Monday, November 30, 2009

Russians Reject Evolution in Numbers Similar to U.S.

Meanwhile, over in Russia, Interfax-Religion reports that over 40% of Russians polled support creationism. The author writes:
In particular, Darwin's evolution theory is supported by 55% of residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg, 54% of atheists, and 45% of highly educated respondents, while creationism by 50% of rural residents, 48% of people believing in God, and 50% of undereducated people.

The poll has shown that most Russians do not absolutely share either the creationism or Darwin's evolution theory postulates. As many as 63% of those polled acknowledge Darwin's idea of permanent development of the living world and natural selection and 71% are convinced that the Earth's age is at least several billion years.

At the same time, 48% of Russians are inclined to believe that man was created by God, 49% that the world was originally perfect and has become more chaotic with time, and 62% that all major changes on the Earth have been caused by global disasters, one of them being the Deluge.
The poll has not been posted online at the site yet and I am more than a bit curious how the questions were constructed and what the sample size was. I will try to follow up on this. On the surface, it is very disheartening since it seems that, despite an acceptance of an old earth, many of those polled just can't get past the concept of biological evolution. I know little of the Russian educational system so I am not sure where the breakdown is. Nor do I know what the extent of creationism "importing" is going on.

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Royal Society Supports Teaching of Evolution in Public Schools

The Royal Society issued a short press release supporting the teaching of evolution in public schools in England. It reads:
"We are delighted to see evolution explicitly included in the primary curriculum. One of the most remarkable achievements of science over the last two hundred years has been to show how humans and all other organisms on the Earth arose through the process of evolution. Learning about evolution can be an extraordinary, exciting and inspiring experience for children. Teachers should aim to explain why evolution by natural selection is the only known way of understanding all the available evidence. In order to assist them, the Royal Society will be sending all teacher training colleges a booklet on evolution to provide information and advice to all new teachers."
No surprise there.

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Todd Wood and the Problem of Cognitive Dissonance

Todd Wood is a creationist, and has a blog where he comments on science and religion. He seems to have grasped the meaning of evolutionary theory, though. Consequently, a few months back, he rattled more than a few cages by writing the following:

Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well.

I say these things not because I'm crazy or because I've "converted" to evolution. I say these things because they are true. I'm motivated this morning by reading yet another clueless, well-meaning person pompously declaring that evolution is a failure. People who say that are either unacquainted with the inner workings of science or unacquainted with the evidence for evolution. (Technically, they could also be deluded or lying, but that seems rather uncharitable to say. Oops.)

To quote Slim Pickens: "What in the Wide World of Sports is a-Goin' on here??" For those of us that have a background in evolutionary theory and palaeontology, the usual creationist arguments present little in the way of difficulty and can be dispensed with quite easily. Todd Wood, clearly, has an unusual creationist position. He claims that he really is a creationist and really does believe in the YEC model. He writes in another post:

I believe that God created everything that you see in six consecutive days around 6000 years ago.
I believe that Adam and Eve were the very first humans and were directly created by God.
I believe Adam and Eve sinned, and that sin brought death, carnivory, disease, and suffering into the world.
I believe that people really lived to be 900+ years back then.
I believe that there was a truly global Flood that inundated the entire planet.
I believe that humans and land animals were preserved on an Ark (approximately 450 feet long for those keeping score).
A reader wrote the following about him:
For a while I kind of felt sorry for Wood as I read his posts and what he was trying to do with the science, and kind of respected him for his honesty.However, what I see as the real problem is that if he, as someone who really understands the evidence, can still reject it, then what chance do we have of convincing unqualified creationists who don't understand the evidence and just believe what they are told by AIG and ICR?
Very little, it seems, because it is a faith position and those that hold it think that if they accept the findings of modern science, the jig is up and there really is no God, after all. It is this thin line between science and faith that results in a false dichotomy: One can accept evolution as the truth (in a scientific sense) and be an atheist or one can reject evolution, no matter how much explanatory power it has and believe in God.

The problem is that by embracing the YEC model and all of its warts, he is not just saying he accepts that evolution is good science but doesn't believe it, he is saying that all of modern science is good but his faith demands that he reject all of it. This makes him no more enlightened than your average creationist. In a sense, because he knows the evidence that your average creationist doesn't, his position is perhaps even more pathetic.

It raises an interesting theological question as well, one that is applicable to all creationists, enlightened or not. If the God of the universe is the same God that created the heavens and the earth and who created a universe that is knowable, and if we reject the clear evidence that the heavens and the earth teach us, are we not rejecting God's testimony about his creation?

Furthermore, given that the traditional and historical interpretation of the scriptures that cover the creation of the universe— the Primeval History—has not been literal but rather symbolic, and therefore, the modern (1930s) YEC model is not an orthodox interpretation, does this constitute heresy? I am not quite willing to go that far and am inclined to think of it as a radical misinterpretation of scripture. Ask me tomorrow, though. The more I see people lie and be willing to distort the evidence for the purpose of the YEC model, the more I am inclined to think of it as heresy. Someone needs to talk me out of this perspective.

