Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Tooth in Israel

A research team from Tel Aviv University is touting a new find as being from anatomically modern Homo sapiens. The story, from the AP has this to say:
A Tel Aviv University team excavating a cave in central Israel said Monday they found teeth about 400,000 years old. The earliest Homo sapiens remains found until now are half that old.

Archaeologist Avi Gopher said Monday further research is needed to solidify the claim. If it does, he says, "this changes the whole picture of evolution."
The story is a bit confused since Neandertals are considered Homo sapiens as well, just not modern ones. It is ordinarily not very easy to distinguish between Neandertal teeth and modern teeth, except for size and that is not always a good indicator. Ordinarily, you have to have more diagnostic areas of the skeleton. Given that the earliest moderns we now have come from the site of Herto, dated to 160 ky, it is not likely that the tooth is modern. If it were, it would mean that there is a modern populaton running around during a time when the transition from Homo erectus/ergaster to archaic Homo sapiens (Neandertals and their kin) was occurring everywhere else. It would also mean that the Levantine populations that followed them 300k years later were more archaic than those represented by the tooth. That would be a tad peculiar.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sorry for the light posting. I am working on the next series of BioLogos posts. I will get back in the saddle soon.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

New Post at CFSI

My new post is up at Center for Faith and Science International. It briefly covers the evolutionary evidence of the transition from dinosaurs to birds and the evidence of marsupial radiation. Next, I will touch on the evidence from genetics.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

BioLogos Post

My second BioLogos post is up. It starts the series of posts on the human fossil record. There will wind up being six or seven posts in the series.

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Friday, December 10, 2010

William Dembski Posts "Prepared Remarks" for Debate with Christopher Hitchens

William Dembski has posted the remarks he gave during his debate on whether or not God is good with Christopher Hitchens. It is here. He begins:
Although I could rehearse standard arguments for God’s existence, I want in this debate to take a different tack. Christopher Hitchens disbelieves in God’s existence. Why? Lack of evidence and evils perpetrated in the name of religion, he says. Yet his book God Is Not Great reveals a more basic reason. Hitchens, as a scientific reductionist, believes science has given us new knowledge that destroys religious faith. What is this new knowledge? According to Hitchens, it is Darwinian evolution.

You may ask what a chapter on evolution is doing in a book defending atheism. At the end of that chapter, Hitchens explains: “We no longer have any need of a god to explain what is no longer mysterious.” Let this sink in. Religion, according to Hitchens, renders biological origins mysterious. But now that Darwin has come and shown how natural selection explains biological origins, all is clear. Fellow atheist Richard Dawkins puts it more memorably: “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”
The problem is that Dembski then falls directly into Hitchens' trap. Ultimately, Intelligent Design rests on a "God of the Gaps" understanding of science. Defenders of ID have never been able to satisfactorily evade this charge. This is what drives the Signature in the Cell argument and the various arguments involving irreducible complexity: we don't understand how it could have happened given our understanding of evolutionary theory, therefore, evolution cannot explain it and it must have been created de novo by God. Hitchens' argument is a reverse of this: we CAN explain everything by science, therefore, God does not exist. Dembski attempts to rebut Hitchens' points one at a time but by doing so, gives credence and legitimacy to an argument that, from a scientific perspective, is wanting logically.

For the rest of the post, he makes unwarranted assumptions, misrepresents palaeontologists and badly characterizes evolution. For example, he writes:
It’s no coincidence that Richard Dawkins, the world’s best known atheist, is also an evolutionary biologist. Atheists, like everyone else, need a creation story.
How does he know this is not a coincidence. Is it a coincidence that Denis Lamoreux and I are evolutionary creationists? If not, why not? This is yet another persistent myth that all that accept evolution are atheists. I am quite sure that, like Dawkins and Coyne, some are but it does not follow that one will be if they accept evolution. That is facile.

