Friday, May 29, 2009

Palaeontology is Not Cheap!

UPI is reporting that Jorum Hurum admitted that he paid 750 000 dollars for the fossil primate remains named Ida. As the story notes:
Hurum said he had no regrets regarding his purchase of the controversial fossil from an amateur collector, who had kept the fossil in a basement for 25 years since it was initially discovered in Germany in 1983, The Times of London said Thursday.

"It's the only near-complete fossil primate ever found. There is absolutely nothing like it," said Hurum, who took the fossil to the Natural History Museum in Oslo after purchasing it. "She could easily have been bought by a private collector and disappeared for another 20 years."

The downside to this, of course, is that people will realize that money is to be made in this sort of endeavor and we may have a return to the problems of the early 1900s when palaeolithic sites all over Europe were "excavated" by people (Otto Hauser being one) who then sold their wears to the highest bidder. The most aggravated example of this in recent times is the discovery of a pivotal Homo erectus skull on the shelf of a curio shop in Manhattan. To be sure this happens more often than we suppose but the precedent is troublesome.

Extinction in the Oceans

A news article that appeared on Yahoo News has implicated a huge volcanic eruption 260 million years ago in the devastation of life in the oceans:
The researchers were able to pinpoint the exact timing of the massive eruption thanks to a layer of fossilized rock which showed mass extinction of different life forms -- clearly linking the volcanic blasts to a major environmental catastrophe.

"The abrupt extinction of marine life we can clearly see in the fossil record firmly links giant volcanic eruptions with global environmental catastrophe," said Paul Wignall, a professor and palaeontologist at the University of Leeds, who was the lead author of the research paper in the May 29 edition of Science.

The eruption in southwest China unleashed about a half million cubic kilometers of lava, covering an area five times the size of Wales, according to the research by scientists at the British university.

Although the news of the extinction is new, the existence of this volcano is not. Geologic maps dating from the 1960s clearly showed the existence of a massive cone in central-west China. I remember looking at them and thinking "dang, that's a huge volcano."

McLeroy is Out

Terrence Stutz of the Dallas Morning News is reporting that Don McLeroy, the head of the Texas State Board of Education has failed to pass his confirmation hearing:
Along strict party lines, the Senate voted 19-11 for McLeroy, but a two-thirds majority was required. One Democrat abstained from the vote.

Several Democrats cited the recurring divisiveness on the board with McLeroy at the helm, along with his resistance to the views of educators and education experts on curriculum and other matters.

GOP senators rejected the criticism and accused the Democrats of holding an "inquisition" against the College Station Republican for holding views shared by many Texans – including a Bible-based explanation for the origin of humans.

No, actually, the Democrats were trying to keep Texas from looking like more of a laughing stock than it already has become on this issue. As to the last statement: if many Texans thought that the earth was flat, should that be taught in Texas public schools? Oh, and I also happen to have a "Bible-based" explanation for the origin of humans. It just isn't Dr. McLeroy's "Bible-based" explanation.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Jim Henson's The Dinosaur Train

The Jim Henson Company is going to be showing The Dinosaur Train on PBS Kids. According to the PR announcement on PR Newswire:
DINOSAUR TRAIN is seen through the eyes of Buddy, a preschool-aged Tyrannosaurus Rex. Buddy and his adoptive family of Pteranodons go for adventures on the Dinosaur Train to meet all kinds of dinosaurs in different eras and learn fascinating new facts about these incredible creatures.

"Based on input from paleontologists, science educators and early childhood education experts, DINOSAUR TRAIN has developed an ambitious and creative curriculum that harnesses children's enthusiasm for and curiosity about dinosaurs, sparking children's interest in life science and natural history," states Henson. "PBS KIDS has been an incredible partner with our current series SID THE SCIENCE KID, and our new project DINOSAUR TRAIN extends our mutual vision of creating quality, educational preschool programming by encouraging even more young viewers to get excited about science and the role it plays in our lives every day."

Keep your ears on the third rail for this one. It sounds like a winner. Of course, if I show this to my kids and then they go back to school and get...well, we will cross that bridge when we get to it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Michael Shermer Rewrites Genesis

Michael Shermer suggests that if creationists have their way and it is taught as an alternative to evolution, the standard Genesis story will have to be, shall we say, redone. Its a howl. Here is a short section:
And God created the pongidids and hominids with 98 percent genetic similarity, naming two of them Adam and Eve, who were anatomically fully modern humans. In the book in which God explained how He did all this, in chapter one He said he created Adam and Eve together out of the dust at the same time, but in chapter two He said He created Adam first, then later created Eve out of one of Adam’s ribs. This caused further confusion in the valley of the shadow of doubt, so God created Bible scholars and theologians to argue the point.

And in the ground placed He in abundance teeth, jaws, skulls, and pelvises of transitional fossils from pre-Adamite creatures. One he chose as his special creation He named Lucy. And God realized this was confusing, so he created paleoanthropologists to sort it out. And just as He was finishing up the loose ends of the creation God realized that Adam’s immediate descendants who lived as farmers and herders would not understand inflationary cosmology, global general relativity, quantum mechanics, astrophysics, biochemistry, paleontology, population genetics, and evolutionary theory, so He created creation myths. But there were so many creation stories throughout the land that God realized this too was confusing, so he created anthropologists, folklorists, and mythologists to settle the issue.

Read the whole thing. A tad irreverent but, given the violence the creationists do the scripture, I think it is warranted.

Texas: Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire

Texas democrats claim they have enough votes to remove Donald McLeroy as head of the Texas State Board of Education, according to a story by Gary Scharrer in the Houston Chronicle. He writes:
The Bryan dentist has presided over a contentious 15-member State Board of Education that fought over curriculum standards for science earlier this year and English language arts and reading last year. Critics faulted McLeroy for applying his strong religious beliefs in shaping new science standards. McLeroy believes in creationism and that the Earth is about 6,000 years old.

“This particular State Board of Education under the leadership of Dr. McLeroy has been divisive. It’s been dysfunctional, and it has been embarrassing to the point of having commentary on this in the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal,” said Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

McLeroy’s leadership, she said, had made Texas “the laughing stock of the nation.”

It certainly has done that. But just when you thought things in Texas might get better, comes this:
There is speculation in the Capitol and within the Texas Education Agency that Gov. Rick Perry might elevate Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, to lead the board. Like McLeroy, Dunbar also holds strong Christian beliefs and recently authored a book that advocates more religion in the public square. “We believe that Texans deserve better than divisive, destructive, extreme leadership,” Shapleigh said. “If the governor chooses to appoint someone more extreme and more divisive, we’ll have to deal with that at the appropriate time.”
Ms. Dunbar, if you will remember, stood up in front of the Texas Board of Education and completely misrepresented Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Werner Arber's work as being anti-Darwinian on the strength of an ICR paper by Jerry Bergman. The misrepresentation received swift condemnation from Dr. Arber, himself. If Cynthia Dunbar is raised to the head of the SBOE, Texas may be back at square one.

The Evolution of Night Vision in Primates

According to a story in e! Science News, researchers investigating the embryological development of Owl Monkeys and Capuchin monkeys have determined that subtle changes in the developmental timing of the growth of rods and cones result in large changes in night vision capability:

By comparing the timing of retinal cell proliferation in the two species, the researchers found evidence that an extended period of progenitor cell proliferation in the owl monkey gave rise to an increased number of rod and other associated cells that make its eyes adept at night vision; the eyes also evolved to be large, with bigger light-gathering and light-sensing structures needed for nocturnal sight.

"The beauty of the evolutionary mechanism we have identified is that it enables the eye to almost toggle back and forth between a nocturnal and a diurnal structure," said neurobiologist Michael Dyer of St. Jude's hospital. "It is an elegant system that gives the eye a lot of flexibility in terms of specialization."

