Monday, December 31, 2012

Environment Highly Variable For Early Humans

The Telegraph is reporting a story out of PNAS that suggest that the environment was highly variable during a critical point in our evolution.  They write:
The early landscape shifted between woodland to grassland half a dozen times over 200,000 years, meaning man had to adapt to survive.

Experts from Penn State university say that this may have set the tone for the rapid evolution which then took place.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Clayton Magill said: "The landscape early humans were inhabiting transitioned rapidly back and forth between a closed woodland and an open grassland about five to six times during a period of 200,000 years.

"These changes happened very abruptly, with each transition occurring over hundreds to just a few thousand years."

The findings appear to contradict previous theories which suggest evolutionary changes were gradual, and in response to either long and steady climate change or one drastic change.
The general consensus is that that there was a gradual drying out of the environment that led to the hominins taking over the savanna.  It is not clear that these hypervariable changes will correspond to abrupt changes in hominin form but it could partially explain the somewhat sudden appearance on early Homo.  We shall see.  

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Update on the Indiana Bill

The Lafayette Journal and Courier has run a story on the Indiana bill, in which the motivations of Dennis Kruse become clear.  From an unsigned editorial:
But Discovery Institute officials say the academic freedom bill they’re providing Kruse is not about religion, and they challenge anyone to prove that it is.

The point, they say, is to give teachers safe harbor if they discuss the controversies and debates about evolution, climate change and other topics in the course of covering the science coursework. It’s a new approach. And in the states where it is law — Tennessee and Louisiana — there have been no lawsuits to date challenging a teacher or district that went off the rails and into allegory.

But in case lawmakers think they, too, have been given safe harbor here, they should consider Kruse’s motivation.In November, Kruse told the J and C: “I’d guess 80 percent of Indiana would be oriented with the Bible and creation. Where you’re at, at Purdue or IU, you might have more who are for evolution. But once you get out away from there, out into the hinterlands, I think you’ll see a lot more people receptive to it.”

Here, there is no attempt to come to grips with established science, only to try to get around it and subvert it any way they can.  Kruse is obviously not interested in making sure that the "full range of scientific views" are taught.  He simply wants creationism taught as science and would prefer that evolution was not taught at all.  He should at least be honest about that. And once again, the duplicitous Discovery Institute, which completely understands what Kruse' motivations are, is going right along with it. 

More Hijinks in Indiana

Indiana senator Dennis Kruse has proposed another creationism bill that hews more to the Discovery Institute talking points, in an effort to get the legislation passed.  From an article in HuffPo, here is what Michael Zimmerman has to say:
This year he's come up with a bill that he claims steers clear of creation science but which actually encourages the teaching of creationism. And in apparent recognition of the fantasyland in which he lives, he's opted to call his new motion "truth in education."

Here's how he's described what he's after: "I would refer to it as truth in education, so students could question what teachers are teaching them and try to make sure it's true what they're teaching."

Josh Youngkin, spokesperson for the Discovery Institute, a well-funded creationist organization advising Kruse, fleshes this insanity out even further. "It frees teachers to teach both sides of scientific controversies in an objective fashion. The teacher would not be barred from saying 'Let's look at both sides of the evidence and you guys can basically make a judgment.'"
This is the "Teach the full range of scientific views"  and the "Teach the controversy" strategies outlined in the Wedge document of the DI. This bill is intended to bring up ID and creationism to the level of established science and poke holes in it in the hopes that people will turn to creationism and ID.  The problem, of course, is that by its very nature, ID cannot bring anything new to the table and Young earth creationism is flat wrong.

At its core, however, is the misunderstanding that scientific consensus is, somehow, formed by vote.  "Now raise your hands, who here wants the earth to be 6,000 years old?"  This is yet another bill by a misguided senator who has no knowledge about how science works.  Further, the response from the ID spokesman is opportunistic and vacuous, suggesting that he knows nothing about science either.  The DI will never attain any level of scientific respectability as long as they have spokespeople who spout nonsense like this.  Science groups should oppose this bill at every level.   

