Thursday, December 31, 2009

More Bad News for Freshwater

The teacher that was fired from his teaching position in Mount Vernon, Ohio, now has more to overcome in his bid for reinstatement. The Columbus Dispatch has a story which contains the following:
Incoming students to John Freshwater's eighth-grade science class were asked if they could survive in a course where textbooks were used only partially and whether religion was important to them, according to questionnaires Mount Vernon school officials found in his classroom.

An attorney for the school district introduced the forms today as evidence that Freshwater should be fired from his teaching job.

The forms, completed at the start of the school year, were discovered after Freshwater was accused in early 2008 of teaching creationism and intelligent design in addition to science, said David Millstone, the attorney representing the school district.

The Mount Vernon school board, in a 2008 vote, said it intended to fire Freshwater for promoting religion in the classroom, failing to remove religious materials including his personal Bible, and burning crosses on students' arms. He first is entitled to an independent hearing after which a referee will make a recommendation to the board.
Things would probably have gone better for him if he hadn't been caught in a fib:
Freshwater has denied the allegations against him, saying this month that he might have talked about religion in the classroom to illustrate how bias and "faulty science" can affect the learning process.

[Attorney David] Millstone asked Freshwater today whether he had ever surveyed incoming students. Freshwater said he hadn't.

But when he was shown at least two completed student questionnaires, he studied them closely and, after a long pause, replied, "It appears like you have gone through my room and taken some stuff out."

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"Survival of the Kindest?"

ScienceDaily has a story about research that builds a case that humans are wired to be altruistic and giving. The author writes:
In contrast to "every man for himself" interpretations of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist and author of "Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life," and his fellow social scientists are building the case that humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits.

They call it "survival of the kindest."
This is actually not so unusual and hearkens back to the late 1960s flirtation with sociobiology, although not from a purely genetic viewpoint. People have a better chance of survival if they stick together and nobody likes a selfish jerk.

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David Berlinski on PJTV

Avi Davis, the president of the American Freedom Alliance, has an interview on Pajamas TV with David Berlinski, who is the author of the book The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions. It is about fifteen minutes long and is an interesting study in being off-the-mark. Here are the comments that I left on the site about it, which are somewhat choppy due to space limitations:
This is a fascinating interview between two people that have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. Is this the sum total of Berlinski's book? On both sides, there has been a striking lack of research. Davis remarks about "Expelled": " the scientific community has attacked anybody that has propounded intelligent design, that careers have been ruined. Richard Sternberg is a case in point..."

Not true.

Sternberg didn't lose his job, he was an unpaid editor. His career wasn't ruined. He resigned from the Smithsonian six months before the flap that got media attention, and then he was rehired in 2006.

Berlinski states: "When you read a headline, “another triumph for Darwinian theory,” you say to yourself, “uh oh, another problem.""

Also not true.

Evolution is a booming field with daily fossil and genetic discoveries that overwhelmingly support the theory. Yet another example of a disturbing conservative/anti-science connection. This will sink the GOP.
It is interesting that most of the people that commented did so negatively. Could this be another case of the GOP base deviating from the leadership in a particular issue? I would like to think so.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A New Harris Poll on Belief

A Harris Interactive poll on belief in the United States was released on December 15 of this year. It consisted of a poll of 2303 adults and was taken between November 2 and November 11 of this year. There were several notable findings:

  • 82% of surveyed adults believe in God
  • 45% believe in "Darwin’s theory of evolution" (32% didn't)
  • 40% believe in creationism (30% didn't)
The religious breakdown was even more interesting.
  • 80% of Jews polled accept evolution (20% accept creationism)
  • 51% of Catholics accept evolution (37%)
  • 32% of protestants accept evolution (56%)
Unfortunately, the "protestant" category is not more finely resolved. I would be very curious to see what the breakdown is between Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists. I also find it odd that there is such a large disparity between the acceptance of evolution between Jews and protestants, despite the two groups having the Old Testament in common. I don't recall Jesus saying anything about not accepting evolution. It must be one of those commandments with which I am not familiar like "thou shalt not dance," and "thou shalt not play cards."

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Slightly Off-Topic: "Paging Harrison Bergeron!"

Only in Berkeley. The East Bay Express has a story on the redesign of the Berkeley High School, in which the school's science budget, including labs will be cut by 30% so that the money can be funneled to programs for underprivileged students. Eric Klein writes:
The proposal to put the science-lab cuts on the table was approved recently by Berkeley High's School Governance Council, a body of teachers, parents, and students who oversee a plan to change the structure of the high school to address Berkeley's dismal racial achievement gap, where white students are doing far better than the state average while black and Latino students are doing worse.

Paul Gibson, an alternate parent representative on the School Governance Council, said that information presented at council meetings suggests that the science labs were largely classes for white students. He said the decision to consider cutting the labs in order to redirect resources to underperforming students was virtually unanimous.
So, lets see. The solution is not to interest underprivileged students in science and science-related disciplines but, rather, to reduce science education to the lowest common denominator in an effort to equalize education. How did the science teachers react?
Science teachers were understandably horrified by the proposal. "The majority of the science department believes that this major policy decision affecting the entire student body, the faculty, and the community has been made without any notification, without a hearing," said Mardi Sicular-Mertens, the senior member of Berkeley High School's science department, at last week's school board meeting.
At a time when science education is becoming increasingly important and the United States is falling further behind in science worldwide, this is absolutely bassackwards. The comments below the article are scathing. Patterico also picked up the story. He writes:
It seems to me struggling students of every race would be better served by more science labs, not fewer ones, but this will be especially hard on any minority student currently benefiting from a science lab. I guess they and their white counterparts must sacrifice so more Berkeley High students score the same.
What is peculiar about the article is the complete lack of information about what kinds of programs will be instituted to help these students instead of science programs. That information will probably not be forthcoming. As one of Patterico's reader's wrote:
Frankly, I’d pull the accreditation of a high school district that did this.
Sadly, there is little chance of that happening. Another thing, though: if there are fewer science students around, who is going to pray at The Atheon? Someone once said "If your mind gets too open, your brains will fall out." They seem to be lying all over the ground in Berzerkeley, California.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In Search of Noah's Ark or "Goin' On a Snipe Hunt!"

Randall Price is back in the news. Liberty University's head of the Center for Judaic Studies is halfway through his trek to find Noah's Ark. The story in the Lynchburg News and Advance, by Dave Thompson, has this to say:
Price said in January that he believes the Biblical boat is resting on Mount Ararat, covered by a glacier that sometimes temporarily recedes to give glimpses of what he believes is an ancient structure.

“We did penetrate about 18 feet down into the glacier, and we have some evidence that we’re in the right place,” Price said, adding satellite data puts them about 30 feet from their goal.

Price said he’s aware that whatever rests under the glacier might not be the jackpot he has been looking for.

“While we’d like to think it’s Noah’s Ark, we’re not sure what it is, but it’s in the right place,” he said.