After three evidence rebuttals, he remarks:
I know what you’re all thinking. Since the evidence for evolution is so underwhelming and since Hitchens has hitched his wagon to evolution, shouldn’t he now be ready to abandon evolution and reconsider theism? Yet this is precisely what he will not do. His atheism demands a materialistic form of evolution, and there’s only one going theory of it, namely Darwinism. The alternative, which places us here as the result of design, is for him unthinkable.
Dembski thinks that, since he has successfully rebutted three arguments for evolution, out of the thousands of arguments that one could make, that the evidence is “underwhelming.” This is reminiscent of creationist tactics, where one supposed problem for evolution overturns the whole applecart. Memo to William Dembski: it just ain't so.

But it is worse than that. Of his three “rebuttals,” he gets at least two of them wrong. First, he claims that “junk DNA” isn't junk, but is very useful. He then cites a forthcoming book by Jonathan Wells, also of the DI in support of this position. Steve Matheson, over at Quintessence of Dust, has a very good series on junk DNA, which starts here. About this he writes:
My assertion in these next 3 posts on "junk DNA" is this in a nutshell: the writing of the DI and RTB on the subject of "junk DNA" is a melange of half-truths, non sequiturs, quote-mined proof texts and outright fabrications that adds up to one of the clearest examples of folk science that I can imagine.
The second rebuttal he gets wrong deals with a direct quote from palaeontologist Peter Ward, where Ward appears to show that the Cambrian Explosion was largely inexplicable in evolutionary terms. This is a favorite canard of the Discovery Institute. Dembski even states that he is not taking Ward's statement out of context. Unfortunately, as Jason, over at Evolutionblog shows in devestating fashion, that is exactly what he does. Worse, Dembski has used this particular quote by Ward before and, since Jason's post is five years old, we see that Dembski has not bothered to revise his statements.

It is one thing to play into someone's hand when arguing with them. It is another to do so and then proceed to get major facts and positions wrong. Hitchens' position that God is not good is a theological question, not a scientific one and Dembski handles himself well on it but the damage has been done. Until he is willing to honestly address the data, the second half of his remarks will ring hollow.

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Slightly Off-Topic: The State of Science Education

I had a good belly laugh this morning reading this story on Watts Up With That? It seems that someone had a good bit of fun at the Cancun climate summit that is currently going on by circulating a petition to ban Dihydrogen Monoxide. Here is the video:

The amazing thing about this, and the Penn and Teller video that Anthony Watts also posts is that NO ONE ASKED what dihydrogen monoxide was. They just happily signed the petition. No scientific curiosity was expressed whatsoever. To them, this isn't a scientific issue, it is a political cause. Amazing.

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Thursday, December 09, 2010

Joseph Gerth: Trouble Ahead for Ark Park

Joseph Gerth, writing in the Louisville Courier-Journal, suggests that there may be trouble ahead for Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear due to his support for the Noah's Ark theme park. About Beshear, he writes:
He seems to be courting a segment of the population that is not likely to back a Democrat — especially this Democrat. Remember, it was Beshear, who as attorney general in 1981, wrote that the Ten Commandments had to come down in Kentucky classrooms.

The liberals and moderates who carried him to office in 2007 don't seem too thrilled about the whole thing.

Lexington-based blogger Joe Sonka has dubbed Beshear a “Flintstone Truther,” because of his support for the project and the fact that in the classic 1960s-era cartoon, Fred and Wilma and Barney and Betty lived alongside tame dinosaurs.

And on the “Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC, the host poked fun at Beshear and deadpanned that she wondered where they are going to put thousands of species of termites on a wooden ark.

Beshear is trying to paint his support for the project as a job-creation issue — saying that it would generate $250 million for the state's economy.

Beshear's spokeswoman said it would bring “a boatload of jobs” to the state, while one Capitol wag joked that Beshear had promised to bring more jobs to the state “come hell or high water.”
This story is getting a good deal of airplay and most people are generally unsympathetic. This kind of thing is business-as-usual for Ken Ham, who has nothing to lose by this. For Beshear, this Ark may turn out to be a spruce goose.