Monday, December 24, 2012

Isaiah 11: 1-5 

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
    with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
    and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

Merry Christmas from the Jim and Melanie Kidder Household

Friday, December 21, 2012

More On the Orleans Parish School Board Decision

The Advocate has a story on the reaction to the decision by the Orleans parish school board's decision to push ID and young earth creationism over the side.  Karen Harden writes:
The day after the Orleans Parish School Board voted to forbid science teachers to teach creationism and banned approval of any science textbook “which presents creationism or intelligent design as science or scientific theories,” board President Thomas Robichaux said he received more than 300 faxes and emails applauding them for their effort.

“That’s more positive feedback on this proposal than anything else we’ve proposed in the past four years,” Robichaux said.

Robichaux said the amendments, which were adopted unanimously by the School Board, are one of the most important things the board has done related to education standards and curriculum.
There are probably more people out there that think like this but they typically don't get the press that the young earth supporters get. Also, the young earth folks tend to be more connected to the communities so have built-in support that way.   This is a welcome development.

Update to Orleans Parish Story

Glenn Branch of the NCSE has this to add to the Orleans Parish move to abolish teaching ID and YEC in the parish schools:
Why were these policies proposed? Noting that they were the brainchild of the outgoing president of the board, Thomas Robichaux, the Times-Picayune (November 20, 2012) previously speculated, "The move can be read in two ways": as a way for Robichaux "to leave his mark on issues he feels passionately about" and as reflecting "a concern that the board may eventually feel pressure to take a more religious bent." The blog of the weekly Gambit (December 19, 2012) reported that the only speaker on the textbook policy at the meeting was Zack Kopplin: "'Creationism certainly is not science,' he said, warning that students not only will not meet higher education standards, but they 'won't find New Orleans jobs in the Bio District.'"
We will certainly see whether or not the new president is of like mind by how he reacts to the (almost certain) future movement to repeal the policies by disgruntled parents and board members.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Orleans Parish Does Away With Young Earth Creationism and ID

HuffPo is reporting that the Orleans Parish school board has informed their teachers that they are not to teach ID or young earth creationism in any science class.  Cavan Sieczkowski writes:
The newly approved policy bans teachers from including "any aspect of religious faith" in science courses and from using history textbooks adjusted to include Christianity.

The first part regarding textbooks reads: “No history textbook shall be approved which has been adjusted in accordance with the State of Texas revisionist guidelines nor shall any science textbook be approved which presents creationism or intelligent design as science or scientific theories."

The second part delves specifically into teaching: “No teacher of any discipline of science shall teach any aspect of religious faith as science or in a science class. No teacher of any discipline of science shall teach creationism or intelligent design in classes designated as science classes.”
Such an act, while not in contradiction to the Louisiana Science Education Act, which specifically stated that local school boards could choose whether or not to include “supplemental” material in the classroom, is clearly not in the spirit of “academic freedom” as envisioned by those championing the bill. It is also in stark contrast to the route that Livingston Parish took when they toyed with the idea of teaching creationism in the schools. It is interesting to see two very disparate approaches to this legislation and it is tempting to suggest that the bad press that has been heaped on Louisiana in the wake of the bill's passing is at least some impetus for the Orleans ruling.

Slightly Off-Topic: Mutating Neutrinos and Other Complete Nonsense

The Los Angeles Times is airing a story describing how NASA is being deluged with calls from people thinking that the world is going to end tomorrow, on December 21, supposedly at the end of the Mayan Calendar.  Such a story is a testament to just how bad science education is in this country and how little scientific inquiry is valued.  Kate Mather writes:
The myth might have originated with the Mayan calendar, but in the age of the Internet and social media, it proliferated online, raising questions and concerns among hundreds of people around the world who have turned to NASA for answers.

Dwayne Brown, an agency spokesman, said NASA typically receives about 90 calls or emails per week containing questions from people. In recent weeks, he said, that number has skyrocketed — from 200 to 300 people are contacting NASA per day to ask about the end of the world.

"Who's the first agency you would call?" he said. "You're going to call NASA."

