Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Daily Kos Poll Data Faked

I have used two stories on this site that came from polls done by the Daily Kos. Now it turns out that the company that the Daily Kos used for its polling was faking the data. TechDirt has this to say:
You may have heard by now that the political website Daily Kos has come out and explained that it believes the polling firm it has used for a while, Research 2000, was faking its data. While it's nice to see a publication come right out and bluntly admit that it had relied on data that it now believes was not legit, what's fascinating if you're a stats geek is how a team of stats geeks figured out there were problems with the data. As any good stats nerd knows, the concept of "randomness" isn't quite as random as some people think, which is why faking randomness almost always leads to tell-tale signs that the data was faked or manipulated. For example, one very, very common test is to use Benford's Law to look at the first digit of data in a data set, because in a truly random set, the distribution is not what people usually expect.
The two stories I used were on this post and this one. Sorry if I inadvertently misled anyone. Interestingly, several researchers, including the great statistician R.A. Fisher, have suggested strongly that the father of inheritance studies, Gregor Mendel, cooked his data. Piegorsch1 writes this:
Part of Fisher's effort in the reconciliation of Mendelism and (biometric) Darwinism was the recognition that only superficial scientific scrutiny had been directed at Mendel's article by both its proponents and opponents (Box, 1978, p. 297). By the early 1930s, Fisher had undertaken to critically review Mendel's original article, going further-in a sense-than those earlier researchers. His conclusions included an astonishing calculation: Mendel's data appeared to fit his own expectations and proposed theories far better than expected by chance alone. The quality of the data (but not the theory itself), and even Mendel's historical reputation were soon called into question by the scientific community. Ironically, after reconciling one scientific controversy on the effects of heredity in evolution, Fisher's research helped spark another!
This is a controversy that continues to this day. It has been mitigated somewhat by the fact that most of Mendel's theoretical constructs with regard to inheritance turned out to be true.

1Piegorsch, W. (1990). "Fisher's contributions to genetics and heredity, with special emphasis on the Gregor Mendel controversy." Biometrics 46(4): 915-924.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Colin Groves: The Debate About Homo floresiensis Is Over!

In the Journal of Comparative Human Biology, Colin Groves has done analyses that he claims firmly debunks the idea that the Homo floresiensis remains from the island of Flores are cretins. The story, from OneIndia, reports:
Groves compared the Flores bones with those of 10 people who'd had cretinism, focusing on anatomical features that are typical of the disease.

He found no overlap.

Groves' research appears in the journal of [sic] Journal of Comparative Human Biology.

Previously, researchers William Jungers and Karen Baab, both from Stony Brook University Medical Center in New York, studied the skeletal remains of the female (LB1), nicknamed "Little Lady of Flores" or "Flo" to confirm the evolutionary path of the hobbit species.
I suspect that the debate is not over, simply because this set of remains is so odd when compared to the remainder of the human fossil assemblage.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Creationism in Australia: An Update

The Australian has an article on the teaching of creationism in New South Wales. According to the story:
STUDENTS at one NSW school were told by an untrained scripture teacher they would "burn in hell" if they didn't believe in Jesus

And, elsewhere in the state, children at other schools were given creationism showbags. A survey by Sydney's Macquarie University also found 70 per cent of scripture teachers think children should be taught the Bible as historical fact and 80 per cent believe students should not be exposed to non-Christian beliefs.

The survey found a group of scripture volunteers were distributing kits called "Creation For Kids" containing colouring books, calendars and DVDs deriding evolution and claiming that the universe was only 6000 years old.
There is no link to the survey so it is not clear just exactly what questions were asked, nor is it clear what kind of sample was used. It is sad that these groups seem bound and determined to link their Gospel message with creationism. That is sort of like a practicing dentist admitting he believes in the tooth fairy. The credibility goes out the window and the entire message is lost.

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ICR Loses Suit

The Institute For Creation Research has lost a suit to the Texas Higher Education Board, which denied the organization's request to grant master's degrees in science education. As the NCSE reports:
The issue was not, strictly speaking, about accreditation, but about temporary state certification, which would have enabled the ICR graduate school to operate while it sought accreditation. When in California, the ICR graduate school was accredited by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, which requires candidate institutions to affirm a list of Biblical Foundations, including "the divine work of non-evolutionary creation including persons in God's image." TRACS is not recognized by the state of Texas, however, and after the ICR moved from Santee, California, to Dallas, Texas, the ICR expressed its intention to seek accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
This was the out for the court. That way, as the NCSE site explains, there would be no construal of anti-religious sentiment by the court. On a scientific note, many breathed a sigh of relief when this decision was rendered. While the decision was legally-based, that ICR simply is not qualified to issue masters degrees in science education as long as what comes out of the ICR isn't science. This becomes clear when reading their posts about new scientific discoveries (see here ). The ICR says they will appeal the verdict.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Thoughts From Kansas

I have added Josh Rosenau's site, Thoughts from Kansas, to the blog role. I go to the site regularly and he is often quite insightful and pithy.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

