Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cornelius Hunter, Pseudogenes and the Nature of Science

Cornelius Hunter wrote a piece a few days ago that I had not had a chance to respond to. In this piece, Hunter argues (as he usually does) that there are hidden assumptions in all "Darwinian" scenarios. He begins:
Another school year is set to begin at high schools and colleges where the next round of biology students will be filled with evolutionary misinformation. At the center of this propaganda campaign are the many biology textbooks used to indoctrinate young minds with old dogma. These textbooks contain the latest evolutionary newspeak, but the underlying lies are no different.
In overall demeanor, Hunter is considerably more sarcastic and strident than most of the other folks at the DI and one has to wade through that to get at what he is trying to say. The topic of the day is shared pseudogenes, which, when found in two related organisms, are generally considered to be evidence of common ancestry since a progressive creation model would be forced to explain how two related organisms just happen, against all probability, to share the same genetics mistakes at exactly the same place in the genome. Hunter writes of this:
This claim, that such shared errors indicate, or demonstrate, or reveal common ancestry, is the result of an implicit truth claim which does not, and cannot, come from science. It is the claim that evolution and only evolution can explain such evidences. It is the equivalent of what is known as an IF-AND-ONLY-IF claim. Science makes IF-THEN statements (if evolution is true, then species with recent common ancestors should have similarities between them). IF-AND-ONLY-IF statements (if and only if evolution is true, then species with recent common ancestors should have similarities between them) cannot be known from science.
This is a peculiar misunderstanding of the scientific method. Science posits hypothetical questions to explain observed data. It also acts on the principles of parsimony and Occam's Razor. All other things being equal, the simplest explanation for any given phenomenon is likely to be the correct one. The idea that shared pseudogenes reflect common ancestry is not an IF-AND-ONLY-IF statement. It is simply the best explanation that we have. There might be other explanations for these data but, given the evidence from other areas of study (palaeobiology, palaentology, evolutionary development) common ancestry is the best explanation that we currently have. Hunter has failed to make this distinction.

He continues:
In their text The Living World (Fifth Edition, McGraw Hill, 2008) evolutionists George Johnson and Jonathan Losos rehearse the usual teachings. Students are told that “Microevolution Leads to Macroevolution” with the giraffe’s neck serving as the example of how small change is supposed to accumulate to the large-scale change evolution needs.

Of course this is a long-standing, well-known problem for evolution. Mechanisms for large-scale change are speculative for it does not appear merely to be the result of repeated rounds of microevolution. Johnson and Losos, of course, inform the student of none of this.
Hunter also fails to inform us that one particularly good reason to think that evolution is responsible for the giraffe's long neck is the placement of the laryngeal nerve. In all animals, the nerve runs from the brain down through the aortic loop to the throat. In simple organisms, this is roughly a straight line but as you go to more complex organisms, the path of this nerve gets longer. In humans, it runs more than a foot longer than it needs to be for it to be efficient. In giraffes, this nerve runs a full fifteen feet longer than would be efficient. Why does this happen? Because the nerve develops the same way embryologically in all organisms. It is during post natal development that the length appears. The nerve cannot restructure itself, so it goes along for the ride.

As far as the evidence for this is concerned, there is no problem for evolution, whatever. From the transitional fossil FAQ in Talk Origins, we have this:
Giraffes: Branched off from the deer just after Eumeryx. The first giraffids were Climacoceras (very earliest Miocene) and then Canthumeryx (also very early Miocene), then Paleomeryx (early Miocene), then Palaeotragus (early Miocene) a short-necked giraffid complete with short skin-covered horns. From here the giraffe lineage goes through Samotherium (late Miocene), another short-necked giraffe, and then split into Okapia (one species is still alive, the okapi, essentially a living Miocene short-necked giraffe), and Giraffa (Pliocene), the modern long-necked giraffe.
Along the way, the neck continues to get longer. What mechanism would Hunter propose to explain this? He presents none. Hunter continually castigates Johnson and Losos for providing what they see to be the best explanation for the evidence. He writes:
The apologists make a failed attempt to enlist the fossil record as powerful evidence for evolution, and end up with only the usual metaphysics. They write:

"If the theory of evolution is not correct, on the other hand, then such orderly change is not expected."