It is obvious from reading Todd Wood's blog that he is a very articulate, intelligent and well-thought individual who has thought long and hard about some of these issues. He addresses the science as though he believes it, which is truly strange, given what he actually believes. I think that probably I need to read more to really get a sense of how deep the cognitive dissonance runs. I keep coming back to the same problem, though: the rocks don't lie.

Hat tip to Ben

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The History of Natural Selection

James Costa writes an article for BioScience in which he traces the history of how Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace made the conclusions necessary to devise the theory of natural selection. While a bit of a long read, the article is quite illuminating. For instance, Costa writes this:
The light shed by evolutionary theory today on even more “classes of facts” than Darwin could have imagined is an excellent starting point in educating students and the general public about this remarkable science. In doing so, we might profitably take a page from Darwin’s playbook and teach Darwin with Darwin himself (Costa 2003). The most readily appreciated argument in support of the reality of species change is the very one that convinced the young Darwin: the expansive explanatory power of the concept, tying together seemingly disparate fields. Most of Darwin’s contemporaries saw how compellingly his theory unified biogeography, paleontology, embryology, instinct, and other fields. Modern students are in a position to appreciate a far more expansive unification, encompassing new disciplines unknown to Darwin—the fruits of more than a century of research since the Origin’s final edition.
Indeed, it is the unification that makes the theory so powerful. It is an excellent article, with much insight into how the theory came to be and why it is so important.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

There is Deeper Meaning Here

The Age is reporting that a rare, first printing of Charles Darwin's On the Origins of Species has been found in a collection of books used as reading material in a bathroom. The author writes:
The book, which was first printed in 1859, was bought by a family for just a few shillings in a shop about 40 years ago, Christie's auction house said.

The family has since kept the work on a bookcase in the guest lavatory at their home in the Oxford area, it said.

The book will go under the hammer in London on Tuesday, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the publication of the father of the theory of evolution's famous work.

The book, about 1,250 copies of which were first printed, is expected to fetch STG60,000 ($A108,254).
Well, at least they were reading it.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Dayton, Tennessee: Ground Zero

Allen Abel, of Canwest News Service has written an article about the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee. Such is the media climate surrounding the anniversary of the publishing of On the Origins of Species by Charles Darwin, which came out 150 years ago, tomorrow. The article is more of a description of how the town and university that bear the name of William Jennings Bryan respond to the theory. He writes:
Across town, on the Bryan College campus, I meet the prelate of laboratory anti-Darwinism. Todd Charles Wood is a ``young-Earth creationist,'' strict Biblical literalist and holder of a doctorate in biochemistry from Thomas Jefferson's own University of Virginia. He acknowledges that there are difficulties involved in proving that Darwin and his disciples - the list would include virtually every reputable scientist since 1859 - are incorrect.
The interview with Wood continues, in which the following exchange is quoted:
Wood concedes that ``theories are needed'' in the pursuit of a rigorous creationist biology. He cites a number of perplexities that such a theory would have to explain: feathered dinosaurs; fossil whales with both teeth and baleen; the fact that human beings share 99 per cent of their genome with the chimpanzee.

``That may be the big one,'' says Wood.

``The theory is already written,'' I suggest, holding up a copy of The Origin of Species.

``Why would God create anthrax?'' the scholar wonders out loud.

``Why would God create Darwin?'' I reply.

``I don't have a theory from which to work,'' Wood admits. ``Once Darwin hit on natural selection, he had a theory with which to work. Evolution is well- supported. It is not bogus. It is not a failure. It is not in crisis. I just happen to think it's wrong.''
These are the words of a scientist? He has no evidence to demonstrate that evolution is wrong, he just thinks it is? Perhaps the most damning statement here is the lack of theory that creationists work from. It is the same lack of theory that plagues Intelligent Design.

Small-town America.

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How Did the Mammoths Die Off?

The Los Angeles Times has an article by John Johnson Jr. about why the woolly mammoths died out. He writes:
To track the population of large herbivores, scientists analyzed the pollen, charcoal and fungus in ancient sediments beneath Appleman Lake, a 35-foot-deep body of water left behind when the last ice age ended 20,000 years ago. The research focused on the amounts of the fungus Sporormiella present in the sediments, according to Jacquelyn Gill, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and a co-author of the paper appearing in today's issue of the journal Science.

Because the fungus is commonly found in the dung of large plant-eaters, its prevalence in the fossil record should be a direct measure of population density, Gill said. The research team found that the decline of the large mammals started about 14,800 years ago -- and was virtually complete a thousand years later.

"About 13.8 thousand years ago, the number of [fungus] spores drops dramatically," Gill said.

In the end, a total of 34 types of large animal disappeared.
This, it is said, refutes the current hypothesis that a bolide of some kind was responsible, leaving humans the likely culprit.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

More on H. floresiensis from the Independent.

Here is an article from the Independent that sheds more light on the whole speciation question:
Professor [William ]Jungers suggested that the hobbit had evolved from a more primitive ancestral human species with a similar body plan, rather than belonging to an evolutionary branch-line of H. sapiens that had regressed to a more primitive form. "It is difficult to believe an evolutionary change would lead to less economical movement," Professor Jungers said. "It makes little sense that this species re-evolved shorter thighs and legs because long hind limbs improve bipedal walking. We suspect that these are primitive retentions instead," he said.
Read the whole thing.