More Trouble in Northern Ireland

Sophie Deboick writes for the Guardian that the young earth creation groups in Ireland are creating controversy. In her editorial, Creationist Claims in Northern Ireland, she retells the tale of Nelson McCausland's letter to the National Museum asking them to restyle their exhibits to include creationism. It now seems he did not act alone:
However, shortly after the letter was made public, the Caleb Foundation, a group which "promotes the fundamentals of the historic evangelical Protestant faith", revealed that it had previously met the minister to discuss the presentation of evolution in the Ulster Museum's nature zone exhibits. They called this "wholly misleading propaganda" and claimed they were responsible for the content of the minister's letter.
The Caleb Foundation the went on the offensive:
In an attempt to intensify the controversy, the Caleb Foundation announced last week that they had met with tourism minister Arlene Foster to discuss the new visitor centre proposed for the Giant's Causeway. Mervyn Storey had already criticised the information boards at the Causeway, which state that the rock formation is 60m years old, conflicting with the creationist belief that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, and the chairman of the foundation, Wallace Thompson, said "All we are asking for is that the views that we hold, which are based on the word of God, are at least respected and taken on board".
This is similar to the attempts made in the US to grant creationism and ID credence in the schools. Here it is the "academic freedom," "teach the controversy," or "learn the full range of scientific views" buzz words that people use to attract people to the cause. The point, as alluded to by Ms. Deboick is, why should we take these ideas on board? They have no merit scientifically and it would be inappropriate to place them in science museums. That one third of the population in Ireland believe that the earth was created six thousand years ago is beside the point. A whole bunch of people also think that Elvis is still alive. That doesn't make it so.

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New 3.6 Million Year Old A. afarensis Remains

Science Daily reports that Yohannes Haile-Selassie's team in Ethiopia have found the remains of a 3.6 million year old Australopithecus afarensis individual that preserves enough of the post-cranium (below the head) to determine that bipedalism had completely taken hold of this species by this time. Of the individual, which is taller than Lucy (AL-288), he says this:
"As a result of this discovery, we can now confidently say that Lucy and her relatives were almost as proficient as we are walking on two legs, and that the elongation of our legs came earlier in our evolution than previously thought," he said in a statement. He explained, "
"All of our understanding of Australopithecus afarenis' locomotion was dependent on 'Lucy.' Because she was an exceptionally small female with absolutely short legs, this gave some researchers the impression that she was not fully adapted to upright walking. This new skeleton falsifies that impression because if 'Lucy's' frame had been as large as this specimen, her legs would also have been proportionally longer."
There is, thus, considerable variability in A. afarensis (this may yet revive the multiple species hypothesis that was put forth in the late 1970s about this material) This finding is expected, however, if the tracks at Laetoli are those of A. afarensis. We have good evidence that those are the tracks of a completely bipedal hominid.

If Ardipithecus ramidus ('Ardi') represents an ancestor to Australopithecus afarensis, then a considerable amount of evolution in bipedality occurred within 800 k years. A check of PNAS reveals that the paper is not out yet, but should be in a few days. Within the context of the debate concerning Ardipithecus' place on the fossil bush and the status of the reconstruction, it is important to remember what Owen Lovejoy wrote concerning Ardipithecus:
Ardipithecus ramidus now reveals that the early hominid evolutionary trajectory differed profoundly from those of our ape relatives from our clade’s very beginning. Ar. ramidus was already well-adapted to bipedality, even though it retained arboreal capabilities. Its postcranial anatomy reveals that locomotion in the chimpanzee/human last common ancestor (hereafter the CLCA) must have retained generalized above-branch quadrupedality, never relying sufficiently on suspension, vertical climbing, or knuckle walking to have elicited any musculoskeletal adaptations to these behaviors.
It is clear that, by 3.6 million years ago, those arboreal tendencies were gone. While it is still being debated whether or not Ardipithecus developed bipedality in the forest or in the forest fringe, the dessication of the landscape continued during the late Pliocene, and the remains of Kadanuumuu strongly suggest that early A. afarensis had completely adapted to this landscape.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

British Biologists on the Offensive

The Telegraph has a story that follows on the heels of the flap over in Ireland about the museum displays and the school choice debate in England, in which a group of biologists have signed a letter urging the teaching of evolution in primary schools. Martin Beckford writes:
Experts including three Nobel laureates and Richard Dawkins, the prominent atheist, are calling on the new Government to make teaching of the theory a compulsory part of the curriculum.

They say it is necessary because of the increasing number of schools that do not have to follow the curriculum, and because of the “threat” posed by the religious concept of creationism.

It comes after two proposals to ensure pupils are taught Darwin’s theory of natural selection were dropped, one by Labour and the other by the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition.

The 26 signatories to the letter sent to Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, say they are “deeply concerned that evolution and science form a core part of any revised primary curriculum”.

