Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Last Neandertals and Climate Change

Joao Zilhao is now suggesting that the last surviving Neandertals had to have died out around 37 ky, rather than 27 ky which is what has been thought for the last several years. According to a story in Yahoo News:
The paper, by Professor Zilhao and colleagues from the University of Bristol, revealed new dating evidence for the Late Aurignacian of Portugal, an archaeological culture associated with modern humans, which firmly constrains the age of the last Neanderthals of southern and western Iberia to some 37,000 years ago.

This new evidence puts the duration of the Iberian Neanderthal refugium at five millennia, and counters speculations that Neanderthal populations could have remained in the Gibraltar area until 28,000 years ago.

These findings have important implications for the understanding of the archaic features found in the anatomy of a 30,000-year-old child unearthed at Lagar Velho, Portugal.
This will be hard to square with Zafarraya as well. The stone tool assemblages from that site are clearly Mousterian with, as Jean-Jacques Hublin writes: "little or no Upper Palaeolithic influence." I also think that Erik Trinkaus' analysis of the Lagar Velho remains, is very close to the mark. I simply do not think that it is credible to view the remains as that of a "chunky Gravettian kid."

I wonder if this will revive the incredible dust-up that followed, regarding the analysis of the Lagar Velho remains. I challenge anyone out there to find Erik's original post. It seems to have vanished into the ether.

Now playing: Steve Hackett - Under The World ~ Orpheus Looks Back
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Friday, January 29, 2010

Bringing a Galapagos Tortoise Back to Life

Researchers suggest that the Galapagos Tortoise Chelonoidis elephantopus might be brought back to life. The tortoise was hunted to extinction by whalers in the 19th century. "Great sport, that. Let's go find another fast-moving species to hunt!!" Sorry, I digress. Casey Kazan of Yale University writes:
A genetic analysis of 156 tortoises living in captivity and the DNA taken from remains of specimens of the now-extinct Chelonoidis elephantopus revealed that nine are descended from the vanished species, which once made its home on Floreana Island in the Galapagos. Over a few generations, a selective breeding program among these tortoises should be able to revive the C. elephantopus species, said Adalgisa Caccone, senior research scientist in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale.
Not like reviving a Neandertal but pretty impressive, nonetheless.

Now playing: Pink Floyd - Sorrow
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Bipedalism and Tool Use: Connected?

It has been generally thought that the evolution of bipedality, which we now suspect took place in a forested environment sometime between 4.5 and 5.0 megayears ago, spurred on the invention of and use of stone tools such as the Oldowan and Developed Oldowan. Now it is being suggested that this link is greater than originally thought:
"This goes back to Darwin''s The Descent of Man," said Campbell Rolian, a scientist from the University of Calgary in Canada who led the study.

"Charles Darwin was among the first to consider the relationship between stone tool technology and bipedalism," he said.

"His idea was that they were separate events and they happened sequentially - that bipedalism freed the hand to evolve for other purposes," he added.

"What we showed was that the changes in the hand and foot are similar developments and changes in one would have side-effects manifesting in the other," he explained.
The connexion gets stronger.

Now playing: Pink Floyd - Us and Them
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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Thoughts from Kansas: Creation vs. Expelled at the Box Office

Josh Rosenau has been tracking the box office numbers of Creation against those of Expelled! His take:
Darwin biopic Creation premiered in seven movie theaters across the country last weekend, earning $53,073, an average of $7,582. That's not a lot of money, but at roughly $10/ticket, this works out to 760 viewers per theater, a solid showing. I know the theater I saw it at was full for their 7 pm showing.

Compare that to creationist schlockumentary Expelled: No Intelligence…, released two springs ago. Part of its promotional strategy was a big opening weekend; coordinating with the owners of Regal movie theaters, they opened in 1,052 theaters, earning $2,970,848, or $2,824 per theater (roughly 280 viewers).

By my math, Creation did more than 3 times better than Expelled, and with a much smaller promotional budget. Which makes sense: it's a much better movie.
But be sure to read the comments.

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The Shrinking Primate Brain

According to a story from Yahoo news UK and Ireland, research now suggests that some primate brains, which have always been thought to be ever-expanding throughout primate evolutionary history may be shrinking and that this may apply to Homo floresiensis as well. The article notes:
Stephen Montgomery, one of the researchers from Cambridge University, said: "The discovery challenged our understanding of human evolution and created much debate about whether H. floresiensis was a distinct species or a diseased individual.

"Much of the debate about the place of H. floresiensis in the primate tree is centred around its small size, in particular the small brain size. The argument raised has been that the evolution of such a small brain does not fit with what we know about primate brain evolution.
In hindsight, this is not so unusual. Selection acts to mold species into what is best adapted for the environment that they are in. We have seen a shrinking of the modern human brain over that of Neandertals (a drop of about 300 cc) as well as a general shrinking of tooth size and facial size. It simply wasn't needed any longer.

Now playing: Anthony Phillips - Cradle Song (1979)
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The Charles Darwin Bobblehead

The University of Hawai'i in Manoa is having a Darwin birthday fundraiser for the library featuring a Charles Darwin bobblehead. I interviewed at Manoa a few years back and was quite impressed with the resources there. They since have had a devastating flood that wiped out a good chunk of the first floor. I spent the entire day after the interview walking around Waikiki and climbing Diamond Head. Terrible experience ; - ) I ended up second on the list. Oh well.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An Alternative to the Clergy Letter?

You knew this was coming. A story in the Christian NewsWire reports on efforts to get churches to ditch "evolution Sunday." The story notes: is urging churches to celebrate Creation Sunday this February 14th to counter the Clergy Letter Project's Evolution Sunday, scheduled on the same date.

As the Year of Darwin comes to a close and we enter the Post-Darwin Century, is renewing its efforts to answer the challenge the Clergy Letter Project represents to the plain, traditional interpretation of Genesis.

Since 2004, the Clergy Letter Project has been recruiting ministers as evolution advocates, promoting the idea that "religious truth is of a different order than scientific truth," echoing an unBiblical notion popularized by the late Stephen J Gould: non-overlapping magisteria, or NOMA.
Clever, that "post-Darwin part, as if the age of Darwin is over and a new century has begun. Not hardly. The article continues:
"Jesus refuted the concept of NOMA in John 3:12," notes founder Rev. Tony Breeden, "when He pointedly asked Nicodemus, 'If I've told you of earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell ye of spiritual things?' How can you trust the Bible for spiritual things like the Gospel for salvation when you can't trust what Genesis says about earthly things like biology, geology and so on? The Bible isn't a science textbook, but if we can't trust it when it speaks on science, when can we trust it?"
Christ was speaking directly about Nicodemus accepting Him as the Son of God. That is the context of the passage. Nicodemus did not understand Jesus' symbolic language and Jesus is chastising Nicodemus for not understanding the passages in the OT that referred to His coming. The entire passage hinges on whether or not Nicodemus understood who Jesus was and what he represented. It doesn't have anything to do with the NOMA. Breeden's interpretation represents the worst form of cherry-picking.