Very interesting. And how do evolutionists know so much? From where did Johnson and Losos learn such ultimate truths? If evolution is not correct then such orderly change is not expected? Tell us more.
Aside from the snark, Hunter fails to inform the reader what the "failed attempt" is since he provides no evidence to support his position. This is nothing more than name-calling. Since he won't provide the evidence, the quote from the book is completely out of context. He ends his post by writing:
But this is nothing new in evolutionary circles. Only evolutionists teach such a biased version of science.
This is simply incorrect. I can think of numerous postings on Answers in Genesis, for a start, that recycle the same, tired wrong statements about the fossil and geological records: no transitional fossils, evidence of a recent creation of the earth, evidence for a world-wide flood—arguments that do not stand up to even rudimentary scientific scrutiny. Any bias that is practiced by evolutionists pales in comparison to these canards. Furthermore, the Discovery Institute, itself, has not been above stretching the truth to the point of breaking (here, here, here, and here.)

More peculiar thinking from a Discovery Institute fellow.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Gerald Schroeder: The Science of God

I am currently refamiliarizing myself with Gerald Schroeder's The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom which was written in 1997. Schroeder is an applied theologian with a Ph.D. in physics from MIT.

His opening premise, if I understand him correctly, is superficially similar to that of Francis Collins' and John Polkinghorne's in that God has created a self-sustaining world. His approach to the evidence, however, is very different from theirs. He covers much of the same ground early that Hugh Ross did in his book The Fingerprint of God, and presents a good deal of evidence for the fine tunedness or "tweaking" that the universe. He writes:
As a scientist trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology I was convinced I had the information to exclude Him—or is it Her?—from the grand scheme of life. But with each step forward in the unfolding mystery of the cosmos, a subtle yet pervading ingenuity, a contingency kept shining through, a contingency that joins all aspects of existence into a coherent unity. While this coherence does not prove the existence of a designer, it does call out for interpretation. (p. 25)
He does, however, unlike Ross, invoke a potential problem in such a "tweaked universe" scenario: that such an argument is effectively argument from personal incredulity. As I argued with my wife last night, and as he puts it:
The design in nature's move toward life might be pure chance. Perhaps we are here because good fortune smiled and produced by chance the multitude of events needed to coax life from the chaos of the big bang. It would be something like winning a lottery for which a million people—even a billion—had purchased tickets. A miracle? Not really—someone had to win and you were the lucky person. (p. 26)
It is an argument he doesn't believe, however, because Paradoxically he then argues that modern physics and nature are based on the idea that the very, very, very unlikely never happens. This is difficult to square with any definition of nature and science that I have ever heard.

Schroeder takes a very different view of the debate between those who argue for a six-literal day creation and those who argue for an old-earth creation (4.5 billion year old earth). Here, he delves in relativity, arguing that it does not make sense to argue either of these perspectives because they are both correct. He writes:
CBR is the clock of the cosmos. Its wave frequency is the rate which the cosmic clock ticks. "the directly measurable coordinate along the line of sight (into space) is not time, but redshift (z)"—the ratio of CBR frequencies observed today. Just after the big bang, when the universe was vastly more compact, all the radiation spread throught today's huge universe was pressed within a small primordial space. the immense concentration of energy resulted in CBR temperatures and wave frequencies million upon million times greater than that of the frigid 2.73° of space today. The cosmic clock then "ticked" much more rapidly than it does today. (p. 61-62).
Using this logic, every creation day on earth took less and less time until all of the six days took up all of the fifteen billion years that the universe and the earth have existed. This means that the earth, created on day 3, is between 3.5 and 4.5 billion years old. In such a concordist view, the dispute over how old the universe is. There is now plenty of time for both views.

When it gets down to discussing biological life and evolution, Schroeder is comfortably in the intelligent design camp. Here, he invokes the "latent library" model of origins which posits that all early life had in it latent blocks of information waiting to be switched on at the right time. By his own admission, this flies in the face of the standard notion of accumulation of beneficial mutations to account for species change. In support of this model, he uses examples of morphological constraint and the formation of similar structures in different organisms, arguing that it would be almost impossible for these structures to have arisen independently through mutation. Here, his understanding of evolution seems to break down.