Homo floresiensis: Not Homo

Peter Brown, the discoverer of the "Hobbit" (don't know about you but I just hate that name) is now arguing that the species does not belong in the genus Homo. In an article by Cheryl Jones for the Australian, she writes:
In a paper accepted for publication in an upcoming special Homo floresiensis edition of the Journal of Human Evolution, Brown and colleague Tomoko Maeda, also of UNE, say the hobbits' lineage left Africa "possibly before the evolution of the genus Homo". (The root of the human family tree stretches back about two million years to Homo habilis, or Handy Man, in Africa.)

Brown says assigning the Flores hominin to a different genus would worry some scholars. "They will think it somehow marginalises Homo floresiensis; that it's a clear statement that it is not a member of our genus, and it's extinct, so we don't have to worry about it any more," he says. "That's nonsense, because it's part of the broader evolutionary story of our species."

I am reminded of the late Grover Kranz arguing that australopithecines could be found in Indonesia or Don Tyler's Meganthropus argument. Brown's argument also, as the article notes, addresses the two warring camps in later human palaeoanthropology—the Out-of-Africa camp and the Multiregional Evolution camp. The first group advocates largely a replacement model of modern human origins, while the latter, as the name implies, suggests that modern humans originated in different areas of the Old World through a complex interaction of regional gene flow and evolution. The size of the populations and the gene flow between them kept speciation from occurring.

Read the whole thing.

Crocodiles From Hell

Yahoo News has a story originating from Agence France Press about new crocodile fossils that have been discovered in the Sahara Desert. The author notes:
The fossils of five hitherto unknown bizarre-looking crocodiles which roamed the world 100 million years ago have been unearthed in the Sahara desert, US scientists revealed Thursday.

The five now extinct species -- dubbed BoarCroc, RatCroc, DogCroc, DuckCroc and PancakeCroc because of their strange appearances -- were ancestors of the modern-day reptiles and evolved at the same time as dinosaurs.

"These species open a window on a croc world completely foreign to what was living on northern continents," said National Geographic explorer-in-residence Paul Sereno.
Funny names aside, these were evidently no animals to be taken lightly. The story continues:

Significantly, Sereno's team found the five oddball crocs had long legs allowing them to walk upright like mammals rather than slither with their bellies to the ground.

That gave them speed during hunting and when they fled from danger to seek refuge in the water.

Another piece of the puzzle.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

You Can Never Go Back Home

ScienceDaily has a report of research from the University of Oregon in which it has been shown that evolution is a one-way trip. The author writes:
The team used computational reconstruction of ancestral gene sequences, DNA synthesis, protein engineering and X-ray crystallography to resurrect and manipulate the gene for a key hormone receptor as it existed in our earliest vertebrate ancestors more than 400 million years ago. They found that over a rapid period of time, five random mutations made subtle modifications in the protein's structure that were utterly incompatible with the receptor's primordial form.
This seems to indicate that once evolution in a species has proceeded down a particular path, it doesn't go back. Once upon a time, the ancestors of humans had four premolars (bicuspids, if you are a dentist). We now have two because the first two have been lost along the way. I remember my advisor Fred Smith remarking once upon a time that once a trait has been lost evolutionarily, it never comes back. A species might follow a different path than the one it originally took to get to a similar place, however. This explains why whales and icthyosaurs don't look the same, even though they are both exploiting an aquatic niche. Read the whole thing.

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Muslims Rejecting Evolution

Ruth Gledhill, the religion correspondent for the Times Online writes an article examining current Muslim attitudes toward evolution. She writes:
Nidhal Guessoum, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, told the conference, being held in Egypt by the British Council, that in too many places students and academics believed they had to make a “binary choice” between evolution and creationism, rather than understanding that one could believe both in God and in Darwin’s theory.
Such is the understanding of many Christians today in the United States and Europe. This is largely promoted by both militant atheists and militant creationists. She continues:
Addressing the conference in Alexandria, organised for the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, he said that concerns among Muslims about evolution were being fuelled by Christian creationists. People in Muslim countries would find creationist theses on the internet and, not realising that these were on the fringes of scientific debate, assume that creationism had scientific credibility in the West.

“It is a serious problem,” he said. “It would be like going to my students and telling them the planets are not related to the stars, there is no relationship between them and gravitational pull or radiation, and they were all created on one day. We would not dream of describing the cosmos in such a ridiculous manner ... We cannot allow people to go into the 21st century with no understanding of science.”
He would not think of it and yet that is exactly what young earth creationists believe—without a shred of evidence to support it. Groups like the ICR that strive for scientific credibility have used the Internet as a tool to spread the creationist message.

The one thing that I teach my students in Information Literacy is that the Internet is a double-edged sword. It is great for finding all kinds of information that you would, ordinarily have to go to print resources to find but, because there is no editing or accountability, anybody can publish anything they want on the Internet without the slightest bit of academic integrity. Less-suspecting individuals will then take this information and incorporate it into their thought structure without realizing that it has no academic merit. That is why this blog (and many others) exists—to combat that in some small way. That I have to try to counter the lack of academic integrity of many other Christians is more than a little troubling.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Steve Dutch Is Mad

Steve Dutch, professor of natural and applied sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, has written a column for the Green Bay Press Gazette in which he scolds Christian organizations for deception when attacking evolution:
The lies told by opponents of evolution are practically endless.