He then remarks that the Bible isn't a science textbook and then argues that we have to trust it to be exactly that! If the Bible isn't a science textbook then why is it important that we treat it and trust it as such? A bit back I posted an article by Daniel Harlow on the literalism of scripture. His analysis?
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.
Mr. Breeden's view of scripture is a very myopic one that, despite having been shown by countless biblical scholars to be completely unwarranted, is becoming increasingly common in evangelical circles. I certainly hope my church doesn't sign this letter. I will dissent.

Now playing: Cannonball Adderley - Minha Saudades
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Fat Birds

It seems that the ancestors of emus and cassowaries became too heavy for flight quite a bit back. Discovery News reports:
The study used molecular dating of the mitochondrial DNA from the moa, which stood 2.5 meters (6.7 feet) tall and weighed up to 250 kilograms (551 pounds), and found its closest relative to be the tinamous -- a flighted bird the size of quail, found in South America.

Previously it was thought ratites all shared a common flightless ancestor about 80 million years ago and their worldwide dispersal occurred before the supercontinent of Gondwanaland broke up.

But Phillips says the problem with this theory was that much of the continental break-up occurred well before the proposed common ancestor.

Their study, which also included DNA sequencing of 22 bird species including flightless and flighted birds, shows ratites became flightless around 65 million years ago, he says.

This coincides with the extinction of dinosaurs in the Cretaceous-Tertiary event.
Most of these had no natural predators or could run faster than the ones they did have until humans came on the scene.

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Initial Evolution of Life Non-Darwinian??

Spock: "Well, its life, Jim, but not as we know it." New Scientist has an article on the evolution of early life in which it is posited by several researchers that this progressed in strikingly non-Darwinian fashion. Mark Buchanan writes:
JUST suppose that Darwin's ideas were only a part of the story of evolution. Suppose that a process he never wrote about, and never even imagined, has been controlling the evolution of life throughout most of the Earth's history. It may sound preposterous, but this is exactly what microbiologist Carl Woese and physicist Nigel Goldenfeld, both at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, believe. Darwin's explanation of evolution, they argue, even in its sophisticated modern form, applies only to a recent phase of life on Earth.
What is not so clear from the initial section of the article is that this applies to the microbiological world almost exclusively. The authors argue that, at an early stage of evolution, horizontal gene transfer was largely responsible for the genetic code being spread among all organisms:
"In some sense," says Woese, "the genetic code is a fossil or perhaps an echo of the origin of life, just as the cosmic microwave background is a sort of echo of the big bang. And its form points to a process very different from today's Darwinian evolution." For the researchers the conclusion is inescapable: the genetic code must have arisen in an earlier evolutionary phase dominated by horizontal gene transfer.
Given the behavior of viruses (H1N1 for example) in which genes are swapped between different viral strains and that of ERVs in which viral RNA is written into the DNA of living organisms, perhaps this is not as surprising as it sounds. The authors are quick to note that the vast majority of evolution is now Darwinian in nature but that we see evidence of how things may have started out. Read the whole thing.

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Rick Warren : Everybody's Preacher

Jeffery Sheler of the FreeLibrary has an interesting article on Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church and author of the many books on the Christian faith. According to the article, he seems to be all things to all people. Sheler writes:
Like a man with a pathological need to be liked, Warren has a habit of shading his comments to agree with whomever he's speaking to at a given moment. The practice may come from his pastoral experience, but even more from a desire to prove that he's not one of "those" evangelicals. He's California casual. He has an easy laugh. He hugs people. A lot. As Sheler describes him, "Here was an evangelical leader--a Southern Baptist, no less--who simply did not fit the stereotype of the dour Religious Right activist or of the money-grubbing TV preacher that so often seemed to dominate media portraits of evangelical Christians and their leaders."

As a result, when he's talking to Larry King, Warren mentions his gay friends and says he "never once even gave an endorsement in the two years Prop 8 was going." And when he's talking to Sean Hannity, Warren voices his agreement when the Fox News Channel host advocates assassinating the president of Iran. When he speaks with scientists, Warren assures them that he believes in a biblically informed theory of evolution. But when he talks to the intelligent design devotees at the Discovery Institute, they leave with the impression that he believes in intelligent design instead.
Of course, one wonders what a "biblically informed theory of evolution" means, exactly but he has not joined the anti-evolution chorus of church organizations that have become increasingly vocal in recent years. This is probably a shrewd move on his part, since I suspect a backlash against the anti-scientism of the conservative wing of the evangelical church will occur.

Now playing: Anthony Phillips - Sky Dawn
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Friday, January 22, 2010

Chinese Death Pits

According to the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, researchers from the United States, Canada and China have solved a mystery dating back 150 million years. Here's the mystery:
From 2001-2005, the research team explored three pits containing stacked skeletons of at least two different kinds of previously unknown, small theropod dinosaurs. Theropods are a group of meat-eating dinosaurs that walked on their hind legs and include Tyrannosaurus rex,as well as, much smaller creatures, popularly referred to as “raptors.”

“None of us had ever seen anything like this before,” said Dr. David Eberth, Senior Research Scientist at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, and lead author of the article being published this week in the scientific journal PALAIOS. “In most bonebeds, remains are scattered across flat surfaces, but at these sites, skeletons were stacked one on top of another, in what appeared to be pits full of volcanic mud.”
And here is how it was solved:
However, by examining other geologic features in the area, the team discerned the pits were, in fact, mud-filled tracks, likely left behind by the 20-tonne sauropod dinosaur, Mamenchisaurus, whose remains were also found in the area. “Discovering that the preservation of these superb small theropod skeletons was attributable to the track-making of a giant, long-necked dinosaur was simply bizarre,” says Eberth.

“These pits are a fantastic resource as they yield small dinosaurs that aren’t preserved well in the fossil record. Finding so many skeletons and new kinds of small theropods is already helping us clarify growth patterns and evolution in these ancient animals and their close relatives.”
Mamenchisaurus was reportedly over 45 feet long and weighed over 40 000 pounds. Stomped 'em flat.

Now playing: Cannonball Adderley - Alison's Uncle
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Thursday, January 21, 2010

David Schwimmer: Creationism as a Cultural Issue

David Schwimmer, a professor of geology and chemistry at Columbia State University argues that creationism is more a cultural phenomenon than a scientific one and should be treated accordingly. In contrast to the science, evolution is well-studied:
Evolution is the central unifying tool around which all modern biological and paleontological science is based, and it is also fundamental to parts of biochemistry, geology, anthropology, and even pharmacology (e.g. that’s why we test drug safety on expensive monkeys rather than cheap mice — they are our close relatives).

Each of these sciences has its own specific areas where evolution applies, and they are wide ranging. But central to all is the basic fact (yes, fact) that life and earth have changed over time — which is the definition of “evolution.” How those changes occur, and the complex details, comprise the theory of evolution.

