Monday, August 31, 2009

Light-Colored Skin a Recent Trait

The Times Online is reporting research that strongly suggests that light-colored skin, characteristic of northern Europeans, is a recent genetic trait. Jonathan Leake writes:

Johan Moan, of the Institute of Physics at the University of Oslo, said in a research paper: “In England, from 5,500-5,200 years ago the food changed rapidly away from fish as an important food source. This led to a rapid development of ... light skin.”

Moan, who worked with Richard Setlow, a biophysicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York state, said vitamin D deficiency could be lethal. Research links it with heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and reduced immunity.

Their research says: “Cold climates and high latitudes would speed up the need for skin lightening. Agricultural food was an insufficient source of vitamin D, and solar radiation was too low to produce enough vitamin D in dark skin.”

Conventional wisdom is that the recent light pigments appeared in the last 20 to 30 ky, so this moves the evolution of light pigmentation up considerably.

Marching Bands and De-evolution

This could only happen in the United States. Sedalia, Missouri is on the map, in a way that probably nobody foresaw or wished. A Marching Band has been asked not to use their band shirts because they portray an evolutionary message. As Tonya Fennell of the Sedalia Democrat writes:
The shirts, which were designed to promote the band’s fall program, are light gray and feature an image of a monkey progressing through stages and eventually emerging as a man. Each figure holds a brass instrument. Several instruments decorate the background and the words “Smith-Cotton High School Tiger Pride Marching Band” and “Brass Evolutions 2009” are emblazoned above and below the image.

Assistant Band Director Brian Kloppenburg said the shirts were designed by him, Band Director Jordan Summers and Main Street Logo. Kloppenburg said the shirts were intended to portray how brass instruments have evolved in music from the 1960s to modern day. Summers said they chose the evolution of man because it was “recognizable.” The playlist of songs the band is slated to perform revolve around the theme “Brass Evolutions.”
In other words, it was a perfectly harmless idea that was blown way out of proportion. The story continues:
While the shirts don’t directly violate the district’s dress code, Assistant Superintendent Brad Pollitt said complaints by parents made him take action.

“I made the decision to have the band members turn the shirts in after several concerned parents brought the shirts to my attention,” Pollitt said.

Pollitt said the district is required by law to remain neutral where religion is concerned.

“If the shirts had said ‘Brass Resurrections’ and had a picture of Jesus on the cross, we would have done the same thing,” he said.

How bad is the science education in this country that a school superintendent thinks that portraying evolution is a "religious" issue? The comments below the story are amazingly caustic. Pharyngula has a poll on whether or not the shirts should have been pulled, as well as a picture of what the uniform looked like. The story is, as one commenter wrote, making the rounds on the science blogs.

'Creationist Zoo' Being Criticized

Chris Dade of the Digital Journal reports that the 'creationist zoo', owned and operated by husband and wife team Anthony and Christina Bush, is being targeted by secular humanists:
Promoted as a place to visit by tourist organizations such as South West England and Visit Britain the zoo, which the Daily Mail reports attracts 120,000 visitors a year, has until now seemingly steered clear of any great controversy, although it has not escaped criticism altogether. The British Centre for Science Education has been one of its critics. But now the BHA [British Humanist Association] has contacted a number of tourist organizations, South West England and Visit Britain amongst them, to request that they stop promoting Noah's Ark on the basis that the zoo is "misleading" its visitors and "threatening public understanding". It further accuses the zoo's owners of trying to discredit scientific methods and facts that include carbon dating, the fossil record and the speed of light.
Well, yes, that is what it is, indeed, doing, just like AIG and the ICR here in the United States. The problem that I have is that this campaign sounds suspiciously like censorship. If you don't like what an organization is doing, come out with your own flyers and pamphlets and contact the tourist agencies to get them to promote your organizations. Demanding that other groups be shut out because they don't support your position strikes me as rather undemocratic. If their position isn't well supported, show why it isn't. It reminds me of the abortion debate. Whatever side of the controversy you are on, it should not be a question that is decided by the courts. It should be decided by the people.

More on the Planet That Can't Exist

John Johonson Jr. over at the LA Times has a story on the new exoplanet orbiting WASP-18 that explicates a bit more on why the planet is so dang weird:
The problem is that a planet that close should be consumed by its parent star in less than a million years, say the authors at Keele University in Britain. The star Wasp-18 is believed to be about a billion years old, and because stars and the planets around them are thought to form at the same time, Wasp-18b should have been reduced to cinders ages ago.

"This planet should spiral inwards on such a short time scale that the likelihood of seeing it is very low," said Coel Hellier, an astrophysicist at Keele.

"That's a paradox," said Douglas P. Hamilton, an astronomer at the University of Maryland who wrote a commentary accompanying the report. He said there were a variety of possible explanations, none of them very satisfactory.

"It's like going to the scene of the crime and not finding the weapon," he said. "Something's happened, but a key piece of evidence is missing."
Curiouser and Curiouser. I love science in action.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Casey Luskin Wants You To Learn About Evolution

Dakota Voice has a story on Casey Luskin in which he implores students to learn about evolution:

As students step foot on campus for another school year, an intelligent design proponent has offered a few tips for the millions who will face the teaching of evolution in their science classrooms.

Tip number one, “never opt out of learning evolution,” says Casey Luskin, co-founder of the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Center, according to the Discovery Institute.

“In fact, learn about evolution every chance you get.”

Having attended public schools from kindergarten through his master’s degree at the University of California, San Diego, Luskin was taught a “biased and one-sided origins” curriculum – basically, the neo-Darwinian theory.

Chances are that he was taught that because there are no competing theories. Try as I might, I cannot think of a competing scientific theory to evolution. There is, of course, Intelligent Design but it isn't science as it has no testable hypotheses. Even Paul Nelson has admitted that there is no theoretical base behind ID. There is always progressive creation, but, once again, there is no way to test that except to show that organisms have changed over time in some way. Given the nature of the fossil record (especially in equines and hominids), choosing progressive creation is a step in faith because there is a known mechanism that exists to explain the changes in the fossil record, namely biologicalk evolution. I am waiting to see what alternative theories he comes up with. As Kenneth Miller says about alternative "theories":
“It is possible to come up with any number of possible explanations for anything—lost socks could be caused by extradimensional vortices which our observations prevent from forming; hiccups could be caused by evil spirits inside us trying to escape; stock market fluctuations could be caused by the secret manipulations of powerful extraterrestrials.Scientists reject such claims on the grounds of parsimony. All of those claims are possible, but they require adding complicated entities which there is no adequate evidence for.To make matters worse, the nature of those entities effectively prevents investigation of them, and the impossibility of investigation prevents us from learning anything new about them.We cannot conclude that any of those explanations are wrong. But from a scientific standpoint, they were worse than wrong; they are useless.”1
See the post on exaptation for an example of this. What Luskin is advocating isn't bad science. It isn't science at all. If there were legitimate alternative theories to evolution, it would be different, but there aren't. Wishing there were doesn't change things.