They wrote: “Evolution is the most important idea underlying biological science. It is a key concept that children should be introduced to at an early stage.
I am not sure I agree. I went to a secular school and, as I remarked over at Steve Martin's blog, did not encounter a young earth creationist until I came to the United States. Nonetheless, I did not have organized teaching on evolution until I reached high school biology and yet had no trouble incorporting it into what I had been taught about biology and botany up until that point. You can teach the relatedness of plants and animals and the structure of the world without necessarily promoting evolution as the proximate cause in primary school.

The other reason I am not sure I agree is that I am especially leery of any curriculum that has Dawkins' stamp on it, simply because he is so anti-religious. Evolution education has to be done in such a way that, unlike what goes on in Christian schools and home school material, there is not a false dichotomy set up, urging students to choose either belief in God or evolution. That would be unconscionable.

On the other hand, I certainly agree that students should not be taught young earth creationism. That is teaching them "Christian folk science" that is demonstrably false. It is also setting them up for a devastating conflict when they do reach university in which their faith will be severely tested.

This is a battleground that is now being fought all over the world, with mixed results. No telling how it will turn out.

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Oldest Known Mammalian Tooth Marks

Science Daily is reporting on the finding of the oldest known tooth marks left by a mammal. They write:
The researchers believe the marks were made by mammals because they were created by opposing pairs of teeth -- a trait seen only in mammals from that time. They think they were most likely made by multituberculates, an extinct order of archaic mammals that resemble rodents and had paired upper and lower incisors. Several of the bones display multiple, overlapping bites made along the curve of the bone, revealing a pattern similar to the way people eat corn on the cob.
So by the late Cretaceous, mammals were considering some dinosaurs food. There is a good deal of suspicion that these were done by scavenging rather than predation—a squirrel-sized rodent would not ordinarily take on a five-foot dinosaur with teeth.

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Friday, June 18, 2010

CNN on Evolution

CNN's Wendy Atterbery, who runs an advice column on CNN has a look at the evolution controversy titled I believe in evolution, he doesn't. That such a program is on national news is a growing indication that this debate is no longer confined to the public school board rooms and churches. They begin:
Dear Wendy:

I have been dating my boyfriend for about three months. We get along great and he would do anything for me. We just have one problem. He doesn't believe in evolution and I very passionately do. We got in a discussion about it, which quickly turned into a huge fight...So I guess what I am asking is how do I broach this topic in a manner that doesn't turn into a huge argument? Should I just accept that we may never agree on the topic and try to get over it?
-- The "Mad" Scientist
Wendy replies:
Dear "Mad" Scientist:

You need to decide on a couple of things here, Ms. First, is it a boyfriend you want or a student? Because you can't have both.

If it's the former, you need to decide how important it is that your partner's beliefs align with your own. We aren't talking about a casual interest in the Yankees versus a vague support for the Red Sox here.

Evolution and creationism are beliefs that are at the basis for entire life philosophies, values, and behavior. They can be the lens through which people view their world, particularly if they're very passionate about their beliefs, as you say you and your boyfriend are.
Well, remind me never to to go Wendy for advice, since this is truly atrocious. Evolution is not a "belief" of any kind and the hypothetical boyfriend/girlfriend have been set up in the worst straw man argument in the entire controversy, that acceptance of evolution and God is an either/or proposition. It is not. What is truly amazing, however, is the infantile nature of the comments to the story. Very few actually dealt with the nature of the disagreement. Does this reflect the fact that most people don't care? or is it an indictment of the lack of education about this topic in the general public (including the columnist, herself)? Probably a bit of both.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Answers in Genesis on the Neandertal Genome

I missed this a month back. AIG weighed in on the sequencing of the Neandertal Genome here. If you will recall, it was found by Svante Paabo and colleagues that Neandertals appear to have contributed at least 4% of their DNA to modern humans, thus strongly suggesting that the speciation event in sub-Saharan Africa that gave rise to modern humans was not total, with at least some interbreeding between the two groups. The article by Layman, reads thus:

The news doesn’t surprise young-earth creationists, who predicted overlap between modern human and Neanderthal genomes. Based on Scripture, creationists consider Neanderthals to have been fully human, descendants of Adam and Eve (through Noah), and therefore they would have lived in the same time and place as other humans. But factors related to both the dispersion at Babel and environmental pressures afterward resulted in people groups with different physical characteristics, including humans with “Neanderthal” characteristics.

Liberty University cell biologist (and creationist) David DeWitt called the research an “amazing feat” of science that supports creationist expectations. “Finding Neanderthal DNA in humans was not expected by evolutionists, but it was predicted from a creation standpoint because we have said all along that Neanderthals were fully human: descendants of Adam and Eve, just like us,” he told News to Note.

There is no explanation as to why this finding would "not be expected by evolutionists." There are quite a few models that would welcome this sort of explanation. It is only unexpected if you are unfamiliar with the data or the models. As for whether Neandertals were "fully human," there is a problem with that: Neandertals aren't fully human. That is the source of the controversy in the first place. Many anthropologists regard them as a separate species of human based on their distinctness from modern humans.

