, along with fossilized plant material from the oldest known rainforest in the Americas, which flourished at the site 58-60 million years ago.

Estimated Titanoboa size: 42 feet (13 meters); 1140 kilograms. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest snake ever measured was 10 meters (33 feet) in length. The heaviest snake, a python, weighed 183 kilograms (403 pounds).

The graphic from the Nature article shows the vertebrae of the critter:

Just after the first vertebra in the picture is, for comparison, the vertebebra of a modern 13-foot boa. Look at the size difference!! The snake is being called Titanoboa cerrojonensis. The last paragraph of the recent article in Nature reads:

Discovery of Titanoboa and the additional Cerrejon Formation fossil record indicates that components of modern neotropical riverine vertebrate faunas were assembled at most six to seven million years after the Cretaceous–Palaeogene extinction event.

Evolution moved fast. Here is the Nature citation:

Head JJ, Block JI, Hastings AK, Bourque JR, Cadena EA, Herrera FA, Polly D, Jaramillo CA (2009) Giant boid snake from the Palaeocene neotropics reveals hotter past equatorial temperatures. Nature 457(7230):715-718.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

"Jeffrey Dahmer Believed in Evolution"

Well, this is certainly getting a lot of airplay. The Texas Freedom Network is now reporting that a former language arts teacher in central Texas named Donna Garner sent out an email decrying the new standards that have been stripped of the "strengths and weaknesses" language. They provide the email, which says in part:

But the debate before the Board is not over micro-evolution, but over the teaching of -evolution. We have never observed one species becoming a different species (macro-evolution). And we have never observed how life began. This is where we need to examine the scientific strengths and weaknesses. And with respect to -evolution there are numerous scientific weaknesses, to name a few: (1) the Cambrian explosion of life; (2) gaps in the fossil record; (3) the intractable origin of life chemistry problems; (4) the origin of information in the DNA molecule; and (5) irreducibly complex features. Honest scientists acknowledge these and other weaknesses—but atheists don’t want these weaknesses highlighted—particularly not to our children. This is the Scopes Monkey Trial in reverse.

If I had a dime for every time I heard someone out of the field who spouts these same so-called "weaknesses"...I find it interesting that there is a dichotomy between "honest scientists" and "atheists." So, if you honestly think that there are no weaknesses, you are an atheist? I find that offensive. Next, we have the section that has the net in such an uproar:

Jeffrey Dahmer, one of America’s most infamous serial killers who cannibalized more than 17 boys before being captured, gave an last interview with Dateline NBC nine months before his death, and he said the following about why he acted as he did: “If a person doesn’t think that there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we died, you know, that was it, there was nothing….” (Dateline NBC, The Final Interview, Nov. 29, 1994).

So? Is Jeffrey Dahmer now representative of those who accept evolution? There are plenty of other philosophical leanings that also teach existentialism. Besides, both Dahmer and Garner clearly have a minimal understanding of evolution anyway. It doesn't teach what Dahmer states that it does. It says nothing about the afterlife or where we came from. His theology is no better than that of Dawkins.

This is the 'kitchen sink' approach. The Hitler meme didn't work—too much evidence has come to light that it doesn't hold up, so now it is time to throw at us someone else who believed in evolution that was a horrible monster. As much as it takes before we understand that evolution = Godlessness. There is little to no serious scientific thought behind this.

National Geographic Channel: Morphed

The National Geographic channel is showing a program this coming Sunday called Morphed, which is a program that demonstrates the evidence that modern whales evolved from land-dwelling animals since the end of the Cretaceous. Here is the neat graphic on the site, which shows three fossil forms:

The show is at 8:00 in the event. Set your VCRs or TiVos.

Ben Stein Withdraws

Ben Stein has withdrawn as the commencement speaker at the University of Vermont due to apparent public outcry over his association with creationism. The Burlington Free Press reports thus:

The choice of media personality Ben Stein as commencement speaker at the University of Vermont generated such a furor that Stein backed out, UVM President Dan Fogel confirmed Monday.

Fogel picked Stein largely because Stein had received an enthusiastic response from students at a lecture at UVM last spring. That talk, part of the Kalkin Lecture Series, focused on economic issues. "It was on the basis of that experience that I extended him an invitation to be our commencement speaker," Fogel said in a written statement issued Monday.

Even Richard Dawkins noticed. I find this troubling in that it is likely that Stein would have spoken about economics, a subject of which he knows quite a bit and not about ID. On the other hand, the film was so heavy-handed and one-sided that it pretty much hacked off the entire academic community. The reaction seems over the top, nonetheless.

Monday, February 02, 2009

New Search For Noah's Ark

Hope springs eternal! Randall Price, director of Liberty University's new Center for Judaic Studies is planning a trip up Mount Ararat in an attempt to find Noah's Ark. This, despite the fact that there isn't a bit of evidence that it is there, rather than somewhere else in the Taurus arc. Urartu is a big place, after all and the idea that the Ark is actually on Massis, itself, is an Armenian tradition and dates to around the second century A.D. Nevertheless, up they go.

This summer Price, 57, plans to continue on a journey to prove just that as he joins an expedition to Mount Ararat. His team believes that it is there, in Eastern Turkey, where Noah's Ark remains preserved underneath layers of rubble and ice.

"There's a whole trail of history pointing to it [Mt. Ararat]," Price said in a recent interview. "But in our age, people tend to think it is more of a story like Jack and the Bean Stalk.' Our aim is to show that the Bible is good history."

If, in fact, the Ark is up there, I am not sure how they are going to get it down. If, as many theologians believe, the Noah's Ark story and that of Utnapithim from the Gilgamesh epic draw from the same source, they are going to be searching a long time. The other side of the coin is, of course, that if it is up there, all of modern science is wrong. What are the odds?

Another "Light Rain" Forecast

This is what passes for light rain in Knoxville. Don't know how long it will last but it is pretty, at least.

Still No Response...

I have still received no response from Barbara Cargill in Texas concerning my letter to her. I didn't think that I would.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Discovery Institute Exposes Even More of its Creationist Side

Little Green Footballs has caught the DI in another example of a creationist lie—one that it is difficult to believe they don't know the truth of. The lie is that Hitler used Darwinian philosophy to launch his Holocaust against the Jews. I have blogged about this before. The piece at the DI is by David Klinghoffer, who should know better and LGF calls him on the carpet for it:

The problem with this idea is simple—it’s not true. Klinghoffer claims that Mein Kampf uses “the language of Darwinian biology,” but in fact, Charles Darwin and the theory of natural selection are not mentioned even once in Mein Kampf. Klinghoffer’s claim is just short of an outright lie.

What was new to me is the information that Hitler banned Darwin's books. LGF quotes from When Books Burn: A List of Banned Books, 1933-1939 and one of the banned items in the Third Reich was:

6. Writings of a philosophical and social nature whose content deals with the false scientific enlightenment of primitive Darwinism and Monism (Häckel).

You can tell the people at the DI this. They will find some way not to believe it. This is similar to the creationist idea that there are no transitional fossils in the rock record—when the truth is the opposite. It is only willful ignorance that perpetuates this viewpoint. As I have said before, it is getting harder and harder to tell the DI from the ICR. Sad.