There are no intermediate fossil forms between major groups? A lie.

Methods for dating rocks are unreliable and give contradictory results? A lie.

Many scientists are beginning to doubt evolution? A lie.

These are not mere differences of opinion; they are deliberate misrepresentations or outright denials of published facts.

I have read more anti-evolution literature than just about anyone in this area, and I have done something most other readers have not — check it against real science. I can tell you flatly it is all junk.

Duane Gish? Ken Ham? Answers in Genesis? Discovery Institute? Philip Johnson? Michael Behe? Junk, all of it, with not a shred of scientific value.
I am often reminded of Ken Ham's smug response to scientists that confront him with data. He simply responds that we both have the same data, we just interpret it differently. The catch is that he does so without any scientific testing, rendering his conclusions scientifically invalid.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dennis Sewell and the Abuse of Darwinism

Someone else has noticed Dennis Sewell's book. Simon Underdown of the Guardian writes a review that is not too kind. First, he corrects a misunderstanding:
For evolutionary scientists there is no such thing as "Darwinism". Instead we have a scientific theory that, in combination with Mendel's work, provides the modern or neo-Darwinian synthesis, which explains the development of life on Earth. Although this is a rather succinct definition it effectively sets the limits of the usefulness of Darwin's theory. However, in the last 150 years, there have been many attempts to take Darwin's idea and apply it outside of the context for which it was developed, hence the influence of social "Darwinism" on concepts such as eugenics and a more recent Darwinian nihilism that absolves the individual of any moral or social responsibility.
As I wrote in post a bit back, these have ranged from the tragic starvation of the Sans Cullots in Soviet Russia in the 1930s under Stalin to the Holocaust under Hitler. That there is not a shred of evidence to support either position is immaterial. Darwin was evil and Hitler was evil, therefore the two must be related in some way. Underdown also castigates Sewell for his acceptance of these extrapolations:
This inherent danger of using Darwin's theory outside of its biological context has lead to attempts to portray Darwin as the de facto cause of 20th century genocide: see, for example, Andre Pichot's book The Pure Society. There is a fallacy at the core of this line of thinking – can scientists really be held responsible for what is done with their ideas when they are misunderstood and corrupted by groups such as the Nazis? I would argue that they cannot: the actions of criminals do not need such highbrow justification and trying to do so merely lends a pseudo-scientific veneer the actions of the Third Reich.
This analysis, which is correct, also doesn't mention the fact that long before Darwin came on the scene, genocide and slavery were alive and well. If you need a primer of men behaving badly, try reading the later chapters of Genesis.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Dividing Line?

Peter Lindsay has written an op-ed for the Atlanta Constitution-Journal in which he tackles the confluence of evolution and religion. He writes:

That people do not accept widely held scientific conclusions is troubling. More troubling still, however, is that so many seem so unclear on what science even is. With this thought in mind — and in the spirit of the month — perhaps it’s time for supporters of Darwin to take the offensive with a different sort of public policy, one inspired by the Cobb County school district.

What if the state mandated that stickers with the following disclaimer be affixed to Bibles distributed by any tax-exempt Christian organization? “The existence of God is just one theory among many about the origin and purpose of the universe.” Or better yet: “There is no scientific evidence for the existence of God.” Both statements are, after all, accurate. There are many theories about the origin of the universe, and there is absolutely no scientific evidence for the existence of any deity, Christian or otherwise.

So what do we think? Good idea? Well, perhaps not. These stickers ignore boundaries that exist between two quite distinct ways of knowing the world, the religious and the scientific.

This is another take on the bumper sticker "Keep your stickers out of my science books. I don't paste crap in your Bibles!" that I have seen. Kind of makes me wonder what the Charles Darwin Bible has to say about that (No, i still haven't picked up my copy!). He continues:

To know something in a scientific sense is not to have faith in it. It’s to look at what we think we know and do our level best to disprove it. In a sense, the security of scientific knowledge rests, somewhat paradoxically, on the ultimate insecurity of its claims.

While this means there can be no complete certainty, it certainly does not rule out high degrees of it. The more a claim conforms to the way we understand the world, and the more that our repeated and persistent attempts to refute it fail, the greater our certainty about it. Such is the case with scientific conclusions about the shape of our planet, the laws of thermodynamics and, gulp, evolution.

On this last claim we need to be quite clear: It is simply not the case that evolution is disputed in the scientific community. There is debate within evolutionary theory — about the rate at which species arise, about the precise mechanisms of natural selection, about the validity of evolutionary psychology, about the role of contingent events — but on the general claim that species evolve through natural selection there is no scientific disagreement.

It doesn't help that there are some people who argue vociferously that evolution is all fact. Some is, to be sure, but some is conjecture and some is probably fact. As we fail to refute a theory like evolution, the probability that it is correct increases. That is as far as science can go.