1Miller, Kenneth. (2008) Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul. Viking Adult. p. 11

Friday, August 28, 2009

Intelligent Design, Irreducible Complexity and Exaptation

Wired Magazine has an article on science that puts another nail in the coffin of irreducible complexity. The article, by Brandon Keim has this to offer:

Mitochondria are descended from free-living bacteria, which several billion years ago were swallowed by complex cells. The mitochondria soon became central to the cells’ function.

Mitochondria couldn’t have lasted in their new home without the help of a protein machine called TIM23, which delivers other proteins harvested from the cell’s body. Bacteria don’t possess TIM23, suggesting that it evolved in mitochondria. This seems to pose a cellular chicken-and-egg question: How could protein transport evolve when it was necessary to survive in the first place?

The essential paradox applies to other protein-transporting cell systems, providing disbelievers of evolution with a key part of their critique. As articulated by intelligent design proponent Michael Behe, “This constant, regulated traffic flow in the cell comprises another remarkably complex, irreducible system. All parts must function or the system breaks down.”

According to evolutionary theory, however, cellular complexity is reducible. It requires only that existing components be repurposed, with inevitable mutations providing extra ingredients as needed. Flagella, the hairlike propellers used by bacteria to move, are one example of this. Their component parts are found throughout cells, performing other tasks.

Intelligent design mavens once cited flagella as evidence of their theory. Scientific fact dispelled that illusion. The mitochondria study does the same for protein transport.

Kenneth Miller once upon a time said "Never bet against science. You will lose." So, how did the researchers figure it out?

When they analyzed the genomes of proteobacteria, the family that spawned the ancestors of mitochondria, Lithgow’s team found two of the protein parts used in mitochondria to make TIM23.

The parts are located on bacterial cell membranes, making them ideally positioned for TIM23’s eventual protein-delivering role. Only one other part, a molecule called LivH, would make a rudimentary protein-transporting machine — and LivH is commonly found in proteobacteria.

The process by which parts accumulate until they’re ready to snap together is called preadaptation[or cooption or exaptation].It’s a form of “neutral evolution,” in which the buildup of the parts provides no immediate advantage or disadvantage. Neutral evolution falls outside the descriptions of Charles Darwin. But once the pieces gather, mutation and natural selection can take care of the rest, ultimately resulting in the now-complex form of TIM23.
There are many other examples of exaptation (Google Scholar showed over 6 thousand papers on the subject). This is another example of how crippling Intelligent Design is as a scientific construct. ID purveyors were content to say that the protein transport was "designed" in place. Real scientists, by continuing to do research, found out otherwise.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tanzania to Preserve Famous Laetoli Australopithecus Tracks

In 1973, at the site of Laetoli, in Tanzania, the tracks of two hominids, who walked next to a smoldering volcano, were exposed, giving researchers an incredible window into the gait of some of our earliest ancestors. Dated to around 3.6 million years ago, the tracks were reburied to preserve them. According to a new report in AllAfrica:

Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism, Ezekiel Maige stated in Arusha last week that the government has first to satisfy itself that once exposed the historical hominid prints will remain protected because the reason why they had to be covered in the first place was to shield them from environmental hazards.

Having a seventy-foot structure to protect the site would be ideal. It was truly an historic find.

Now playing: The Alan Parsons Project - Hyper-Gamma-Spaces
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The Scopes Trial of the 21st Century

The Lost Angeles Times is reporting that the U.S. Chamber of Congress is attempting to have a trial involving the evidence for global warming. The story, by Jim Tankersley, notes:
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, trying to ward off potentially sweeping federal emissions regulations, is pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to hold a rare public hearing on the scientific evidence for man-made climate change.

Chamber officials say it would be "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century" -- complete with witnesses, cross-examinations and a judge who would rule, essentially, on whether humans are warming the planet to dangerous effect.

"It would be evolution versus creationism," said William Kovacs, the chamber's senior vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs. "It would be the science of climate change on trial."
Here's the problem I have with this comparison. If you look closely at the Dissent from Darwinism list that Discovery Institute trumpets, it becomes clear that the people that dissent from "Darwinism" don't really know what "Darwinism" is. They are mostly psychiatrists, psychologists, engineers, materials scientists, a smattering of molecular biologists and whatnot. There is one palaeontologist on the list and he hasn't published in decades. So, in other words, almost the entire list is populated by signatories who aren't qualified to sign their names.

However, if you look at a comparable list of scientists who have signed the Global Warming Petition Project, you find that many of them are atmospheric scientists, climatologists or palaeoclimatologists—individuals that have a much better understanding of climate change than the average scientist. To be sure, there are probably people on that list (the site is poorly designed) who do not have the necessary credentials to convincingly sign their names.

Let me be clear: I have taken no position on climate change. I do not know enough of the science, nor am I qualified to evaluate it intelligently. I am not objecting to the data, I am objecting to the analogy. When one debates special creation/evolution, there is clearly no evidence for the YEC model. However, if there are over nine thousand Ph.D.-holding scientists who work in atmospheric/climatology fields that don't agree with the anthropogenic global warming position, the analogy doesn't hold. Maybe the earth is warming and maybe it isn't. Maybe that warming has anthropogenic causes and maybe it doesn't. There have certainly been times in the earth's past when it was much warmer than it is now (Jurassic, Triassic) and times when it was much colder (Marinoan), but the continents were arranged differently and there were no people around.

My point is that this is not the Scopes trial of the 21st century because there is nowhere near the concensus that the earth is being ruined by people as there is that evolution has occurred.

Now playing: The Alan Parsons Project - Eye Pieces (Classical Naked Eye)
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A Little Off-Topic But Way Cool

A planet that falls in the class known as "hot Jupiters" has been discovered orbiting a star 1000 light years away. It is being described as "The Planet That Shouldn't Exist." According to the story in PhysOrg:

The 'huge new planet', found orbiting a star 1000 light years away, was discovered by the UK's WASP project, of which St Andrews is a founding member.

Newly-christened WASP-18b, the planet is so massive and so close to its host star that it is almost certain to spiral inwards to its destruction during the lifetime of the star.

Researchers from St Andrews are currently calculating the rate at which tidal interactions between star and planet will eventually cause the planet's orbit to decay completely.

St Andrews' physicist, Professor Andrew Collier Cameron said, "This is another bizarre WASP planet discovery. The situation is analogous to the way tidal friction is gradually causing the earth's spin to slow down, and the Moon to spiral away from the earth.

"In this case, however, the spin of the star is slower than the orbit of the planet - so the star should be spinning up, and the planet spiralling in."

The planet is reported to be ten times the size of Jupiter. Way cool. Hat tip to Bill Myers.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

90-million-year-old Crocodile Bones in Manitoba

The Canadian Press reports on the find of 90 million year old crocodile bones on a river bank in Manitoba. According to the story:
A lawyer who moonlights as a part-time paleontologist recently discovered the remains of a 90-million-year-old crocodile while scouring the bank of the Wilson River in Manitoba.