Here is how the Genesis 8 account reads from the NIV:
3 The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, 4 and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. (emphasis added)
The mountains of Ararat. Not "Mount Ararat," but mountains, plural. The region of Ararat was, historically, a large place, originally known as Urartu. Carol Hill, in her excellent article "The Noachian flood: universal or local?" writes:
The ark has been assigned to at least eight different landing places over the centuries including Saudi Arabia, India, and even the mythical Atlantis. One reason for this ambiguity is that the Bible does not actually pinpoint the exact place where the ark landed, it merely alludes to a region or range of mountains where the ark came to rest: the mountains of Ararat (Gen. 8:4). Ararat is the biblical name for Urartu (Isa. 37:38) as this area was known to the ancient Assyrians. This mountainous area, geographically centered around Lake Van and between Lake Van and Lake Urmia, was part of the ancient region of Armenia (not limited to the country of Armenia today). Mountain in Gen. 8:4 is plural; therefore, the Bible does not specify that the ark landed on the highest peak of the region (Mount Ararat), only that the ark landed somewhere on the mountains or highlands of Armenia (both Ararat and Urartu can be translated as highlands.
How does Randall Price know where the Ark is when even the Bible won't tell him? This is a curious article of faith for young earth creationists. Price's expedition is not the first one to go specifically to Mount Ararat. According to Rex Geissler, Gordon Franz, and Bill Crouse, Urartu was an area around 500 000 square kilometers (193 000 square miles) and was almost entirely mountainous. has a list of expeditions that have taken place since the early 1700s, a staggering 171 times, plus those not documented! In all of those attempts, not one single, solitary person has come back with anything that is remotely believable as being from the good ship Noah. Many claims have been made that it is there that have been unsubstantiated. Oddly, there is not a trace of irony at the site that they follow in a long line of people who have searched in vain for the big boat and that their search, like those that came before, is likely doomed to failure.

The problem certainly doesn't stem from a lack of trying. The problem is much deeper than that. It is a willingness on the part of those that believe that the flood was universal to embellish the Bible beyond what is actually there. The Bible doesn't say anything about the Ark being on Mount Ararat, yet that is where the faithful go to search. (On a practical level, it is not clear how one would begin to cover 193 000 square miles, but that is beside the point.) The Bible doesn't say anything about a vapor canopy, yet Henry Morris included it in his and John Whitcomb's book The Genesis Flood and it has been popularized by the ICR. In order to provide the water necessary for the flood, John Baumgardner and Steve Austin have proposed catastrophic movement of the tectonic plates to open up the "fountains of the deep," despite the fact that no underground caverns of water have ever been found, nor could they exist due to the heat of the earth. The Genesis account mentions nothing about mountain building or the movement of the plates. It has all been added in an attempt to make a Genesis story make sense as it is literally written.

One of the common complaints against old earth creationists and, especially theistic evolutionists is that we have gone down the "slippery slope" to make the Bible say anything we want. Ken Ham has been quoted as saying:
When Genesis tells us that the highest hills under the whole of heaven were covered by water, it is obviously referring to a global event. In fact, at the end of the Flood, God put a rainbow in the sky as a sign between God and man that he'd never repeat such an event.
Yet clearly the supporters of flood geology are quite willing to add to the Genesis account to make it fit into their worldview as well. Put simply, if that boat's out there, there is no telling where it is.
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Monday, December 28, 2009

The Poisonous Bird

Out of China comes the discovery of a venomous raptor that may have been ancestral to modern birds. The story, in UPI notes:
The turkey-sized Sinornithosaurus thrived nearly 128 million years ago in northeastern China, Larry Martin, a university paleontologist, said this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"This thing is a venomous bird for all intents and purposes," Martin said. "It was a real shock to us and we made a special trip to China to work on this."

Sinornithosaurus, closely related to the four-winged glider Microraptor, had depressions on the side of its face that housed poisonous glands to deliver venom through its teeth, university researcher David Burnham said.
While there are currently poisonous birds that have toxins in their skin and some on their feathers, there are no birds that deliver their attack with a neurotoxin like this, which is how modern snakes do it. Given that the earliest snakes appear in the fossil record around 130 gigayears ago, their common reptilian ancestry becomes more apparent and provides stronger support for the reclassification of birds as reptiles.

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Science Corrects Itself

A story from the Calgary Herald sheds light on a fossil discovery that was made 85 years ago and how the conclusions about the find were recently corrected. Yohnathan Sumamo of the Edmonton Journal writes:
The species of the skeleton had been classified twice: first by Canadian paleontologist William Parks in 1924 as Dyoplosaurus, or "doublearmoured dinosaur," and later by researcher Walter Coombs, who reclassified it in the early 1970s as Euoplocephalus. The students discovered that Parks was right all along in his original identification of the species.

"We are always revising old ideas, especially in paleontology," said Arbour. "It's not that people are making mistakes, but that old ideas are just not supported any more."

The fundamentals of science essentially revolves around constantly questioning studies and taking a closer look at them, which is exactly what these students did.
As phylogenetic systematics becomes more commonplace as a way of understanding taxonomic relationships, this sort of thing may become more frequent.

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A Tepid Review of Creation

Betsy Sharkey of the LA Times has a somewhat lukewarm review of Creation, the new film with Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly. She writes:
The precocious and much-loved Annie Darwin (a very promising young Martha West) died at 10 after going through treatment for a fever that frankly seems reminiscent of water-boarding, but then it was the 1800s. Charles, who already had bouts of an undiagnosed illness that looks a lot like depression, was sent into a very deep tailspin by Annie's death.

Before long, Charles and an afterlife Annie are having lots of philosophical conversations as he worries that his thesis will kill the notion of God and other thorny issues, particularly since wife Emma is especially devout.

Soon you realize that Annie's death has sent the director into a tailspin of his own. With his allegiance divided between father and daughter, it becomes increasingly difficult to know whom the film really belongs to.
Ms. Sharkey suggests that this angst becomes an overbearing presence in the film and that the science gets left on the cutting room floor. Creation ended up at 59% on the Tomatometer. I still have not had a chance to see it.

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Biblical Literalism or "Is That Really What It Says?"

Daniel Harlow wrote a paper a bit back called Creation According to Genesis: Literary Genre, Cultural Context, Theological Truth. The paper emanated from an origins symposium in 2006 at Calvin College. Initially, he asks the question of why the age of the earth, creation and evolution are such contentious subjects. His answer?
Religious and philosophical worldviews influence cultural values, which in turn shape both political policies and social behaviors. The value we place on human beings; the way we treat both the unborn and the born; the dignity we grant the elderly, the infirm, and the disabled; the stand we take against racism and sexism and other forms of social injustice; the steps we take to preserve endangered species and otherwise protect the environment; the positions we hold on stem-cell research, genetic engineering, and cloning––all these issues and others besides are connected deeply with how we think at the most basic theological level about the creation and the place of the human creature within it.
For many people, this is not a scientific issue, it is a moral one. Even when having conversations with my wife, it is not uncommon for her to say that she understands the evidence and accepts it but that the ramifications make her uncomfortable. Indeed, both the ID side and the new atheists write that "Darwinism" is dangerous. The reasons are similar but the motives are different. Both argue that it leads one away from faith.