The last bit is quite correct. The only folks who dispute the theory of evolution are creationists, some ID proponents (not Michael Behe, though) and scientists who are very far removed from either biology or geology (the Dissent from Darwin list). This is often over-exaggerated by these individuals and organizations to the point where evolution is thought of as a "theory in crisis." Read the whole thing.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Of Evolution and Population Migration

An article by Riazat Butt in the Guardian relays an interview with Michael Reiss who, if you will recall, was the Director of Education at the Royal Society before he, innocently enough, suggested that creationism should be explained in the public schools as an unscientific alternative to real science rather than not discussed at all. Reiss argues that creationism is marching across Europe, the product of migration. Butt writes:
"These things can no longer be thought of as occurring in other countries. In London, where I work, there are increasingly quite large numbers of highly intelligent 16, 17 and 18-year-olds doing Advanced Level biology who do not accept evolution. That's either because they come from a fundamentalist Christian background or from Muslim backgrounds."

This rejection of evolution even extended to young people training for the medical profession. "Around 10% of UK undergraduates in some medical schools are creationists. Some people think this is unacceptable and that such students are not worthy to become doctors."

But when asked if their patients should be concerned, he said: "I am quite comfortable with people being first-rate doctors but not accepting evolution."
Here, I think that Dr. Reiss is wrong. I am not sure you can be both. One needs only recall the tragic circumstances of Baby Fae, recounted by Donald Prothero:
A more concrete example [of scientific illiteracy] happened in 1984, when a surgeon at Loma Linda University in California attempted to replace the defective heart of “Baby Fae” with the heart of a baboon. Not surprisingly, the poor baby died a few days later due to immune rejection. An Australian radio crew interviewed the surgeon, Dr. Leonard Bailey, and asked him why he didn’t use a more closely related primate, such as a chimpanzee, and avoid the possibility of immune rejection, given the baboon’s great evolutionary distance from humans. Bailey said, “Er, I find that difficult to answer. You see, I don’t believe in evolution.” If Bailey had performed the same experiment in any other medical institution except Loma Linda (which is run by the creationist Seventh-Day Adventist Church), his experiments would be labeled dangerous and unethical, and he would have been sued for malpractice and his medical license revoked. But under the cover of religion, his unscientific beliefs caused an innocent baby to die of immune rejection, when other alternatives might have been available.1
Read the Whole Thing.

1Prothero, D. (2007) Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters. New York: Columbia University Press. P. 356.

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Charles Darwin, Social Darwinism and Columbine

Dennis Sewell has an article for Times Online about the link between Darwin and the recent spate of high school massacres. He writes:
In America, where Darwin’s writings on morality and race have come under particularly intense critical scrutiny because of the enduring creationist debate, he has been accused of fostering moral nihilism and scientific racism, and even of promoting an ethic that found its ultimate expression in the Holocaust. Most startling of all, a connection has now been drawn between Darwin’s theories and a rash of school shootings.
Morality? Race? Darwin not only failed to express some of the views against racism that were prevalent in his culture but was an outspoken opponent of slavery. The rest of the article painstakingly recounts all of the events that led up to each high school shooting and the fact that each of the shooters wanted to rid the world of people they thought were inferior and in the way. While interesting in its own right, it is not clear how much it actually has to do with Darwin's concept of natural selection, in which the environment plays a role in how species change over time.

It has been shown time and again that Darwin's views were not shared by either Hitler or Stalin and had nothing to do with the Holocaust. This meme is getting so old, it has whiskers, but creationists and ID supporters keep using it. Sewell also writes:
Darwin also taught that morality has no essential authority, but is something that itself evolved — a set of sentiments or intuitions that developed from adaptive responses to environmental pressures tens of thousands of years ago. This does not merely explain the origin of morals, it totally explains them away. Whether an individual opts to obey a particular ethical precept, or to regard it as a redundant evolutionary carry-over, thus becomes a matter of personal choice. Cheerleaders celebrating Darwin’s 200th birthday in colleges across America last February sang “Randomness is good enough for me, If there’s no design it means I’m free” — lines from a song by the band Scientific Gospel. Clearly they see evolution as something that emancipates them from the strict sexual morality insisted upon by their parents. But wackos such as Harris and Auvinen can just as readily interpret it as a licence to kill.
This is a complete misread of Darwin's understanding of morality. While it is certain that, by the end of his life, Darwin was not a Christian, he did believe in a God and did have a high opinion of morality. In his autobiography, he wrote:
A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections. He then finds, in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth. By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts. His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience.
Darwin clearly understood the good of being kind to his fellow humans. In fact, without this understanding of morality, his kindness to his wife or love for his children and his opposition to slavery would have made little to no sense. "Let them die!" would have been a more appropriate response if, in fact, he thought that everyone should have his own morality.

Klebold and Harris were clearly not acting in anybody's best interest, even their own. Darwin never used the term "survival of the fittest." It was attributed to him much later when the misguided notion of "Social Darwinism" arose. Darwin's contribution to the scientific world was the theory that organisms in any given population expressed a variety of traits and that the environment acted on those traits in a way that some variations were positively selected, some were negatively selected and some were not selected either way. Over the course of many generations there was "descent with modification." That's it.

Sewell ends thus:
The more sinister implications of the world-view that has come to be called “Darwinism” — and the interpretation the teenage nihilists put on it — are as much part of the Darwin story as the theory of evolutions [sic]
This misses the central point about evolution, though. When nuclear power was harnessed in the 1930s and used in the 1940s to devastating effect, it ushered in the nuclear age and the raging debates about whether nuclear energy should be used, even for beneficial purposes.