The questions range from myth (Will a rogue planet crash into Earth? Is the sun going to explode? Will there be three days of darkness?) to the macabre (Brown said some people have "embraced it so much" they want to hurt themselves). So, he said, NASA decided to do "everything in our power" to set the facts straight.

That effort included interviews with scientists posted online and a web page Brown said has drawn more than 4.6 million views.
Why should such a page even be necessary? Why has it drawn so many hits? (okay, I would probably go there just to see what is on it).

Here is the video that NASA created.  Humorously, they post-dated it for December 22, 2012.

Many people seem to have bought into the “2012” ideas, even though when that film came out, NASA had to quell rumors then. Obviously, most of those people didn't learn anything at the time. In fairness, I have a copy of 2012 simply because the special effects are awesome. But from the minute the Indian scientist says “the neutrinos have started to mutate,” you know you are in for popcorn fun—or you should.  In a perfect world,  NASA would have a peaceful day and the phones wouldn't ring.  Sadly, we don't live in that world. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Jeffrey Shallit: The Sterility of Intelligent Design

Jeffrey Shallit notes, in Recursivity,  the lack of grounded research in the intelligent design community.  He writes:
Here is a perfect example of this sterility: Bio-Complexity, the flagship journal of the intelligent design movement. As 2012 draws to a close, the 2012 volume contains exactly two research articles, one "critical review" and one "critical focus", for a grand total of four items. The editorial board has 30 members; they must be kept very busy handling all those papers.  (Another intelligent design journal, Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design, hasn't had a new issue since 2005.)
By contrast, the journal Evolution has ten times more research articles in a single issue (one of 12 so far in 2012). And this is just a single journal where evolutionary biology research is published; there are many others.
But that's not the most hopeless part. Of the four contributions to Bio-Complexity in 2012, three have authors that are either the Editor in Chief (sic), the Managing Editor, or members of the editorial board of the journal. Only one article, the one by Fernando Castro-Chavez, has no author in the subset of the people running the journal. And that one is utter bilge, written by someone who believes that "the 64 codons [of DNA are] represented since at least 4,000 years ago and preserved by China in the I Ching or Book of Changes or Mutations".
I noted something like this a bit back. He is correct. It cannot generate new information or new testable ideas because its ultimate goal is to find the conclusion “God did it” which, while being satisfying on a rudimentary theological level is not on a scientific level. Further, it is deductive in the sense that it has a stated goal in mind.  This is antithetical to scientific research and, as such, it is not different from young earth creation “science.”  I have the Talking Heads' “Road to Nowhere” going through my head...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Piltdown Back in the News

The study of palaeoanthropology has, over the course of its existence, two large mysteries: whatever became of the Peking Man remains, and who contrived the Piltdown hoax.  Now, it seems, there is a concerted effort afoot to divine the perpetrator of the Piltdown hoax once and for all.  Stephanie Pappas writes:
Writing in this week's issue of the journal Nature, Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London, explains why he and his colleagues are still investigating a mystery that began 100 years ago.

"Personally, I am intrigued by the question of whether the hoax was driven by scientific ambition or by more jocular or vindictive motives," Stringer wrote. He and his colleagues plan to test the forged bones from the Piltdown case with modern methods, aiming to find out who most likely made them and why.

The Piltdown Hoax is one of the most successful scientific frauds in history. In December 1912, British paleontologist Arthur Smith Woodward and amateur antiquarian Charles Dawson announced to the world that they'd found an amazing early human fossil in Piltdown, England. The curious specimen had a humanlike skull with an apelike jaw. Given the scientific name Eoanthropus dawsoni, it was more commonly called Piltdown Man.
Over the last hundred years, suspicion has fallen primarily on Dawson, with other conspirators being implicated along the way, such as Arthur Keith, who saw others elected to the Royal Society before him and begrudged this, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who knew many of the conspirators and had his spiritualist religion ridiculed by Arthur Smith Woodward, the co-describer of the remains.  Suspicion even fell on the Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin, who found some of the associated artifacts, himself.  Stephen Jay Gould thought that the priest had conspired with Dawson to concoct the skull.   It is also possible that a well-known palaeontologist and fossil expert at the time, Martin Hinton, may have been the perpetrator.  He had feuded with Smith Woodward for years and was also known as a practical joke-puller. 