Like Michael Behe, he demands that all of the evolutionary change happen at once. This is a peculiar error that is common to these two and to William Dembski, who has posited this misconception of evolution several times. Consequently, his calculations show that when you multiply all of the probabilities of these evolutionary events occurring, the probabilities are astronomically small. Falling back on the familiar "random sequence of letters" example, he argues:
The only way random letter generation ha a prayer of producing meaningful sentences is if the programmer instructs the computer how to recognize meaningfulness and how to preserve it. The same may be said for random mutations in the genome producing useful strings of amino acids (proteins) and their preservation. But this supposes that nature knows what is good for it. (p. 103)
Such a scenario fails to account for the fact that rarely do beneficial traits arise all at once. This is similar to the METHINKSITISLIKEAWEASEL program of Richard Dawkins. Although flawed in its expression, Dawkins wanted to demonstrate that over time, given the fixation of beneficial mutations (correct letters), random changes in letters will produce meaningful output. Dawkins understood that this was a teleological scenario (he knew the outcome). As H. Allen Orr put it:
Start with a random sequence as before but i) randomly change each character that doesn't match the target sequence; ii) if a resulting character matches the target keep it and in the next round change only those characters that don't match. So, if we start with SATHINKS, at the next step we'll randomly change only the first two letters; and if those changes yield MQTHINKS, then at the next step we'll randomly change only the second letter. This two-step evolutionary algorithm of mutation plus selection arrives at the phrase METHINKS… with surprising speed
Schroeder argues that the compound eyes of different organisms could not possible have all arisen independently by chance through evolution but that they were guided in their formation. In truth, it is quite possible that each eye arose independently through the accumulation of beneficial mutations in similar environments. Evolutionary history is replete with examples of convergent evolution, from the New and Old World monkeys to the marsupial forms that are found in Wallacea. In both cases, you have a fossil record that records the evolutionary steps that led to the convergence. Where there is an ecological niche, adaptive radiation takes over.

His understanding of biology is also a bit peculiar. He writes:
Nature strives toward complexity because complexity carries with it survivability through intelligent adaptability. The simplest form of life, bacteria, lacks this feature. Though as a group bacteria have been on earth longer than any other form of life, as individuals they are not a success story.
Nature does not strive toward complexity, it strives toward adaptability. Many organisms have changed little in millions of years. Contrary to what he writes, these are success stories. Each one is marvelously adapted to its environment. Complexity is a byproduct of changing adaptation to changing environments. If the environment doesn't change, or changes little, organisms do not change.

Although he mentions the fossil record, much of it is glossed over. For example, he writes about the appearance of Neandertals and their overlap with modern humans but gives little notice to the myriad human fossil forms that precede Neandertals and the wealth of transitional forms encountered. This would present a set of evidence that would need to be explained. There are many other such sequences in the fossil record that go unmentioned as well.

The last half of the book deals with the creation of humans and Adam and Eve and weaves Talmudic and biblical passages together in an attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole. A persistent problem for the biblical interpretation that Adam and Eve were the first people is the evidence that humans have been on this planet in one shape or another for around 5 million years. Modern humans have been around for around 150,000 years. However, for the first two chapters of Genesis, there are a total of four people mentioned. Add the puzzling passages where the Bible clearly states that Cain knew his wife (who was that?) and then went and built a city. If there are no people around to build a city, who did he build it for?

Here, Schroeder invokes the Talmudic interpretation that, between the death of Abel and the birth of Seth, Adam and Eve split up for 130 years, during which time, Adam had relations with other women that did not have the spirit of God on them. These would have been the other humans on the planet, the "Cro-Magnons" that were present on the landscape. From this, we are to understand that all of human civilization up until the birth of Adam six thousand years ago was without the benefit of the Spirit of God—human animals, in Schroeder's words. One of the big problems, of course, in this reading is that it is selective in providing a beginning for the human soul in Adam (despite there being a large number of "humans" around that were God-created but which had no more importance than the animals) but failing to account for the flood story a scant two chapters later. Modern human occupation around Adam and Eve has been continuous in the Old World from 150,000 years ago and in the New World from 20,000 years ago. At no point in this occupation is there evidence for a world-wide flood. It seems odd for Schroeder to take such great pains to formulate a model putting Adam and Eve in relation to other humans only to not mention the story in which they get annihilated.

Ultimately, the book succeeds where Schroeder can stick to physics and he provides a truly unique perspective in the creation of the universe and the use of time dilation. Had he stopped there, the book would have been a highly engaging work which would have gotten an unqualified recommendation. As it is, like so many who espouse intelligent design, evolution is just too tempting a target to stay away from and, because he does not have a background in biology, he makes a hash of it.

Ironically, given his understanding of Adam's place in nature and his relationship to the "soulless" humans around him, Schroeder need not have even addressed evolution at all. He appears to include this section to bolster an argument that the history of life was teleologically driven toward humans. He has, however, failed to understand that there is nothing inherent in evolutionary theory that posits randomness. It is certainly true that there is a stochastic nature to mutation but that is true in the modern world as well as the prehistoric one.

Where evolution is not random is in the action of selection, gene flow and genetic drift. Those processes are what drive evolutionary change. Like so many other intelligent design promoters, Schroeder fails to see this.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rachel Evans: Evolving in Monkey Town

Rachel Evans, a new writer who grew up in Dayton, Tennessee has written a new book called Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions, in which she chronicles her life growing up in the shadow of the Scopes Trial. In an article for the Tennessean, she is quoted as saying:
"I was taught that if you don't interpret Genesis 1 and 2 literally, then you don't take the Bible seriously,'' said Evans, 29. "I held on tightly to that for a long time.''