Chris Tait saw a rib bone sticking out of the riverbank and then dug down about two metres to unveil the extent of his discovery. He found the legs, backbone and scales of the six-metre crocodile.

"It would have been an upper-level predator, toward the top of the food chain," Tait said. "It would have been one of the bigger animals around. It might have been attacking other large reptiles that were in the sea."

A curious question: how was it dated? Surely not on morphological grounds alone. Günter Bräuer found a hominid skull eroding out of a river bank on the shores of Lake Turkana in the early 1980s and dated it by its morphology alone. He got eaten alive by that.

Now playing: Alan Parsons - Mammagamma '04
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Forward Into the Past!

The idea that birds descended from dinosaurs is now commonplace in the field of palaeontology and has led to the reclassification of birds as reptiles because they are thought to share common ancestry with dinosaurs, alligators and crocodiles. Consequently, as Ken Meaney of Canwest writes:

Hans Larsson of McGill University is working to produce chicken embryos with features the dinosaur descendants share with their gigantic ancestors of millions of years ago --a longer tail, teeth and clawed fingers, for instance.

The goal is to understand and illustrate evolutionary mechanisms in birds--and by extension dinosaurs, humans and all other animal life on the planet.

Two things come to mind: if he succeeds, it will be powerful evidence backing up the bird-dinosaur transition. Two: we will have some more aggressive chickens running around.Once again, it appears that hox genes are at the root of this research:

What Larsson is doing is looking for what he calls "switchpoints" in the chicken embryo's development --periods when teeth or claws, for instance, appear and then fade away as it grows.

By manipulating the chicken's development at those points, he figures to give it characteristics of its long-dead relatives.

On a genetic level, the differences between humans and other animals are small--switchpoints are what make humans human and not a fish or a fruit fly.

The amount of information that is coming out of research like this is amazing and is a stunning validation of evolutionary theory. On the other hand, if the chicken turns into a spider (think very very very bad Star Trek Next Generation episode), we have some work to do.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Karl Giberson and Darrel Falk: A Plea For the Middle Ground

Karl Giberson and Darrel Falk state that "We Believe in Evolution—and God." One might quibble with the title of the piece; one doesn't "believe" in evolution, and, in my opinion, God and evolution should be reversed, but the sentiment is correct. They write:

We are scientists, grateful for the freedom to earn Ph.D.s and become members of the scientific community. And we are religious believers, grateful for the freedom to celebrate our religion, without censorship. Like most scientists who believe in God, we find no contradiction between the scientific understanding of the world, and the belief that God created that world. And that includes Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

Of course, evolution has progressed well beyond Charles Darwin and there is a certain connotation to the term "Darwinism," that needs to be heeded. Nonetheless, there is a growing group of scientists who are coming forward, as these two have, and professing their faith. They continue:
Almost everyone in the scientific community, including its many religious believers, now accepts that life has evolved over the past 4 billion years. The concept unifies the entire science of biology. Evolution is as well-established within biology as heliocentricity is established within astronomy. So you would think that everyone would accept it. Alas, a 2008 Gallup Poll showed that 44% of Americans reject evolution, believing instead that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years."
Such is the state of science education in this country. Many have been taught in church that they cannot accept evolution or they will have to abandon their Christianity. Groups like Answers in Genesis rely on this and on the general lack of science education in the country to marshall support for their causes. How good is this science?:
The "science" undergirding this "young earth creationism" comes from a narrow, literalistic and relatively recent interpretation of Genesis, the first book in the Bible. This "science" is on display in the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where friendly dinosaurs — one with a saddle! — cavort with humans in the Garden of Eden. Every week these ideas spread from pulpits and Sunday School classrooms across America. On weekdays, creationism is taught in fundamentalist Christian high schools and colleges. Science faculty at schools such as Bryan College in Tennessee and Liberty University in Virginia work on "models" to shoehorn the 15 billion year history of the universe into the past 10,000 years.
Davis Young has written a great piece on the demise of "flood geology" in the 1800s. As amazing as it is, this idea gained a resurgence culminating in the 1920s with the publishing of George McCready Price's The new geology: a textbook for colleges, normal schools, and training schools; and for the general reader, which was soundly ridiculed by the geological community. Sadly, its ideas were rehashed by Henry Morris and John C. Whitcomb for their book The Genesis Flood, a book that served as a model for generations of creationists to come. As the authors put it, this is not how it has been historically been:
Many biblical scholars across the centuries have not seen it that way, concluding instead that the biblical creation story is a rich and complex text with many interpretations. Putting modern scientific ideas into this ancient story distorts the meaning of the text, which is clearly about God's faithful and caring relation to the world, not the details of how that world came to be.
How has the most myopic view of scripture come to become the dominant one in the United States? How has it gained ascendancy in the private schools, the legislatures and homeschool organizations? This is especially perplexing since the vast majority of scientists who were believers in the late 1800s had rejected this view of cosmology.

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Josh Rosenau Calls Casey Luskin on the Carpet

Josh Rosenau of Thoughts from Kansas notes that Casey Luskin's recent apology for misreading Kenneth Miller comes off a bit lacking in factual integrity. Luskin wrote:
In a recent post, I noted that Ken Miller misrepresented Michael Behe’s arguments on the irreducible complexity of the blood clotting cascade in his book, Only a Theory. When I blogged at the end of last year about Miller’s similar mistakes at the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, Dr. Miller responded by making me aware of something I did not previously know: apparently Michael Behe wrote the section in Of Pandas and People on blood clotting.
Rosenau responds:
Under normal circumstances, it would suffice to congratulate Casey for finally acknowledging his ignorance, but alas, we must not pause to revel in that minor miracle. Like so many miraculous claims, it vanishes under investigation.

First of all, it is implausible that Casey wouldn't have been aware of Behe's involvement in Pandas. Casey, after all, has been involved with Behe, Pandas, and the broader ID movement for long enough that ignorance of any widely known fact in any of those three areas is a dubious claim.

Indeed, Casey was at the Dover trial when Behe discussed his involvement in writing parts of Pandas. He even used that involvement to browbeat reporters during the trial itself, writing:

"Behe was a contributor to Pandas, it was on the blood clotting cascade section (found in Chapter 6, "Biochemical Similarities")…"
I would like to think that Mr. Luskin forgot this little bit of information. We all forget things. Luskin's account of the differences between Behe's early work with Of Pandas and People and what showed up in Darwin's Black Box goes like this:
I contacted Behe about the differences between the two works, and he informed me that the differences between the treatment of blood clotting in Pandas (1993) and Darwin’s Black Box (1996) were the result of his refining, tightening, improving, and revising his arguments before publishing Darwin's Black Box. There's nothing wrong with Behe updating and improving his arguments.
That is fair enough. The rest of Luskin's post is an attack on the "random, undirected processes of mutation and natural selection" language that shows up in several places in Miller and Levine's textbook on biology. I do not have a copy of this book so I have no reason to doubt Luskin on this. There may be more than enough fuzzy memories to go around on this one.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Angola Opens Up

There is a report that, now that the civil war has ended in Angola, palaeontological research is finally paying off there. Louise Redvers of Google News writes:

"Angola is the final frontier for palaeontology," explained Louis Jacobs, of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, part of the PaleoAngola project which is hunting for dinosaur fossils.