More pieces of the puzzle.

Ida and the Importance of Fossils

Jasmine Williams of the New York Post has a piece on Ida and also how fossils form and why they are important. She write:
Fossils can be found all over the world and range in size from the largest dinosaur bones -- more than 10 feet in length -- to plant spores that are a few 100ths of an inch across. The Earth's landscape is always changing and driving up long-buried fossils. While you may not find an Ida or Lucy, traces of ancient life are all around.
She also partakes in the kind of nonsense that generates problems for all concerned:
Until this discovery, the oldest known fossil linked to humans was that of Lucy, a 3-million-year-old adult female discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. However, Lucy was just 40 percent intact.
Ida lived 47 million years ago. She isn't a link to humans. She might not even be a link to modern-day lemurs and lorises. For crying out loud, we don't even know for sure which Miocene ape is the link to humans, and they lived within the last 10-15 million years. Ida is a neat fossil that tells us a great deal about EARLY primate evolution. It tells us zip about where humans came from.

New Resources Over at Steve Martin's Blog

Steve Martin over at An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution has a post on new resources, the "Test of Faith" site, BioLogos, which I mentioned a few posts back and Gordon Glover's excellent series on teaching science in the context of Christian Education. Stop by and check it out.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Axe That Roared

Maev Kennedy of The Guardian has a story about an axe that was found in a quarry by John Evans and Joseph Prestwich that has reappeared after 150 years. According to the story:
On 26 May 1859, six months before Charles Darwin shattered the biblical creation story when he finally plucked up the courage to publish his theory of natural selection, the stone hand axe from the bottom of a French quarry was presented to the world at a lecture at the Royal Society in London.

Neither John Evans nor Joseph Prestwich, the businessmen and amateur archaeologist and geologist who found it, nor their distinguished audience, could guess its true age, around 400,000 years. But they did know it came from "a very remote period", when the woolly mammoth and rhinos, whose bones were mixed up in the same layer, roamed the plains of northern France.

There was no way the mammoths and the man-made tool could be fitted into the traditional biblical timescale, calculated by the 17th-century Archbishop Ussher, that God made the world in 4004BC.

The axe then vanished for 150 years, until it was tracked down by another archaeologist and geologist team – Clive Gamble, a professor at Royal Holloway, and Robert Kruszynski of the Natural History Museum – who publish their quest in next month's Antiquity journal.

It is important to note that this was not the first stone tool to come out of the ground and that people were starting to get some odd ideas about just how literal the biblical creation story actually was. The Spy Neandertals had been unearthed in Belgium, in 1828, the Feldhofer cranium in the Neander Valley, in 1856, and other finds had come to light, as well. The axe was special because it showed prehistoric occupation of England, which had spent most of its time under large sheets of ice.

A Warning About Ida

Brian Switek writes for the Times Online that the hype surrounding Ida, the 47 million year old primate fossil only gets in the way of real research and misleads people into thinking evolution predicts that which it does not. He writes:
There is some irony in calling Ida the missing link. She was named Darwinius in honour of Charles Darwin, but the phrase “missing link” harkens back to a pre-evolutionary idea of nature. Called the Great Chain of Being, this interpreted all life as forming an immutable hierarchy, ordained by God, from “lower” to “higher”. Scholars believed that God favoured a full creation and each rank connected to the next, but “missing links” presented a problem. The link between humans and lower animals was the most elusive of all.

Our understanding of evolution could scarcely be more different. There is no evolutionary end point or fore-ordained hierarchy of beasts. Life is better understood from Darwin's perspective - as a wildly branching bush constantly being pruned and sending out new shoots through evolution. Calling Ida a missing link may grab attention, but it is incongruous with what Darwin proposed.

There has already been one ill-conceived Answers in Genesis paper because of the hype.

Arguing with a Creationist

Skeptoid has a post on the most common creationist arguments and how to counter them. He also includes an audio version. His is probably correct in his opening paragraph:
Debating with a creationist is actually really easy, because they only have a few standard arguments, and haven't come up with any new cogent ones for some time. These standard arguments have been published time and time again, and a practiced creationist can handily draw them like a six-gun at the drop of a hat. All of their arguments are silly in their wrongness and easily debunked, and if you're prepared in advance, it's easy to beat down any creationist with a quick verbal body slam. You're not going to change their mind, since creationists do not base their opinions upon rational study of the evidence; but you might help clear things up for an innocent bystander who overhears.
Sadly, he is right. You probably will not change their minds.

Hat tip to LGF.

Monday, May 25, 2009

American Humanists to Gather

The American Humanist Convention is being held at Tempe, Arizona in early June to celebrate the right to not believe in a higher being. Of course, front and center are PZ Meyers, Donald Johanson and Barbara Forrest. Meyers is an evolutionary biologist and runs the Pharyngula blog. Johanson is the discovery of the Lucy fossil in 1973 and Barbara Forrest was one of the key witnesses for the prosecution at the Dover trial in 2005. Yet another example of "godless evolution" making the newspapers. The creationists will have a field day.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Ah, the Intrigue of Palaeontology!

Here is some back story about the disovery of Ida and how it came into the hands of the scientists. It is the stuff of Nick Danger:
Hunched around a table at a vodka bar in Hamburg, Jørn Hurum, a palaeontologist, was about to make the scientific gamble of his life. Thomas Perner, a fossil dealer whom he knew well, had insisted they met; he had something very special to show him.

Looking nervously over his shoulder for prying glances, Perner put three ­photographs of a fossil on the bar table. "My heart started beating extremely fast," said Hurum. "I knew that the dealer had a world sensation in his hands. I could not sleep for two nights."

Rumours had been flying around for years in the palaeontological community about a spectacular primate fossil specimen. Now Hurum was one of the first people in the world to see it.

Read the whole thing.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A New Dating Method

According to a story from Science Centric, a new dating method involving water removal from an item during dating has come to light. The team of researchers from the University of Manchester and University of Edinburgh. The method involves the process of analyzing water absorption:
From the moment they are fired, ceramics begin to absorb moisture from the environment which causes them to gain mass. Using a technique they call rehydroxilation dating' researchers led by Dr Moira Wilson from the University of Manchester found that heating a sample of the relic to extreme temperatures causes this process to be reversed all the moisture it has gained since it was fired is lost again.

The more weight a sample loses during heating, the more moisture there was to start with, and so the older the relic. After heating, Wilson and her team used an extremely accurate measuring device to monitor the sample as it began to recombine with moisture in the atmosphere. They then used a law to predict how long it would take for all the water lost in heating to be reabsorbed, and so reveal the true age of the sample.

So far bricks from the Roman Empire have been successfully dated and the process has the potential to go back to 10 ky B.P.

Of course, all of the items that are dated should show varying amounts of moisture only for the last four thousand years or so. Before that, the world-wide flood would render all items waterlogged. As AIG states:
Genesis 11:10 tells us that Shem was 100 years old, 2 years after the Flood had finished. When was Noah’s Flood? 1,981 years to AD 0 plus 967 years to the founding of Solomon’s Temple plus 480 years to the end of the Exodus plus 430 years to the promise to Abraham plus 75 years to Abraham’s birth plus 350 years to Shem’s 100th birthday plus 2 years to the Flood. The Biblical data places the Flood at 2304 BC +/- 11 years.
Of course, if varying amounts of moisture are found in objects dated back before the supposed date of the flood, this would strongly suggest that no such flood took place, wouldn't it?

Friday, May 22, 2009

AIG Takes on Ida

Answers in Genesis has decided to wade into the fray involving Ida, the 47 million year old Eocene primate skeleton, which is thought by some to show transitional characteristics between modern prosimians and modern anthropoids. That Ida is important is unquestioned. How much information she can tell us is still open to debate. Currently, it is debated as to whether higher primates derived from the tarsidae, the omomyids that currently include tarsiers or the adapids, the group that likely gave rise to lemurs and lorises. Ida suggests that the adapids were the stem group.