My boss went to college in Dayton and, while not really be attuned to this area of controversy, he remembers there being a definite creationist bent. The article continues:
Evans is part of a movement of mostly Protestant writers and scientists trying to reconcile faith and science, 85 years after the trial ended. Instead of choosing sides, some prefer the middle ground of intelligent design, which claims God designed how life evolved. Tennessee gubernatorial candidates Ron Ramsey, Zach Wamp and Mike McWherter all advocate teaching intelligent design in schools.
I do not think I would characterize
the ID movement in this way. It is largely an anti-evolution movement (for example, this unfortunate piece from Cornelius Hunter) although there are some that accept some forms of evolution. On balance, however, it is reassuring that another person was able to find the narrow path of belief in God and acceptance of science.

Another book to read. Yay.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

From Left Field: The March to Transhumanism

The Global Spiral has a truly unusual posting about how the future of the human race might only be through Transhumanism. What is transhumanism?:
Transhumanism is the thesis that we can and ought to use technology to alter and improve human biology.1 Some likely targets for the technological makeover of human nature include making ourselves smarter, happier, longer-lived and more virtuous. The operative assumption here of course is that intelligence, moods, longevity and virtues each have deep roots in our biology. By altering biology transhumanists propose to improve human nature to the point of creating a new genus: such as posthumans.
Talk about giving evolution a push! The argument here is that we need to produce "posthumans" to avoid future harm. Why is this?
If forced to put some hard numbers to these scenarios, I would venture to suggest there is a 90% chance of civilization surviving the next two centuries if we follow the transhumanist path, while I would put the chances of civilization surviving a steady-as-she-goes policy at less than 20%. But then, I am an optimist.
Mind you, he gives no evidence that this will be the case. He simply believes it. That, in and of itself, is enough to jump on the posthuman express. The rest of the article posits that, since we are already in uncharted waters with genetic engineering, we might as well throw caution to the winds and just keep experimenting. Sound judgment. There is nothing like taking artificial selection and running with it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Uncommon Descent Gets it Right (And Nature Immunology Gets it Wrong)

In the most recent post on Uncommon Descent, Scordova points out that the journal Nature Immunology, in their May editorial, takes some pot shots at Francis Collins, head of the NIH and founder of the BioLogos site, for his Christianity. The unsigned editorial can be found here. Scordova writes:
May, 2010 editorial in Nature Immunology makes it clear that they don’t trust religious persons–even those who are neo-Darwinian evolutionists like Francis Collins–in positions of scientific authority.
The editorial is basically a long argument that falls under the cum hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy—correlation does not imply causation. They begin:
The newest book authored by Francis Collins, Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith, was released in March 2010. A collection of essays addressing the rationality of faith, the book reflects the struggle of great minds of the past and present—philosophers, poets, scientists—to understand the urge to believe in a supernatural power. It is advertised as an essential companion for anyone seeking clarity in the ongoing debate between reason and faith: seekers, believers and skeptics.

The publication of the book has great potential to reignite some nagging doubts over the election of Francis Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Many hoped that after his nomination he would refrain from publicly discussing his religious convictions and step down from projects such as Biologos, which attempts to reconcile evolution with the idea of God. This, however, has not been the case, and although most agree that Francis Collins is a skilled administrator, there are justified concerns that such public embrace of religion from an influential scientist may have negative consequences on science education.
This idea might, in and of itself, have merit, if there was evidence that Collins was subverting science education in this country. But there is none. The editors then recount several events in the last five year that detail the struggles that have been waged regarding science education over the country. These include the Dover-Kitzmiller case, the 2008 Louisiana "Academic Freedom" bill and the results of several polls suggesting that the acceptance of evolution in the United States is lower than it should be.

This is all certainly bad news but how is it remotely Francis Collins' fault? By their own admission, he has lamented the lack of evolution education and has never shied away from describing himself as an ardent evolutionist and is a prolific and gifted scientist. It is therefore, a bit puzzling when the editors refer to him only as a "skilled administrator." They write:
In the introduction and in interviews surrounding the book release [Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith], he describes his belief in a non-natural, non-measurable, improvable deity that created the universe and its laws with humans as the ultimate aim of its creation. Some might worry that describing scientists as workers toiling to understand the laws and intricacies of this divine creation will create opportunities for creationism adepts.
What they fail to recall is that when he was appointed as head of NIH, many creationist groups decried the appointment. Ken Ham, for example, wrote:
It is true that in this era of history, people are asking questions about Genesis, as they recognize that if Genesis is not true, how can one trust any of God’s Word? Collins is offering them answers that will only further undermine biblical authority—AiG is giving answers that stand on biblical authority, and, as a result, so many have testified they became Christians or rededicated their lives.
Lawrence Ford of the ICR wrote:
Should we conclude that Dr. Francis Collins is not a "born again" Christian as described in the Bible? He appears to be genuine and sincere in his belief that Jesus Christ is his personal Savior. But quite troubling is Collins' public and proud disbelief in the historicity of the Bible, the existence of Adam and Eve, the event of the Fall, and many more fundamental doctrines of God's Word--leading one to conclude that even if he is a Christian, his self-selective beliefs are terribly resistant to God's truth, revealing his dangerously poor view of the power of God. Like the Sadducees, Collins errs by "not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God" (Matthew 22:29).
Neither of these quotes faintly resembles high praise. These were calls to the "Christian" community to reject Francis Collins as a role model for Christians. It is only those of us who accept evolutionary science that welcomed his appointment and hoped he would truly be the bridge between science and faith.