Evolutionary theory has itself evolved — after all, this is the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and we have learned a great deal since Darwin. But his basic concept of evolution by natural selection is still at the core of the life sciences.
It is hard to convince most creationists that the young earth, flood geology model which they so dearly cling to is a very recent formulation of the Primeval History and dates to the 1930s.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Nexus of Politics and Science

Politics has reared its ugly head in the Calfornia Science Center case in which it is alleged that they cancelled the film Darwin's Dilemma without just cause, resulting in a First Amendment violation. The American Freedom Alliance and the Discovery Institute have brought suits against the California Science Center. Now we have come to learn that the house minority leader in California has launched a probe into the violation. Dennis Hollingsworth. He writes:
I am contacting you this date in order to inquire into a disturbing situation that occurred last fall at the California Science Center ("CSC"), wherein it appears that CSC engaged in viewpoint and content based censorship of a scheduled scientific exhibition (the "event"). This is especially disturbing in light of CSC's mission statement
"The Science Center's Mission: We aspire to stimulate curiosity and inspire science learning in everyone by creating fun, memorable experiences, because we value science as an indispensable tool for understanding our world, accessibility and inclusiveness, and enriching people's lives."
The Discovery Institute has a posting about this development in which they say
“The constitutional implications of [the Science Center’s] actions are concerning” wrote Senator Hollingsworth in the letter, citing various court decisions protecting private parties against viewpoint discrimination. “It is fundamental that when a governmental entity or sub-unit (such as CSC) opens its facilities as a public forum, it is not constitutionally permissible to censor speech based on viewpoint or content.”
The film in question has been reviewed by John Humphreys and has been found to be lacking in scientific accuracy and integrity. His final paragraph reads:
To draw this novel length critique of Darwin’s Dilemma to a close, let me re-emphasize that although lacking historical accuracy, scientific legitimacy and professional integrity the film’s production value and underlying truth-manipulating strategy make it a dangerous opponent to education and reason. The people behind the film are dishonest, unethical and immoral; they lie, doctor evidence and misrepresent science as a whole. In the process of attacking evolution, they falsify history and tear down the sciences of geology and chemistry.

Though they are fundamentalists and propagandists, they are also cunning and well funded… Take caution.
It is not clear on what the suit by the AFA is based. I have no practical experience in law but what I was able to find of the California code that covers such dealings reads:
Civil Code section 51.5 prohibits business establishments from discriminating against, boycotting, blacklisting, or refusing to buy from, sell to, contract with, or trade with a person because of the actual or perceived race, creed, religion, color, national origin, sex, or disability of that person; the person's partners, members, stockholders, directors, officers, managers, superintendents, agents, employees, business associates, suppliers, or customers; or because of that person's association with a person who has or is perceived to have any of these characteristics. A person, as defined in this section, is a person, firm, association, organization, partnership, business trust, corporation, limited liability company, or company.
What the California Science Center is alleging is breach of contract, but even if that doesn't hold up (and there is no reason to think it won't), refusal based on ideological grounds is not covered in the building code. If the film is a piece of junk, the California Science Center is not obligated to show it. It is also not in the best interest of the Discovery Institute to challenge based on religion because the focus on the film is purported to be scientific, a position that has been disputed. The DI is focusing solely on the violation of free speech rights while ignoring the contract breach but it seems to me that even the First Amendment issue is on shaky ground as well. If anyone with law experience has a thought on this or if I am way off base here, please ring in.

It is concerning that the California state legislature can find the time, amid a 23 billion dollar shortfall in their budget to address this kind of concern. Senator Hollingsworth is a Republican and can now be added to the growing list of political figures who see it as their duty to meddle in science education. His statement in the letter that he is addressing "viewpoints that challenge Darwinism" indicates that he has limited understanding of the actual science behind evolution, or he would not use that pejorative. This is a disturbing trend in politics.

Now playing: Mannheim Steamroller - The Second Door
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Christine Comer Honored by AU

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has given Christine Comer their Religious Liberty Award for her 27 years of science education in Texas. Ms. Comer, if you will recall, was forced out of her job after she used an official email account to tell people about Barbara Forrest's upcoming talk on intelligent design. It was felt by the Texas Education Agency that such use was inappropriate despite the fact that Ms. Comer made the case that such a talk was instrumental to the teaching of science. The article notes:
Saying she was “very touched and very honored” by the award, Comer told the crowd at the Nov. 9 event that they must remain diligent. She criticized Texas officials for insisting that public school teachers remain neutral on creationism.

“We are in the fight of our lives in science education in the state of Texas,” Comer said, “and, as you know, what happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas.”

Added Comer, “I thank you so much for everything you do. People like you are the ones who make it possible for science teachers across the United States to prepare our students for the 21st century, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Texas has a long way to go.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

William Dembski "Admits" to Something We Pretty Much Already Knew

Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars has called William Dembski on the carpet for being a creationist. The problem is that we have known all along that William Dembski is a creationist. He just hasn't admitted it until now. The Discovery Institute tried valiantly to disassociate itself from the term "creationism" some years back. John West wrote in 2002:
Scientists and scholars supportive of intelligent design do not describe themselves as "intelligent design creationists." Indeed, intelligent design scholars do not regard intelligent design theory as a form of creationism. Therefore to employ the term "intelligent design creationism" is inaccurate, inappropriate, and tendentious, especially on the part of scholars and journalists who are striving to be fair. "Intelligent design creationism" is not a neutral description of intelligent design theory. It is a polemical label created for rhetorical purposes. "Intelligent design" is the proper neutral description of the theory.
As Barbara Forrest has shown in devastating fashion, however, this may be true figuratively but is not true practically. About William Dembski, she writes this:
Dembski contends that ID proponents must “engage the secular world, reproving, rebuking, and exhorting it, pointing to the truth of Christianity and producing strong arguments and valid criticisms that show where secularism has missed the mark” (quoted in Forrest and Gross, 2005, 200).
Brayton points out that Dembski complained bitterly about being labeled a creationist by Robert Pennock, and it is not clear in what sense Pennock meant "creationist." Dembski has stated on many occasions (here and here, for example) that, in terms of the age of the earth, ID has no horse in the race and that he is not a creationist. Imagine everyone's surprise when he took off the mask and said "I am a creationist":
Johnny T. Helms' concerns about my book THE END OF CHRISTIANITY as well as his concerns about my role as a seminary professor in the SBC are unfounded. I subscribe to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as well as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. I believe Adam and Eve were literal historical persons specially created by God. I am not, as he claims, a theistic evolutionist. Within the Southern Baptist seminaries, both old-earth and young-earth creationism are accepted positions. True, young-earth creationism remains the majority view in the SBC, but it is not a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy within the SBC. I'm an old-earth creationist and the two SBC seminaries at which I've taught (Southern in Louisville and Southwestern in Ft. Worth) both were fully apprised of my views here in hiring me.
I don't have a problem with Dembski being a creationist. It is also perfectly fine to stand up and say "I am a Christian!" I am also a creationist. I just happen to be a old-earth theistic evolutionist as well. That's not the problem. The problem is that many within the ID camp want to claim that ID has absolutely nothing to do with belief in God but is amenable to the pursuit of science by itself. The public agenda of those promoting ID, however, is very bent on linking it with Christianity. Dembski himself has said:
Intelligent design, on the other hand, readily embraces the sacramental nature of physical reality. Indeed, intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory." - quoted from Dembski, W., A., Kushiner, James M., (editors), Signs of Intelligence: Understanding Intelligent Design, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2001.
The long and glorious history of the Wedge Document also belies the "neutral description" of the activities of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and culture. Contrast that with the quote that began this post. It is this air of deception that makes people think twice about the whole enterprise.