Here, Harlow does not tackle the modern manifestations of science and their implications but, rather, the problems inherent in a literal (mis)reading of the creation accounts in Genesis. In so doing, he says something at once profoundly true and profoundly incendiary:
God did not write Genesis. He inspired ancient Israelites to write it, and they did not do so in a cultural vacuum. Following from this, if we take divine accommodation seriously, then Genesis must not be made to say anything that would have been unintelligible or irrelevant to the ancient author and his audience. Modern concerns and concepts must not be foisted anachronistically onto the biblical text. Genesis is God’s word to us, but it was not written to us.
This is the start of the "slippery slope" argument that is soundly resisted by most purveyors of the YEC model—Genesis must be read literally or else there is no barometer for how we should read scripture at all. Troy Lacey writes in AiG:
Of course, it is no surprise that Genesis 1–11 is denigrated by the secular scientific community. But these chapters are the foundational truths of the revealed Word of God, and if the foundation can be destroyed, then the rest of the Bible can also be discarded as a collection of nice stories with no practical value or moral authority.
Many OT historians and theologians have stated that a completely literal read of the creation accounts is facile at best and leads to serious misinterpretations of scripture. That this warning has been around since the time of Augustine and perhaps earlier has very little traction among the recent earth supporters. Ken Ham famously asks "were you there?" when confronted by skeptics. (Of course, neither was he but that is not the point.) Ham replies that God was and he left us his Word, which is clearly understandable. Hmmm. Just what did God leave behind, exactly? According to Daniel Harlow, it is this:
If we were to insist that the Bible gives an accurate picture of the physical cosmos, then to do so with integrity, we would have to believe that the earth is flat, immobile, and resting on pillars; that the sky is solid and has windows in it; that the sun, moon, and stars are set in the sky and move along it like light bulbs along a track; that the sun literally rises, moves, and sets; that there is an ocean of water surrounding the earth; and that beyond the waters above the sky is the very heaven of God. That’s what the Bible says.
Clearly, this is not what your average young earth creationist thinks. In fact, it is not clear to me that anyone within the western or Judeo-Christian perspective thinks this. They probably did around the time that this was written down but we simply know more now than we did then. As time progresses and our understanding of the world increases, hanging onto the literal, YEC viewpoint becomes increasingly difficult. As Conrad Hyers points out:
The literalist, instead of opening up the treasurehouse of symbolic imagination, digresses into more and more ingenious and fantastic attempts at defending literalism itself. Again and again the real issue turns out to be not belief in divine creativity but belief in a particular theory of Scripture, not faith but security. The divine word and work ought to have better handles!
Instead of a different way of interpreting scripture, it is now the only way to do so—with Gary Parker, among others, arguing that such a reading is a salvation issue. That such a one-dimensional read of the scripture has become the de rigueur one for the evangelical community is unfortunate.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

I leave you this Christmas with a story from Martin Bell's book The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images. It is the story of Barrington Bunny, which tells of a lonely but selfless bunny on Christmas eve.

Merry Christmas, all.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Pawlenty Backpeddles on Creationism Stance?

Tim Pawlenty who, along with Sarah Palin, has indicated a support for the teaching of intelligent design and a disdain for evolution, has backpeddled a bit on that position. In an interview with Paul Demko, of Newsweek, he had this to say about creationism:
Well, you know I’m an evangelical Christian. I believe that God created everything and that he is who he says he was. The Bible says that he created man and woman; it doesn’t say that he created an amoeba and then they evolved into man and woman. But there are a lot of theologians who say that the ideas of evolution and creationism aren’t necessarily inconsistent; that he could have ‘created’ human beings over time.
A hopeful person might interpret that as pressure from the science community to actually have a look at the science in the first place. A somewhat more cynical person might interpret it as hedging his bets.

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Whale Suckers

There is evidence that an ancestor of the baleen whale family may have been a suction feeder. Bridie Smith of The Age has the story:
The fossilised skull and lower jaw of the whale, found in 1932 by local collectors, is just 45 centimetres long and has unusual features, including a short, blunt snout.

Large holes in the upper and lower jaws indicate the mammal - a close cousin of the 30-metre-long blue whale, the largest animal to inhabit the planet - had huge blood and nerve supply to the lips and facial muscles.

''This is unusual and no other baleen whale has this … and it tells us that the Mammalodon was feeding in a really unusual way. It suggests that it was a bottom-feeding mud-sucker,'' Dr Fitzgerald said. He said the whale probably used its tongue and snout to suck small prey up from sand and mud on the sea floor.
This shows a range of evolution for the early whales, including different feeding mechanisms.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Happy Homemaking, Homo erectus style

OneIndia has a story reporting research from the Israeli site of Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, in which it has been found that either late Homo erectus or early archaic Homo sapiens were ordering their living environments much the same way that we do. The story notes:
According to the scientists, the camp's hearth was located in the southeast area of the site, and that food-making and eating took place mostly near there.

In addition, most of the stone-tool remains - bits of basalt and limestone rocks that had been shaped into usable instruments - were also clustered near the hearth.

In contrast, the northwestern region held most of the flint remains and evidence of fish preparation.

The archaeologists think this could have been a working area for the early human inhabitants.

"The designation of different areas for different activities indicates a formalized conceptualization of living space, often considered to reflect sophisticated cognition and thought to be unique to Homo sapiens," according to the researchers.

This skill also indicates the inhabitants had some kind of social organization and coordination between individuals.
Further attestation that humanity as we know it, dates from the distant past.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Systematics Done While U Wait

Science Daily has a report on a new technological innovation that will, according to the story, revolutionize the process of systematics. The story has this to say:
Computer scientist Tandy Warnow, biologist Randy Linder and their graduate students have created an automated computing method, called SATé, that can analyze these molecular data from thousands of organisms, simultaneously figuring out how the sequences should be organized and computing their evolutionary relatedness in as little as 24 hours.

Previous simultaneous methods like Warnow and Linder's have been limited to analyzing 20 species or fewer and have taken months to complete.

"SATé could completely change the practice of making evolutionary trees and revolutionize our understanding of evolution," says Warnow, professor of computer science and lead author of the study.
Of course, as we have learned from previous experience, such a program likely relies on input objectivity. In 1985, Cann, Stoneking and Wilson produced the groundbreaking study based on mitochondrial DNA tree analysis that showed that modern humans had originated as a speciation event in sub-Saharan Africa between 140 k and 280 k years ago. While subsequent research into other areas of the genome has tended to support (at least nominally) that finding, it was later found by David Maddison and Alan Templeton that how the data was entered largely dictated what the results were. Put simply, the African sample was added to the algorithm first, followed by the other population samples. When the samples were randomized, thirteen different trees emerged that were equally parsimonious, some of which had Asian roots.