But the problem, of course, is the faith. The editors of Nature Immunology have failed to distinguish between someone like Collins, who is not just a Christian but an accomplished scientist, and someone who supports creationism at the public school level, and this elementary lack of discernment is troubling and insulting.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ardipithecus Meets Modern Technology

The question of whether or how well Ardipithecus could walk has been hot since the discovery and description of the find were announced last year. Now a company that specializes in three-dimensional biomechanical reconstructions has taken an interest. According to the story in Send2Press:
LifeModeler, Inc. has reason to pay close attention. The company's LifeMOD™ biomechanical simulation software helped researchers understand how the 4.4 million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus female walked and moved.

LifeModeler's founder, Shawn McGuan, worked with anthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy of Kent State University to create 3D models of the bones and muscles of this specimen first discovered in 1992.

Not only were they seeking information as to how her bones and muscles fit together, they also wanted to visualize the range of motion she was capable of, based on her anatomy. A detailed model of Ardi's foot provided particular insight for Lovejoy and the extensive team working on the project which was first disclosed last week in the journal Science.

The LifeMOD software determined that Ardi was the first fossil hominid to have had an opposable big toe, meaning she was able to live in the tree canopy and walk nearly upright on the ground. Research shows that a small bone inside a tendon maintained rigidity in her big toe.
Not exactly a nail in the coffin, but this will go a long way to establishing Ardipithecus as a real hominid. Much of the debate focused on the reconstruction of the pelvis and the foot anatomy was, for the most part, uncontroversial. More to come, I am sure.

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Turmoil in Maine

A letter to the editor of the Kennebec Journal caught my attention this morning. It is from a resident who is alarmed about a gubernatorial candidate named Paul LePage. The reader writes:
In a televised debate on May 27, Paul LePage seems to indicate he thinks public schools ought to teach creationism to children.

One version of creationism tells students that Adam and Eve really existed, that the entire globe flooded (in just over a month, no less), and that the universe is 6,000 years old.

All these things are falsehoods.

And LePage is OK with teaching them to children because he doesn’t really understand science.

This isn’t just some abstract misfortune in science education. There will be real-world consequences, including the harming of future conservation and management efforts.
I suppose the reason that it struck me is that I often think of Maine as being part of greater New England, which has a reputation as being more "enlightened" than the rest of the continental US of A. My brother, who lives in Maine, actually says that this is not the case. Aside from the coastal cities, most of Maine is quite rural, in setting and education. This, he says, often causes friction, such as what is evident in this story. The writer, Michael Hawkins laments that if creationism is taught, Maine science will suffer. This is a sore point for most scientists and those that follow science. I commented on this a bit back:
Understanding of organ transplant and repair is now progressing by leaps and bounds with the help of evolutionary medicine. Understanding of how viruses respond to selection forces and how they affect populations differentially is possible with the understanding of evolutionary theory and the interaction of genetics and the environment. Quantum Mechanics allows us to understand the structure of basic particles and their role in the formation of the universe. The Large Hadron Collider works because of this understanding. New oil-discovering tools work because of our palaeontological and geological understanding of where the deposits of oil are which, in turn, is based on our understanding that the geological record is a picture of 3.5 billion years of life on the earth. Palaeoclimatic reconstructions of the earth have allowed us to understand how climate changes over time and how to recognize those changes before they happen. This understanding has led to the current debate on global warming and climate change.

Not one of these advancements would be possible if
creationism was taught in the public schools.

Not one.
I suspect that, like Tim Pawlenty sort of did, LePage will backtrack on this stance to avoid being seen as scientifically illiterate. We also saw Rand Paul sort of do this recently. This will continue to be a hot-button issue. In the right democratic strategist's hands, it could sink the GOP in November.