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Eugenie Scott Receives NAS Public Welfare Medal

Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, received the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences. The press release has this to say:
"Eugenie Scott has worked tirelessly and very effectively to improve public understanding of both the nature of science and the science of evolution," said Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences. "She makes the case for science again and again."

"We honor Genie Scott for her many years of service organizing coalitions of scientists, parents, teachers, business people, clergy, and others to raise their voices to defend the teaching of evolution in public school," said John Brauman, home secretary of the National Academy of Sciences and chair of the Public Welfare Medal selection committee.

A physical anthropologist by training, Scott received her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. She holds six honorary degrees and has received numerous awards from scientific and civil liberties organizations. Scott has served on the board of directors of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study and on the advisory councils of several organizations defending the separation of church and state. Scott, a fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has also held elected offices in the American Anthropological Association and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
She has always been at least sympathetic to belief in God and the ability to practice science and yet hold religious beliefs. That was especially evident when she came and debated William Provine at the University of Tennessee. He was very spiteful and she was very gracious. She had not expected to discuss religion at the debate and he blindsided her. At the time (a decade back, at least) he said that he had a brain tumor and not much time to live. He has since had surgery and appears to have made a modest recovery, despite some speaking issues. Scott's performance led many people that I came into contact with to have a more open understanding of religion.

Now playing: Steve Hackett - Cell 151
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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Darrel Falk Reviews Signature in the Cell

Darrel Falk of the BioLogos Foundation has also read Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell. He strongly recommends the book on philosophical and theological grounds, arguing that Meyer has crafted a very readable book that addresses the philosophical nature of science and the scientific enterprise. Then the other shoe drops:
There is no question that large amounts information have been created by materialistic forces over the past several hundred million years. Meyer dismisses this without discussing it. What about at the very beginning, 3.5 billion years ago? Everyone doing the science, Meyer notwithstanding, would say the jury is still out. There are some very elegant feasibility experiments going on at the present time. However, it is far too early for a philosopher to jump into the fray and declare no further progress will be made and that this science is now dead. If the object of the book is to show that the Intelligent Design movement is a scientific movement, it has not succeeded. In fact, what it has succeeded in showing is that it is a popular movement grounded primarily in the hopes and dreams of those in philosophy, in religion, and especially those in the general public. With all due respect for the very fine people associated with the ID movement, many of whom I have met personally and whose sincerity I greatly appreciate, our hopes and dreams need to be much bigger than this. The science of origins is not the failure it is purported to be. It is just science moving along as science does—one step at a time. Let it be.
Indeed. It is indicative of the whole debate around ID that the debate is carried out in the public arena rather than the halls of science. Books like Meyer's are geared to the general public, not to the scientific community. William Dembski has, additionally, argued that by publishing books instead of articles, he can reach a broader audience. Maybe so, but he circumvents the review process when doing this, thus robbing ID of a much-needed credibility that it desperately needs.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hominids Ahoy!

It turns out that archaic Homo sapiens or perhaps even Homo erectus may have actually taken to the water in some sort of light craft. Bruce Bower of ScienceNews reports:
Human ancestors that left Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago to see the rest of the world were no landlubbers. Stone hand axes unearthed on the Mediterranean island of Crete indicate that an ancient Homo species perhaps Homo erectus — had used rafts or other seagoing vessels to cross from northern Africa to Europe via at least some of the larger islands in between, says archaeologist Thomas Strasser of Providence College in Rhode Island.

Several hundred double-edged cutting implements discovered at nine sites in southwestern Crete date to at least 130,000 years ago and probably much earlier, Strasser reported January 7 at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Archaeology. Many of these finds closely resemble hand axes fashioned in Africa about 800,000 years ago by H. erectus, he says. It was around that time that H. erectus spread from Africa to parts of Asia and Europe.
The barrier that separates modern human intellect from that of our forebears gets fuzzier and fuzzier. This is not too much of a surprise. We know that Homo erectus harnessed fire and had somewhat sophisticated hunting tools. They obviously had a pretty clear understanding of their environment and how to maximise their intelligence to their advantage. Almost twenty years ago, Milford Wolpoff suggested that we sink the name Homo erectus and incorporate all of the hominids identified as H. erectus into the taxonomic status of Homo sapiens. He suggested this because of the lack of a definite speciation break between erectus and archaic Homo sapiens (specimens such as Kabwe, LH 18, and Omo 1, for example) in the fossil record. This information reinforces that argument from a biocultural perspective.

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Neandertals Driven to Extinction?

DNAIndia is reporting on research done by Steve Churchill, at Duke which indicates that humans were hunted or driven to extinction by the incoming modern humans. They write:
According to a report by CBS News, Steven Churchill, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University, performed an experiment to see whether modern humans might have killed the ancient hominids.

The test subject for Churchill was Shanidar 3, a roughly 40-year-old Neanderthal male whose remains were uncovered in the 1950s in Shanidar Cave in northeastern Iraq.

Neanderthals were the power-thrusters of the Paleolithic world, driving their heavy spears with great kinetic energy and momentum into bison, boar, and deer.

If Shanidar 3 had been injured by such a thrust, it would suggest that he had gotten into a fight with another Neanderthal, or perhaps that he had been hurt in a hunting accident.

But, if the wound had resulted from a lighter spear-from a projectile deftly thrown at a distance, with less momentum and energy, the attacker was most likely human.

"There is no evidence whatsoever that Neanderthals ever used throwing spears," Churchill said.
Where to start... Well, we've known about Shanidar 3 for quite some time—around fifty years.

Problem Number One: This has been suggested before. The problem is that the evidence is so scant. One might just as easily say that the same thing based on a single, isolated murder case in any city in any country. Is it indicative of modern human/Neandertal violence? Maybe, maybe not.

Problem Number Two: not everyone shares Churchill's views that Neandertals did not have hafted weapons1. There are plenty of scholars who are quite convinced that Neandertals had hafted weapons. This then raises the real possibility that this was Neandertal/Neandertal violence.

All in all, there needs to be quite a bit more evidence if we are accept this hypothesis.

1Here is a short, incomplete list of articles by authors who suggest that Neandertals likely had hafted weaponry of some sort.

Berger, T. D. & E. Trinkaus (1995) Patterns of trauma among the Neandertals. Journal of Archaeological Science, 22, 841-852.

Bower, B. (1999) Neandertal hunters get to the point. Science News, 4-4.