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Louisiana Adopts Science Textbooks

After months of deliberation, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has adopted new science textbooks for the public schools. Mike Hasten of the Shreveport Times writes:

Pastors from several churches argued on both sides of the issue.

University Presbyterian Pastor Patricia Snyder of Baton Rouge said she didn’t want to attend the meeting but she had to speak out against “attempts to make the Bible a science textbook.” She urged BESE to approve the textbooks supported by two review panels “so the state can move forward.”

Jesse Burgoyne, pastor of the Accountability Church in Watson, urged the board not to order the books, agreeing with John Yeats of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

Yeats said a delay would give publishers time to incorporate provisions of the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act, which allows for the introduction of alternatives to evolution.

It is encouraging that the BESE elected not to consider the LSEA, an act that should be repealed in any event.

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Small People, Big Bird

The BBC is reporting on a fossil discovery on the island of Flores, the last known home of Homo floresiensis. The size of the bird: 1.8 meters tall. Emma Brennand writes:

The bones, thought to be belong to a single stork, are between 20,000 to 50,000 years old, having been found in sediments dating to that age.

The giant bird is the latest extreme-sized species to be discovered once living on the island, which was home to dwarf elephants, giant rats and out-sized lizards, as well as humans of small stature.

"I noticed the giant stork bones for the first time in Jakarta, as they stood out from the rest of the smaller bird bones. Finding large birds of prey is common on islands, but I wasn't expecting to find a giant marabou stork," Dr Meijer told the BBC.

She also writes that it might have been able to prey on the hominins, but there is no evidence that it did. What the heck is in the water out there?

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Quote of the Day

Conan O'Brien brought up the Ark theme park in his monologue on December 6. Here is what he had to say:
"Developers in Kentucky plan on opening a creationist theme park. Yeah. When asked what the creationist theme park would look like, developers said it's still evolving."
Hat tip to the Kentucky Democrat.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Keith Miller Article on the Cambrian Explosion

BioLogos has an article on the Cambrian Explosion by Keith Miller, a geologist at Kansas State University. This is an article that should be read by all supporters of DI, especially those that argue that evolution cannot explain the “explosion.” Among the things Miller writes is this:
The earliest diverse fossil invertebrate communities of the Cambrian are represented by the Chengjiang, in China. These deposits are dated at 525-520 million years. The famous Burgess Shale is considerably younger, dating at about 505 million years, and the end of the Cambrian Period is set at 490 million years. The Cambrian Period thus lasted for 52 million years. To put this in perspective, the time elapsed since the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous has been 65 million years. The Cambrian was a very long period of time.
This is the point driven home by Prothero in his excellent book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. The gross oversimplification that evolution cannot explain these lifeforms is often based on an incorrect understanding of the length of the Cambrian and what came before it just after the end of the Cryogenian. This is the basis behind the Discovery Institute film Darwin's Dilemma. The BioLogos piece is the first of a series so stop back to see where it is going.

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Noah's Ark: The Construction Phase

Skip, over at Panda's Thumb, has a humorous post about the new theme park in Kentucky being built around the theme of Noah's Ark. He writes:

I’ve created a new web site,, to track the progress and construction of Answers in Genesis’s latest assault on common sense and good taste, the Ark Encounter theme park. I’ll aggregate news stories, blog posts, and other coverage on one site where visitors can survey reactions from the media, the public, and other sources.

Anyone coming across information related to Ark Encounter can forward it to me for posting, skip (AT) penguinsites (DOT) com.

He also has a challenge on his site that I am quite sure Ken Ham will not rise to—build his own ark and test the model given in Genesis.