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hugh Muir Writes on the Problems in Britain

Hugh Muir of the Guardian muses that the diversity in Britain is causing schooling issues. He writes:
A friend from an urban comprehensive – who, for the sake of his continuing employment, we shall not name – says there are days when you need the patience of Mother Teresa and the wisdom of Solomon. Everyone demands respect. They don't always deserve it.

"Fancy a row?" he tells me. "Try teaching evolution, based on hard evidence, when the Muslim parents and the evangelical Africans would rather you taught one of the variants of creationism. That's to spend a less than enjoyable day between a rock and a hard place. I'll say sorry, I just can't teach something that has no scientific basis. If it's religious belief you're interested in, the subject for that is RE. They'll say, 'Well if that's your final word, we'll have to withdraw our children. Then the children lose out. We can't have that either. Tricky."
Things here are compounded by the fact that the schools are not the best on the planet. But, of course, pulling your kids out because of socio-political or religious reasons means pulling them out for science reasons as well. Baby? Bathwater?

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Fossil Find of Primate at Juncture of Apes and Monkeys

The Guardian has a story on the fossil find in Saudia Arabia that is possibly the earliest example of an Old World Monkey and dates to the time thought to be the split with OWMs and apes. Ian Sample writes:
The skull and teeth show that the animal, named Saadanius hijazensis, had similar teeth to Old World monkeys. Unlike apes, it lacked a frontal sinus (which is responsible for the feeling of "brain freeze" sometimes caused by eating ice-cream).

By comparing the remains of Saadanius with other ancient primates, the researchers put the date of the evolutionary split at between 29m and 27m years ago.

"The roots of apes, humans and monkeys go back a long way. We were interested to know when these ancient primates diverged because, in a way, that's when we got our start," said William Sanders, an author on the paper at the University of Michigan's Museum of Palaeontology.
Watch the video at the story. It is very informative. In the video, Laura MacClatchy argues that this specimen is really not a monkey and it is not really an ape, but is more like a basal primate either just before or just after the split (think "frogamander"). Phil Gingerich says that this is really a "missing link," a term he does not shy away from.

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Off Topic: Our Beginnings Inside a Black Hole?

Technology Review has an article on why our universe must have been born inside a black hole. The idea is, shall we say, a tad peculiar. They write:
A small change to the theory of gravity implies that our universe inherited its arrow of time from the black hole in which it was born. Accordingly, our own Universe may be the interior of a black hole existing in another universe." So concludes Nikodem Poplawski at Indiana University in a remarkable paper about the nature of space and the origin of time.

The idea that new universes can be created inside black holes and that our own may have originated in this way has been the raw fodder of science fiction for many years. But a proper scientific derivation of the notion has never emerged
According to the story, Poplawski has such a derivation. It gets stranger:
Incidentally, this approach also suggests a solution to another of the great problems of cosmology: why time seems to flow in one direction but not in the other, even though the laws of physics are time symmetric.

Poplawski says the origin of the arrow of time comes from the asymmetry of the flow of matter into the black hole from the mother universe. "The arrow of cosmic time of a universe inside a black hole would then be fixed by the time-asymmetric collapse of matter through the event horizon," he says.

In other words, our universe inherited its arrow of time from its mother.
From a theological perspective, it doesn't explain away the existence of God, it just pushes him beyond the bounds of this universe. Still, this idea is out there.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Win a Free Copy of Signature in the Cell is sponsoring a contest in which you can win a copy of Signature in the Cell, the book by Stephen Meyer promoting the idea that the molecular genetics of the cell show the handiwork of a designer. Here is the promo video:

As you know, there is a lively discussion going on right now about the book between Meyer and Steve Matheson, up at Calvin College. He reviewed it chapter by chapter in his blog and the latest installment can be found here.

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Letter to Rand Paul

I just sent this letter to the Rand Paul campaign. Paul, if you will recall, dodged a question on the age of the earth at a home school convention. This evasion provided a good deal of grist for the "GOP as scientifically illiterates" mill. The letter reads:
Dear Dr. Paul,

At a recent home school convention when you were asked how old the earth is, you "passed." As a scientist who is concerned that the GOP is embracing a scientifically bankrupt model of earth and universal origins that proposes that the universe was created six thousand years ago, I would be most grateful if you would clarify your position on this question. If, like me, you share this concern, it would be most welcome for you to come forward as a Republican who accepts a scientifically grounded view of origins and yet who espouses a Christian world view.Such a pronouncement would show the media that there are non-democrats running for public office that have not rejected modern science.Thank you for your time.