Here's to hoping this is more objectively-based.

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EDE: Why Students Believe What They Believe

Marlowe Embree, in a guest post on Steve Martin's page, has uncovered some basic truths that most of us suspected were true all along but had no way of showing it:
It appears that, for most students, their conclusions about reality are not grounded in a well thought out theory of knowledge. What students believe about God, about evolution, and about the relationship between science and religion does not appear, for the most part, to be a product of independent thinking.
While Dr. Embree is cautious to state that this finding relates only to his sample and that it cannot be generalized to the general public, it tends to support every bit of anecdotal evidence that I have encountered. Most fundamentalist evangelicals that I know view the world from within the fundamentalist perspective and what does not accord with that view has to be subjugated to that view in some way. They claim that groups like the ICR and AIG have demonstrated that their view of the universe is correct, but when you blow the "science" out of the sky, their world view doesn't change. I have had a running argument with a particular reader, who, over the course of ten or so posts, has always said the same thing: "there are no transitional fossils." Despite the fact that I and other readers have provided him with many links to the evidence and asked him to explain why he does not accept the evidence, he has declined to do so. My guess is that he cannot, he just simply doesn't "believe" it.

Another example of this is Todd Wood, who agrees wholeheartedly that evolution is a perfectly good theory and that it explains much in the biological world. He just doesn't "believe" it. He has no justifiable reasons to reject it, he just does because it doesn't fit into his theological world view.

On the other side of the coin, in The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins wrote:
An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
There is nothing in evolutionary theory that explains away God, despite what Richard Dawkins might think. That is a theological construct that he is imposing on science. Science can neither support nor dispel the existence of God. It simply isn't capable of doing so.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

The Downside of Dinosaur Fossil Hunting

The war is on! In what is known as "Jurassic Coast," in southwest England, there is a war going on between professional fossil hunters and the National Trust as to who owns the fossils. ScienceDaily has the story. Michael Hanlon writes:
'This is, quite simply, the finest unbroken record of the Age of Dinosaurs anywhere in the world,' says Richard Edmonds, geologist and chief scientific officer for the Jurassic Coast, a world heritage site since 2001, which runs from Exmouth to Studland. The rock strata of this remarkable 95-mile stretch of coastline encompasses 180 million years of the Earth's history.
As such, it should prove to be a boon to scientists all over the world, right? Sadly, that is not what is going on. He continues:
If the wet, crumbling cliffs of Dorset are the coalface for fossil collectors, Dale Rogers's shop in Belgravia is the showcase. Ammonite 2000 is London's premium dealer in rare fossils and minerals, and relies heavily on the Dorset fossil-hunters for its supplies.

'We sell to interior designers, hotels, celebrities,' explains Rogers.

Here, Earth's treasures are freely available for those with oligarch levels of cash. Above the counter, a complete 4ft ichthyosaur is mounted on a wall. This one, also from Lyme, is perfect, every rib and vertebra, even the scales visible on its fins.

'Yours for £100,000,' says Rogers. 'I hope it will go to someone who knows what it is, but there's a good chance someone will come in and go, "Wow honey, that looks like a dolphin! I love dolphins, they are so cute... can we get it?"'

Rogers says his stock is all 'totally legal', but admits that in the trade 'a lot of stuff goes on'. The problem is that there are no clear rules.
The problem is, as Mr. Hanlon points out, many of these fossils, if not discovered by the hunters, would never be found because the necessary funds and manpower is not there to do it by the book. This is, in some senses, amateur salvage archaeology. That many of the more amazing fossils end up in private collections is regrettable, though.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Off Topic: Close But No Cigar?

A new exoplanet has been discovered that is the most earth-like planet yet found. It is GJ 1214b. Wired has the story:
“If you want to describe in one sentence what this planet is, it’s a big, hot ocean,” said Harvard University astronomer David Charbonneau. “We can even study its atmosphere. This planet will occupy us for years. That’s part of what’s so exciting about it.”

Described by Charbonneau and 17 other astronomers in a paper published Wednesday in Nature, GJ 1214b is the latest of roughly 400 planets detected by earthly telescopes. Of these, 28 are considered “super-Earths” — planets with a mass roughly comparable to our own.

The super-Earths themselves are too distant to be seen. Instead, astronomers infer their presence from subtle distortions in starlight, caused when photons travel through the super-Earths’ gravitational fields. Depending on the degree of distortion, astronomers can even calculate a planet’s mass.

Once upon a time I asked my friend Rob Kroeger, who is a physicist at the University of Mississippi, how big the universe was across. He said it was approximately 150 billion light years across. When I asked him if that number was generated by the limit of the available technology, he replied "no, it is just that beyond that point, what you see is a 'fuzz' that seems to be the barrier." That we are able to discern with any degree of certainty the characteristics of objects at that distance speaks volumes of the current level of technology and understanding of astrophysics. What an awesome universe!

Now the other shoe. Does this planet have life? The story continues:
That list of ingredients raises at least the possibility of life. With an estimated temperature of 370 degrees Fahrenheit, GJ 1214b is an unlikely incubator (Earth’s toughest extremophile, a microbe that lives in deep-sea volcanic vents, maxes out at 284 degrees) but it’s not impossible.

“I don’t want to imply that there’s any indication of life as we know it. It might have life, but it would have to be a strange kind of life,” said Charbonneau.

The telescopes sure to be trained on GJ 1214b in the near future will try to answer that question. But even if it proves barren, other planets await. The telescopes that spotted GJ 1214b were custom designed to find Earth-like planets around nearby stars, and had only operated for a few months before striking water.

“We only look at a handful of stars before finding this planet, said Charbonneau. “Either we got lucky, or the planets are very common.”

But what if we did find a planet that did have life? Gordon Glover, in his excellent blog, Beyond the Firmament, addressed the issues that Christians had when it was discovered that there were people that lived on the other side of the world. He writes:
If all men are physically descended from Adam, and thus Adam’s sin is credited to their account, then any people living on the opposite ends of the earth must have traveled there from the Ancient World after Noah’s time. And since there was no record of any such journey, and the equatorial region was thought to be impassable by ship, it was absurd to think that descendants of Adam could inhabit such places.
This led to the people on the other side of the world being dehumanized. Consequently, when the explorers visited these people, they treated them as if they were not human. It didn't occur to them that their theology needed revising. If there is life on one or some of these exoplanets, does that make God less of a God? Or these creatures less of his creations?