"Due to the war, there's been little research carried out so far, but now we're getting in finally and there's so much to find.

"In some areas there are literally fossils sticking out of the rocks. It's like a museum in the ground."

The first reports of dinosaur remains in Angola were made in the 1960s, but a bloody liberation struggle against the Portuguese followed by three decades of civil war covered the country in landmines and made it a no-go zone for researchers.

Following the 2002 peace deal, however, the land is quite literally opening up to fossil hunters who are piecing together the country's Jurassic past.

The biggest find to date was made in 2005 when Octavio Mateus from the New Lisbon University, also part of the PaleoAngola project, retrieved five bones from the front left leg of a sauropod dinosaur on the coast at Iembe.

To paraphrase Glen Reynolds, "Dig faster!"

Now playing: Michael W. Smith - Somewhere Somehow
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Friday, August 21, 2009

A Brief History of the Discovery Institute

I missed this one a few years back. In 2006, Roger Downey wrote a column for the Seattle News about the history of the Discovery Institute (or "Disco. 'Tute", as Josh Rosenau has been given to calling it). The article was written a short time after the Dover-Kitzmiller trial that saw all of the gains that the intelligent design washed away. According to the story, the public attention to the Discovery Institute began with the discovery of the "Wedge Strategy" and a part-time employee by the name of Matt Duss:
Curious, Duss rifled through the 10 or so pages, eyebrows rising ever higher, then proceeded to execute his commission while reserving a copy of the treatise for himself. Within a week, he had shared his find with a friend who shared his interest in questions of evolution, ideology, and the propagation of ideas. Unlike Duss, the friend, Tim Rhodes, was technically savvy, and it took him little time to scan the document and post it to the World Wide Web, where it first appeared on Feb. 5, 1999.

The unnamed author of the document wasted no time getting down to his subject. "The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Yet little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science." Such thinkers as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and, above all, Charles Darwin promulgated a "materialistic conception of reality" that "eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and music."
This has always been one of the Achilles heels of the DI in its quest to divest intelligent design from its religious roots. It was clearly obvious from the start that the DI's Center for Science and Culture had, as one of its main goals to remake society and science in a theistic manner. ID was simply a means to that end. As the movement gained momentum (and attention), it became clear that there were a great many people that did not share their vision. Consequently, they began to change tactics:
Indeed, as more and more school boards seriously took up consideration of intelligent-design programs, the Discovery Institute became concerned that some of the people they were trying to influence might grow so enthusiastic as to push the newly moderate ideological envelope. They professed no knowledge of the origins of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture's founding Wedge document. They also dropped the loaded word "renewal" from the name and ceased demanding that intelligent design replace Darwinism in the high-school curriculum, or that it even be actively taught there. All that was asked now was that students be apprised that there was a controversy.
Then came Dover. Although several of the Discovery Institute's fellows, Michael Behe and Scott Minnich, agreed to testify, William Dembski pulled out of the trial. It has been suggested that he did so because of the withering pre-trial testimony of Jeffrey Shallit, who had originally been called to testify against Dembski's expertise. Shallit's expert rebuttal is here. It is, indeed, withering. As all reports have indicated, the trial was an unmitigated disaster for the purveyors of ID. One peculiar aspect of it, though, was that it was not clear who was using who. It is clear that the ID crowd was using Dover as a test. It is also clear that the local creationists were using the ID crowd to gain a degree of legitimacy. Eventually, the facade was discovered. As Judge jones put it:
In the realm of the lay witnesses, if you will, some of the school board witnesses were dreadful witnesses and hence the description “breathtaking inanity” and “mendacity.” In my view, they clearly lied under oath. They made a very poor account of themselves. They could not explain why they did what they did. They really didn't even know what intelligent design was. It was quite clear to me that they viewed intelligent design as a method to get creationism into the public school classroom. They were unfortunate and troublesome witnesses. Simply remarkable, in that sense.
Although the decision was rendered narrowly, no one actually thought that school boards across the country were not paying attention:
No one believes that Judge Jones' decision, even if it's replicated in courtrooms across the country, is going to stop the campaign against materialism and for a God-centered worldview. But it surely must be seen as a catastrophic defeat for the notion of intelligent design, and no single institution is so identified with it, and has more of its financial and intellectual resources tied up in it, than the Discovery Institute of Seattle. Maybe the group can regroup and make a comeback, but for now, the mighty wedge is irreparably blunted.
Since the writing of this document, the Discovery Institute has shifted its tactics once again and is now focused on "academic freedom" to the extent that it has drafted a document that is a blueprint for legislatures across the country sympathetic to the cause of ID to use. In its public relations, the DI has been increasingly vocal about its dislike for all things evolution and has come to resemble many young earth creationist organizations in the approach that it has taken, especially when arguing against the evidence for evolution. As I have written previously, this now should be considered in the realm of culpable ignorance, since the evidence has been presented and rejected for no good reasons.

The "academic freedom" legislation has fallen on rocky ground, however, with several bills falling short (Florida, New Mexico, Iowa, Missouri) and others passing with bad press, like that in Louisiana.

What will be their next move? It is hard to tell. One thing is for sure: they will not go ahead blindly like their YEC cousins, who have almost become a caricature of themselves, so academically isolated they have become. The ID crowd will certainly try a new avenue to get the message out.

Now playing: Anthony Phillips - Sleepfall: The Geese Fly West (2008 Remaster)
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Appendix Not Vestigial?

Charles Darwin famously stated that the appendix, that irritating organ that, often, goes bad and has to be removed was a "remnant" of a past evolutionary life. Not so fast, say researchers at Duke, University of Arizona and Arizona State. As Australian Newsnet reports:
"Maybe it's time to correct the textbooks. Many biology texts today still refer to the appendix as a 'vestigial organ'," says Dr. William Parker, assistant professor of Surgical Sciences at Duke.

He revealed that his research team used a modern approach to evolutionary biology called cladistics, which utilizes genetic information in combination with a variety of other data to evaluate biological relationships that emerge over the ages, for their study.

He said that his study has shown that the appendix has evolved at least twice, once among Australian marsupials and another time among rats, lemmings and other rodents, selected primates and humans.

"We also figure that the appendix has been around for at least 80 million years, much longer than we would estimate if Darwin's ideas about the appendix were correct," he said.
Regarding Australasia, as Kenneth Miller has pointed out, the fact that the forms that show up so closely mimic those of placentals ought to suggest strongly that evolution does not proceed at random.