The Neandertals represented a distinct European and Near Eastern variant of what has become known as "archaic Homo sapiens." This is a grade of Homo sapiens that existed after Homo erectus/ergaster but before true Homo sapiens, which are decidedly different. As biological anthropologist Dave Frayer has pointed out, there is not a single person alive that has the full suite of Neandertal characteristics. For example, in the following diagram, it is clear that there are sharp differences between these two hominid forms.

Several things are immediately apparent in this comparison. The modern human individual has much reduced ridges over the eyes, a much more vaulted forehead, a smaller nose opening, a shorter, higher cranium, smaller teeth and more forward-placed cheek bones.

There are those that argue, however, that the earliest modern humans have traits that are holdovers from the preceding Neandertals. And for those of us that hold to this perspective, this finding was perfectly expected. The last Neandertals date to around 30 thousand years ago and this overlaps with the earliest modern humans, which date to between 34 and 37 thousand years. At the point of this overlap, the earliest moderns, which are likely migrants from the Near East, either mated with the Neandertals or replaced them. While there has been evidence from the crania of the earliest moderns that some degree of interpopulational mating has occurred, the DNA evidence has largely supported the replacement idea. Svante Paabo's evidence changes that.

Anthropologist Richard Klein has stated that he doesn't see how any modern human would have found a Neandertal attractive enough to mate with. What the findings from the Neandertal genome show us is that two very different groups of people met somewhere in Europe between 30 and 40 thousand years ago and that some of the moderns did find the Neandertals suitable as mates. But modern human the Neandertals certainly were not.

P.S. Why don't sites like AIG and the Discovery Institute allow comments by readers? It would have been nice to simply point this out on the AIG site.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Pete Enns and Noah's Flood

Pete Enns over at BioLogos has an intriguing set of posts on the Noachian flood and its relationship to the flood of Gilgamesh and that of Atrahasis. Part one is here. In the first post, he reminds us of some things about the three flood stories that make many Christians uncomfortable:
The following summarizes the similarities:

* a flood and building a huge boat by divine command;
* pitch seals the boat;
* the boat is built to precise dimensions (the biblical boat is much larger);
* clean and unclean animals come on board;
* a Noah figure and his family are saved (Gilgamesh includes some others);
* the boat comes to rest on a mountain;
* a raven and doves were sent out (Gilgamesh includes a swallow);
* animals will fear humans;
* the deity/deities smell the pleasing aroma of the sacrifices afterwards;
* a sign of an oath is given (lapis lazuli necklace for Gilgamesh).

These similarities suggest that the three stories are related in some way. As mentioned above, Gilgamesh seems to have a direct literary tie to Atrahasis. Some scholars also feel that the episode of the birds in Genesis 8:6-12 is dependent on Gilgamesh.
For many Christians in the evangelical community, addressing the flood story in this manner dilutes the true word of God and borders on heresy. Creationists such as Larry Vardimann, the late Henry Morris, Todd Wood and many others view this story as having happened exactly as written. Of course, exactly as written means some embellishing in the process. For example, in their Noah's Ark FAQ, Answers in Genesis has this to say:
Noah’s Flood was much more destructive than any 40-day rainstorm ever could be. Scripture says that the “fountains of the great deep” broke open. In other words, earthquakes, volcanoes, and geysers of molten lava and scalding water were squeezed out of the earth’s crust in a violent, explosive upheaval. These fountains were not stopped until 150 days into the Flood—so the earth was literally churning underneath the waters for about five months! The duration of the Flood was extensive, and Noah and his family were aboard the Ark for over a year.
That such an account is clearly contradicted by all of the available evidence is no matter to those that hold it dear. Such a reading has always been a curious thing to me. As is clear, the theological importance of the flood story is paramount in that, as the belief goes, if God didn't want us to obey his every word, he would not have written it down this way. Never mind that the account was written down over 2500 years ago and had specific meaning for the people in the region. As It is as if the story is being interpreted in a cultural and historic vacuum, and that the words themselves, rather than their meaning is of the greatest importance. Here there is a confusion between theological meaning and literal meaning. Both are viewed as the same thing. As Daniel Harlow wrote:
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.
Such a lurid account as that described by AIG views the Genesis 6-8 story in clearly a different way than most Biblical scholars do. As Enns alludes to in his second post, such a reading is one-dimensional and robs the story of its meaning. Just what is its meaning, though? To elucidate this, he reminds us of the "world" before the flood:
Divine and human creatures occupy different space in the created order; they are different types of beings with different realms. Cohabitation between them obliterates the boundaries established at creation. In other words, cohabitation was an act of rebellion, but not against slave labor as we see in Atrahasis. It was an “anti-creation” move. It willfully injected dis-order/chaos, into the created order. God responds in kind by bringing the full force of chaos back to the created order: the waters of chaos collapse back onto the inhabited world.
This is an idea also floated some years back by Ronald Hendel1 in his paper "When the sons of God cavorted with the daughters of men," an excellent extrapolation on the passage in Deuteronomy 32:8, which has in recent centuries been rendered thus:
When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
when he divided all mankind,