Brainard, J. (1998) Giving Neandertals Their Due. Science News, 72-74.

d'Errico, F., J. Zilhão, M. Julien, D. Baffier & J. Pelegrin (1998) Neanderthal Acculturation in Western Europe? A Critical Review of the Evidence and Its Interpretation 1. Current Anthropology, 39, 1-44.

Richards, M. P., P. B. Pettitt, E. Trinkaus, F. H. Smith, M. Paunovi & I. Karavani (2000) Neanderthal diet at Vindija and Neanderthal predation: The evidence from stable isotopes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 97, 7663.

Shea, J. J. (1997) Middle Paleolithic spear point technology. Projectile technology, 79–106.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Ayala Review of Signature in the Cell

Francisco Ayala, one of the world's preeminent evolutionary biologists and a former Dominican Priest has a review of Stephen Meyer's new book Signature in the Cell. The opening paragraph is a howl:
The keystone argument of Signature of the Cell is that chance, by itself, cannot account for the genetic information found in the genomes of organisms. I agree. And so does every evolutionary scientist, I presume. Why, then, spend chapter after chapter and hundreds of pages of elegant prose to argue the point? It is as if in a book about New York, the author would tell us that New York is not in Europe, and then dedicate most of the book to advancing evidence that, indeed, truly, New York is not in Europe.
This is, indeed a continual problem for the ID movement: the lack of understanding of how evolution operates. There is a disconnect between the understanding of how mutations arise and what selection does with them. It is as if supporters of ID complain about "Darwinists" but none of them have actually read any Darwin. In every generation there are a wide variety of mutations that arise in the genome. Selection acts accordingly. There is directional selection, balancing selection and disruptive selection. The best known example in humans of balancing selection is the balanced polymorphism where the sickle cell trait is maintained in a population because heterozygotes that carry one copy of the gene can fight off malaria and still not die from sickle cell anemia. Our current genome and that of all other animals is the result of generations of selection. It isn't chance at all. Ayala's complaints about the book run deeper, however:
Meyer asserts that the theory of intelligent design has religious implications. “Those who believe in a transcendent God may, therefore, find support for their belief from the biological evidence that supports the theory of intelligent design” (p. 444). I do think that people of faith may find in the world many reasons that support their belief in God. But I don’t think that intelligent design is one of them. Quite the contrary. Indeed, there are good reasons to reject ID on religious grounds, in addition to scientific grounds. The biological information encased in the genome determines the traits that the developing organism will have, in humans as well as in other organisms. But humans are chock-full of design defects. We have a jaw that is not sufficiently large to accommodate all of our teeth, so that wisdom teeth have to be removed and other teeth straightened by an orthodontist. Our backbone is less than well designed for our bipedal gait, resulting in back pain and other problems in late life. The birth canal is too narrow for the head of the newborn to pass easily through it, so that millions of innocent babies—and their mothers—have died in childbirth throughout human history.
To be fair, most of the arguments here fall under the heading of "personal incredulity." Maybe God did design these things the way are on purpose. The point is that there is no way to know whether God did it or that it just happened without the help of a designer. All we know is that we have a theory (biological evolution) that, as Mr. Spock would say "just happens to fit the facts."

Here is an odd problem, though: your average evangelical Christian views the modern workings of the world and all of its myriad problems as being the result of the curse of Adam and the resultant fall. All bad things that happen to people biologically, be it cancer, miscarriage, MS, Alzheimer's Disease to name a few, can be tied to this. It is clear from reading Ayala's other work that is not how he thinks. His is more of an "evolving creation" that operates under God given natural laws. Most practicing biologists that work with evolutionary theory have adopted some variant of this. What isn't clear is how Meyer thinks regarding this. Is there intelligent design despite the fall? Can we see the work of the designer through the muck of modern life? No ID author that I am familiar with has addressed this issue.

It is clear, however, that, based on my example of the sickle cell trait, evolution does act on the modern world. Further compounding the issue is the study of things like ERVs that indicate that, despite their virulent nature, they present a perfect example of exaptation, and that section of our functional genome came from old ERV infections.

What does all of this mean? Is God working through his fallen creation to "help us out?" Are the examples of natural selection God's plan to navigate us through the evil of the modern world? I would like to see an ID supporter like Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, or William Dembski address this issue because the current ID argument that evolution cannot explain the modern genome leads one to wonder how it was created and, if the world is evil, why.

Hat tip to Steve Matheson.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

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

Paul Marston has written a paper called Understanding the biblical creation passages. It is illustrative of the sometimes overwhelming problem of interpreting even what we think are common scriptures:
One problem in modern times is that many people think they know what the Bible teaches, but actually are following a popular culture which misreads it. For example, at Christmas we may send cards with “three kings” around the manger, and winged angels in the sky. In the Bible, however, angels never appear with wings, and the magi who came to see Jesus were an unknown number of wise people (not necessarily all men), not kings, who came to see Jesus after he had relocated to the house (Matthew 2:1) and as a young child (paidos) not a baby (brefos).
With this as a backdrop, he turns the bulk of the paper to the creation narratives, which have vexed biblical historians for centuries. Marston's key point is that it is perfectly reasonable to read many passages as symbolic because that is the way that Jesus used the language. The verse that obviously comes to mind is John 2:18 where Jesus speaks of raising up the temple in three days. As Marston notes, Jesus was speaking of himself and not the actual physical temple because, in his mind, they were one and the same. That was plainly not what he "literally" said, and it confused the disciples and the pharisees mightily.

Other examples of Jesus using symbolic language throughout the gospels abound. Clearly, he did not mean for his speech to be taken literally but, at the same time, he appears to be taking delight in these passages at the fact that his followers and the pharisees didn't "get it." We read these passages and it is easy to think "silly disciples, how dense could they be." Would we have been any better at interpreting them? We laugh when we hear the joke about the zen master asking the hot dog vendor for "one with everything," because we know the context. Replace "zen master" with Ford Prefect and the joke is gone. Everything is context. The disciples and the Pharisees didn't have the proper context to understand what Jesus was saying. Do we? When we read the creation passages, do we "get it?" When Christians adopt the young earth model of creation, are they reading it without context, without understanding?

Marston, in dealing with the persistent, out-of-context misreading of the creation narratives, somewhat humorously uses the work of the late Henry Morris, the grand dean of young earth creationism to illustrate how we interpret scripture almost without consciously knowing it. About the use of "days," Marston writes:
Morris allows the word ‘day’ in Gen 2:4 to mean ‘the whole period of creation’ i.e. six days, even though elsewhere he says that the word ‘never’ means a ‘definite period of time with a specific beginning and ending’.
This, of course, presents a problem because the YEC model clearly calls for six literal days. It is not enough that you can say "well, there was light out there and God created in the light." It reads "days." These problems are so obvious as to be almost facile. It is bad enough when you can pick the model apart because of the scientific inaccuracies. When you can point to theological inaccuracies as well, the model becomes even less credible. Marston heaps on example after example in which the text plainly cannot be taken literally without resulting in a lot of head-scratching.