How Early Life May Have Unfolded

SpaceDaily is reporting on research done at UCLA's Center for Astrobiology (is that just down the hall from the Council for Astronautics?) that suggests that two classes of early microbes became fused over two billion years ago. The study is published in the August 20 issue of Nature. The story notes:
This endosymbiosis, or merging of two cells, enabled the evolution of a highly stable and successful organism with the capacity to use energy from sunlight via photosynthesis.

Further evolution led to photosynthetic organisms producing oxygen as a byproduct. The resulting oxygenation of Earth's atmosphere profoundly affected the evolution of life, leading to more complex organisms that consumed oxygen, which were the ancestors of modern oxygen-breathing creatures including humans. "Higher life would not have happened without this event," Lake said. "These are very important organisms. At the time these two early prokaryotes were evolving, there was no oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere. Humans could not live. No oxygen-breathing organisms could live."

The Nature article is a tad clearer in terms of why this is a necessary inference. The conclusion reads, in part:
We cannot say exactly how much time this symbiosis required, but it definitely did not happen in the past two billion years. We know this because the cyanobacterial double-membrane prokaryotes are responsible for producing the Earth’s oxygen atmosphere. This implies that their diversification, and hence that of the double-membrane clade, started before the rise of oxygen in the atmosphere, approximately 2.4 billion years ago48,49 or possibly earlier (2.7 billion years ago48,50). Because the double-membrane prokaryotes are descended from Actinobacteria and Clostridia, these two donor clades must trace their beginnings back to even earlier times. Thus there seem to be no obvious physical time constraints on how long the initial phase of the double-membrane symbiosis lasted. In the future, the double-membrane clade may provide a useful reference taxon for calibrating molecular clock studies.1
The problem with a study like this is that folks like the DI will respond that there is no reason to infer evolution rather than special creation for something like this, despite clear evidence that the genome has evolved in other areas. This is not a smoking gun, it is a well-reasoned inference from the data.

1Lake, James E. (2009)Evidence for an early prokaryotic endosymbiosis. Nature. Vol. 460, 20 August, p. 967-971. doi:10.1038/nature08183

Thursday, August 20, 2009

New CSC Video Said to Support Intelligent Design...But Doesn't

A press release from the Discovery Institute claims that a new video, based on Stephen Meyer's book Signature of the Cell, shows support for Intelligent Design. They write:
The original animation by Light Productions reveals in intricate detail how the digital information in DNA directs protein synthesis inside the cell, revealing a world of molecular machines and nano-processors communicating digital information.

“This video is going to make things worse for critics of intelligent design,” Dr. Meyer explains. “They will have more difficulty convincing the public that their eyes are deceiving them when the evidence for design literally unfolds before them in this animation.”
The video can be seen here. It does a good job of explaining replication, transcription and translation of the DNA but nothing more than that. As it is only three and a half minutes long, it does not try to tackle mutations. Nothing in the video is new and it is nothing that I do not teach in my Anthropology 110 course. Consequently, the title "New Video Shows DNA Evidence for Intelligent Design" is not just misleading, it is false. While the workings of the cell are, indeed, intricate and wondrous, just because they are does not give evidence to support ID. In fact, the only thing new here is that the animation is neat.

I have not read Stephen Meyer's book yet, but it is on my list. This is just another example of the DI promising more than they can deliver.

How the Universe Unfolded

An article in the Herald Globe tracks research being done to unravel the mystery of how the universe began. The author writes:
The research was conducted by a team of scientists associated with the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo Collaboration.
The new measurements by LIGO directly probe the gravitational wave background in the first minute of its existence, at time scales much shorter than accessible by the cosmic microwave background.

"Our results are a major step toward the detection of primordial gravitational waves - ripples in the fabric of space and time - that were created as the universe expanded in its earliest moments," said Lee Samuel Finn, a Penn State professor of physics and of astronomy and astrophysics.

"This type of information would provide vital clues to understanding how the structure of the universe evolved. For example, why is our universe clumped into galaxies? This information also would tell us whether some of the fantastical proposals are correct about the way our universe came to be," he said.
I love research into the Big Bang. It is, for the most part, ideology-free.

Oh, To Fly Like a Duck...

Palaeontological fieldwork in the southwest of France has turned up evidence that pterosaurs, which ruled the skies during the Triassic and Cretaceous, flew and landed like ducks. The story, by David Perlman, appears in SFGate. He writes:

For the first time, a team of scientists, including a noted UC Berkeley paleontologist, has discovered the tracks that one small pterosaur made as it landed on the muddy shore of an ancient sea sometime between 150 million and 115 million years ago.

That gently sloping shore is now a broad stretch of flat rock known as Pterosaur Beach in a limestone quarry near the tiny village of Crayssac in southwestern France. It's so far off the tourist routes that it has no hotel or inn, so Kevin Padian, the Berkeley scientist who has studied pterosaur fossils for more than 25 years, and his French and Swiss colleagues slept at the local school while there to investigate the newfound tracks.

Padian, if you will recall, was a principle witness for the prosecution in the Dover School Board trial of 2005 and, along with the testimony of Kenneth Miller, was instrumental in showing the vacuity of the position that Intelligent Design can be characterized as science. Perlman continues:
"These tracks," Padian said, "tell us that this animal must have flapped its wings with its body upright, stalled in the air like many waterbirds do, and landed feet first just the way flying ducks like mergansers do today. Then, its newfound tracks show this pterosaur took a few short, stuttering steps, turned slightly to its left, and there the tracks stop."
Another mystery solved!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Human Evolution and Divine Purpose