he set up boundaries for the peoples

according to the number of the sons of Israel
In the Masoretic text and the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, the last phrase is rendered "Sons of God," and, according to Hendel, this appears to have been the historic reading. In Hendel's paper, the existence of the Nephilim was problematic and led to a confusing order from God to human. Thus, He decided to reestablish the cosmic order by wiping them out. This, then becomes the whole point of the story. Whether or not there was a world-wide flood becomes almost irrelevant. Enns continues:
The Israelites adapted the well-known ancient Near Eastern flood motif. The similarities are clear and universally accepted by biblical scholars. But Israel did not just copy a story—instead it made it its own. The old story—with its ancient ways of thinking about the cosmos—became a new vehicle for talking about their God and what made him different.
It also clearly delineated the place of humanity. Not only were we not gods, but our very existence was indebted to the one God: YHWH and it is only through his Son that we have salvation. It further separates the one God that is just and fair and holy from the petty, selfish, capricious gods of the Near Eastern religions. When understood in this context, the flood story makes perfect sense. When interpreted as a literal deluge with all of its myriad unanswered questions, it simply causes confusion and doubt for those that look beneath the surface.

1Hendell, R (1993) When the sons of God cavorted with the daughters of men. In Shanks, H. Understanding the Dead Sea scrolls: a reader from the Biblical archaeology review, Vintage. pp. 167-180

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Jews Found to be a Distinct Ethnic Group

Two new studies by several researchers have suggested that the children of Abraham really are related. Of the first study, the New York Post reports:
Researchers say the study, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, puts to rest age-old questions about whether Jews are a group of unrelated people who share a religious ideology or a distinct ethnicity with common ancestry.

“The debate is over,” said Dr. Edward R. Burns, one of the lead authors of the study. “The Jewish people are one people with a common genetic thread that evolved in the second or third century BC.”

The study, “Abraham’s Children in the Genome Era,” compared the genetic analyses of 237 Jews, including Sephardic (Middle Eastern) and Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews — as well as an analysis of 418 non-Jews worldwide, and found that the Jews were more closely related to each other than to their fellow countrymen.
The first thing that struck me about the story is that the last time that I heard someone say "The debate is over," it was Al Gore, speaking about global warming. Such language is not often heard from a scientist, for good reason. Often, if someone says that, the debate is far from over.

The second thing is that, as Genesis reports, God promised Abraham that his descendants would be like the stars in the sky in number. 237 Jews gives new meaning to the word "sample." While it is true that other studies have largely corroborated this one (Ostrer, 2001, Nebel, 2001)1, clearly more work needs to be done.

Since it is the New York Post, a political note needs to be interjected:
The study — and a second genetic study published Friday in the journal Nature — scientifically undermines arguments made by those who challenge Jews’ historical relationship to Israel, such as former White House correspondent Helen Thomas, who resigned last week after saying Jews in Israel should “go home” to Germany, Poland and the United States.

Turns out, the Jews in Israel are already there.

1Ostrer, H. (2001). "A genetic profile of contemporary Jewish populations." Nature Reviews Genetics 2(11): 891-898.

Nebel, A., D. Filon, et al. (2001). "The Y chromosome pool of Jews as part of the genetic landscape of the Middle East." The American Journal of Human Genetics 69(5): 1095-1112.

Friday, June 11, 2010

And Lo, It Was Hot...

ScienceDaily is reporting on some research in the Turkana Basin, the area where many early hominid fossils have been found, has been a scorching place for at least 3 million years. They write:
Their findings -- which were based on measurements of the spatial distribution and concentrations of isotopes in carbonate ions -- are being reported this week in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). "When you measure the temperature of the ground, you learn a lot about the environment above it," says John Eiler, Robert P. Sharp Professor of Geology and professor of geochemistry at Caltech. In fact, he says, soil temperature tells you not just about air temperature, but about whether there were trees and plants to shade the soil, keeping temperatures cooler during the hottest part of the day.
It is suggested that these kinds of conditions, in which the forests retreated led to the earliest hominids trying to minimize their heat exposure. This would have been done two ways: sweating and walking upright.

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Thursday, June 10, 2010


That's Japanese for "Let's eat!" Taragana is reporting on research done on early hominids to determine what they ate. The answer:
Our early ancestors, living in what is now northern Kenya, feasted on fish and other aquatic animals such as turtles and crocodiles - foods which probably played a major role in the development of a larger, more human-like brain, new research reveals.

The study, which offers the first-ever evidence of dietary variety among early pre-humans, appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A team of researchers that included Johns Hopkins University geologist has found that early hominids living in what is now northern Kenya ate a wider variety of foods than previously thought, including fish and aquatic animals such as turtles and crocodiles. Rich in protein and nutrients, these foods may have played a key role in the development of a larger, more human-like brain in our early forebears, which some anthropologists believe happened around 2 million years ago, according to the researchers’ study.
It takes quite a bit of intelligence to incorporate all of those different kinds of foods into a single diet. It is always interesting to see a report like this that basically ends "they were smarter than we thought."