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The Creation/Evolution Debate: A Tale of Two Sides

Ambassador Kosh once said: "There are three sides to every argument: your side, their side and the truth." A Tad over two weeks ago, while I was hip-deep in finishing up classes and planning final exams, a debate over Intelligent Design and evolution took place between Stephen Meyer and Richard von Sternberg on one side and Michael Shermer and Donald Prothero on the other. As they say, it is all a matter of perspective. Prothero writes an account for Panda's Thumb:
My subjective summary of it is that our side did very well: I caught them off-guard with new arguments they had no answer for; Shermer pushed them hard repeatedly to state who the “Designer” was (and Meyer finally conceded it was God), while we both pushed them hard on the fact that neither of them ever addressed the topic of the debate, “Origins of Life.” I could tell that they were rattled a number of times, and I definitely shook up Meyer and got under his skin with my answers. Several times Meyer and Sternberg were arguing with each other, leaving the moderator, our side, and the audience wondering who runs their show. The best sign of my effect on them was Meyer trying to challenge MY credentials, or dodging a tough question by playing the sympathy card and calling me “condescending” — and the virulent post on the Discovery Institute site this morning, full of lies and spin. Of course, the event is staged so that no one will really “win”. Their supporters turned out and dominated the audience, but I had a LOT of people come up to me during the book signing (we sold a LOT of books) and congratulate me, or discuss points further with me. And we got just as much applause and sympathetic laughter at our well-turned phrases as they did.
As far as the actual points of the debate were concerned, it was territory recently trod by both sides. Prothero writes:
Meyer had debated Shermer many times before, but apparently he did little to prepare for me. Just minutes before the debate, he ran out and bought a copy of my 2007 “Evolution” book (since he had never read it), after he tried to cadge the copy for free from my wife who was guarding the Skeptics Society booth. (She insisted that he pay for it). I know I caught him off-guard, since I have degrees in both biology and geology, and know most of their arguments better than they do. The only time I did not get a solid reply in was during the statements where there was no opportunity for rebuttal, or when we had run out of time.

Our “affirmative side” went first, and Shermer did a quick run-through about why ID is a religious and not a scientific doctrine, methodological naturalism and the scientific method, and “god of the gaps.” I took the remaining 15 minutes with my Powerpoint presentation where I slammed them hard and fast with long list of things: why ID is not testable (including bad designs like the left recurrent laryngeal nerve, the inverted retina, and the whale’s pelvis and femora); then a five slide run-through of the molecular research into origin of life, from Miller-Urey to the stuff published in the past few years, emphasizing over and over how many successes the molecular biologists have had at simulating every step of the process; then a quick run through the Pre-Cambrian fossil record, focusing on why it is not the “Cambrian explosion” but the Cambrian “slow fuse” (and pointing out that I’m a paleontologist, I’ve actually seen and collected these outcrops, and neither of my opponents had).
That the two sides seem to be light years apart on these arguments is clear from the article by Rob Crowther that the Discovery Institute ran about the debate. This is how they saw things:
It was all shaping up to be a serious heavyweight bout. And then Meyer and Sternberg simply KO'd the competition in the opening round. If I were being generous I might say that Prothero tripped over his own arrogance and impaled himself on his condescension, but let's be honest; he was completely knocked out by Sternberg. I think Sternberg earned a third degree tonight, one in evolutionary bulldozing.

The debate video will be made available at some point by American Freedom Alliance, the sponsors of the debate, along with Center for Inquiry, The Skeptics Society and Discovery Institute.
That there is no love lost between Prothero and the Discovery Institute was relayed in the closing of the article:
To call the debate a massacre would be a discredit to Sitting Bull. The only thing I can say is that Shermer needs to add a point to his booklet on how to debate "creationists" — namely, leave Donald Prothero at home in his van by the river.

This guy is to be taken seriously? I had to remind myself not to laugh every so often during his presentation — it was so pathetic and ill-informed. Basically, Shermer and Prothero blathered on about supernaturalism, and Meyer ceded his time to Sternberg, who made an interesting presentation about whale evolution. Then he proceeded to point out the topic of the debate to Shermer and Prothero: Has Evolutionary Theory Adequately Explained the Origins of Life?, something which they never addressed because they were so busy falling all over themselves to denounce intelligent design.
One wonders what was debated since both Prothero and Crowther claim that the other side did not know the topic of the debate. It certainly doesn't help either cause when the principals are so vitriolic and obviously show such disdain for each other. I have not read Meyer's book yet and should before commenting on it. Prothero wrote a review of the book for Amazon that is scathing. It did not help that many of the people that commented on his review accused him of never having read it. We must have civil discourse in this debate if we are to accurately make our views heard.

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The Washington Times Reviews Mysterious

That the Washington Times tends to lean toward the right is not unexpected, given that the major daily in Washington, D.C. the Washington Post (or 'WaPo' as it is known in the blogosphere) tilts left. As a result, that it is sympathetic to creationism is also not totally unexpected but adds another name to the list of organizations that have a connexion between the modern-day conservative movement and the anti-evolution movement.

Julia Duin writes a column called Stairway to Heaven for the Times and her column for December 13 is on the film Mysterious Islands, about the voyage of Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands and how he came to all of the wrong conclusions about the animals that he found there. She writes:
The film was geared to counter an expected "unprecedented onslaught of pro-evolutionary propaganda as the major media and leaders of academia heap praise on Charles Darwin, the patron saint of evolutionism," executive producer Doug Phillips said.

It is called "The Mysterious Islands," after the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, which Darwin visited as a 26-year-old in 1835. That life-changing experience led him to form his theory of evolution.

"For the followers of Charles Darwin, the Galapagos archipelago is the spiritual homeland to their evolutionary faith," Mr. Phillips said. "Our film — shot on ground zero of evolutionism — will be a counteroffensive to the Darwin adulation that blows holes in the conclusions he formed while observing the wonder-filled creatures that inhabit the Galapagos Islands."

The Galapagos is an Edenic place where many of the animals show no fear of humans and where five ocean currents merge. Mr. Phillips led a team of scientists — along with his 16-year-old son — there to determine, he said, whether the place is an exhibit for evolution or divine creation. Although he refused to divulge the full cost of his project, just getting the permits to film there, he said, cost $10,000.
That this idea is so tied to the 1840s is only one of its problems. For the average evolutionary biologist, so much research has gone on that has validated the basic tenets of evolution that to try to show that Darwin got some of his findings wrong is almost irrelevant. Newton and Einstein both got some of what they theorized wrong too, but we still use both theories of gravitation.

Furthermore, the Galapagos Islands represent one small geographic region for which evidence for evolution exists. How about the predictive nature of evolutionary theory that allowed Neil Shubin to find exactly the tetrapod ancestor he expected to find in Devonian shallow sea deposits on Ellesmere Island? How about Ardipithecus, Australopithecus and Homo erectus that turned up in South Africa after it was hypothesized that the earliest precursors of humans would likely be found in the same area as chimpanzees and gorillas? There are countless examples in which the theory has had amazing explanatory and predictive power. What are we to make of these examples?