Reading this article by Graeme Finlay got me to thinking about Cornelius Hunter's perspective on genetics and evolution. Dr. Finlay is a cell biologist at the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre and he has a specialty in comparative primate genetics. The article in question is called "Human evolution: How random process fulfils divine purpose and it appeared in the June 2008 issue of Perspectives in the Christian Faith. His point is very clear:
Even as some Christians deny that new species can evolve, that macroevolution has taken place, and that complexity can develop through natural genetic processes, the genomic revolution of this century has established the truth of all three evolutionary concepts.
This perspective is absolutely contra Dr. Hunter's, who argues that genetics do not support "Darwinism's" predictions. In support of his argument, Dr. Finlay marshalls evidence from DNA transposons and retrotransposons, "recycled spare parts," and duplications. These are genes that figure in many illnesses that afflict humans and this evidence is similar to that of ERVs in terms of inferred shared ancestry. About transposons he writes:
DNA transposons are short segments of self-propagating DNA that reside in the genomes of many organisms. Their origins are lost in remote history. They possess an enzyme called a transposase which enables them to cut-and-paste themselves into new sites in the genome. They appear to increase in number by co-ordinating their activities with episodes of cellular DNA synthesis. There are nearly 400,000 individual DNA transposons inserted into our genome, of which essentially all are shared with apes and OWMs.[Old World Monkeys](citation omitted)
What is interesting is that these transposons reflect a fascinating example of exaptation (when one gene is co-opted by an existing system for a different function than what it was originally intended). Our DNA is rife with these. As Finlay states:
Many of the DNA transposons scattered throughout our genome have acquired genetic functionality since the time they inserted into the primate germ-line. Some now function as genes that generate RNA molecules involved in widespread and important regulatory functions (citation omitted)
So, how as Christians, are we to view this kind of evidence? How does this fit into a Christian perspective that has, as one of its central tenets, the fall and subsequent sinfulness/corruption of the world? Finlay writes:
If we are God’s creation, then our DNA sequence is an authoritative text that God has written. It is the Primal Testament that describes how God in faithfulness has created, via the randomness of genetic happenstance, the creature that bears his image and that he intends to glorify. Francis Collins has stated that shared transposable elements have implications for common ancestry that are “virtually inescapable.” We must listen attentively to this text, and respond appropriately (Citation omitted).
This is a critical piece of the puzzle in the evolutionary continuum because the vast majority of people that argue against evolution do so from the (mistaken) viewpoint that the fossil record doesn't support it. Very few people that argue against evolution would think to take pot shots at genetics. Genetics is as central to biology as evolution is and is (in so much as is possible) tangible. It can be shown conclusively that certain genes result in certain phenotypes when expressed, even though the genes themselves cannot be seen without a microscope. He concludes thus:
There is of course mystery in this. The achievement of God’s purposes in the light of genetic or human freedom is a paradox to which we must hold. The actions of God in history are not obvious to the casual observer. Butterfield wrote that we cannot find the hand of God in secular history unless we have first gained assurance of God’s involvement by personal experience. It is Christ who makes sense of Israel’s tumultuous past. Once we have recognized how God’s blessing for the world arose from Israel’s tragic history, we may perceive with worship that he has created humanity by the random evolutionary route attested by our genome.
Of course, this whole exercise sidesteps the problem of the historical Adam, the fall and sinful man, and the ancient genetic history of humans is an idea that most Christians cannot process and many won't. On the other hand, it is far from clear that a literal view of death is warranted from the scripture anyway, or else Adam and Eve would have physically died upon eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which they obviously did not. This is what allows the literal crowd to accept the ancient origin of humans and a literal Adam as well. Of course, the problems compound for the literal crowd when you get to the long lifespans, the worldwide flood and the Tower of Babel. This is why they call it the "primeval history" and why Conrad Hyers remarks:
...a literal interpretation of the Genesis accounts of creation is inappropriate, misleading, and unworkable. It presupposes a kind of literature and concern that is not there. In doing so it misses the symbolic richness of what is there and subjects the biblical materials, and the theology of creation, to a completely pointless and futile controversy. The "creation model" of origins is not what the texts are about. So the issue, ultimately, is not that creationism is scientifically and historically incorrect, but biblically incorrect.
If so, then the genetic evidence will fit right in with every other piece of evidence that supports the ancient age of the universe and the earth.

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Exobiology Gets a Boost

A news story from Fox indicates that glycine, a required amino acid for the foundation of life has been found...on a comet. The story notes:

The new finding, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science, also has implications for finding alien life.

"The discovery of glycine in a comet supports the idea that the fundamental building blocks of life are prevalent in space, and strengthens the argument that life in the universe may be common rather than rare," said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, which co-funded the research.

NASA's Stardust spacecraft captured samples of gas and dust from Wild 2 in 2004. The material parachuted to Earth in 2006. Since then, scientists around the world have been analyzing the samples to learn the secrets of comet formation and our solar system's history.

Just for the sake of argument, I would love to know how such a sample was collected without contamination. Assuredly NG would have taken precautions to that effect. Likely, that will come out in the journal publication because that will be the first question that everyone will ask.

If this is the case, it knocks the legs out from under another creationist argument—that life did not form in this way, from a "primordial soup." Keep in mind that this, in no way, undermines the possibility that God still created life. It simply means that there is yet more evidence that it happened in a way that is not compatible with the YEC model.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

People and Fire

Andrew Curry of ScienceNow reports that tools that were modified by fire have been found at several sites in South Africa that date to between 70 and 164 thousand years ago. It was not thought that humans had mastered this technique this early. He writes:

The discovery has its roots in experimental archaeology. Kyle Brown, an archaeologist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and colleagues were trying to recreate the axes and hafted tools they were finding in the Pinnacle Point caves--a site containing many artifacts of early human activity--to learn more about how they were made. One of the local rocks that these early humans fashioned tools from is silcrete, which is similar to flint. But when the researchers tried to recreate the tools, they couldn't quite get it right. "We were having a really hard time coming up with [something] that looked like what we were finding at the site," Brown says.

So the researchers began experimenting with heat treatment. After much trial and error, they found that it took 20 to 40 kilograms of hardwood and almost 30 hours to create the 300°C temperatures in silcrete needed to fashion tools like those seen at Pinnacle Point. Those conditions alone were a good sign that the stone tools were no campfire accident, the team reports tomorrow in Science. "It requires a lot of planning," Brown says. "It's not the kind of thing people would do with an ordinary cooking fire." Heating makes the stones easier to flake and shape into blades.

It is likely that humans had some ability to control fire earlier than this, given that there is evidence that Homo erectus had done it in some way as early as 200-300 ky BP. Still, this is quite a step forward at this point.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Science, Religion and War

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirschenbaum have an editorial in the Los Angeles Times in which they ask Must science declare a holy war on religion? These two writers have been criticized by both Jerry Coyne and P.Z. Myers for their book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future. In this editorial, they write:
It often appears as though Dawkins and his followers -- often dubbed the New Atheists, though some object to the term -- want to change the country's science community in a lasting way. They'd have scientists and defenders of reason be far more confrontational and blunt: No more coddling the faithful, no tolerating nonscientific beliefs. Scientific institutions, in their view, ought to stop putting out politic PR about science and religion being compatible.

The New Atheists win the battle easily on the Internet. Their most prominent blogger, the University of Minnesota biologist P.Z. Myers, runs what is probably the Web's most popular science blog, Pharyngula, where he and his readers attack and belittle religious believers, sometimes using highly abrasive language. Or as Myers put it to fanatical Catholics at one point: "Don't confuse the fact that I find you and your church petty, foolish, twisted and hateful to be a testimonial to the existence of your petty, foolish, twisted, hateful god."
I'm guessing he isn't talking about the New Testament. Myers and Dawkins are the pre-eminent evolutionary biologists who moonlight as vocal atheists. They are joined by journalist Christopher Hitchens as the triad of evangelical atheists. As the authors point out though, they are not the norm:
More moderate scientists, however -- let us call them the accommodationists -- still dominate the hallowed institutions of American science. Personally, these scientists may be atheists, agnostics or believers; whatever their views on the relationship between science and religion, politically, spiritually and practically they see no need to fight over it.