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Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Josh Rosenau Thinks that Southerners are Crazy

Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas relays the results of a new poll by Marcos Moulitsas, the runner of the Daily Kos, in which southerners poll differently from the rest of the nation in a question about date of the origin of the universe. The question was:
Most astronomers believe the universe formed about 13.7 billion years ago in a massive event called the Big Bang. Do you think that's about right or do think the universe was created much more recently?
Here are the results he got in a poll of 1200 people:


The huge problem here, of course, is that even in the original poll on the Daily Kos site, "much more recently" is not defined and might mean different things to different people. Some might think it was created eight billion years ago, which is much more recent than 13.7. Some might subscribe to "last Thursday-ism" (appearance of age). Some might be young earth creationists. There is simply no way of knowing exactly what people think here. Is it bigger or smaller than a breadbox? This is very inexact. Southerners might be crazy, or they might not know what the poller means by the question.

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Monday, June 07, 2010

Steve Matheson Writes an Open Letter to Stephen Meyer

Steve Matheson has posted on his blog an open letter to Stephen Meyer following their colloquium/debate at Biola University. Subsequent to the event, a posting on the Discovery Institute's blog Evolution News and Views claimed that Dr. Matheson had conceded that design was the best explanation for origins of life questions. In a previous post, he writes that this isn't so. Here, he takes the gloves off:
Your Discovery Institute is a horrific mistake, an epic intellectual tragedy that is degrading the minds of those who consume its products and bringing dishonor to you and to the church. It is for good reason that Casey Luskin is held in such extreme contempt by your movement's critics, and there's something truly sick about the pattern of attacks that your operatives launched in the weeks after the Biola event. It's clear that you have a cadre of attack dogs that do this work for you, and some of them seem unconstrained by standards of integrity. I can't state this strongly enough: the Discovery Institute is a dangerous cancer on the Christian intellect, both because of its unyielding commitment to dishonesty and because of its creepy mission to undermine science itself. I'd like to see you do better, but I have no such hope for your institute. It needs to be destroyed, and I will do what I can to bring that about.
As Glenn Reynolds would say: Ouch! It is quite clear that those writing for the Discovery Institute have a fairly minimal grasp on the discipline (evolution) that they so seek to denigrate. This is clear from the writings of William Dembski, Michael Behe, Jonathan Marks, Jonathan Wells and Philip Johnson. It is also true that many posts or press releases from the Discovery Institute are either misleading or false (here, here, here, here and here just to name a few). All told, this gives one pause as to whether this organization is really involved whatever in a scientific enterprise and that it seeks to address the debate in an honest way.

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Sunday, June 06, 2010

Martin Gardner Has Died

This is slightly off-topic but it is with sadness that I discovered that Martin Gardner, one of the best science writers in the history of the business has died at the age of 95. It was his book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, that largely got me interested in science and in thinking about some of the notions that people took for granted that simply weren't so. The Telegraph writes:
In more than 70 books, Gardner produced lay guides to Einstein's Theory of Relativity; ambidexterity and physical symmetry; the bath plug vortex (the phenomenon by which bathwater in the northern hemisphere drains in an anticlockwise direction and clockwise in the southern hemisphere); and even the concept of God. He also published fiction, poetry and literary and film criticism as well as puzzle books.

In The Numerology of Dr Matrix (1967) Gardner investigated links between numerals and the occult, asking (for example) what is special about the number 8,549,176,320? (A: It is the 10 natural integers arranged in the order of the English alphabet.)
He will be missed.

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Saturday, June 05, 2010

Casey Luskin on Ardipithecus

Casey Luskin thinks that Ardipithecus is "washed up." He writes:
In some ways, the career of a missing link mirrors the career of the celebutante. They break onto the scene with much fanfare and hype. Everyone is wowed—or at least, everyone pretends to be wowed so nobody can be accused of ruining the party. Besides, she’s useful for advancing lots of agendas. After a little while, people realize that the star doesn’t have all the talent everyone hoped for.
It is a little discouraging for a writer to use the phrase "missing link" when the idea has been so discredited for decades in the world of science. Palaeontologists have known for years that there is no such thing as a missing link. Recent phylogenetic systematic studies have further solidified this idea. Casey Luskin knows better. Onward. He continues:

Last fall “Ardi” came onto the missing link scene with a bang. The journal Science called her the “breakthrough of the year.” So did Time Magazine. We covered a few lone dissenters to the Ardi hype here on ENV.

But now Time Magazine is starting to go over apex of the hype curve. In an article titled, “ Ardi: The Human Ancestor Who Wasn't?,” Time notes, “Two new articles being published by Science question some of the major conclusions of Ardi's researchers, including whether this small, strange-looking creature is even a human ancestor at all.” Likewise, Nature reports, “Ardi may be more ape than human.”
White defends his analysis of Ardipithecus thus:
In an e-mail exchange with TIME, he says, "Dr. Sarmiento's views appear to be uniquely his own. Most notable in Dr. Sarmiento's comment is his refusal to recognize as significant the multiple and independently derived features of the Ardipithecus cranium, dentition, and postcranial skeleton. These features uniformly align this primate with all later hominids to the exclusion of any other ape — living or fossil. Has Dr. Sarmiento shown how the Ardipithecus evidence better fits his interpretation than the one we published? Not here."
White is not quite correct here. John Hawks also has similar misgivings, at least about the pelvis. He writes, in his blog:
During the seven months since I first detailed what I see as weak points in the pelvic description, I've become less and less persuaded that the pelvic features reflect any hominin-like locomotor adaptations in Ardipithecus. There are many unresolved functional issues, which obscure the phylogenetic relations between living and fossil apes. Ardi makes every tree less parsimonious, no matter which branch we put her on. Shoe-horning her into the hominins doesn't solve many problems, and creates some intractable ones.