I have always had another challenge in the back of my mind: get a large pool of some kind and, over the course of forty days, fill it with one part water and three parts mud, shake it up really well, let it settle out for a year in the outdoors and see what you have. I can guaran-dang-tee you won't have shale, granite, anthracite, chert, flint, quartzite or any of the other rocks that take intense pressure or heat to form. To my knowledge, no one has tested that either.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Arsenic and Bad Press

Well, the fallout from the NASA arsenic paper continues, revealing just how self-correcting the scientific process really is. David Dobbs of Wired has a follow-up post. He writes:
UC Davis’s Jonathan Eisen, who knows his extremophile bacteria and and his evo-sci quite well, tweeted that he “was gonna write about bad science & arsenic but no need – Rosie Redfield has all you need.” Evolutionary biologist John Hawks thought the Science paper clearly lacked the necessary controls to draw its conclusions. And Alex Bradley concluded that “this study lacks any real evidence for arsenate-based DNA; unfortunately these exciting claims are very very shaky.”

If the paper is as weak as these critiques hold, NASA appears to have been not just overzealous but reckless — and Science not only went along for the ride, cheering wildly, but put all the gas in the car.

For a technical response to the paper, Rosie Redfield's blog post is getting much airplay. She is pretty harsh in her judgment. I know next to nothing about microbiology, so don't have the expertise to evaluate it. It should be interesting to see how this plays out, though.

Monday, December 06, 2010

New Noah's Ark Theme Park in Kentucky

Great Googlymoogly! It seems that the Creation Museum was not enough to draw tourism, now the Governor of Kentucky has announced that a huge park will be built by 2014 around the theme of Noah's Ark. The article, in the New York Daily News, by Nina Mandell, has this to say:
The park, which Kentucky expects to draw more than a million visitors each year, is projected to cost $150 million, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.

"Make no mistake about it," Beshear said, according to the paper. "This is a huge deal."

The amusement park will include a 500-foot-long wooden replica of Noah’s Ark complete with live animals, according to the project's website.

"We are constructing a full-scale, all-wood ark based on the dimensions provided in the Bible (Genesis 6), using the long cubit, and in accordance with sound established nautical engineering practices of the era," wrote Ark Encounters, one of the groups behind the project.

The ark is a collaboration between Ark Encounters LLC, a for-profit company, and a non-profit company, Answers in Genesis, which runs the Creation Museum — a museum that educates children about the Bible through interactive exhibits in Petersburg, KY.
Interestingly, the endorsement by Steve Beshear, the governor of Kentucky gives the reader yet another opportunity to play "Name that Party." Ordinarily, if you look at stories involving Republicans and creationism, the "R" is featured very prominently. After I read this story, I had to go hunt up Steve Beshear's party affiliation. It is not often that a Democrat supports an initiative like this in such a high-profile way. And, lest you thought that it was a completely done deal, the article adds this:
While Beshear and other local politicians are convinced the park will float through any regulatory battles, some are questioning whether the millions in tax breaks that the group will receive for tourism violates the separation between church and state.
Beshear took an active part in that request, as well, pushing the positive economic impact for Northern Kentucky. If it is awarded tax breaks, expect the lawsuits to fly. Once again, the scientific world looks curiously at Kentucky and scratches its collective head.
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Friday, December 03, 2010

Life, Maybe Not So Alien

I should stick to palaeontology. The story about alien life below this was written on the strength of one article, and, as Steve Matheson correctly put it, I should have gone to some other sources. This passage from a Discovery News article puts things into perspective:
The discovery is amazing, but it’s easy to go overboard with it. For example, this breathlessly hyperbolic piece, published last year, suggests that finding such bacteria would be “one of the most significant scientific discoveries of all time”. It would imply that “Mono Lake was home to a form of life biologically distinct from all other known life on Earth” and “strongly suggest that life got started on our planet not once, but at least twice”.
The results do nothing of the sort. For a start, the bacteria – a strain known as GFAJ-1 – don’t depend on arsenic. They still contain detectable levels of phosphorus in their molecules and they actually grow better on phosphorus if given the chance. It’s just that they might be able to do without this typically essential element – an extreme and impressive ability in itself
This puts it into better perspective. This is big news because it does provide us with a glimpse into some different evolutionary pathways that are unexpected. In a sense, this is like the microbes that can survive in hyperthermophilic environments in that it is just not something that would be expected. Sorry for jumping on the bandwagon. I should have known better.