What these filmmakers, who are so bent on demonizing Darwin and his theory, won't tell you is that across the world, at exactly the same time, Alfred Russel Wallace was developing exactly the same theory of evolution based on natural selection. Biological evolution, as a concept, was already emerging by the time of Darwin and Wallace because there was so much empirical evidence for it. They simply gave it a mechanism. That the modern creation movement centers their sights on Charles Darwin as a modern-day devil incarnate is beside the point.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Phylogenetics: A Horse of a Different Color

New research on horse DNA suggests that the number of horse species in the fossil record has been overestimated. The report, in Science Daily has this to say:
Lead author of the paper, Dr Ludovic Orlando from the University of Lyon, says the group discovered a new species of the distinct, small hippidion horse in South America.

"Previous fossil records suggested this group was part of an ancient lineage from North America but the DNA showed these unusual forms were part of the modern radiation of equid species," Dr Orlando says.

A new species of ass was also detected on the Russian Plains and appears to be related to European fossils dating back more than 1.5 million years. Carbon dates on the bones reveal that this species was alive as recently as 50,000 years ago.

"Overall, the new genetic results suggest that we have under-estimated how much a single species can vary over time and space, and mistakenly assumed more diversity among extinct species of megafauna," Professor Cooper says.

"This has important implications for our understanding of human evolution, where a large number of species are currently recognised from a relatively fragmentary fossil record.
The thorns in the side of phylogenetic analysis have always been intraspecies variation and the overall incompleteness of the fossil record. How do you know that the fossil sample that you have of any given species is representative of the entire range of variation for that species?

This does not have implications for evolutionary trajectories as much as it does for evolutionary taxonomy. Maybe Tiktaalik roseae had considerably more variation in traits than we know based on the sample that we have. But we do know that some of the individuals of the species had traits that link them to later tetrapods as well as some traits that link them to late fish.

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Evolution and Hyper-variability

Work out of Johns Hopkins University suggests that evolution is propelled forward by hyper-variable areas of the genome that allow a population to survive and thrive in different environments. The author of the story in e! Science News writes:
The researchers suggest in the study that the presence of genes that contribute to trait variability might help explain the presence of common diseases. Much as having a variable Y aided the model organism in their simulation in the long run but were detrimental in a static environment, variability in traits such as the ability to control blood sugar could have helped human ancestors survive to the present but become detrimental in the current environment.
This makes sense. The more variation that is present in any given generation, the better the chance for which some alleles will be selected positively. Evolution thrives on variability. This is why founder effect can cripple a population.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

The Flood of the Epoch!

The flood that created the Mediterranean Sea has been reanalyzed using bore holes and seismic information. Science News is reporting that evidence suggests that, rather than taking over a decade to fill, the sea flooded in less than two years. Lisa Grossman writes:
“In an instantaneous flash, the dry Mediterranean became a normal Mediterranean like we see it today,” says lead author Daniel Garcia-Castellanos of Spain's Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas (CSIC) in Barcelona.

He and his colleagues calculate that at the height of the flood, water levels rose more than 10 meters and more than 40 centimeters of rock eroded away per day. The model also shows that 100 million cubic meters of water flowed through the channel per second, with water gushing at speeds of 100 kilometers an hour. Rather than a Niagara Falls-esque cascade from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean, the team’s results imply a torrent several kilometers wide at a fairly gradual slope.
The flood is dated to around 5.3 million years ago, which would mean that if it were the flood of Noah, then Noah and his kind were late Miocene apes. Somehow, I don't think this to be the case. Ryan and Pitman are, for the moment, safe.

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The Origin of Birds?

A story out of SFGate (there are several similar stories across the net) reports that the origins of feathered dinosaurs (and potentially birds as well) dates back over 200 million years. David Perlman writes:
The new carnivore, named Tawa hallae, stood about 28 inches tall at the hips and was about 6 feet long. It had sharp teeth, a long neck, an even longer tail and short arms with fearsome claws, and it could run on two large feet.

It is also the earliest known dinosaur to contain air sacs along its backbone and in its neck and head - a clear sign of its evolutionary relationship to modern birds, said Sterling J. Nesbitt, a researcher at the University of Texas, Austin.

Nesbitt is the lead author of the Science report. He did his undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley with Kevin Padian, the dinosaur expert and curator at the Berkeley Museum of Paleontology.

In addition to the complete Tawa hallae skeleton, the team has found bones of at least five other individuals of Tawa's species, as well as the fossil bones of unrelated carnivorous dinosaurs, plus tens of thousands of other primitive creatures - including the evolutionary ancestors of today's crocodiles, turtles, frogs, lizards, other reptiles and even mammals.
This suggests that birds were not necessarily a late evolutionary adaptation to a radically changing environment, but an early form of yet another theropod branch of dinosaur.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sorry i went a week without posting anything. The end of the semester is a killer!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Inner Space or Outer Space?

Sid Perkins, of Wired Magazine, has an article on the early atmosphere of the earth. He writes:
Some scientists have proposed that the gases in Earth’s atmosphere originated within the planet, says Holland. According to those arguments, the atmosphere either seeped out of the Earth as the planet gradually cooled or were expelled from the crust when large numbers of asteroids pummeled the planet and melted its surface around 3.9 billion years ago. But new isotopic evidence gathered by Holland and his colleagues suggests that those scenarios probably aren’t right.

The researchers analyzed samples of gas pulled from a natural reservoir of carbon dioxide that lies several hundred meters below northeastern New Mexico. There, Holland explains, krypton and xenon that originate deep within the Earth — gases that presumably accumulated when the planet coalesced billions of years ago — mix with small amounts of atmospheric krypton and xenon carried downward by rainfall and groundwater.

Ratios of isotopes of krypton and xenon present in the geologic reservoir don’t match the ratios seen in today’s atmosphere. In particular, heavier isotopes of each gas appear in larger proportions in the subterranean samples than they do in the atmosphere. So it’s unlikely that large amounts of these atmospheric gases came from within the Earth, the team argues.
Another piece of the puzzle.

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Friday, December 04, 2009

Dennis Venema Videos on Being an Evolutionary Creationist

In his post on Focus on the Family's "Truth" Project, Steve Martin had a link to some videos done by Dennis Venema on how a Christian can accept evolution. Dennis teaches biology at Trinity Wesleyan University and was faced with a situation where his church began to use the "Truth Project." He felt that he needed to respond, so he gave a series of lectures on evolution. He has graciously posted these to YouTube here.

There are eight of them and I would encourage you to look at all of them. Here is the first one.