I find myself calling her an ape.

Luskin, therefore, is not overstating his case. He concludes:
Discover Magazine is now saying "The bones of our ancestors do not speak across time with ultimate clarity." That's an understatement--but given how everyone previously fawned over Ardi's "missing link" status, could it be that there is more than mere science driving the promotion of these missing links?
This statement is neatly countered, however, by the last paragraph of the Time article:
While Sarmiento regards the hype around Ardi to have been overblown, Cerling says he still feels the discovery and re-creation of the ancient specimen to be a monumental breakthrough. But, he says, the science was in the evidence collected by White and colleagues, and not in their conclusions. "Many students will thoroughly examine the data and will come to their own independent evaluations," he says. In other words, science works a bit like evolution, and asking whether Ardi will survive as a major advancement is rather like going into the distant past and asking what the fate of her species would be: Only time will tell.
There is obviously considerable uncertainty in determining exactly what kind of ancestor Ardipithecus was to later hominids, if she was at all. As with every hominid species that has been discovered, only through painstaking analysis of the fossils will we be able to tell where she fits. I am reminded by the argument by Marcelin Boule that the Neandertal remains of La Chapelle-aux-Saints represented those of a pathological specimen of modern human. Given the wealth of Neandertal discoveries since then, we now know that Boule was wrong. It is still too early to tell if White and colleagues are right or wrong about Ardipithecus.

However, despite the fact that Ardipithecus may not be the hominid ancestor that we thought she was, she was at least an ape with derived characteristics toward the hominid line. While Ardipithecus may not have the "star power" we thought she would, she is a very important find, nevertheless.

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Friday, June 04, 2010

More Trouble for John Freshwater

The lawyer for John Freshwater, the Ohio teacher accused of teaching creationism in class and branding a student with a cross, has come under fire from the judge in the case. Dean Narcisco of the Columbus Dispatch writes:
R. Kelly Hamilton had told Judge Gregory L. Frost that he threw away a computer holding some of the information sought when pipes burst at his office, according to the federal order.

Hamilton also failed to provide billing records related to affidavits prepared for Freshwater's administrative hearing. That hearing, to help determine whether Freshwater will keep his public teaching job, is expected to end Tuesday.

The order indicates Frost's irritation at Hamilton's behavior."Then Hamilton, again the victim of a notable lack of luck, failed to appear at the hearing to explain himself because he suffered not one but two flat tires on the drive to the courthouse," wrote Frost in the order of sanctions released this week.
Hope the case, itself, goes better for him.

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Thursday, June 03, 2010

Karl Giberson: Atheists, it's Time to Play Well With Others.

Karl Giberson has written an article for USA Today on the necessity of civil discourse concerning the evolution debate. He writes:
Few idiosyncrasies are more perplexing than the ways people connect science and religion. Widespread rejection of evolution, to take a familiar example, has created a crisis in education, and it now appears that biology texts might be altered to satisfy anti-evolutionary activists in Texas. Many on the textbook commission believe their religion is incompatible with scientific explanations of origins — evolution and the Big Bang — so they want textbooks with more accommodating theories and different facts.

Understandably, many thoughtful and well-educated people, believers and non-believers alike, find this unacceptable. Most of these critics emphasize that informed religious belief — even conservative evangelicalism with its insistence on an inerrant Bible — can accommodate modern science, including evolution. Leading Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke made this argument recently and was driven by theological gatekeepers to resign from his seminary. But Waltke was immediately snapped up by a similar seminary, indicating that partial thawing has begun even on the frozen waters of fundamentalism.
The thawing that Karl mentions does not immediately seem self-evident, given that there are many more stories about townsfolk or school boards being indignant about the teaching of evolution than there are stories of acceptance of it. I certainly hope that he is correct that the seminaries are becoming more open to the idea of acceptance of evolution because the large anti-evolution organizations and their followers sure aren't. These are becoming increasingly insular in their attitudes and teachings and are becoming, as Waltke wrote and as Karl reminds us, "a cult." I am still exploring the possibility that this YEC viewpoint constitutes a heresy.

For this article, though, he focuses on the "new atheists," who seek the purging of religious belief from society. These include Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and P.Z. Myers, to name a few. Each has vocally argued that people that practice science cannot have religious sensibilities and be credible scientists. To this, Karl writes:
There is something profoundly un-American about demanding that people give up cherished, or even uncherished, beliefs just because they don't comport with science. And the demand seems even more peculiar when it is applied so indiscriminately as to include religious believers with Nobel Prizes. What sort of atheist complains that a fellow citizen doing world-class science must abandon his or her religion to be a good scientist?
I am of two minds about this. Those of us that are theistic evolutionists argue that examination of the natural world is perfectly compatible with an understanding that God is the author of that world and that his power is demonstrated through the interworkings of it.