Lets see if I get a response.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

David Klinghoffer Practices Reductio ad Hitlerum Over at HuffPo

David Klinghoffer has written another article over at the Huffington Post (cross-posted at the Discovery Institute's Evolution News and Views) on the connexion between Hitler and Darwin. This ought to be some sort of corollary to Godwin's Law. He writes:
While barbarism has been going on for as long as there have been human beings, there was something different about the 20th century. The world had never seen anything quite like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot. And it was not only a matter of the technology available to them. Treating people as vermin to be exterminated was a new thing under the sun. Eugenics programs in United States and later Germany were warm-up acts for the mass slaughters that were to come.

Hitler's ideas, Dr. Berlinski carefully notes, "came from many different sources but no honest account will omit Darwin." A reading of Mein Kampf makes that clear. Certainly, Berlinski says, the men who formulated Nazi ideology "weren't reading the Gospels."

Darwin elaborated a picture of how the world works, how creatures war with each other for survival thus selecting out the fittest specimens and advancing the species. In this portrait of animal life, man is no exception. Any animal that strives to preserve the weak, as man does, is committing racial suicide. "Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind," Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, a policy "highly injurious to the race of man."
The reason that "honest accounts" omit Darwin is that Hitler did not think evolution applied to humans. I have commented on this here, here and, most importantly, here. In 1942, Hitler said, in a speech:
Where do we get the right to believe that humans have not been, from the very beginning, what they are today? A look into nature shows us that in the realm of plants and animals changes and developments occur. But nowhere in a species does a development occur that is further from the origin which people must have made if they evolved (developed) from their ape-like condition to that which they are now.
That Darwin was responsible for Hitler and Stalin is a persistent meme at the Discovery Institute and creationist movements. It is ironic that the man, himself, did not accept evolution as it applied to humans. Hitler, in this speech, clearly argues that the animal kingdom and humans are separate creations. Further, Hitler went out of his way to systematically eradicate groups of people that he thought were inferior. This is counter to how evolution would proceed. Had Hitler actually proceeded along biologically evolutionary themes, he would have assumed that nature would eventually cull out the inferior "races." In proper evolutionary theory, there is no such thing as "helping it along."

Equally ironically, if Stalin had applied Darwinian evolutionary principles to his agricultural program, the Soviet Union would not have suffered from such bad famines during his reign of terror. He specifically adopted Lamarckian evolutionary principles and the regime purged those that accepted Darwinian ideas. The results were a total disaster.

But the principle problem with this piece (and this is a problem with all of Klinghoffer's pieces on this subject) is that it is also Reductio ad Hitlerum. It is clear that the early 20th century saw a rise in biological determinism and eugenics. It is also clear that some people took some of what Darwin (and others) wrote and warped it beyond what it was intended ever to mean. As Jeffrey Schloss writes:
The historical record amply and indisputably confirms the fact that references to Darwin and to ideological principles attributed to the evolutionary process were frequently employed by the intellectual architects of the Reich, at the very least in this way. That Darwin was used (or abused) in Holocaust thinking seems uncontestable. But it is also not necessarily very interesting. Darwin has been used in this way for many other social movements very different from fascist eugenics: e.g., racial egalitarianism, feminism, anti-feminism, Marxism, and free enterprise capitalism. Big ideas can be used, or misused, for all manner of big causes, and Darwinism – like the Bible – has been claimed to justify or inspire many.
When we follow this line of thought, it continues to go very wrong for Klinghoffer's argument. Schloss continues:
In fact, the Bible and the Christian tradition themselves were used to justify the anti-Semitism of the Holocaust. Martin Luther’s fierce denunciation of Jews (“everyone would gladly be rid of them,” “we are at fault in not slaying them”)51 was frequently referred to by Hitler and other influential anti-Semites. Luther was lauded as the “greatest anti-Semite of his time,” and the infamous Kristallnacht on the night of November 9/10, when my own grandfather was taken to a concentration camp, was celebrated with the applauding observation that “on Luther’s birthday,the synagogues are burning in Germany."
It seems that if we are to lay the fault of the genocide in Germany at the feet of Charles Darwin, we would be well to lay it at the feet of Martin Luther as well. The problem is that the simplistic idea of blaming Charles Darwin for the genocide of the 20th century perpetrated by the Nazis reflects a rather one-dimensional view of history and a complete misunderstanding of the complex events that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Is it true that ideas have consequences? Yes, but should we hold a man responsible for his ideas if those ideas are badly misinterpreted? Early 19th century Christians justified the subjugation of Blacks based on the story of the three sons of Noah and the misguided idea that one of the sons, who was less favored, gave rise to the Blacks. Shall we blame the Bible for racism?