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Focus on the Family and the Truth Project

Steve Martin over at An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution, has written a post about the new Truth Project that is being initiated by Focus on the Family. It is a call to "speak the truth in love." He writes:
Focus on the Family is promoting their “Truth Project” to churches and small groups. A quick look at the lesson overview shows that, ironically, the Truth Project doesn’t seem to put much stock in truth when it comes to science (see lesson 5). For example, this lesson states that “Darwinian theory transforms science from the honest investigation of nature into a vehicle for propagating a godless philosophy”. Completely untrue.
Daily we run across a creationist who has no clue about the fossil record spouting nonsense. What do we, as Christians do about it? Well, I write this blog, hoping it will reach out to people that are curious, questioning or searching. Steve says that maybe that is not enough:
Given what has been said above, I would like to propose a guideline for when we as ECs should NOT remain silent. When either 1) a Christian organization in which we participate or 2) our local Church officially promote anti-evolutionary views, I believe that we must speak up. In this instance, we must “speak the truth in love” and provide the message that:

a) the scientific evidence for common descent is massive
b) the acceptance of biological evolution is compatible with an evangelical expression of the Christian faith

For us to remain silent in these circumstances would be a disservice to the gospel. It would be unloving to our brothers and sisters who are being told that their faith rests on a specific view of science that is demonstrably false.
If you have followed this blog for any period of time, you know that I have been leaning the same direction. My problem is that I have come, increasingly, to view the young earth creation model as a radical misinterpretation of the scriptures. I have, however, tempered on my thinking that it might be a modern-day heresy.

I just had a long conversation with my boss about the concept of heresy and his perspective (and I see the wisdom of it) is that as long as a core teaching of scripture is not being violated (think creeds, here) it is not heresy. Different interpretations of Genesis fall in to this category, since the omnipotence and immanence of God is not being debated. However, for me to say that someone who thinks that the world was created 6 000 years ago is not saved is clearly wrong. But I have seen people use that belief as an article of faith and salvation. I will speak up about that!

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Speciation and Human Intervention

Brandon Keim of Wired has a story about the blackcap warbler, a species that is slowly splitting in two. He writes:
Blackcap migration routes are genetically determined, and the population studied by Schaefer has historically wintered in Spain. Those that flew north couldn’t find food in barren winter landscapes, and perished. But during the last half-century, people in the U.K. put so much food out for birds that north-flying blackcaps could survive.

About 30 percent of blackcaps from southern Germany and Austria now migrate to the United Kingdom, shaving 360 miles from their traditional, 1,000-mile Mediterranean voyage. Because they’ve less distance to travel, they tend to arrive home first in the summertime and to live in prime forest-edge spots. All this makes the U.K. migrants more likely to mate with each other than with their old-fashioned brethren.

From these groupings, subtle differences are emerging. The U.K. birds tend to have rounded wings, which sacrifice long-distance flying power for increased maneuverability. Now that they don’t need wide bills to eat Mediterranean olives in winter, their bills are becoming narrower and better-suited to summer insect diets. They’re also slightly darker.
These are the first steps toward anagenetic speciation, a process that has been observed in other species1. As the authors point out, this is fascinating not just because it may be an example of speciation in action, but that it is speciation influenced by humans.

1Ayala, F. J., M. L. Tracey, D. Hedgecock & R. C. Richmond (1974) Genetic differentiation during the speciation process in Drosophila. Evolution, 576-592.

Pfosser, M., G. Jakubowsky, P. M. Schlüter, T. Fer, H. Kato, T. F. Stuessy & B. Y. Sun (2005) Evolution of Dystaenia takesimana (Apiaceae), endemic to Ullung Island, Korea. Plant Systematics and Evolution, 256, 159-170.

Stebbins, G. L. & D. L. Hartl (1988) Comparative evolution: latent potentials for anagenetic advance. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 85, 5141-5145.

Stuessy, T. F., G. Jakubowsky, R. S. Gómez, M. Pfosser, P. M. Schlüter, T. Fer, B. Y. Sun & H. Kato (2006) Anagenetic evolution in island plants. Journal of Biogeography (J. Biogeogr.), 33, 1259-1265.

Just to name a few...

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Josh Rosenau Has Fun With Ray Comfort

Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas has this to say about Ray Comfort, the man responsible for the million book giveaway of the altered version of On the Origin of Species (a title that both Comfort and Kirk Cameron got wrong on their version and didn't seem to notice). Josh writes:
It's honestly hard to know what to make of Ray Comfort. First he says bananas are proof of intelligent design because of how well they fit in your hand. Then he retracts the claim, accepting that the domestic banana is, in fact, a product of extensive artificial selection. Then he backs off and insists "There isn’t any evidence that the banana has changed its shape in the last 2,000 years."
As Rosenau points out, Ray Comfort has a blog called AtheistCentral and, when asked whether the earth was in the center of the universe, he had this to say:
The Bible says that the earth is immovable. It cannot be moved. So now is your chance to prove your point. Run outside and move the earth. Perhaps you and your friends could jump on it, or find a rocky outcrop and push it together.

Maybe after that little experiment you will concede that the earth is immovable. So is Scripture. You can push, twist, pull, and jump on different verses, but the Word of God isn’t going to move. It is a rock. It cannot be broken (see John 10:35). It will judge you on the last Day (see John 12:48). You only twist it to your own destruction (see 2 Peter 3:16).
So if I go out and jump up and down on the ground and don't get it to move, it means the earth is fixed in the heavens and doesn't move? I see his astronomy and physics education is every bit as good as his biology education. More seriously, if the earth does move, what does that say about scripture? Well, for most of us, not a dang thing. I wonder what it means for Ray Comfort?

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The Most Important Scientific Breaththrough of the Last Decade

The Irish Times has a story on the most important scientific discoveries of the last ten years. Among the big winners: the Toumai skull, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, MicroRNAs, the discovery of the speech gene FoxP2, and the human genome. The ambiguity of the Toumai skull is correctly described. It was squashed flat and it is not clear even quite what it is. About FoxP2, they write:
Two mutations in a single gene may have provided the evolutionary push that opened the way to human conversation. It all comes down to a master switch for language, the Foxp2 gene, which was first identified in 2001. It was found because of its associations, when switched off, in speech and language problems in humans. The following year German and British researchers compared our Foxp2 gene with matching ones in chimps, gorillas, orang-utans and rhesus macaque monkeys. They found two alterations seen only in humans, and surmised that these mutations had opened the way to language. Extensive research since has shown how the altered Foxp2 also triggered physiological changes that delivered the capacity to talk, something that gave humans a huge evolutionary advantage. Researchers are now studying how Foxp2 interacts with a large collection of genes associated with language.
As you read the discoveries, remember that most of them would have never come about without a modern, scientifically valid understanding of the universe—something that young earth creationism cannot provide.

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"Atheists" Are Mad at Creationists

According to an article making the rounds from the PRNewswire, "atheists" are hopping mad because of the giveaway of the version of On the Origins of Species with the special introduction that attacks evolutionary theory. The story notes:
Despite threats of "unilateral resistance," book burnings, and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins' public encouragement to students to rip out the Introduction, Comfort says his group has decided to continue giving away books.

"It's our aim to get this edition into the hands of students in every university in the United States, then Europe, and then the rest of the world," [Ray] Comfort said. "We have the manpower to do it because of our television program that is aired in 70 countries."

Comfort co-hosts an award-winning television program with actor Kirk Cameron.