I remember seeing Peter, Paul and Mary perform in 1985, here in Knoxville. Ever the protest singers, they sang one song called "Power." One of the lyrics was "Take all of your atomic poison power away." Above the protests, sat nuclear power, oblivious to all of it. It simply was. It existed. As Shel Silverstein put it: "Its all the same to the clam."

The same is true of evolution. It exists. It is observable and its effects can be quantified. Not only do we see evidence of speciation in modern-day organisms, we see evidence of it in the fossil record (fishapod, frogamander). How Darwin's theory, and the extrapolations from it, have been misused is irrespective of the actual processes, themselves. The implications may be part of the story of "Darwinism" but they are not a part of evolution.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Of Asteroid Impacts, Oxygen and Early Life Models

Sid Perkins of Science News writes that The Sudbury Meteor impact may have had a much more marked effect on our planet than first thought. He writes:

About 1.85 billion years ago, Earth’s now separate landmasses were joined in a single supercontinent. That also means there was one large ocean, says Cannon. Many scientists suggest that the object that slammed into Earth then — probably an asteroid abut 10 kilometers across — splashed down in that ocean, in waters about 1 kilometer deep on the shallow shelf surrounding the supercontinent. Models hint that the tsunami spawned by the event would have been 1 kilometer tall at the impact site and remained at least 100 meters tall about 3,000 kilometers away, Cannon adds.

Those immense waves and large underwater landslides triggered by the impact stirred the ocean, bringing oxygenated waters from the surface down to the ocean floor, the researchers propose.
Its all pretty hypothetical stuff and needs to be examined much more carefully to see if the model holds up to further observations. As Mr. Spock would say "All we have is a theory which happens to fit the facts." Still, it is more than we had.

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New Dinosaur Find the Bridge Between Bipedal and Quadrupedal Forms?

The Daily Mail has an article by Emily Miller on the discovery, in South Africa, of Aardonyx celestae, a dinosaur that may bridge the gap between the early bipedal forms and the later, larger quadrupeds. She writes:
Walking on four limbs allowed the dinosaurs to support more weight and grow bigger - often their best defence against predators, especially for herbivores like the diplodocus or the brontosaurus.

The fossil reveals a dinosaur with strong back legs and two stumpy front arms that are understood to have gradually grown with evolution.

The seven-metre long vegetarian lived around 200 million years ago.
And a bit later:
Fellow paleobiologist Dr Matthew Bonnan said that although earlier discoveries showed some form of development from two to four legs, this latest find marked a clearer mid-point between the two bodies than ever seen before.
Enlarge Exciting: Dr Adam Yates, who led the research team, arranges the bones of the new dinosaur at a press conference in Johannesburg yesterday

Exciting: Dr Adam Yates, who led the research team, arranges the bones of the new dinosaur at a press conference in Johannesburg yesterday

He said: 'What Aardonyx shows us is that walking quadrupedally and bearing weight on the inside of the foot is a trend that started very early in these dinosaurs, much earlier than previously hypothesised.

'The bones of the forearm are shaped so that the forearm and hand could bear weight and that Aardonyx could drop onto all-fours as well as walk bipedally.'

Another piece of the puzzle. Neat!

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Possible Solution

I just enabled word verification. Sorry for the draconian move but, hopefully, it will stop the spam.


Beginning sometime about a week ago, I started getting spam in my comments moderation field. This is mostly in the form of viagra and porn movie ads. I have a hard time believing that anyone would be stupid enough to think I would post them. It is probably a bot that has latched onto my blog address. If anyone has a solution to this problem, please let me know. Thanks.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

New Chinese Hominid Fossil Supports Multiregional Evolution?

China National News has a story about a hominid find in Guangxi that suggests that there was not replacement of archaic humans by modern humans in this area. The author writes:
The mandible has a protruding chin like that of Homo sapiens, but the thickness of the jaw is indicative of more primitive hominins, suggesting that the fossil could derive from interbreeding.

If confirmed, the finding would lend support to the "multiregional hypothesis", which says that modern humans descend from Homo sapiens coming out of Africa who then interbred with more primitive humans on other continents.

In contrast, the prevailing "out of Africa" hypothesis holds that modern humans are the direct descendants of people who spread out of Africa to other continents around 100,000 years ago.

"This paper acts to reject the theory that modern humans are of uniquely African origin and supports the notion that emerging African populations mixed with natives they encountered," said Milford Wolpoff, a proponent of the multiregional hypothesis at the University of Michigan.
Most Chinese Palaeoanthropologists, pointing to the unique features of remains like Dali and Maba have long believed that there is a continuous line from Homo erectus to the later remains and going to the material found in the Upper Cave at Zhoukoudian, which is dated at around 30 ky BP. This should prove interesting.

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Neandertals "Doomed" to Extinction?

Yes, according to Clive Finlayson, an ecologist. In a story in Sindhtoday, the argument is put forth that:

Finlayson argues that it was a deadly combination of bad luck and climate change that caused the demise of the Neanderthals.

They were a species caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in a rapidly changing world, he said. “By the time the classic Neanderthals had emerged, they were already a people doomed to extinction,” he said.