The head scratching continues when we consider just how recent this warped misreading of the primeval history actually is. As Marston recounts:
Popular culture can hardly be expected to rightly understand Scripture. But how are we to explain the obsession with physical literalism that has infected a large sector of the church in modern times? The actual origins of this literalistic or young-earth creationist movement are well documented. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and the early years of Fundamentalism in the twentieth, it was virtually impossible to find any scientist or Bible teacher who thought the world was a few thousand years old and was made in seven literal days. The idea arose in the early twentieth century through the work of the Seventh Day Adventist George McCready Price. Price was inspired (as he says) by the words of the Adventist prophetess Ellen White, he insisted that the seven day cycle went back to creation and he formulated an elaborate alternative geology (although he had no scientific training) suggesting that all the strata were laid down in one flood. Ellen White, of course, had strongly attacked the early Fundamentalists for not keeping the Sabbath on Saturday, and none of the early Fundamentalists adopted Price’s system.
I would venture that most people that espouse the YEC model don't know exactly how it came about and the "Joseph Smith"-like characteristics that it entails. It is fair to say that Henry Morris and John Whitcomb launched the modern creationism movement by adapting the models of Price and marketing them to the evangelical Christian movement by linking them to proper scripture interpretation and pitting them against an increasingly secular culture. That the biological theory of evolution had been seen as part of that secular culture since the 1920s was just an added bonus and it was made the prime target.

Like Daniel Harlow's paper, this one is a real eye-opener and should be required reading for every Christian.

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Uko Zylstra on Christianity and Evolution

Dr. Zylstra is the Dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Calvin College, the eternal hotbed of progressive Christian thought, from which the writings of Davis Young, Howard van Till, Clarence Menninga and Terry Gray emanated in the 1970s and 1980s to shape the lives of theistic evolutionists everywhere. He has an editorial in Michigan Live on what it means to believe in God and yet also accept the evidence for evolution. He writes:
Often, as Christians and as scientists, we simply fall to our knees in gratitude for what God has revealed in nature and in his word, and in humility because of all we do not know. Yet as Christian scientists, we affirm the essential truth, revealed in the Scriptures and perceived through the eyes of faith, that God is the creator and sustainer of all things.

And we know that the created world is a form of God’s revelation to humankind.

For a biologist, this means the fossil record is a revelation that God has brought about a pattern of change throughout the history of God’s creation of living beings. Certainly, one basic feature God reveals in the fossil record is the world God created is a dynamic one with change (evolution) as a fundamental feature. This pattern of change is one of the basic meanings of evolution.
If I read my John Polkinghorne right, this is similar to his concept of a self-sustaining, evolving creation. This kind of thinking is in sharp contrast to that of people like creationist Todd Wood, who argues that a true walk with Jesus Christ renders the evidence of the natural world irrelevant. To my way of thinking (along with Polkinghorne, Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins and a whole host of other TEs) the evidence is almost as important as the walk with Christ because, as Miller put it, it reflects the mind of God. We can hardly walk with Christ and ignore his creation.

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Friday, January 08, 2010

Bornaviruses and Human Evolution

Wired has an article on a startling discovery in virology—that viruses other than retroviruses can attach themselves to their host DNA. Tina Hesman writes:
Bornaviruses, a type of RNA virus that causes disease in horses and sheep, can insert their genetic material into human DNA and first did so at least 40 million years ago, the study shows. The findings, published January 7 in Nature, provide the first evidence that RNA viruses other than retroviruses (such as HIV) can stably integrate genes into host DNA. The new work may help reveal more about the evolution of RNA viruses as well as their mammalian hosts.

“Our whole notion of ourselves as a species is slightly misconceived,” says Robert Gifford, a paleovirologist at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, affiliated with Rockefeller University in New York City. Human DNA includes genetic contributions from bacteria and other organisms, and humans have even come to rely on some of these genes for basic functions like fighting infections.
Retroviral segmants have been found to be involved in placental development as well and make up a sizable percentage of our DNA. I have posted about ERVs before, here and here. This just shows how "mutt"-like our DNA is and will certainly rattle some cages.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Americans United Goes on the Offensive Against Louisiana

Barry Lynn's group, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, has issued a sharp warning to the Louisiana Education Board. The article notes:

Due to lobbying by the Religious Right, Louisiana legislators approved a law in 2008 that allows for “supplemental materials” to be used in public school science classes. The Board has developed a policy for reviewing these materials that is seriously flawed, says Americans United.

“It’s obvious what’s going on here,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Louisiana elected officials are once again trying to undercut the teaching of evolution and slip creationism into science classes. This effort must fail.”

In a letter sent to the Board, Americans United warns that the proposed review policy is constitutionally suspect because it appears to open the door for creationist concepts to be taught in public schools.

The Board calls for allowing challenged materials to be reviewed by a panel that could easily be stacked with people sympathetic to creationism. It would bypass the expert opinion of the Louisiana Department of Education.

As much as I have no particular like for AU, I think they are correct about this. As was found out in Dover, members of the local school board wanted creationism taught in the public schools and didn't care how that happened, even if it meant deceit. The idea is simple: make it so hard to protest something that people will give up in resignation.

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Oldest Tetrapod Footprint Discovered in Poland

NewScientist has an article on the oldest tetrapod footprint yet discovered. Shanta Barley writes:
Tetrapod footprints dating back 397 million years have been discovered in the Świętokrzyskie mountains in southern Poland in what was, at the time they were made, a seashore. All previous fossil evidence for these earliest known four-limbed vertebrates has been found in river deltas and lakes.

"Our discovery suggests that the current scientific consensus is mistaken not only about when the first tetrapods evolved, but also about where they evolved," says Grzegorz Niedźwiedzki of the Department of Palaeobiology and Evolution at the University of Warsaw in Poland, who discovered the footprints in 2002 in an old quarry near the town of Kielce.
A bit later:
"It was assumed that tetrapods evolved in river deltas and lakes, partly because all previous fossil evidence has been found in these environments," says Jenny Clack, curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge, UK. "This research suggests that the first tetrapods that crawled onto land were, in fact, living in shallow seas."
The link to the Nature article appears to be free (for the moment). The article authors write:
Until now, the replacement of elpistostegids [animals like Tiktaalik and Panderichthys] by tetrapods in the body-fossil record during the mid–late Frasnian has appeared to reflect an evolutionary event, with the elpistostegids as a short-lived ‘transitional grade’ between fish and tetrapod morphotypes (Fig. 5a). In fact, tetrapods and elpistostegids coexisted for at least 10 million years (Fig. 5b). This implies that the elpistostegid morphology was not a brief transitional stage, but a stable adaptive position in its own right. It is reminiscent of the lengthy coexistence of non-volant but feathered and ‘winged’ theropod dinosaurs with volant stem-group birds during the Mesozoic.
One of the most exciting areas in palaeontology right now is the origin of the tetrapods. As with most scientific discoveries, this will answer a bunch of questions and pose even more.