AIG's response is nothing short of hilarious.

They write:
The well-preserved fossil (95 percent complete, including fossilized fur and more) is about the size of a raccoon and includes a long tail. It resembles the skeleton of a lemur (a small, tailed, tree-climbing primate). The fossil does not resemble a human skeleton.
This is the worst sort of straw man. Nobody in their right mind would confuse Ida with a human skeleton and AIG knows it. Ida is 47 my old. Humans have only been around in one form or another since around 6 my. After the preliminary information, they launch into their interpretation of the find. They make six points. I will analyze them one at a time:
1. Nothing about this fossil suggests it is anything other than an extinct, lemur-like creature. Its appearance is far from chimpanzee, let alone “apeman” or human.
Once again, this is a straw man argument and reveals that the writer knows nothing about primate evolution. Humans and chimpanzees did not split until around 8-10 mya, so it is clear that no creature at 47 mya is going to have characteristics like either of them. What it does show is characteristics that presaged the Oligocene primates. It was not until the Miocene that you get things that are recognizably apes. Therefore, of course it looks like an extinct lemur-like creature.
2. A fossil can never show evolution. Fossils are unchanging records of dead organisms. Evolution is an alleged process of change in live organisms. Fossils show “evolution” only if one presupposes evolution, then uses that presupposed belief to interpret the fossil.
Evolution is observable in modern species. It has even been shown to be the mechanism by which new species arise. Even some creationists have come around to this position, in the light of the evidence. If evolution is correct, then descent with modification has been occurring since the first life forms. Further, if the concept of common ancestry is correct, and if evolution describes the palaeontological record, then it should predict that as we go back in the fossil record, fossil remains will show more primitive (in the cladistic sense) traits and that different clades can be traced back to a common ancestor for those clades. As such, then the theory will predict what will be found in the palaeontological record.

There are countless examples of evolution's predictive power, from the discovery of of the fishapod Tiktaalik, found in Devonian shallow sea deposits, to the prediction that human ancestors would be found in the same continent as modern-day higher apes to the discovery of frogamanders that show stem characteristics of both salamanders and frogs. Many other examples of this exist. Is is possible that there is another explanation for this? Absolutely. But right now we already have an explanation for these things. It is called evolution. Are these fossils dead organisms. Yup. But they show characteristics that are intermediate between those that came before and those that followed. If one presupposes progressive creation, then one is forced to consider that God created numerous, slightly different species that followed each other and then killed off 99% of them over the course of biological time. If one presupposes an antediluvian time where these animals were all part of the biosphere, then one is forced to consider that, as crowded as our earth is right now, it is nothing compared to the wall-to-wall dinosaurs, primates, elephants, tigers and other animals that occupied the earth at that time.
3. Similarities can never show evolution. If two organisms have similar structures, the only thing it proves is that the two have similar structures. One must presuppose evolution to say that the similarities are due to evolution rather than design. Furthermore, when it comes to “transitional forms,” the slightest similarities often receive great attention while major differences are ignored.
This is peculiar. One almost gets the feeling that the author wants to include the design argument here. Is it true that two animals that have similar structures show, well, similar structures. But that is where the inference of common ancestry comes in. If you find animals in the fossil record that show characteristics of two different families of modern-day animals (say a frogamander) and you can show that, as you go back into the fossil record, those two forms have successively primitive and similar characteristics, then you can make inferences about why the two animals have similar structures. This is the all-important distinction between analogy (similar function but different form) and homology (different function but similar form). Bats and butterflies, for example, have similar structures that allow them to do the same thing: fly. On closer inspection, however, the wings of butterflies and the wings of bats are composed of very different structures. The wings are analogous. The fins of the latest lobe-finned fishes in the Devonian are composed of the same elements and are similar in form to the earliest limbs of the first tetrapods. They are homologous. That is why the discovery of Tiktaalik was so important. It showed characteristics of both the lobe-finned fish and the early tetrapods.

The last statement is nonsensical since there is no evidence to back it up. The reason there is nothing to back it up is that none exists. Without an understanding of the differences between homology and analogy, it would seem that some characteristics are not seen to be as important as others. The statement, then, stems more from a lack of understanding of evolutionary theory and basic biology as anything else.
4. The remarkable preservation is a hallmark of rapid burial. Team member Jørn Hurum of the University of Oslo said, “This fossil is so complete. Everything’s there. It’s unheard of in the primate record at all. You have to get to human burial to see something that’s this complete.” Even the contents of Ida’s stomach were preserved. While the researchers believe Ida sunk to the bottom of a lake and was buried, this preservation is more consistent with a catastrophic flood.4 Yet Ida was found with “hundreds of well-preserved specimens.”5
This is one of those statements that creationists dare not take to their logical conclusions. Does Ida show rapid burial? You bet. Okay, now extrapolate that rapid burial to the rest of the planet. It cannot be done. While the geological record shows some areas of rapid burials, it also shows depositional environments that were very slow, such as varves, chalk cliffs, buried coral reefs, dessication cracks and so on. These things are simply not possible in a rapid-burial environment. So, yes Ida was rapidly the Messel Pit.
5. If evolution were true, there would be real transitional forms. Instead, the best “missing links” evolutionists can come up with are strikingly similar to organisms we see today, usually with the exception of minor, controversial, and inferred anatomical differences.
I would like to think that this statement reflects nothing more than "culpable ignorance" rather than being a flat-out lie. There are thousands of transitional fossils at every major level, from orders down to species and at all points in the fossil record. The human fossil record, alone, has hundreds of fossils that are transitional between what came before and what came after. These are not minor, controversial differences. Homo habilis has facial characteristics of Australopithecus but a massively expanded braincase. Not minor. Over the course of a million years, the brain case of Homo erectus expanded from 700 cc to 1100 cc. Again, not minor. The discovery of non-avian dinosaurs with feathers was not a minor discovery. It showed that feathers evolved because they are remarkable insulators. The transitional characters of Archaeopteryx are not minor. They show an animal with both sauropod characteristics and avian characteristics. It is not a "true" bird, and it is not a "true" dinosaur, despite what creationists might want to believe. It is a "true" transitional form. AIG has to go out of its way to ignore this evidence.
6. Evolutionists only open up about the lack of fossil missing links once a new one is found. Sky News reports, “Researchers say proof of this transitional species finally confirms Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution,” while Attenborough commented that the missing link “is no longer missing.” So are they admitting the evidence was missing until now (supposedly)?
Again, this is nonsense. Palaeoanthropologists have complained for years and years, publicly even, that they wished they had more fossil data to bolster their hypotheses about where certain forms came from. The discovery in the last fifty years of whale precursors was a boon for the study of modern and palaeocetaceans because finally, scientists could begin to draw relationships between them and that the idea that a land mammal went back to the sea suddenly wasn't so crazy after all. Palaeoanthropologists are not bashful at all about the fact that we don't have a good record of the ape-human split. We have fossilized precursors to chimpanzees and we have early bipedal hominid fossils that date to around 6 to 7 million years ago. We don't have anything before that until around 10-11 mya. That sucks but whaddya do? You wait for more fossils to come out of the ground so you can draw more relationships and you work with what you have. Nobody said the fossil record was perfect. It is far from it. But it is good enough to show relationships between species, genus, families and orders.

Ida isn't the "missing link." Practicing scientists know that there is no such thing as the "missing link." It is an idiotic notion concocted to sell newspapers that creationists have latched onto. Each fossil find is a piece of the puzzle that tells us more about how the great story of life unfolded. Over time, we can put together enough of the pieces to determine what we think happened over here in this corner or that corner of the puzzle. It is a long way from being complete, but it gets better every year. And every year, it continues to show that the theory of evolution is remarkable in its ability to explain how the puzzle came to be.