John Walsh wrote probably the best treatise on the subject in which he squarely implicated Dawson, chronicling the fact that Dawson had been responsible for a string of hoaxes in the late 1800s and early 1900s, some of which were beginning to catch up with him when he died in untimely fashion in 1915.  It is fortunate that, by the time it was discovered to be a fake in 1953, most of the people involved had passed on. 

I think it will be hard to dislodge the general consensus that Dawson is the hoaxer but if he is not, I hope Chris and colleagues find who was.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Floating Dutchman

Johan Huibers, a Dutch creationist, has finished his functional model of Noah's Ark and parked it in Dordrecht harbor.  Toby Sterling of the Associated Press writes:
Translating to modern measurements, Huibers came up with a vessel that works out to a whopping 427 feet (130 meters) long, 95 feet (29 meters) across and 75 feet (23 meters) high. Perhaps not big enough to fit every species on Earth, two by two, as described in the Bible, but plenty of space, for instance, for a pair elephants to dance a tango.

Johan's Ark towers across the flat Dutch landscape and is easily visible from a nearby highway where it lies moored in the city of Dordrecht, just south of Rotterdam.

Gazing across the ark's main hold, a huge space of stalls supported by a forest of pine trees, visitors gaze upon an array of stuffed and plastic animals, such as buffalo, zebra, gorillas, lions, tigers, bears, you name it. Elsewhere on the ark is a petting zoo with actual live animals that are less dangerous or easier to care for — such as ponies, dogs, sheep, and rabbits — and an impressive aviary of exotic birds.
According to a story in HuffPo, this ark took Huibers around four years to build—and it is functional, unlike that land-locked contraption being built by the Revved up Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis.

It would be fun to float around on the thing, if nothing else, to see how seaworthy it really is.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Well, That Didn't Take Long...

Answers in Genesis has a response to the recent comments by Pat Robertson exhorting Christians to accept modern science. Dr. Tommy Mitchell writes:
We know that Creation Week lasted six ordinary days because the Bible says so. A study of the use of the Hebrew word yom in Genesis 1 clearly indicates that God told us He created in six ordinary, twenty-four-hour days. So how do you put millions of years into the text where it plainly does not fit?

Further, Exodus 20:11 tell us, “"For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it."” So again we see that God created everything in six ordinary days. (There was no “before the time of the Bible,” as Robertson claims, in which dinosaurs or anything else could exist, as we will discuss further below.)

So with a six-day Creation Week as our starting point, we can use the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11, along with other information in Scripture such as people’s ages, dates of births, and dates of key events, to come to conclusions about the age of the earth. This is precisely what Ussher did. And we recognize and honor this great scholar for the work that he did. We also owe a debt to many other great men who have done similar work throughout the ages. A number of these scholars—independent of Ussher and relying solely on Scripture—have concluded the age of the earth was in the range of 6,000–7,000 years.
Mitchell does not cite which ones have concluded this.  He also extols the work of James Ussher, who had no scientific body of knowledge from which to work and had no familiarity with what was known at the time.  The problem of relying sola scriptura is that one loses the context of what has been written and when it was written down.  Joshua Moritz, on the other hand, has this to say:
Even more recently, such as at the time of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial (1925), the actual face of biblical literalism was quite different than one might expect—especially if one has in mind young earth creationism with its insistence upon a 10,000 year old recently-created earth and its focus on ‘‘flood geology’’. Around the time of the Scopes trial in the early twentieth century, there is no record of any biblical literalists within normative Christianity who interpreted the Bible as claiming a recent creation in six 24-hour days or that Noah’s flood had anything to do with how one should interpret the record of global stratigraphy. Indeed, literalists at that time saw Noah’s flood as a local phenomenon and ‘‘even the most literalistic Bible believers accepted the antiquity of life on Earth as revealed in the paleontological record.’’
This is similar to what Mark Noll has to say:
Despite widespread impressions to the contrary, [young-Earth] creationism was not a traditional belief of nineteenth-century conservative Protestants or even of early twentieth-century fundamentalists. The mentality of fundamentalism lives on in modern creation science, even if some of the early fundamentalists themselves were by no means as radical in their scientific conclusions as evangelicals have become in the last forty years. For instance, during the century before the 1930s, most conservative Protestants believed that the “days” of Genesis 1 stood for long ages of geological development or that a lengthy gap existed between the initial creation of the world (Gen. 1:1) and a series of more recent creative acts (Gen. 1:2ff) during which the fossils were deposited.1
Most young earth creationists that I know do not know much of this.  They simply tow the party line because that is what they have been taught and, given their general lack of knowledge in the earth and biological sciences, have no reason to think otherwise.  The folks at AiG, on the other hand, claim to have studied the data and still come up with unsupportable scientific statements and vacuous attacks on the age of the earth and evolution.While Robertson is certainly no science scholar, he is correct about evolution and the age of the earth. 