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Thursday, December 02, 2010

Alien Life Discovered

Well, this will rewrite a few books. Gizmodo is reporting that NASA is about to release findings of a new bacteria that was discovered at Mono Lake in California. They write:
NASA has discovered a new life form—called GFAJ-1—that doesn't share the biological building blocks of anything currently living in planet Earth. It's capable of using arsenic to build its DNA, RNA, proteins, and cell membranes. This changes everything. Updated.

NASA is saying that this is "life as we do not know it". The reason is that all life on Earth is made of six components: Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. Every being, from the smallest amoeba to the largest whale, share the same life stream. Our DNA blocks are all the same.

In a surprising discovery, NASA scientist Felisa Wolfe Simon and her team have found a bacteria whose DNA is completely alien to what we know today. Instead of using phosphorus, the newly discovered microorganism—called GFAJ-1 and found in Mono Lake, California—uses the poisonous arsenic for its building blocks.
This is huge. It is alien life that either developed in isolation from the rest of life on this planet for the last 3.8 BILLION years (unlikely) or it is literally alien in origin. Here is the NASA story by Dwayne Browne and Cathy Weselby. They write:
"The idea of alternative biochemistries for life is common in science fiction," said Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the agency's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "Until now a life form using arsenic as a building block was only theoretical, but now we know such life exists in Mono Lake."
We will see how this gets picked up by different organizations in the next few weeks. It has amazing implications for exobiology.

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Evolutionary Christianity

There will be a free online discussion over at Michael Dowd's site on “Evolutionary Christianity” on December 4, with some big wigs in the field, including one of my favorites, Kenneth Miller. People can sign up at the site here. Matt Young of Panda's Thumb writes that he received a letter from Michael Zimmerman with some additional information:
This tele-series (telephone & computer, not television) will feature Michael Dowd and 30 other leaders in the nexus of science and religion (a number of whom who are Clergy Letter Project members), including two Nobel laureates, three Templeton Prize-winners, and more than two dozen others who exemplify by word and deed that religious faith can be positively strengthened and enriched by a science-honoring, evolutionary view of the world.

Some of the things that will be discussed include:

• How scientific and historical evidence, interpreted meaningfully, can enhance our lives and faith;

• Compassionate responses to both those who reject science and those who reject religion;

• How an evolutionary view of human nature can validate and deepen our appreciation of scriptural and traditional wisdom;

• And much more . … [ellipsis in original]
I have signed up, although with four small kids and many time commitments, I am not sure I will be able to participate. It was gratifying to hear from Michael that he is doing much better and is cancer-free. Matt also notes that this is being co-sponsored by the Clergy Letter Project. I wonder how many of the people from the DI and RTB will weigh in.

Hat tip to Panda's Thumb.

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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Slacktivist Has an Interesting Point

Slacktivist has a post on the Genesis “Account.” He writes that it is no such thing:
An account is testimony, witnesses telling what they have seen. The speaker or writer -- the one giving the account -- does not need to be a direct witness herself. She may be a journalist or a historian compiling the testimony of others. But without some basis in such testimony from actual witnesses we haven't got what we can call an account.

When I point this out -- that the story in Genesis 1 is not an "account" -- the creation-ists get upset with me, as though I were attacking the book of Genesis. But I'm not attacking it, I'm defending it. Genesis 1 does not itself claim to be an account. It does not present itself as such and it does not willingly comply with those who would treat it as such. To read the story as it is, in the way that it presents itself, cannot be an attack. It's far more hostile to the text to declare, with no basis from the text itself, that it must be read as something it does not and cannot claim to be.
He also notes that other examples of accounts in the Bible have eye witnesses, especially the acts of Jesus, while the creation story does not. Is this semantic? Perhaps not since it goes to the heart of the “Were you there?” argument of Ken Ham's, who then states that we have God's account. In point of fact, no one was. While I have no doubt that the book of Genesis is what God handed down to Moses, in a sense, we are taking Moses' word for it.

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