As is usual, AIG's analysis is crippled by their complete lack of understanding of how the natural world is put together and what evolutionary theory actually posits and predicts. Without that basic understanding, their analysis is facile and misguided at best.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Primate Eye Evolution

Silver Scorpio has an article on research involving the primate eye and its evolution. They write:
Researchers comparing the fetal development of the eye of the owl monkey with that of the capuchin monkey have found that only a minor difference in the timing of cell proliferation can explain the multiple anatomical differences in the two kinds of eyes.

The findings help scientists understand how a structure as complex as the eye could change gradually through evolution, yet remain functional.

The findings also offer a lesson in how seemingly simple genetic changes in the brain and nervous system could produce the multiple evolutionary changes seen in more advanced brains, without compromising function.

Analysis for this study was performed at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the US.

Eye evolution has always been a hot topic for ID supporters and creationists because it is thought that there is no way compound eyes could have evolved (despite the fact that humans have one of a large number of different kinds of compound eye forms). This is at the heart of evo-devo, the idea that subtle changes in certain genes that are found throughout nature can result in large changes in phenotypic expression.

Evolution 101

A guest post in the Winston-Salem Journal by Adam Corey, a high school biology teacher offers a clear, concise explanation about what evolution is and isn't. He writes:
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth (1809) and the 150th anniversary of his magnum opus, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection

(1859). Our nation falls miserably behind the majority of developed countries in scientific literacy. I hope we can improve those numbers. We must continue to educate the public through solid explanations of what evolution is while correcting the misunderstandings the majority of people have.

If you have questions about evolution, ask someone. Professors and teachers would be glad to help you understand the unifying theory of biology. As Theodore Dobzhansky, a noted geneticist and evolutionary biologist, said, "Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution." Once you understand evolution, a new door to the biological sciences opens before you.

More teachers should write like this. Oh, and its Theodosius, by the way.

Fanfare for Darwin?

To the massive fanfare greating the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species Richard Lewontin asks "Why Darwin?" In reviewing four books about evolution and Darwin, he has this to say:
By the time of the appearance of the Origin, the physical sciences had become thoroughly evolutionary. Living beings were not seen as an exception. In 1769, Diderot had his dreaming philosopher d'Alembert wonder what races of animals had preceded us and what sorts would follow. He provided the motto of evolutionism as a worldview: "Everything changes, everything passes. Only the totality remains." Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, in his epic The Temple of Nature of 1803, invokes his Muse to tell "how rose from elemental strife/Organic forms, and kindled into life," and the Muse completes the evolutionary story by telling him that even "imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,/...Arose from rudiments of form and sense." By the younger Darwin's time, the idea of organic evolution had become a common currency of intellectual life.
This is something that is lost in the ongoing debate about evolution—that the idea of evolution was not new by the time of Darwin. He simply came up with a concrete mechanism to explain it by taking Paley's design argument and inverting it. Lewontin's article is an interesting expose of, of all things, the weaknesses of Darwin's theory of natural selection. He points out that, in Darwin's time, nothing was know about heredity. Mendel's work had been lost along the way and, had it not been for the rediscovery of Mendel's work, Darwin's theory might not have made it off the ground. Read the whole thing.

More on "Ida"

The Independent has an article by Steve Connor on why Ida is so interesting to palaeoanthropologists. Written in the form of a FAQ, the article is very informative. His conclusion is very succinct:
Are the claims for Ida's significance overstated?


* She is not the missing link but one of many links in the long chain of Man's descent.

* The publicity statements were hyped to make her appear more special than she is.

* She was not on the direct line of descent that led to Homo sapiens but a side branch.


* It is the first time such a well-preserved primate fossil has been revealed.

* Her features clearly show the transition from lemur-like animal to ape-like primate.

* It is remarkable that such an old and important fossil has survived so well.

Remember, the article is free at PLoS and can be accessed at Neat stuff!

Rush Limbaugh and Evolution

LGF points us in the direction of a post by Rush Limbaugh, who waxes about the discovery of the almost complete primate fossil from the Messel Pit in Germany. He once again, shows why people who ought to know better, often don't. He writes:
It's a one-foot, nine-inch-tall monkey, and it's a lemur monkey described as the eighth wonder of the world. "The search for a direct connection between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom has taken 200 years - but it was presented to the world today --" So I guess this is settled science. We now officially came from a monkey, 47 million years ago. Well, that's how it's being presented here. It's settled science. You know, this is all BS, as far as I'm concerned. Cross species evolution, I don't think anybody's ever proven that. They're going out of their way now to establish evolution as a mechanism for creation, which, of course, you can't do, but I'm more interested in some other missing link. And that is the missing link between our failing economy and prosperity.
As far as he is concerned. Rush, what is "cross species evolution" exactly? If he means what I think he means, it is evolution at the species level, and yes, we can show that. Just another opportunity for a huge GOP supporter make an ass of himself by showing that he has no idea what he's talking about.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Where Does ID Fit?

I received some criticism (correctly) that my taxonomic tree did not leave room for Intelligent Design. I responded by suggesting that they might fit in either the 'progressive creation' box or the 'theistic evolution' box depending on who they were. Here is the problem:

Michael Behe: writer of Darwin's Black Box and promoter of the flagellum as being intelligently designed—principle witness for the plaintiff at the Dover trial, YET, according to Kenneth Miller accepts evolution as it applies to common descent and species creation.

Scott Minnich: another witness for the plaintiff in Dover, when asked "Is Darwin's theory of evolution inconsistent with your private religious beliefs?" replied "no. He states that there is not unanimity with regard to how evolution works among biologists. Newsflash: there probably never will be. That does not make the theory bad.

William Dembski: Pulled out the the Dover Trial before it began. Mathematician who argues that "Darwinian evolution" cannot create biological information. Uses the Law of Conservation of Information to argue that evolution cannot produce new species. Has been criticized for suggesting that some of creation appears designed and some does not. Also criticized for having an unrealistic model of biology and biological systems.

Philip Johnson: Has this to say about evolution:
What we get as science in the Darwinian theory of evolution is not based on science. It's based on a prior commitment to materialism and philosophy. Facts take second place to that philosophy, and therefore what we're getting is what I call a materialist mythology. That's what I mean by intellectual superstition.
Casey Luskin: The Discovery Institute's chief mouthpiece. He is also the co-founder of the Intelligent Design & Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Center. The center is designed to bring about awareness of the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution. About evolution, he states:
Science and education are suffering because Darwinists are using bluffs about the evidence, fear-mongering about religion, and discrimination against minority viewpoints to stifle the debate over evolution.
He rarely addresses the debate in non-political terms.

This is a short list, but it seems clear to me that these guys are all over the map with regard to evolution. Some sort of belong to the 'theistic evolution' camp, some don't. None are out-and-out young earth creationists. This, as I said, is the potential drawback for this model, it pigeon-holes people. On the other hand, it potentially exposes cognitive dissonance as well.

The Missing Link or Just Another Link?

LiveScience is reporting the discovery of the 95% complete primate fossil in Germany, which will add immeasurably to our understanding of primate anatomy and skeletal biology from that period. According to the story:
Known as "Ida," the nearly complete transitional fossil is 20 times older than most fossils that provide evidence for human evolution.

It shows characteristics from the very primitive non-human evolutionary line (prosimians, such as lemurs), but is more related to the human evolutionary line (anthropoids, such as monkeys, apes and humans), said Norwegian paleontologist Jørn Hurum of University of Oslo Natural History Museum. However, she is not really an anthropoid either, he said.