Having said that, we, as theistic evolutionists, are a little bit over a barrel in the sense that while we accept that God is the creator of that world, we do not accept all interpretations of how that world was created. We argue that those who believe that religious belief is damaging to a complete understanding of science are wrong. Yet we also argue that those who hold to a young earth creation position to the exclusion of other interpretations of scripture are also wrong and are damaging to the very same cause of Christ. While we might, on the surface, be okay with people holding that particular viewpoint, deep down we are not okay with them teaching it to other people, especially in the context of the public schools or home school curricula. Put simply, we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want people to have plurality of thought, but we want, at the same time, for them to abandon their "cherished" belief in young earth creationism. We seek to convince those adhering to a young earth position of their error of their ways and are exasperated when they simply ignore the evidence that we provide them.

I believe that those that choose to educate their kids at home in recent earth creationism have the individual right to do so. It simply means that they will be inadequately prepared for college when they do get there. It may also mean that they have severe crises of faith, such as that by Glenn Morton. I would recommend that anyone that teaches their children the YEC point of view at least ought to read that account. They might not agree with it but it might give them an inkling of what they are up against.

The same cannot be said for the public schools. Here, the teachers have an obligation to teach the best science that is available because the kids are a captive audience. True, some parents can remove their children if they find that what they are being taught is objectionable, but most parents don't have the wherewithal to do that.

An additional consideration is that if creationism is taught alongside old earth science, it might backfire in a very bad way. The vast majority of young earth creationism arguments don't hold up to even the most cursory examination and this would give an enterprising science teacher the opportunity to, after demolishing the arguments, say, "just how stupid are those Christians, anyway?"

It may very well be that the best way that we can show that there is a way of following after Christ and accepting the findings of modern science is to be the best Christians we can possibly be, without arrogance or condescension but acting in love and humility of spirit. Then we can let the science speak for itself. This does not mean that we should sit idly by while untruths are taught. Indeed, I think it is our obligation to correct those misstatements, but we should respond to those teaching them in love and kindness, lest we, too, become "a boorish bunch of intellectual bullies"

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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Rheta Grimsley Johnson on the Creation Museum

Rheta Grimsley Johnson, who used to write for the Knoxville News Sentinel, has a piece for on the Creation Museum. She writes:
In the beginning, the earth around Petersburg in Kentucky was without form, and void, only a scrap yard and a few filling stations and the Cincinnati airport; and Australian Ken Ham said, "Let there be a 70,000-square-foot Creation Museum" that refutes proven science, conventional history, philosophy and most religions.

And Ken Ham saw that curious folks, millions of them, were willing to pay up to $22 apiece for a contortionist head trip that explains how the earth is only 6,000 years old, and that was good.
Refutes? Not hardly. She's right about the curious folks, though. The article is largely tongue in cheek, while at the same time, pointing out the absurdities and hypocrasies present in the museum, itself, such as staying open on Sunday until 6, and charging 22 dollars a ticket, which is quite a bit more than most museums that I know charge. It is one of the principle reasons that I have not darkened their doors. I simply am not willing to pay that much to support the AIG ministry. She continues:
Adam's progeny were so wicked, in fact, that God flooded the Earth around 2348 B.C., when Noah was that middle-age crazy age of 600. The waters covered the Earth and killed things, which, of course, were buried in mud and created lots of fossils.

"I never heard this before in school," a pretend boy says in a cartoon balloon. Imagine.

Well, Johnny, there is a good reason you have never heard of it in school. Carol Hill puts it succintly:
No geologic evidence whatsoever exists for a universal flood, flood geology, or the canopy theory. Modern geologists, hydrologists, paleontologists, and geophysicists know exactly how the different types of sedimentary rock form, how fossils form and what they represent, and how fast the continents are moving apart (their rates can be measured by satellite). They also know how flood deposits form and the geomorphic consequences of flooding.
That the evidence for this has been around for over a hundred years is irrelevant to Ham, who is ideologically bound to push the bogus science of flood geology.
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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Creation Museum is Three Years Old

The house that Ham built is now three years old and still drawing visitors by the church bus-loads. Mark Hansel of writes:
When the doors opened in May of 2007, it was estimated that about 250,000 people would visit each year, but in less than three years, it already has surpassed the 1 million mark.

"Some museums have inflated numbers because a lot of public school children visit," Mark Looy, co-founder of the museum, said. "For obvious reasons, we don't get many of them."

The museum's controversial exhibits represent the views of the Answers in Genesis [sic] is the Apologetics Ministry, which includes the belief that the earth is only about 7,000 years old and that dinosaurs were among the creatures on Noah's ark. The ministry is focused on the absolute truth and authority of the Bible.
Somehow, I don't think I will go out and buy a cake.

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