"If the Introduction is as weak as atheists maintain, why would they rip it out because it would strengthen the case for evolution? But it does the opposite, and that's why they are so threatened," Comfort says. "Among other things, they don't want students to discover how Hitler used evolution as the catalyst for his 'final solution.'"
Well, this is just a thought but I am guessing they are ripping it out because it contains half-truths and misinformation. I am reminded of what Todd Wood said in the post that I quoted a few days ago:
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.)
Uncharitable but, in some cases, correct. Whether Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort have been apprised of the facility of their position and the whopping amount of evidence for evolution is not clear. What is clear is that they have a whole lot invested in their ministry and little invested in learning the truth.

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Climategate, Meet IDgate!

A story by Barbara Hollingsworth in the Washington Examiner likens the current negative response to global warming scepticism to that of scientist trying to promote ID. She writes:
More than 800 Ph.D.-level scientists around the world are seriously considering ID to explain the origin of life, but you'd never know it. Most do so clandestinely for fear of being ostracized by their peers or even forced out of their academic positions.

Some have secretly contacted the Discovery Institute ( after researching ID, Stephen C. Meyer, author of "Signature in the Cell" -- now in its fifth printing and one of's top 10 science titles -- recently told me over lunch.

Others, like Cold War dissidents making furtive contact with the West, arrange discreet meetings to discuss what "evolutionary biologists don't want to talk about, the origins of the information in the digital code of DNA necessary to produce life."
There is a fundamental flaw in this analogy: different climate models are testable and some have, indeed, been shown to support, on some level, a cooling trend. That is quite different from support for ID which exists in the form of negative evidence. Arguments for ID stem from trying to show the improbability of evolution to explain biodiversity. For example:
When former Cambridge biochemist Douglas Axe computed the chances that the four amino acids that form DNA could self-arrange themselves into just one functional protein, he found it was 1:10164 -- or less than the odds of finding one marked subatomic particle in the entire observable universe.
This suffers from the same logic that plagued Michael Behe in his recent books The Edge of Evolution and Darwin's Black Box. Namely, that all of the mutations that "self arranged" did so all at once. No model of early life assumes that and all of the available evidence suggests that this is exactly what did not happen. The mutations came about over time and individually.

The other problem with this idea is that it is a post hoc argument. That same logic could apply to any given event on any given day that includes a large group of people. What are the odds that all of the decisions that each person had made over the course of their lives led them to be at that same spot at the same time? The probabilities are infinitesimally small. Yet there they all are. I thought about that as I waited for Tony Banks, Michael Rutherford and Phil Collins to take the stage at the Genesis concert I attended in 2007. There were almost 100 k people there, each with a lifetime of decisions behind them.

Then the wheels come completely off:
"The actual evidence shows that major features of the fossil record are an embarrassment to Darwinian evolution; that early development in vertebrate embryos is more consistent with separate origins than with common ancestry; that non-coding DNA is fully functional, contrary to neo-Darwinian predictions; and that natural selection can accomplish nothing more than artificial selection -- which is to say, minor changes within existing species," writes Discovery Institute senior fellow Jonathan Wells, who has two Ph.D.s from the University of California at Berkeley in molecular and cell biology. "Faced with such evidence, any other scientific theory would probably have been abandoned long ago. Judged by the normal criteria of empirical science, Darwinism is false."
And all credibility goes out the window. There is very good evidence for evolution in the fossil record (how many times do I have to say this?). If people like Wells don't want to believe in evolution, that is fine, but to say that the fossil record is an embarrassment to "Darwinian evolution" is flat-out false. It gets more false every year!

These, to me, are the principle reasons that ID doesn't get taken seriously. The mathematical models don't address biological reality, they have no testable models, and nobody at the DI seems to know anything about the fossil record. Where is the science?

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Discovery Institute Sues California Science Center

The DI has sued the California Science Center charging suppression of public documents that show bias against the Intelligent Design viewpoint in its decision to cancel the showing of the film Darwin's Dilemma, on October 6 of this year. The story, from the PR Newswire, notes:
On November 2, 2009, the Center released 44 pages of documents claiming to have disclosed "all documents" and that "no documents have been withheld," apart from a few e-mail addresses that were redacted.

"California Science Center's claims are not true, and we know for a fact that e-mail communications exist, including communications with the Smithsonian Institution, that should have been disclosed in response to our public documents request but weren't, showing clear violation of California's Public Records Act," said Casey Luskin, Program Officer in Public Policy and Legal Affairs at the Discovery Institute.

"The Center withheld public communications by decision makers who cancelled the contract with AFA," said Luskin. "We believe the reason the California Science Center withheld these public documents is simple: the e-mails show evidence of discrimination against the pro-intelligent design viewpoint."

Discovery Institute's lawsuit follows a separate lawsuit filed against the California Science Center by the AFA for cancelling its contract to show the pro-intelligent design video.
I am more than a little curious to see where this one goes.

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Hadrosaur Species Drop by a Third

Worse than a meteor impact is a scientists' correction. According to Science Daily, a reexamination of the diversity of hadrosaurs has revealed that much of the diversity thought to be species variability, is, in fact, nothing more than different growth stages of some hadrosaurs. The author writes:
These dinosaurs were not separate species, as some paleontologists claim, but different growth stages of previously named dinosaurs, according to a new study. The confusion is traced to their bizarre head ornaments, ranging from shields and domes to horns and spikes, which changed dramatically with age and sexual maturity, making the heads of youngsters look very different from those of adults.
There have been other discoveries as well:
Many paleontologists now realize that the elaborate head ornaments of dinosaurs, from the huge bony shield and three horns of Triceratops to the coxcomb-like head gear of some hadrosaurs, were not for combat, but served the same purpose as feathers in birds: to distinguish between species and indicate sexual maturity.

"Dinosaurs, like birds and many mammals, retain neoteny, that is, they retain their juvenile characteristics for a long period of growth," Horner said, "which is a strong indicator that they were very social animals, grouping in flocks or herds with long periods of parental care."
This is science at its best: self-correcting and constantly analyzing. As more information comes out of the fossil record, these sorts of changes will appear in the literature. This is not a problem for science but I am sure the creationists will pick up on it.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

On the Origin of Species For the Lay Person

The UC Newsroom's Iqbal Pittalwala has written an article on a new book that has been written by UC Riverside professor David Reznick that seeks to explain Charles Darwin's On the Origins of Species in easily understandable language. The book is titled The Origin Then and Now: An Interpretive Guide to the Origin of Species and is available from Princeton University Press. The article quotes Reznick as saying:
"I have taught the Origin to more than a dozen classes, and felt that I had figured out why Darwin’s arguments were so hard to follow,” said Reznick, a professor of biology at the University of California, Riverside. “His Victorian prose is a small part of the problem. The bigger part is that the book is rooted in the knowledge of science in 1859, which is quite different from today. To understand the book, it helps a great deal to understand the context in which the book was written and the audience that Darwin was addressing."
This will be a very timely release, given the distorted copy of On the Origins of Species that Kirk Cameron is handing out.

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