The fossil, called Darwinius masillae and said to be a female, provides the most complete understanding of the paleobiology of any primate so far discovered from the Eocene Epoch, Hurum said. An analysis of the fossil mammal is detailed today in the journal PLoS ONE.

"This is the first link to all humans ... truly a fossil that links world heritage," Hurum said.

Some are not convinced:"
On the whole I think the evidence is less than convincing," said Chris Gilbert, a paleoanthropologist at Yale University. "They make an intriguing argument but I would definitely say that the consensus is not in favor of the hypothesis they're proposing."

The Ida team points to the fact that some of the fossil's teeth, toe and ankle bones resemble anthropoids more than modern lemurs. But other researchers point out that primitive lemurs, as opposed to modern lemurs, also share many of these features.

"They claim in the paper that by examining the anatomy of adapids, these animals have something to do with the direct line of human ancestry and living monkeys and apes. This claim is buttressed with almost no evidence," said paleontologist Richard Kay of Duke University. "And they failed to cite a body of literature that's been going on since at least 1984 that presents evidence against their hypothesis."

Kay said the researchers did not compare Ida to other important fossil primates from this time, especially those from a group called Eosimiads, that could contradict their claims.
The nifty thing is that this is an almost complete skeleton at a time when all we have is scattered jaw bones, long bone fragments and teeth to try to identify these critters. Whether or not the authors of the paper are overreaching, this is a sensational find.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Adnan Oktar Interviewed in Uncommon Descent

Uncommon Descent is a site devoted to Intelligent Design. William Dembski ran the site until November of 2008 after which Barry Arrington took over. Dembski still posts to the site quite often, though. Recently, they ran an interview with the Muslim creationist Adnan Oktar (a.k.a. Harun Yahya), who I have posted about several times. The interview, by someone only identified as "O'Leary" (Denyse O'Leary) is loaded with softballs that would make Chris Matthews blush. for example:
O’LEARY: Many claim that if people do not embrace Darwin and his followers’ theories, they cannot have an advanced technological culture. Others point out that the United States, arguably the world’s leader in science, features a population of which the majority doubts Darwin. Would you care to comment on that?

ADNAN OKTAR: This is totally classic Darwinist propaganda. Darwinists often resort to the idea that anyone who thinks scientifically has to be a Darwinist. For one thing, Darwinism is a pagan religion whose roots go back to the Sumerians and Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians also believed that life emerged spontaneously from the muddy waters of the Nile. The theory of evolution is a superstitious belief that has been around ever since and that is not supported by a shred of scientific evidence.

On the contrary, no matter what branch research or investigation may be conducted in, it has every time been proven that evolution is not possible. It is in fact Darwinists themselves who fly in the face of science, reject the facts revealed by science and who blacken the name of science by frauds of one kind and another.

There is no coherence in his statements. Darwinism goes back to Egypt and Sumeria??? The other half of his response is equally unbelievable:
Yet we have come up with 100 million fossils, fossils belonging to fully formed and perfect life forms that all show evolution never happened, and they have no rational answer to give. A profound silence reigns whenever the subject of fossils is raised. And everyone can see that. That is why Darwinists are desperately striving to keep Darwinism propped up with slogans and propaganda.
He offers not a shred of evidence for this position and his statement flies in the face of mountains of publications to the contrary—publications I am quite sure he has never read. His Atlas of Creation is a testament to what unbridled enthusiasm and absolutely zero scholarship will produce. The amazing thing is that the interviewer doesn't challenge him on any of these points.

But that is not why this interview is important. Increasingly, the Intelligent Design movement has become more antagonistic toward evolution supporters, despite having at least one principle researcher in their midst who supports it, Michael Behe. This antagonism has made for some strange bedfellows. Charles Taylor at LGF points out something else about Adnan Oktar that seems to go unremarked upon by O'Leary: He has written a book on holocaust denial called the Holocaust Deception. It is astounding that the Intelligent Design movement, in its efforts to step up its campaign against evolution, will associate itself with anyone who also doesn't support evolution. To be fair, O'Leary does point out that controversy swirls by linking to several not so flattering articles on the man but then presents the excuse that "it is a messy business." Messy enough to accept the work of a man who has embraced one of the biggest canards of the century, holocaust denial? About one of Oktar's other books, The Evolution Deceipt, O'Leary writes:
"I will also shortly post a review of Evolution Deceit, the most succinct and comprehensive of the critiques of overblown claims for Darwinian evolution that I have ever read."
I wonder if it is as "succinct and comprehensive" as his holocaust denial book? Is this really the direction the leaders of the ID movement want to go?

Evolution and Creationism: A Continuum or a Taxonomy?

Steve Martin over at An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution has some thoughts about the NCSE Creation—Evolution "Continuum." This comes originally from an article written in the late 1990s by Eugenie Scott called Antievolution and Creationism in the United States1The NCSE has modified it over time to give ID more prominence. Dr. Scott views the continuum as being a beneficial heuristic in getting students of all ages to understand how complex the controversy really is. Steve is not convinced:
Pointing out these intermediary positions is a good way to help people understand that there is some complexity to this discussion. However, it is my view that this model may actually be counter-productive, particularly when promoting evolution in various faith communities. I believe that those of us that support the coexistence and coherence of evolution and an Evangelical expression of the Christian faith need a much better model if we are to make any progress on this issue within the Evangelical community.
The problem relates to how the continuum is put together in the first place. As Steve points out, Scott assumes a priori that if you are on the bottom of the continuum at the evolution end, you have no faith in God, whereas if you are at the top, you interpret the Bible literally. I am reminded by what Jerry Coyne had to say in his review of Ken Miller's book Only a Theory:
The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.
Steve and others, including myself, would disagree. This is why TEs walk a very thin line. We are castigated by the YEC crowd as having fatally compromised our faith in the acceptance of an old earth and evolutionary theory and yet we are pilloried by the philosophical naturalism crowd who assume we either have to check in our brains at the door when we go to church or that we don't think the Bible is the word of God (Jesus Seminar, anyone?). Steve also suggests that the scientific criterium is incorrect as well, in that it assumes an inverse of the religious criterium. There are other things. It assumes that there is a difference between Theistic evolution and evoutionary creationism, a difference that has certainly never been made clear to me. Also, placing evolutionary creationism right smack against progressive creationism is sort of like sitting in row 6 on an airplane where smoking is permitted in rows 1-5.

In response to the continuum, Steve has devised a new model that sees three positions
  1. theistic evolution
  2. non-evolutionary creation
  3. naturalistic, or materialistic evolution
This is reductionist almost to the extreme. Several benefits and disadvantages become evident. The obvious benefit to those of us that are TEs is that we can take our Bibles and walk toward the back of the plane, away from the non-evolutionary rows. The problem is that the non-evolutionary positions now take up to row 22! Mixing my metaphors here, this is truly "big tent" creationism. The non-evolutionary creation sphere includes everybody from Reasons to Believe, an old earth non-evolutionary site to the folks at who truly, honestly believe that the earth is fixed and is in the center of the universe (Or maybe I've been had and it is like the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division). In that mix is the Discovery Institute and the ICR who are allies in much the same way that Churchill and Stalin were allies during the Second World War. I posit that the question can be looked at in a different way.

Being a biologist by training, I would suggest that a taxonomic tree is, perhaps, more appropriate for this question. It might look something like this:

Here, those who espouse the YEC viewpoint and those that are TEs can be traced back to a "common ancestor," belief in God. The disadvantage of this model is that it is subject to pigeon-holing people and has, currently, no place for agnostics, although in practice, agnostics split out to the right at the very top. I do not know of a single agnostic that accepts a young earth or progressive creationism. Its strength is that it does show elements of commonality and distinction (plesiomorphic and apomorphic traits, if you will). In this case, acceptance of evolution is convergent in both the "Yes" and "No" camp from the "belief in God" node. Help! I'm starting to sound like a cladist!!