A series of ice ages ate away the forest habitats where Neanderthals and their predecessors, Homo heidelbergensis, made a living sneaking up on big game. As their numbers declined, those who remained took refuge in warmer parts of Europe, nearer the Mediterranean. But, a final drop in temperatures that began around 50,000 years ago made even this meager living unsustainable.

Here's the problem that I have with this interpretation: Neandertals appear in the fossil record around 100-150 ky BP and are even found in Southwest Asia around 125 Ky BP (Zuttiyeh). The early Würm glaciation begins around 110 Ky BP and goes roughly up until 34-37 Ky BP. Are we really to believe that for some 70 thousand years, Neandertals adapted to the landscape just fine and then, suddenly, couldn't cut the mustard? It is much more likely that their disappearance had something to do with the arrival of modern humans around 35-40 ky BP. The Aurignacian first appears in the Balkans, at Bacho Kiro Cave around 43 ky and, whether one wants to go the admixture route, the assimilation route or the replacement route, there was clearly contact there and it clearly had an effect on the local Neandertal populations. Maybe he writes about this in the forthcoming (assumedly) paper but nothing of that is clear from this story.

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Just Plain Strange

Wired has a story about evolution gone strange. Titled World’s Freakiest Worm Gets Expanded Family Tree, the story is about a worm that lives on the bottom of the ocean in the bones of dead whales. The author, Brandon Keim, writes:
The worms, found in a gray whale skeleton off the coast of California, prompted scientists to designate them as representatives of an entirely new genus, dubbed Osedax. They belonged to a taxonomic family of marine worms that lack mouths and anuses, and rely entirely on bacteria to absorb and excrete nutrients. But Osedax was unique: Adult males were extremely small, and lived in colonies inside the females. Even more strikingly, they occupied an evolutionary niche comprised entirely of fallen whales.
As Arthur Eddington wrote: "Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine."

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The British Primary Curriculum and Evolution

According to a story by Polly Curtis in the Guardian, evolution will finally be added to the curriculum for primary school education. She writes:

The schools minister, Diana Johnson, has confirmed the plans will be included in a blueprint for a new curriculum to be published in the next few weeks.

It follows a letter signed by scientists and science educators calling on the government to make the change after draft versions of the new curriculum failed to mention evolution explicitly.

The open letter sent in July to Ed Balls, the children's secretary, was signed by 25 leading figures from science and education, who urged the government to rewrite the curriculum before it was finalised.

There is no mention in the article about push back but I am sure it will come.

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Creationism at Christian Colleges

According to David Olson of the aforementioned Riverside Press Enterprise, creationism teaching appears to vary widely depending on which Christian university you attend. He writes:

Nearly 70 U.S. colleges and universities endorse or teach biblical creation philosophy, according to a list compiled by Northwest Creation Network, a Mountlake Terrace, Wash.-based group that supports creation teaching.

The only Inland-based [California, I assume] institution on the list is Calvary Chapel Bible College in Murrieta, a two-year, unaccredited college that offers degrees in only biblical studies and theology.

Liberty University, an evangelical Baptist institution in Lynchburg, Va., offers a minor in creation studies and teaches the biblical six-day, 24-hour explanation for creation alongside evolution in biology classes, said David DeWitt, a professor of biology at Liberty. Students discuss what DeWitt views as the flaws in evolutionary theory and in the way most scientists measure the age of fossils.

Steven Newton, a project director for the National Center for Science Education, which defends evolution instruction, said only a tiny minority of scientists doubt that evolution occurred.

I would, personally, like to see data on that last statement. I think the figure is somewhere around 3 to 4%. Not sure.

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Discord Among Seventh-Day Adventists

According to an article in the Riverside Press-Enterprise, a petition has been submitted to stop evolution from being taught at La Sierra University, an Adventist school. The author, David Olson, writes:

The ultimate goal of the petition drive is to require Adventist teaching on creation in La Sierra biology classes, said Shane Hilde, the Beaumont man and La Sierra graduate spearheading the petition drive. If that doesn't happen, petition supporters may push La Sierra to disassociate itself from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, he said.

The petition does not single out La Sierra, but Hilde said it is the target. Evolution opponents are looking into allegations of pro-evolution biases at other Adventist universities, he said.

The petition does not call for the dismissal of the three La Sierra biology professors who are at the center of the controversy. But Hilde said "that ultimately is what happens in these situations."

What I find unusual about this story in the first place is that evolution is taught at an SDA university at all! A large number of creationists that began the movement were Adventists. Jerry Bergman has a short article on the origin of the American creationist movement and, of course, Ronald Numbers' book The Creationists, is loaded with information of this sort. It is clear from the article that these three professors have an uphill battle in front of them.

UPDATE: sorry, forgot the link. It is there now.

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Monday, November 09, 2009

Evolution is Too Good??

EarthTimes has a book review/story from the PR Newswire called 'Evolution's Fatal Flaw: The Inevitable Consequence of the Need to Ensure Species Survival': New Book Challenges Creationist Beliefs and Warns of the Dangerous Results of Human Evolution. It is not quite what you think. The reviewer writes:
So, what is evolution's "fatal flaw"? "Evolution has been too successful," says Wood. Evolution's solution to ensuring a species' survival - sexual desire and reproduction - has led to population explosions. While strong sexual desire cannot be reduced, there are readily available means for reducing its effects.
So the argument boils down to "Darwin is dangerous because humans are too successful?" Part of the problem, of course, stems from the fact that humans do not experience estrus. We can mate any old time we want—and we do! No other animal on the planet can do that.