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Off Topic? Danish Band to Release Charles Darwin-Influence Opera

New Musical Express, a trade magazine that I followed assiduously in the 1970s to track the likes of Yes, ELP and Genesis, has reported that the technopop band The Knife are planning to release an album derived from the music they wrote for the opera Tomorrow, In a Year, which is inspired by On the Origins of Species. The article has this to say:
The opera was commissioned by Danish performance group Hotel Pro Forma and is a collaboration between The Knife and Berlin-based acts Mt. Sims and Planningtorock.

Dreijer admitted that he had initially been struggled with the idea of working in an area he knew little about. "At first it was very difficult as we really didn't know anything about opera," he said. "We'd never been to one. I didn't even know what the word libretto meant.
I have downloaded the free song and will see what it sounds like. Interesting.

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Off-Topic: Way the Heck Out There!

Ron Cowen of Wired has an article on research to locate the furthest known (and therefore the oldest known) galaxies. The article focuses on three galaxies that have a red shift of over 10. He writes:
If the researchers are correct in the preliminary determination, then Hubble is seeing light that reveals the galaxies as they first appeared just 480 million years after the birth of the universe. (That light traveled for billions of years to reach Earth.) The radiation from such early galaxies played a crucial role, theorists believe, in reionizing the universe. That process breaks apart neutral atoms into electrons and ions, a process that enabled light from the first generation of stars to stream freely into space.

The astronomers caution that because the galaxies they found with Hubble are seen at only one wavelength, it’s not certain that the bodies are extremely distant; they could just be red and faint. “We certainly don’t have smoking gun evidence,” says study coleader Rychard Bouwens of the University of California, Santa Cruz. “We just have tantalizing evidence that suggests we may be identifying a few [extremely distant] galaxies.”
There is also the possibility that these three galaxies are not alone in their vast isolation:
Other teams, notably a group that includes Rogier Windhorst of Arizona State University in Tempe and Haojing Yan of Ohio State University in Columbus, reporting earlier on (, claimed to have found 20 galaxies at that same high redshift using the same data from the refurbished Hubble.

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Mariah Blake on Texas

Mariah Blake, writing for the Washington Monthly, has an article on Don McLeroy and the history of the creation/evolution controversy in Texas. She sheds some light on the subject that often gets buried during the struggle for the science:
Battles over textbooks are nothing new, especially in Texas, where bitter skirmishes regularly erupt over everything from sex education to phonics and new math. But never before has the board’s right wing wielded so much power over the writing of the state’s standards. And when it comes to textbooks, what happens in Texas rarely stays in Texas. The reasons for this are economic: Texas is the nation’s second-largest textbook market and one of the few biggies where the state picks what books schools can buy rather than leaving it up to the whims of local districts, which means publishers that get their books approved can count on millions of dollars in sales. As a result, the Lone Star State has outsized influence over the reading material used in classrooms nationwide, since publishers craft their standard textbooks based on the specs of the biggest buyers. As one senior industry executive told me, “Publishers will do whatever it takes to get on the Texas list.”

Until recently, Texas’s influence was balanced to some degree by the more-liberal pull of California, the nation’s largest textbook market. But its economy is in such shambles that California has put off buying new books until at least 2014. This means that McLeroy and his ultraconservative crew have unparalleled power to shape the textbooks that children around the country read for years to come.
While not being as objective as one would hope from an historical account such as this, it is a good read.

Hat tip to the NCSE.

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The Darwin Family Letters

The Universal Library has posted Emma Darwin: A Century of Family Letters 1792-1896, volume II online. Among the nuggets here, to his niece, Henrietta, Charles Darwin writes:

I was thinking of sending a scolding card when your note pacified me. Your news is not very cheerful, everyone ill, and I hope London will have a good effect upon your constitutions. Olivier has not as yet sent his remedies [concert tickets].

I have been reading Wallace in the Academy, and it seems to me there is a good deal to answer in it if possible. I think the way he carries on controversy is perfectly beautiful, and in future histories of science the WallaceDarwin episode will form one of the few bright points among rival claimants.…
Indeed, A.R. Wallace went back to his adopted home in Indonesia and continued to study island biogeography while Charles Darwin took natural selection and adapted and expanded the concept. Fascinating reading.

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Monday, January 04, 2010

The Trouble With Communicating Science

Chris Mooney of the Washington Post has an article on why science is such a hard sell. Using "climategate" as a backdrop, he writes:
The central lesson of Climategate is not that climate science is corrupt. The leaked e-mails do nothing to disprove the scientific consensus on global warming. Instead, the controversy highlights that in a world of blogs, cable news and talk radio, scientists are poorly equipped to communicate their knowledge and, especially, to respond when science comes under attack.
The problem here is two-fold. First, while there may, in fact, be a general consensus on global warming, these scientists behaved badly. There has been way too much documentation to suggest otherwise. That is what tarnished their reputation. Second, even if they hadn't behaved badly, the general public does have a dismal understanding of science, be it global warming, gravity or evolution. Mooney is correct about this.

According to Mooney, scientists have simply gotten to the point where they don't talk to the media or publicly debate their ideas because of this lack of understanding. This is certainly true within the creation/evolution debate, where creationists will often bring in buses of supporters to a debate, often overwhelming the scientist involved. The media is usually oblivious to this tilt. He continues:
They [scientists] no longer have that luxury. After all, global-warming skeptics suffer no such compunctions. What's more, amid the current upheaval in the media industry, the traditional science journalists who have long sought to bridge the gap between scientists and the public are losing their jobs en masse. As New York Times science writer Natalie Angier recently observed, her profession is "basically going out of existence." If scientists don't take a central communications role, nobody else with the same expertise and credibility will do it for them.
Daily, the Discovery Institute puts out editorials and bulletins attacking "Darwinists" despite the fact that no evolutionary biologists refers to themselves that way. To the DI, this is unimportant. The message is more important than the details. Kirk Cameron, under the auspices of Living Waters, has no formal training in biology yet feels qualified and compelled to shout from the rooftops that evolution is wrong.

Mooney states, correctly, that part of the problem could be solved if scientists who were also believers stood up and said something:
"Many Christians, including fundamentalists, can accept evolution as long as it is not attached to the view that life has no purpose," Karl Giberson, a Christian physicist and the author of "Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution," told me recently. "Human life has value, and any scientific theory that even appears to deny this central religious affirmation will alienate people of faith and create opportunity for those who would rally believers against evolution."

In other words, what's needed is less "pure science" on its own -- although of course scientists must continue to speak in scientifically accurate terms -- and more engagement with the concerns of nonscientific audiences. In response to that argument, many researchers will say: "Why target us? We're the good guys. And if we become more media savvy, we'll risk our credibility."
As long as the evolution debate is seen in moral and religious terms, the science will always be of secondary importance and scientists will succeed in getting the message across to no one. The other problem is that in any given conversation about the debate, how does the average scientist get someone up to speed on the concepts of allopatric speciation, homology, systematics, adaptive radiation and evolutionary development, just to name a few? Such concepts are central to evolutionary theory and most evolutionary biologists use them daily. John Q. Public has no idea what they mean and is somewhat disinclined to learn.