No model will be completely satisfactory and this one has its problems, I am sure. I completely agree with Steve that Eugenie Scott's diagram makes unwarranted assumptions. I also think, though, that his model does not make enough distinctions between different lines of thought. This is by no means a finished product and I invite any and all discussion of this.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Texas: The Aftermath Continues

An article in the Wichita Falls TimesRecordNews (As Falls Wichita...?) shows how the Texas State Board of Education decisions about the science curriculum is already having an effect. The article, by Ann Work, has this to say:
Local chemistry teacher Shelby Patrick said some tried, but failed, to bring the concept of intelligent design into the science curriculum as an alternate consideration to natural selection and other evolutionary topics.

“If an idea (like intelligent design) cannot be objectively tested, then it is not science. That was the main point many of us in the science field were trying to get across during this review of new standards,” Patrick said.

John Davison, science coordinator at Wichita Falls High School, said he liked the new verbiage that drops the old “strengths and weaknesses” approach in favor of critical analysis. “When you say something has a weakness, it conjures up the idea that there might be something wrong with it. When you’re coming up with a theory, you never really come up with a total wrong or right. You keep adding the facts and going to where they point. It’s not a situation where you’re trying to be the person who is standing up and fighting for it,” he said. “You’re just a pawn in the game, showing whatever the facts are.”

I submit that the "weaknesses" language was designed to do exactly that: promote the idea that there might be something wrong with the theory. It was designed to get in under the wire and open the door to alternative ideas such as ID or creationism. I am curious to see how the ID front will respond to the changes in wording.

To Serve Neandertals

The title is borrowed from a Twilight Zone episode called "To Serve Man," which is basically an extraterrestrial cook book on how to eat humans. The Guardian is reporting on a study out of France, in which it is argued that Neandertals did not come meet their fate by being out competed:
One of science's most puzzling mysteries - the disappearance of the Neanderthals - may have been solved. Modern humans ate them, says a leading fossil expert.

The controversial suggestion follows publication of a study in the Journal of Anthropological Sciences about a Neanderthal jawbone apparently butchered by modern humans. Now the leader of the research team says he believes the flesh had been eaten by humans, while its teeth may have been used to make a necklace.

Fernando Rozzi, of Paris's Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique, said the jawbone had probably been cut into to remove flesh, including the tongue. Crucially, the butchery was similar to that used by humans to cut up deer carcass in the early Stone Age. "Neanderthals met a violent end at our hands and in some cases we ate them," Rozzi said.

Some are, obviously, skeptical of the claim:"
This is a very important investigation," said Professor Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, London. "We do need more evidence, but this could indicate modern humans and Neanderthals were living in the same area of Europe at the same time, that they were interacting, and that some of these interactions may have been hostile.

"This does not prove we systematically eradicated the Neanderthals or that we regularly ate their flesh. But it does add to the evidence that competition from modern humans probably contributed to Neanderthal extinction."
There are a number of reasons why human flesh is removed postmortem. It could be for burial purposes. The child burial at Lagar Velho, for example, has bones that are heavily stained with red ochre. I agree with Chris Stringer that more information needs to come to light before this idea can be seriously entertained.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Acts & Fiction

The new ICR Acts & Facts magazine has several interesting columns in. One of them is Galapagos: Showcase for Creation, written by John Morris, the son of the late Henry Morris, head of the ICR. In it, he writes:
The Santa Cruz River was the Beagle's first major stop, and thus Darwin's first chance to apply Lyell's ideas. Dr. Austin discovered Darwin had made numerous errors in Argentina as he attempted to interpret the river valley according to uniformity, and mistook major Ice Age flooding for great ages of minor processes.
Of course, Dr. Morris does not say what these errors were, just that Darwin made them. You have to go to another article, Darwin's First Wrong Turn, by Steven Austin to get that information. In that article, Austin suggests that Darwin misidentified part of a section of the river bank as a basalt flow. Austin states that it cannot be a basalt flow but must, instead, be the remains of a catastrophic flood channel. Austin writes:
Why was Darwin so wrong concerning his interpretation of the river valley? First, he had expectations about what he would see at Camp Darwin before he arrived. His scientific judgment was tainted by preconceptions. Second, Darwin was reading the wrong book before his journey up the Santa Cruz River valley. He had been reading Charles Lyell's book Principles of Geology (1830) during his trans-Atlantic voyage on the Beagle. That book gave him the idea that the biggest boulders were deposited from melting icebergs.
Austin provides no evidence that the deposits were not the remains of a melting glacier. He simply says that there had to have been a colossal flood. Back to Morris. He writes that Darwin observed the finches on the Galapagos Islands and applied natural selection to them. Of this, Morris states:
Evolutionists trumpet the several Galapagos finch "species" as arising by adaptation from one species. Creationists agree, but this did not happen through evolution. Normally the finch types segregate by lifestyle according to their beak shape, but in times of stress they interbreed and combine. No evolution here. The flightless cormorants are recognizably related to other species of cormorant on other continents, but these have lost the use of their wings. Since when is the loss of a useful structure an evolutionary development? The real question is how animals acquire wings in the first place, not how they lose them.
Darwin correctly observed that the finches in different islands looked different and that their beaks were different. In other words, they had adapted to their environments. What is this an example of? Evolution. How did flightless cormorants lose the use of their wings? Evolution, that's how. Descent with modification. This could happen any number of different ways. For example, a small population may have broken off in which a mutation for flightless wings was present. In small populations, this trait would have expressed itself. In the presence of no selection in favor of flight, the trait would eventually permeate the population. The fact that flightless cormorants exist at all means that they can survive just fine without wings that fly. There may have been another reason why they retained the wings but not the ability to fly with them. Wings make great insulators. In the Liaoning fossil beds in China, researchers are discovering flightless dinosaurs that had wings. And that, by the way, is how they acquire wings in the first place. Any time you have descent with modification, you have evolution going on. More fiction from the ICR.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Michael Shermer - Why Darwin Matters

Michael Shermer did a one hour presentation at the University of California at San Diego on why evolution is important. In it, he tackles the nature of science and why ID does not qualify as science. Along the way, he takes pot shots at young earth creationism. His tone is a tad condescending but the talk is informative.

Hat tip to LGF.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Charles Darwin Bible

Steve Matheson pointed out to me that, for the display rack in which the KJV Bible was jokingly placed (see this post), another resource is much more appropriate. It is the Charles Darwin Bible!

Sold by Answers in Genesis, Ken Ham's organization, the press kit has this to say about it:
Released in response to the secular Year of Darwin (2009), this special publication is designed to help “pull the plug on the rising tide of atheism.” With both the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his On the Origin of Species book happening in 2009, this is a battleground year for evolution—and Christians need to be ready.

Countless people have been deceived into dismissing God, believing that evolution is a proven scientific fact and that the book of Genesis has been shown to be a fable. Even many churches have neglected the truths of Scripture for the claims of fallible men. This book will give Christians an effective tool to share with evolutionists and atheists in schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, and churches—explaining the vital facts about our origins and the truth of our great Creator.

The first paragraph is just cliché. It instantly equates evolutionary theory with atheism—a logical fallacy since one is a metaphysical construct while the other is a scientific theory—and then proceeds to exhort Christians to be ready to combat those evil evolutionists, since this is the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Origin of Species. The second paragraph is no better. It suggests that the book will give "Christians an effective tool to share with evolutionists."

There is simply no reasoning with this group. Every "scientific" article coming out of their web site has factual and logical errors that have been pointed out ad nauseum. No one at AIG listens. I have no doubt that this book will be one factual error after another. As long as AIG can convince people that evolution=atheism, they won't have to address the scientific arguments for evolution. They will also have a ready supply of converts who don't have the science education to know better.