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More Disturbing News From Turkey

Recently, there was a conversation over at Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution in which a reader debated the validity of the argument that much of the spark for creationism in other countries originated in the United States. I wrote the following:
I think of people like Ken Ham with AiG who wants to reach out to the whole world and Carl Wieland's group Creation Ministries International, which has a strong evangelical (missionary?) component. When you read creationist tracts from other countries, they have been plainly influenced by these individuals and groups. I am sure there are some home-grown groups wherever you go, but they have the backing an support of these organizations.
As if to support the point, this morning, Marc Kaufman of the WaPo has an article on the growing creationism movement in Turkey. He writes:
Sema Ergezen teaches biology to Turkish students interested in teaching science themselves, and she has long struggled with her students' ignorance of, and sometimes hostility to, the notion of evolution.

But she was taken aback when several of her Marmara University students recently accused her of being an atheist, or worse, for teaching anything but the doctrine that God created the Earth and everything on it.

"They said I was a liar if I called myself a Muslim because I also accepted evolution," she said.

What especially disturbed -- and amused -- the veteran professor was that the arguments for creationism presented by some of the students came directly from the country where she was educated in the biological sciences years before -- the United States. Translated and adapted for a Muslim society, the purported proofs that Darwinism and evolution were wrong came directly from American proponents of Christian creationism and its less overtly religious offshoot, intelligent design.
I also wrote, in that conversation:
Isn't it sad that where ever the Gospel takes root and thrives, not long after, the "stinkweed of creationism" (as Richard Young puts it) appears?
It certainly doesn't help that they have Harun Yahya, one of the loudest advocates of creationism in Turkey.

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Rereading Neil Shubin: Buildings and Heads

I am rereading Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish. Why in the Wide World of Sports am I doing this when I have a gazillion other books to read, I will never know but...this time around I was struck by his building analogy to the cranial nerves of the head:
I am reminded of my first days here in Chicago in 2001. I had been given space for a research laboratory in a hundred-year-old building and the lab needed new utility cables, plumbing, and air handling. I remember the day when the contractors first opened the walls to get access to the innards of the building. Their reaction to the plumbing and wiring inside my wall was almost exactly like mine when I opened the human head and saw the trigeminal and facial nerves for the first time. The wires, cables, and pipes inside the wall were a jumble. Nobody in his right mind would have designed a building from scratch this way, with cables and pipes taking bizarre loops and turns throughout the building.

And that is exactly the point. My building was constructed in 1896, and the utilities reflect an old design that has been jury-rigged further with each renovation. If you want to understand the wiring and plumbing in my building, you have to understand its history, how it was renovated for each new generation of scientists. My head has a long history also, and that history explains complicated nerves like the trigeminal and the facial.1
I reread the passage and thought of the progressive creationist' position. Sure, it is possible that God intentionally and by divine fiat created the trigeminal and facial pathways like that, along with a whole host of other oddities that are present in not just the human body but in all sorts of different animals (not to mention the shared viral DNA). Anything is possible but given that you can see how these things develop, why make the extra logical leaps necessary to explain them as "quirks of the creator" when there is a perfectly good explanation for them lying around in the form of evolutionary theory, unless you really really don't like evolution?

1Shubin, Neil (2008) Your Inner Fish. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 85-86.
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Still no return response from Casey Luskin. I might not get one. He has had his say and I have had mine. That may be all that is necessary.

Monday, November 02, 2009

A Sad Story at An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution

Over at Steve Martin's site, another student, Emiliano Carneiro Monteiro has posted a story about the tensions and frustrations of accepting evolution and the reaction from the Christian community. He writes, in part:

I’m extremely grateful to those who helped me grow in my Christian faith. Still, it breaks my heart to see so many honest followers of Jesus believe that one must deny evolution in order to be a Christian. That is due partly because of a lack of information, but also due to the spreading of misinformation (for example, the ministry of Dr. Adauto Lourenço). I continue to find the subject of evolution completely fascinating, and learn more and more everyday. I do not think that the knowledge of the theory of evolution should interfere in a destructive way with anyone’s beliefs.

It breaks my heart as well.

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Casey Luskin Corrects a Misinterpretation

At the tail end of a post that I did on the Texas School Board science curriculum ruckus, I make the following statement:
Make no mistake: this was a loss for Luskin and the DI, and his response is, in a sense, disingenuous. He is correct that all students should analyze and critically evaluate scientific theories. It is just that he doesn't care about any theory except evolution, which he has fought to keep out of public education.

This is incorrect. As Mr. Luskin, who was entirely gracious in his note, pointed out, he does not wish evolution to be removed from the public school curriculum, just that Intelligent Design be added. I attributed a position to Mr. Luskin that he does not hold, and I apologize for the mischaracterization. I should have been more careful.

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Ardipithecus Video

Science Magazine has a ten minute video on Ardipithecus that boils down the find into an easily-digestible summary.

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