You cannot hold a man responsible for his ideas if the abuse of those ideas lead to events or movements that he would have condemned. Darwin did not endorse the killing of the "weak members" of the human race. He simply knew that humans were capable of emotions that would lead to the preservation of those who would not ordinarily survive. Darwin, himself, was perfectly aware of the differences between humans and lower animals and how humans were to behave to each other. He wrote in his autobiography:
If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth. By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts. His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience.
Darwin would have condemned the modern eugenics movement and the rise of Nazi Germany. This is something that never occurs to Klinghoffer.

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Friday, July 09, 2010

More Information about the Origin of Tetrapods

Tom Spears of the Ottawa Citizen has a story on research being done to determine the genetic link between current animals and the earliest tetrapods. He writes:
A tetrapod is something with four legs and a spine. A frog, a dinosaur, a giraffe in the high veldt. There has been life on Earth for nearly four billion years, but tetrapods for only one-tenth of that.

Before tetrapods, however, there were lots of fish. So, what's the connection?

In the zebrafish, Akimenko found a new family of genes that seemed important to how fins develop in the embryo. These genes appear in different fish species, but have disappeared from animals with legs. The genes allow fish to produce a fibrous material in fins called actinotrichia. Here's where her detective work starts.
She suggests that two mutations were necessary for the suppression of that gene which led to the earliest tetrapods. Another piece of the puzzle.

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First Britons at 950Kya Surprisingly Adapted

The site of Happisburgh, in Norfolk has yielded remains of humans that is said to date to around 950 thousand years ago. According to the story in the Guardian, by Ian Sample:
While digging along the north-east coast of East Anglia near the village of Happisburgh, archaeologists discovered 78 pieces of razor-sharp flint shaped into primitive cutting and piercing tools.

The stone tools were unearthed from sediments that are thought to have been laid down either 840,000 or 950,000 years ago, making them the oldest human artefacts ever found in Britain.

The flints were probably left by hunter-gatherers of the human species Homo antecessor who eked out a living on the flood plains and marshes that bordered an ancient course of the river Thames that has long since dried up. The flints were then washed downriver and came to rest at the Happisburgh site.
If this is the earliest occupation of hominids in England, then it took them about 800 thousand years to cross the continent from the gates of Europe in Dmanisi. More pieces of the puzzle.

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Friday, July 02, 2010

Charles Johnson Takes Rand Paul to Task Over the Age of the Earth

Charles Johnson, the erstwhile conservative of Little Green Footballs, is concerned that Rand Paul doesn't know the age of the earth. Here is the video in question:

Very early in the video he is asked how old the earth is and responds that he is going to pass on the answer. Johnson writes:
Did he dodge the question because he’s a creationist and he knows that he shouldn’t reveal it for political reasons, or because he’s not a creationist and he knows he shouldn’t reveal it for political reasons? Either way, this is very sleazy behavior.

My opinion: I think he probably is a creationist, just like his father Ron Paul, because his world view matches the creationist world view in every respect.
I don't agree. I think that he may genuinely not know what the age of the earth is or is expressing some discomfort with the standard evangelical, young earth position. I think if he was truly a young earth creationist in regard to this question, he would have said so. He is not exactly in a hostile crowd. This is a collection of Home schoolers, the vast majority of whom are likely young earth creationists.

My wife and I home school our children because the quality of the public schools in our areas is rather suspect. I have been to home schooling curriculum fairs. It is lockstep anti-evolution, recent earth creationism as far as the eye can see. I have commented on my frustration with this here, here, and here (amongst other places).

In fact, I have no idea what Rand Paul thinks of the age of the earth (although I am inclined to write and ask him) but it is truly odd that he would dodge the question knowing that an affirmation of a young earth creation would resonate with the audience. The issues section of his senatorial race web page is conspicuously silent on this question, perhaps because he has seen what sort of hot water his fellow Republicans have gotten into. Although he supports home schooling, that does not say anything about his views on the age of the earth. I support home schooling also. We will see.

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Ilya Somin Has Fun With the Press

The Volokh Conspiracy has a post about the finding by Colin Groves that the species Homo floresiensis is not pathological but truly represents a species of hominid. He is amused that they are perennially referred to in the press as "hobbits," and writes:
This provides additional scientific confirmation for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. After all, Tolkien’s hobbits were clearly a distinct species as well, one that did not interbreed with the other hominids of Middle Earth. We already had proof that the prehistoric hobbits “travelled half a world,” which is evidence that at least some of them were on an epic quest to destroy the Ring of Power just as Tolkien described.

Tolkien’s theories are gathering more and more scientific support all the time. I look forward to equally rigorous proof of the existence of elves, dwarves, balrogs, and orcs. As I pointed out in my first post on this subject, we in the blogosphere have already sighted numerous trolls even more ferocious than those described by the great author.

Frodo lives!
As Dr. Bombay would say: HAW!!

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