I am more than passingly interested in getting a copy of the book. It is on sale for $2.79 for a limited time and is a pocket-sized resource, which would be nice. But AIG wants $7.31 for shipping! That is the cheapest rate. For comparison, Amazon charges $3.99 to ship it. What is AIG doing with the extra $3.32? Oh well. I Must add it to the list.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Redstate the Latest One to Get It Wrong

Charles Taylor points us in the direction of a Redstate column, which is really a reply to another column at which, derisively, has a section devoted to conservatives called "Ask a Wingnut," as if all conservatives tilt at windmills. The writer at Redstate, who identifies himself as "Realityunwound," decries the usual liberal penchant for casting all conservatives as anti-science and then proceeds to support their point. After some cursory comments about how conservatives are not anti-science, he brings up ID as a good example of science that should be taught. He makes the following points about ID:
  • I believe the world was created by an Intelligent Being, and I don’t believe Darwin (or any other amalgum of scientific theorists) offer as reasonable and scientifically proveable explanation of how the world is.
  • I accept that there is a theory of evolution, and that smart, intelligent, educated, honest scientists in the world ascribe to this theory.
  • I will also concede that Intelligent Design is a theory in the same way that gravity is a theory (an assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture). It has not been observed as a complete process (i.e. we weren’t there at creation) so it can not be verified as an observed fact.
Lets take point one. You say you don't "believe" that Darwin or any other theorists offer an alternative of how the world is. It is perfectly all right to state that you believe that the world was created by God. No problem there because it is "belief." What education has led you to "believe" that Darwin or other "amalgum of scientific theorists" can't explain the world as it is? Do you not accept gravitational theory, which explains not just why things fall out of the sky but the existence of black holes? Do you not accept germ theory, which has led to the deriving of antibiotics to combat nasty bugs? Your use of the word "proveable" indicates that you don't understand how science works. Science never "proves" anything. It simply shows relationships between phenomena and tests hypotheses. Note: these hypotheses can be experimental or predictive.

Point Two: You mention that there is a theory of evolution and that "smart, intelligent, educated, honest scientists" subscribe to it. Do you think they subscribe to this theory in a vacuum and are just deluding themselves after decades of honest work in the fields of biology, palaeontology and geology? Do you have enough expertise in these fields to be able to tell them that they are wrong?

Point Three: You also "concede" that Intelligent Design is a theory much in the same way that gravity is a theory. How is this even remotely so? Gravity is an incredibly robust theory (which is not the same as an hypothesis, by the way) that can be and has been tested repeatedly through actual observation and prediction. Intelligent Design is NOT SCIENCE. It offers no testable or predictable hypotheses. Its very essence is an appeal to a supernatural explanation because it is perceived that no naturalistic one is in the offing. This perspective is called argumentum ad ignorantiam or "argument from ignorance." One has exhausted all of the known explanations to a problem so it explained in a supernatural way. Here's the problem: say we have competing hypotheses for why some phenomena is the way it is. Then let's say that I conclusively demonstrate that your hypothesis is wrong. That doesn't make my hypothesis right. All we know for sure is that yours is wrong.

The other aspect of Point Three about theoretical bases not being "observed fact" is every bit as troubling as that already mentioned. It is a variant of the Ken Ham "Were you there?" quote. The idea is that since we weren't around to witness an event, we don't know for sure that it happened. If a tree falls in the forest...and so on. In a strict sense, you are correct. But do you really believe we can gain no inference from past events? Court rooms are filled every day with trials in which a prosecuting attorney is trying to make a case that a defendant committed the crime of x. He or she does this by reconstructing the events leading up to and following the crime. It is necessarily predictive and is accepted as common practice of law because of its robusticity. The so-called historical sciences, geology, palaeontology and, to the extent that it takes light a long time to get to us, astronomy all use prediction to flesh out theory. If we hypothesize that the transition to the first land animals occurred in shallow Devonian seas, we can hypothesize that a transitional critter should be found in those deposits. If we find a critter in those deposits that has characteristics of land animals and late fish, it means that the data support the hypothesis. It is called Reconstructing the Past and it is basic to science.

A free exchange of ideas is fine as far as it goes, but if I want to teach modern geography and you want to teach that the world is flat, the two theories don't hold the same amount of scientific merit. It is easy to show that the world is not flat, just as it is easy to show that despite protestations to the contrary, there are thousands of transitional fossils. ID, on the other hand, can't construct even a basic hypothesis that is testable. As Paul Nelson, a fellow at the DI's Center For Science and Culture said in 2004:
Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory now, and that’s a real problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity” –- but, as yet, no general theory of biological design.1
To my knowledge, no other ID supporter has come out to deny that stance. Simply put, ID cannot be science if it has no testable hypotheses or theoretical basis. As such, it doesn't belong in the science classroom.

1Nelson, P. (2004) The Measure of Design," Touchstone, pp. 64-65

Ha Ha. Very Funny!

A friend of mine here at the library noticed that I had put up a display of books about evolutionary theory, bioinformatics and genetics. She felt that something was missing, so she added it. As I remarked to her, "funny but, no."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

As Go the Hippos, So Goes Homo floresiensis?

One hippopotami cannot get on a bus, because one hippopotami is two hippopotamus.
(Alan Sherman)

According to news from Madagascar, island endemic dwarfism affects the development and size of the brain. Science Daily has a story on fossil remains of ancient hippopotami.
By examining the skulls of extinct Madagascan hippos, Museum scientists discovered that dwarfed mammals on islands evolved much smaller brains in relation to their body size. So Homo floresiensis may have had a tiny brain because it lived on an island. This is something which has been at the heart of the debate of the Hobbit’s origins, whose remains were uncovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003.
This was put forth as an explanation some years back but this is the first time I have heard it fleshed out. Read the whole thing.

Monday, May 11, 2009


I am adding Francis Collins' site BioLogos to the list of links on the left hand side. Their mission?
The BioLogos Foundation promotes the search for truth in both the natural and spiritual realms, and seeks to harmonize these different perspectives.
The section on "What Does the Fossil Record Show?" is excellent.

Francis Collins and an Evolving Faith

Kathleen Parker of the Wichita Eagle has a profile of Francis Collins. She writes:
Collins, an evangelical Christian who was home-schooled until sixth grade, wants to raise the level of discourse about science and faith, and help fundamentalists -- both in science and religion -- see that the two can coexist. To that end, he created the BioLogos Foundation and last month launched a Web site -- -- to advance an alternative to the extreme views that tend to dominate the debate.

Yes, he asserted to a room full of journalists, one can believe in both God and science. In fact, says Collins, the latter does more to prove the existence of a creator than not.

This doesn't mean that Collins falls in line with those promoting creation science or, more recently, intelligent design. He merely insists that belief in God doesn't preclude acceptance of evolution.

Though his own beliefs are firm, Collins understands doubt, skepticism and even atheism. He was once an atheist himself, believing only in what science could prove. As a medical student, however, he stumbled upon questions to which science had no answers. In treating dying patients, he also began to wonder how he would approach his own death. Not with as much peace as his patients of faith did, he supposed.
Part of the profile addresses an area that I find troubling—when ICR trained students get ahold of the real deal:
Collins said that many creationist-trained young people suffer an intense identity crisis when they leave home for college, only to discover that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Talk about messing with your mind.

Collins said he hears from dozens of young people so afflicted. Most susceptible to crisis are children who have been home-schooled or who have attended Christian schools. Of all religious groups and denominations, evangelical Protestants are the most reluctant to embrace evolution. Their objections haven't changed much since Billy Sunday first articulated them almost 100 years ago, and revolve around the fear that acceptance of evolution negates God.
I have long thought that if young earth creationists really got what they wanted, to have creationism taught in public schools, there would be a massive push-back in the form of science teachers exposing the young earth "evidence" for what it is and that this would lead to many people going away from the faith. Glenn Morton is, perhaps, one of the best-known cases of an ICR student who almost broke with the faith. His story is a must-read. The world needs more people like Francis Collins.