Thus the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences take the stance that science and religion can be perfectly compatible -- and are regularly blasted for it by the New Atheists. Or as the National Academy of Sciences put it in a recent volume on evolution and creationism: "Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth's history. ... Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts."

A smaller but highly regarded nonprofit organization called the National Center for Science Education has drawn at least as much of the New Atheists' ire, however. Based in Oakland, the center is the leading organization that promotes and defends the teaching of evolution in school districts across the country.
In a sense, the new atheists are cutting off their noses to spite their faces. These organizations are powerful and command much attention in the scientific community. The only Christians that see the NCSE as adversarial are the Young Earth Creationists and they see all of normative science that way. It is also telling that these YEC organizations, while popular among some of the less-informed public, are anathema to scientists and scientific organizations. As the interview between Dawkins and Wendy Wright showed, they won't listen to evidence and and cannot be reasoned with. That is not the group that Dawkins and his compatriots are after. Calling them names won't change their minds and that is all Dawkins and company can seem to do. No, if the new atheists can get the rank and file scientists to come around to their way of thinking, they have won half the battle. They have too much contempt for the general public to be effective. Perhaps Darwin was right after all:
It turns out that late in life, when an atheist author asked permission to dedicate a book to Darwin, the great scientist wrote back his apologies and declined. For as Darwin put it, "Though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds, which follows from the advance of science."
The current generation of new atheists can never hope to achieve this with their current tactics.

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William Dembski and Biased Academics

Little Green Footballs points us to an item that gives a new meaning to academic bias. It is the requirements for William Dembski's courses on Intelligent Design at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. There are three courses for credit, with varying requirements. Here is one requirement:
This is the undegrad [sic] course. You have three things to do: (1) take the final exam (worth 40% of your grade); (2) write a 3,000-word essay on the theological significance of intelligent design (worth 40% of your grade); (3) provide at least 10 posts defending ID that you’ve made on “hostile” websites, the posts totalling 2,000 words, along with the URLs (i.e., web links) to each post (worth 20% of your grade).
There are other requirements, such as reading The Language of God by Francis Collins and critiquing it. I am guessing Dembski takes a dim view of the book. I know that Collins has a dim view of Intelligent Design. It is the last part that gets everyone's attention:
You are the Templeton Foundation’s new program director and are charged with overseeing its programs and directing its funds. Sketch out a 20-year plan for defeating scientific materialism and the evolutionary worldview it has fostered if you had $50,000,000 per year in current value to do so. What sorts of programs would you institute? How would you spend the money?
What I find surprising is not that attention is being brought to this (although I think that is a valid point), it is the surprise that it is happening. I would be willing to bet that a perusal of any of the "academic" courses at the ICR would yield material so much more biased that it would raise red flags at any established university and likely be thrown out. In fact, such a course is likely commonplace at most Christian-based schools. For example, Ozark Christian college has, as part of its Creation and Science class the following course objectives:.

  • Explain the nature and importance of both science and faith in the life of the modern Christian.
  • Impress the student with the need to be able to answer the questions of those confused about the issue of science versus faith.
  • Present the case made for both the evolutionary and creation models of origins.
  • Give the student opportunities to practice writing critical and college level papers.
  • Strengthen the Christian in faith and encourage him in his worship of the one who made all things ex nihilo.
  • Impress upon one the distinction between macro and micro evolution.
  • Introduce the student to the dogmatism present in much of science on the issue of evolution.
  • Explain the implications of accepting evolutionary theory.
  • Examine the origins of both the universe and our solar system.
  • Survey some of the evidence that points to a designer creator.
  • Analyze the problem of the age of the earth and universe.
  • Confront the student with the absurdity of the idea that extensive biological progress has been made through chance occurrences.
  • Present a critical analysis of some of the more popular proofs that have been used for evolution.
This kind of course doesn't even pretend to be objective and it is probable that the teacher has no formal training in advanced biology of any kind but is, rather, a theologian. Regarding Dembski's course, he is a mathematician and every time he ventures into biological territory, he gets blown out of the water. He just doesn't seem to notice.

What I find unusual about Dembski's course is not that it is so blatantly biased, it is how lacking it is in academic rigor. There are no scientific papers referenced and the students are asked to go to web sites. I teach information literacy to students at a local university and one of the first things that I teach is that web sites are usually not up to the standards of academic papers. Academic papers are peer-reviewed and undergo revision and rewriting before they are deemed to be worthy of any academic discipline. Web sites (like this one) have no accountability and some have notoriously unreliable information. Does he teach the difference? Does he teach how to recognize a bad website, or one that doesn't provide supporting documentation? When I was an undergrad, there were no web sites. Academic papers were what we read and critiqued. He should be using the same standards.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

On Vacation...

I am on vacation for the week so likely will not be posting much unless something comes along.

353 New Species

Yahoo News is reporting on a story from AFP that states that 353 new species have been discovered in the Himalayas in the past decade. According to the story:
A flying frog, the world's smallest deer and the first new monkey to be found in over a century are among 350 new species discovered in the eastern Himalayas in the past decade, the WWF said Monday.

But the environmental group said the vital habitats of the mountain range were facing growing pressures from unsustainable development in the region, which spans Nepal, China, India, Bhutan and Myanmar.

In a report released here Monday, it said climate change, deforestation, overgrazing by domestic livestock and illegal poaching and wildlife trading threatened one of the biologically richest areas of the planet.

As Ian Malcolm would say "Life finds a way."

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Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Earliest Known Human Infection

Yahoo News India is reporting on a study done on Australopithecus vertebrae which indicates that a bacterial infection was present. The story notes:

First uncovered in the 1970s in the Sterkfontein caves, not far from Johannesburg, two of the vertebrae belonging to an older male are dotted with visible lesions.

One study concluded that this damage was caused by ageing.

According to a report in New Scientist, after collecting X-rays and scanning electron micrographs of the bones, D'Anastasio now contends that brucellosis better explains the lesions.

Brucellosis causes a flu-like illness in humans, but if the bacteria reach muscles and bones, they tend to infect the same spinal vertebrae that are damaged in the Australopithecus bones.

Other infections, like tuberculosis, also infect spinal bones, but they tend to be less discriminate and go after other vertebrae.

As the story goes on to say, there is no way to know for sure how the victim got the disease but there are some possibilities.