1Noll, M. (1995) The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. New York: William B. Eerdmans

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Related: Pastafarians demand equal access to Pennsylvania courthouse holiday display

Tracy McPherson believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  So much so, that she wrote to the Chester County Commissioners in Pennsylvania to include a display during the holiday season.  She writes:
Last December as I drove through West Chester, I was pleased to see holiday displays in front of the courthouse. Prominently displayed were the Jewish menorah and the Christian nativity display depicting the birth of Christ. These symbols represent the meaning of the holiday season for two religious communities in our area. I could not help but feel that the display was incomplete, as there was no acknowledgement of my religion present."
As a Pastafarian, I believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the world and all that is in it,” McPherson explained to the commissioners. “He holds us all to the ground with his noodly appendages and that explains why we do not float away.
The accompanying video is hilarious, if nothing else for the deadpan reaction of the commission.

This, of course, highlights the absurdity of the ID position, which argues from absence of evidence. If evolution cannot explain what we see in the fossil and genetic record then it must be Intelligent Design, the argument goes. That's not how science works, as people like Ms. McPherson know too well.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

WSJ: Acceptance or Rejection of Evolution Not Core Christian Belief

Joshua Swamidass, writing in the Wall Street Journal admonishes us to remember that acceptance or rejection of evolution is not a core Christian belief. Jumping off the recent Marco Rubio flap, he writes:
The evolution debate is not a scientific controversy, but a theological controversy about a non-central Christian doctrine. In terms of policy, neither evangelicals nor Republicans should expect secular schools to litigate doctrinal controversies in science classrooms. And Christians who try to push their view of creation through political coercion are misrepresenting their faith. The "good news" is how God saves us. Not how he created us. And it is through persuasion rather than force that he brings us to knowledge of Jesus.
Republicans have a clear path through the minefield of how-old-is-the-Earth gotcha questions. Let's leave science curriculums to scientists.
As for Democrats: Please ditch the "war on science" talking point. It only pushes Americans apart, into their respective corners. In the two-party system, both sides need to be able to freely embrace science as a cultural common ground.
The sad thing is that, at the core of the messages and platforms of groups like the Institute for Creation Research, Answers in Genesis, and the Creation Research Society, the scientific controversy and the theological controversy over evolution are one and the same.  For people like Ken Ham and John Morris, these are inextricably linked.  You cannot be a Christian and accept evolution.  For them, any movement toward the evolution camp is headed  down the slippery slope.  This is the tragedy of young earth creationism.  The republicans, as a whole, will never accept Dr. Swamidass' ideas because too many of them think like Paul Broun. As long as the two are linked, the vast majority of those espousing a young earth model will never address the evidence for evolution because it violates their theological understanding of the universe. 

While I agree with Dr. Swamidass' admonition to the democrats to “ditch the ‘war on science,’” why would they when it obviously brings in great returns?  Each time a Republican beclowns him- or herself on this issue, it is fodder for the Democrat base and reason enough for the independents out there to be wary of the Republican party.