Study: All Modern Humans Descended From Small Tribe 70 000 Years Ago

A story making its way around the news wires, states that evidence of incredible homogeneity in modern humans has come to light. According to the story by Richard Gray:
Dr Peter Forster, a senior lecturer in archaeogenetics at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge who carried out some of the genetic work, said: "The founder populations cannot have been very big. We are talking about just a few hundred individuals."

Homo sapiens, known casually as "modern humans", are thought to have first evolved around 195,000 years ago in east Africa – the earliest remains from that time were uncovered near the Omo River in Ethiopia.

It is thought that by 150,000 years ago these early modern humans had managed to spread to other parts of Africa and fossilised remains have been found on the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

My gut reaction to this (without any empirical data, mind you) is that, like the original MtDNA research that was done in the late 1980s by Cann, Stoneking and Wilson, there will prove to be holes in the study. Aside from this, I can think of a few things that would make this not as clear-cut a case as it seems. For starters, What about the clearly modern humans that were in place in the Near East around 100-110 ky BP at the sites of Skhul and Qafzeh? Did these newcomers not interbreed with them? Did this population really "fail" as the story relates? Modern modern humans seem to survive just fine when conditions dry out. On the other hand, John Shea suggests that a similar conclusion may be inferred:
Absent archaeological evidence for a migration of early modern humans out of Africa during the Early MP, the presence of early modern humans ca. 80–130 Kyr, suggests that the Levant was part of a broader region of modern human origins and initial dispersal that encompassed much of Africa. The recent discovery of somewhat older early modern humans at Herto in the MiddleAwashValley, Ethiopia (White et al., 2003), and better dating of the Omo Kibish fossils (Leakey et al., 1969; Shea et al., 2002) will doubtless clarify the evolutionary relationships between African and Levantine late Middle Pleistocene human populations. It is important that we keep an open mind about continuity between the Skhul/Qafzeh humans and later Levantine populations. The gap in the Levantine record for modern humans’ presence in region between 40 and 80Kyr could indicate that the Skhul/Qafzeh humans were an evolutionary dead end with no post-MP descendants (Shea, 2003a, p. 181). The UP human populations of the Levant and Europe may be descended from modern human populations who arrived in the Levant after 40–50 Kyr.1
I will be curious to read the study when it comes out.

1Shea, J. (2003) The Middle Paleolithic of the East Mediterranean Levant. Journal of World Prehistory. 17(4): 313-394

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Meeting with My Pastor

I had the long-planned meeting with my pastor this morning. It went well. He was, as I expected, very gracious and attentive. He also asked hard questions, some of which I could answer and some of which I could not. I explained about the evidence for evolution, from common descent to shared junk DNA, to the fossil record. I gave him some evidence of how it is predictive—notably the discovery of the fishibian (or fishapod) Tiktaalik roseae and its relationship to Pandericthys and Eusthenopteron on one side and Acanthostega and Icthyostega on the other, the recent discoveries of the frogamander and, of course, Archaeopteryx.

We also talked about common descent, which allowed me to bring up the ERV and vitamin C deficiency evidence for primate/human ancestry. He did ask me one question that caught me completely flat-footed: how does the three and four chambered heart evolve? I do not know much about this, so I went looking. Panda's Thumb has a page on the evolution of the two-chambered mammalian heart and Here is a page on the evolution from three to four chambers.

We talked briefly on the flood of Noah and the evidence for it being local (as opposed to the humongous amount of contra-evidence that that it was world-wide) the fact that flood geology is a very recent phenomenon.

I think it was at this point that I took a bite of something and had it go down the wrong passage. The problem is that my mouth was full of coffee also and so, not being able to do anything else, I sprayed my poor pastor with coffee. Mortification. Hide under the table. Embarrassment. Pick one, I felt them all. It was then that I remembered that we, alone, in the animal kingdom have this problem. Why is that, I wondered? Here is a possible solution—as well as something we have in common with the English Bulldog!

We spoke a good deal about ID and irreducible complexity, Michael Behe's take on ID. I told my pastor that Behe does not reject evolution, it is just that he feels that it cannot explain everything. I explained to him that, while I think that God did create the heavens and the earth, I thought that ID was a bad way to go about trying to demonstrate it. He agreed with this.

We spent a good deal of time talking about the Primeval History and the nature of original sin, which touched on the excellent series that was hosted by Steve Martin. I confessed that, while I am okay with an original Adam, I hadn't a clue when he lived. George Murphy would be disappointed in me. I am still working this one out.

All in all, a very pleasant talk. We may have another like it someday. I did not ask for agreement on all of my positions, only understanding. He very graciously gave me that.

Friday, May 08, 2009

The ICR tackles Salmonella and Flunks Evolution 101

Brian Thomas, the science writer for the ICR has an article on Salmonella research that is reported in the April issue of Agricultural Research. He writes this:
Salmonella bacteria became a health threat relatively recently, when chicken eggs were infected by the migration of the bacteria from chickens’ digestive organs to their reproductive organs. Geneticists are working to characterize differences between the harmful and innocuous strains of Salmonella. Although they have termed these dissimilarities “evolutionary,” the genetic differences are very minor and involve a breakdown rather than a gain of genetic information, which actually contradicts an evolutionary scenario.
How in the wide world of sports does this contradict an evolutionary scenario?? Evolution is "descent with modification." It is not upward, it is not downward, it is not sideways. It is just modification. Through mutations and selection, one strain gave rise to another. That is exactly what evolution is. You don't have to have a gain of genetic information for it to be evolution. You just have to have a change in the genome. Go back and review your Hardy-Weinberg!! He continues:
Lead researcher Jean Guard-Bouldin found that the potentially high rate of cell division in Salmonella means that it can produce many generations in a short time, thus giving the opportunity for polymorphisms to stack up. But after all the years and all the generations that have transpired since this bacterium has been identified, Salmonella strains remain “apparently identical.”1 This fact alone strongly favors the creation model, which holds that God engineered this organism so that even after millions of generations it could retain its identity with stunning fidelity.2
Or maybe it is just genetically stable because it is optimized for its environment and there are no selective pressures acting against it. He then says this:
Even though the USDA report used the word “evolution” five times, it contained no discovery or data that exemplifies, resembles, or illustrates the kind of upward development that is most often meant by that term.
Say it with me again: "Descent with modification. Descent with Modification. Descent with modification." It is clear that Mr. Thomas has had no education in evolution or if he has, did not learn much. This is the kind of badly-conceived, badly executed writing that the ICR continues to pump out, oblivious to what the article actually said, which was this:
While the hybrid strain that recently emerged had the ability to contaminate the internal contents of eggs, it also had a problem: It was carrying incompatible viruses within its genome. As a result, says Guard Bouldin, 'The hybrid strain split very quickly into two lineages, each carrying one virus. Except for the different viruses, the two strains had identical genomes, and both contributed to the beginning of the pandemic. Both of the newly split lineages continued to evolve by accumulating small changes in their genomes. They eventually began to vary in their ability to contaminate eggs, to survive on the farm, and to challenge our ability to understand their association with chickens." 1
That is exactly what evolution is: two populations varying genetically over time. That Mr. Thomas is unable or unwilling to grasp evolution's central tenet speaks volumes of the ICR's ability to write authoritatively about this topic. No wonder the Texas Higher Education Commission said "no" to the ICR when asked about handing out diplomas. Their writers lack a basic understanding of biology.

1Ausmus, S. (2009) Tracking Salmonella's evolution from innocuous to virulent. Agricultural Research, 57(4): 8-9