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Friday, August 07, 2009

Global Warming and Biodiversity

ScienceDaily has a nifty story about how global warming during the Eocene led to a boom in biodiversity in North America:
"Today, the middle of Wyoming is a vast desert, and a few antelope and deer are all you see," said lead author Michael Woodburne, honorary curator of geology at the Museum of Northern Arizona. "But 50 million years ago, when temperatures were at their highest, that area was a tropical rainforest teeming with lemur-like primates, small dawn horses and a number of small forest rodents and other mammals. In fact, there were more species of mammals living in the western part of North America at that time than at any other time."
By the end of the Oligocene, all of the North American primates had died out or moved south because of the shifting temperatures.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Basal Mammal with Opposable Thumbs Discovered

In a story for the Regina Leader-Post, Randy Boswell of Canwest writes that an animal that is between 250 and 260 million years old has been discovered that has opposable thumbs and likely climbed in trees. He writes:

University of Toronto paleontologist Robert Reisz and his former student Jorg Frobisch, now with Chicago's Field Museum, have published a study documenting the grasping abilities and tree-dwelling habits of suminia gemanovi - a long-tailed, lizard-like creature that was nevertheless more closely related to our own mammalian ancestors than to any reptile.

Part of a dead-end family of proto-mammals that disappeared before the dinosaur age, suminia shared a distinctive skull structure with mammals that distinguished it from lizards and birds.

Another piece of the puzzle.

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Tyrannosaurus Rex: Baby Killer

It is being suggested, in an article in Yahoo News, that T.Rex, the largest of the tyrannosaurs, spent most of its time preying on animals that were either juveniles or infants, so it could eat them whole. The story notes:

David Hone, a British palaeontologist working in China, believes the Tyrannosaurs preferred to prey upon small and unwary baby rivals rather than their fully-grown parents.

His study, carried out with Oliver Rauhut of the Bavarian State Collection for Palaeontology and Geology in Munich, suggests that baby-eating was a common behaviour among the large predatory dinosaurs, offering a possible explanation why so few juvenile dinosaurs have been found in fossil records.

The pair, whose work was published in the journal Lethaia and reported in The Independent, believe that eating baby dinosaurs whole or in large pieces enabled T.rex to digest the minerals and nutrients stored in the bones of their small prey.

This will surely not improve the animal's already checkered image.

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Richard Dawkins and Wendy Wright: Modern Creationism in a Nutshell

LGF points us to a series of videos where Richard Dawkins, biology professor and atheist extraordinaire interviews Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women of America. It is a lesson in frustration when dealing with a person who has her mind made up and won't listen to anything counter to that. Here is the first one.

She uses all of the typical talking points
  • fossils mistakenly identified
  • evidence against evolution being suppressed
  • no transitional forms or evolution from one species to another
  • Darwin led to Hitler
Interestingly, Dawkins correctly points out that there is no controversy within the scientific community about whether or not evolution happens and then she accuses him of being closed-minded and unwilling to look at the controversy. Huh? When Dawkins asks her where she studied science, she complains that scientists think that they are the only ones that can speak on this issue, but that when the average person goes to the Smithsonian, they don't find evidence of evolution. She then says that it is "almost like a religion, in which only scientists are allowed to speak and teach" on evolution. It is pretty hard to take. At one point, Dawkins remarks that they have "a different conception of what evidence is." Yah you got that right. She doesn't listen to a word he actually says. It is like a creationist debate where it doesn't matter what you say, the other person continues to say what they were going to say anyway—as if on autopilot. Dawkins explains to her what the material evidence is and she then, to his face, states: "You are still lacking the material evidence." When he says, again, go to the museums and look at the material evidence, she berates him for trying to talk over her points. She simply refuses to listen. Completely daft.

Dawkins is admirably restrained. As Charles Johnson remarks, go to YouTube for the rest of the interviews. You will need to remove the breakables from the room, however.

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Concerns about the Weekly Standard?

Newsmax reports that the Weekly Standard has been sold to Billionaire Philip Anschutz. The magazine has always been the voice of moderate conservatism and routinely publishes articles of the highest order. Why is the sale to Anschutz a potential problem? According to the story, Anschutz
...has also helped fund the Discovery Institute, which promotes intelligent design and criticizes evolution, and the Parents Television Council, an organization that protests against what it views as television indecency.
Hopefully, the well-reasoned conservative writings will continue unabated, but it is possible that articles of a not-so-well-reasoned nature might find their way into the magazine. I hope not. I read the WS to get away from the usual conservative associations.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

On the Fringe of Palaeoanthropology

According to a story in UPI, Jeffrey Schwartz and John Grehan have produced a study suggesting that humans bear a closer relationship to orang-utans than to chimpanzees.The report notes:
Fossil evidence shows striking anatomical similarities between humans and orangs, including enamel molars, similar hairlines and shoulder blades, and even the ability to smile with lips closed, Jeffrey H. Schwartz and John Grehan, director of science at the Buffalo Museum, say in the Journal of Biogeography.

Even our skulls and eyebrow bone structure more closely resemble the orangutan's than the chimp's or gorilla's dramatically ridged eyebrows, they say.

This will be a hard sell, considering that there is fossil evidence suggesting that the orang cranial morphology has been in place for at least 10 million years in the form of GSP15000. That isn't the only problem:

But defenders of the chimp theory produced genome evidence indicating chimps have a more than 98 percent genetic similarity with humans.

This compares with a 97 percent similarity with the gorilla and only 96 similarity with the orangutan genome, they say.

"As far as I know -- and I know Jeff well, and we are friends -- he and John Grehan are the only two scientists on the whole planet who subscribe to this red-ape hypothesis," Todd Disotell, an anthropologist with New York University's Center for the Study of Human Origins, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I think he is utterly, factually wrong."

Gotta hand it to them for trying to shake things up. And, yes, they probably are wrong.

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Part of a Whole World View

News has come out of Nigeria of a Taliban-styled uprising that has left hundreds dead. AllAfrica has a report on several of the sect members that have been captured.They write:
He said that he believed the Nigerian "Taliban" group that engaged security forces in a bloody shoot out that left hundreds dead in Maiduguri town alone, fought for the reign of Islam "from here (Nigeria) to Spain".

He continued, "We hate Western education; it is a sin and we abhor it. It has polluted the world and if given a second chance I will continue to fight"
These groups truly want a return to Andalusia. The report continues:
So, the group had consciously modelled itself after the real Taliban, with many well-educated members, burning their certificates.

This brings to the fore one issue that many commentators have so far swept under the carpet; the fact that the group was really Islamic and not just a crazed sect, though it may rightly be said to hold crazy ideas aplenty.

One of such hard to understand idea is that Darwinism and the theory of evolution is anathema to the group. Why? Well, just as the group scorns the conventional idea of rainfall being caused by evaporation at the earth's surface and condensation as rain-bearing clouds, it opposes the teaching of Darwin's theory because it tends to remove the hand of God both in the making of rain each and every time and in the determination of every trait in the product of each and every human activity. Yet, while we may scoff at a terrible misunderstanding of a tested and proven law of Geography as the cause of rainfall, it would be foolhardy not to take seriously the group's antagonism to the Nigerian Constitution because they desire the Sharia system.
The group is apparently well-funded from outside, which is grim reminder that they do not exist in isolation but are part of a well-networked jihadist movement that demands a return to the eleventh century. Scary.

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