There is also the vociferous anti-evolution camp that either try to tear down the science in any way they can (sometimes dishonestly) or claim that believing in such things will lead to every imaginable sin and Hell. Creationist Todd Wood writes:
As a point of application, I think modern creationists would be much better served if we stopped coddling their every doubt and fear with new "evidence for creation" and instead helped to wean them off evidence altogether. A truly close Christian walk with Jesus should render evidence irrelevant. This is where we really want to be, not buffeted about by the wind and waves but confidently walking through the storm with our eyes fixed unwaveringly on Christ.
SLAM!! The mind of every scientist (including me) just slammed shut. Such a perspective is absolutely antithetical to scientists who view their task as studying and identifying the wonders of creation. Indeed, such a perspective is, even for Christians who are scientists, absurd. The universe IS God's creation. If it tells us something we don't like, are we simply to ignore it? That isn't science, it is pure religion, and your average scientist will accept the science and throw out the religion as being not worthy of his or her time. We cannot hope to reach people out there if we cannot portray science correctly and in such a way that it does not attack people's religious or moral values.

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2009 Darwin Award Winner

A story in the Chicago Tribune, by James Janega, recounts the events that led to the awarding of the 2009 Darwin Award, the award given to someone for removing themselves from the gene pool in, usually, amazingly stupid fashion. He writes:
The winner for 2009 was a rare Double Darwin, says Wendy Northcutt of the Darwin Awards, and is awarded for a crime gone awry in Belgium.

On Sept. 26, a pair of would-be thieves hatched a plan to withdraw cash from an ATM machine by using dynamite.

"They overestimated the quantity of dynamite needed for the explosion," the citation notes dryly. "The blast demolished the building the bank was housed in."

Rescue workers rushed one bomb burglar to the hospital, where he died on arrival.

They assumed the second got away until finding his body in the rubble hours later. No one else was in the building at the time of the blast.
For more unnatural negative selection, go here. The story about the moped driver is as much tragic as mind-bogglingly stupid.

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Top Ten Evolution/Creationism Stories of 2009

YaHind has reprinted a story from Newswise recounting the top ten stories involving creationism and evolution from the last year. There is not much that is new or that wasn't chronicled in this blog as well as quite a few others. A sample:
At number four is the report of the Texas Board of Education caving in to creationists, by amending the Biology and Earth and Space Sciences standards with loopholes and language that make it easy for creationists to attack science textbooks.

At number five is the state of Louisiana passing an act that opened the door to teaching the concept of creationism in public school science classes.

The state board of education of Louisiana passed guidelines which said that supplementary classroom materials can’t be rejected just because they include creationism.
As such, the list serves as a reminder that the skirmishes continue unabated.

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Friday, January 01, 2010

Top Fossil Stories of 2009

Foxnews has a list of the top fossil stories of 2009, the most obvious of which were Ida and Ardi. There are some others on the list that were interesting, though, like the Snake from Hell.

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Another "Beside the Point" Diatribe from the Discovery Institute

John West has written a column for the Discovery Institute's Evolution News & Views page in which he castigates the California Science Center's decision to not show Darwin's Dilemma: The Mystery of the Cambrian Fossil Record. He writes:
It’s amazing to me how many Darwinists are willing to embrace government censorship in order to prop up their favored theory. It’s equally amazing to me how few Darwinists understand the key difference between what private groups can do (they can sometimes discriminate based on viewpoint) and what government agencies are allowed to do (they must treat all citizens equally, regardless of viewpoint). These issues are coming out with full force in discussions spurred by the Los Angeles Times story this week highlighting the California Science Center’s censorship last October of a privately-sponsored screening of the pro-intelligent design film Darwin’s Dilemma: The Mystery of the Cambrian Fossil Record.

On a radio show this week, someone defended the Science Center’s censorship of Darwin’s Dilemma by equating intelligent design to Holocaust denial and arguing that the Science Center’s censorship was no different from the Simon Wiesenthal Center (a private group) denying someone permission to screen a Holocaust-denial film at its Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
Sure would be nice to know who that person was on the radio but since we don't have the relevant information, we cannot evaluate the claim. The NCSE also posted a story about the flap, as did the site ERV, the author of which writes this:
The cancellation of 'Darwins Dilemma' had everything to do with the DI press release. Because if you look at CSCs website, you can see, quite plainly, that they have to approve every PR release that mentions events hosted at CSC:
It is required that the Event Services Office approve, for technical and factual accuracy, all promotional materials mentioning the California Science Center produced for your event (including invitations, programs, press releases, etc.) prior to printing or broadcast. Please allow sufficient time for this approval.
Apparently, the DI is once again above silly 'laws' and 'contracts' us plebeians are expected to follow, thus they took it upon themselves to issue press releases without CSCs approval, violating the terms of CSCs contract.
To be sure, there was a great deal of heat and it may be that they were looking for an excuse to cancel the showing. Nonetheless, this is not a case of censorship, as the DI claims. West concludes his essay with this:
If you are a proponent of Darwin’s theory, I’d urge you to think long and hard about how far you are willing to go down the path of trashing the Constitution. Are you really willing to jettison the First Amendment in your obsession to shield Darwinian theory from scrutiny? Are you that insecure? Do you think that the evidence for your theory is so weak that you need to resort to government censorship to prevent anyone from even hearing another point of view?
Interestingly, at no point in this editorial, does West address why the scientific community is not supportive of the film. For one, there is evidence that the scientists interviewed for the film were questioned under false pretenses. The trailer for the film mentions interviews with Simon Conway Morris and James Valentine. Conway Morris is well known as a researcher in the Cambrian and an outspoken Christian. Laelaps recounts what Conway Morris says with regard to the interview for the film:
... I wouldn't know [how] they managed to obtain any such material nor if they did how they are able to use it without my permission. I certainly wouldn't give it ...
Secondly, does the content of the film belong in a science center? Biologist John Humphreys has a somewhat lengthy review of the film here. Here is what he thought of it:
To draw this novel length critique of Darwin’s Dilemma to a close, let me re-emphasize that although lacking historical accuracy, scientific legitimacy and professional integrity the film’s production value and underlying truth-manipulating strategy make it a dangerous opponent to education and reason. The people behind the film are dishonest, unethical and immoral; they lie, doctor evidence and misrepresent science as a whole. In the process of attacking evolution, they falsify history and tear down the sciences of geology and chemistry.

Though they are fundamentalists and propagandists, they are also cunning and well funded… Take caution.
Read the entire review. He is quite specific and quite damning in his charges. And they all stick like glue. Putting the theory of evolution to scrutiny is one thing. Distorting and lying about it (there are no transitional fossils, evolution can come up with no new information) is something else. Even without the contractual problems, such a film doesn't belong in a "science center." Reasoned discourse is perfectly fine but not when one side continually lies about the evidence.

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