Monday, December 26, 2016

David Coppedge, Redux

David Klinghoffer has a post for "Evolution, News and Views" in which he defends David Coppedge, the erstwhile NASA technician who claimed he was fired from his job at JPL because of his intelligent design support. Coppedge has a fifteen-minute video in which he recounts the affair.   In typical hystrionic fashion, Klinghoffer writes:
Of all the cases we've covered here where scientists and others have been persecuted for sharing ideas favorable to intelligent design, what happened to David Coppedge is arguably the most reprehensible. That's partly because Coppedge, working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab as a team lead on the Cassini Mission to Saturn, wasn't a PhD scientist with the space agency. He was a computer administrator, albeit a senior one, and therefore by definition a less powerful, more vulnerable player in the science world.
Klinghoffer either has not read the trial transcripts or chooses not to remember them. Coppedge sued NASA and it came out during the trial that he was a difficult employee who was hard to get along with.  My original post on this trial, and Klinghoffer's reaction to it, is here.  Newsvine wrote, at the time (link no longer works):
At trial, JPL attorney Cameron Fox contended Coppedge was a stubborn and disconnected employee who decided not to heed warnings to get additional training, even when it became clear the Cassini mission would be downsized and computer specialist positions eliminated.

Coppedge often was confrontational and insensitive to customers and colleagues, who had complained about his behavior and his advocacy of intelligent design, Fox said.
I remarked, then, that Klinghoffer was focusing on the wrong aspects of the trial, a situation in which the Cassini project was being downsized and Coppedge was well aware of this at the time.

As in the case of Richard Sternberg, the details are what matter.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Pope Francis: Big Bang and Evolution are True

The Toowoomba Chronicle is reporting a story out of the Vatican that Pope Francis has declared evolution and the big bang to be scientifically accurate and not threats to faith.  Andrew Withnall writes:
THE theories of evolution and the Big Bang are real and God is not "a magician with a magic wand", Pope Francis has declared.

Speaking at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Pope made comments which experts said put an end to the "pseudo theories" of creationism and intelligent design that some argue were encouraged by his predecessor, Benedict XVI.

Francis explained that both scientific theories were not incompatible with the existence of a creator - arguing instead that they "require it".

"When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so," Francis said.

"The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but, rather, requires it.

"Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve."
This follows a pattern in recent years of the Popes accepting evolution that goes all the way back to Pope John XXIII.  I am quite sure that if the Hammish one gets wind of this, he will denounce it, forthwith. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

New Indie Film: We Believe in Dinosaurs

Indiewire has a story about a new film soon to be out that follows the construction of the Ark Encounter from blueprint stage to opening and examines the “unsettling and uniquely American conflict between science and religion.”  From the story:
In recent years, believing has not been enough for creationists. Determined to prove that the Bible is historically and scientifically accurate, they have begun building museums based on creation science. Their goal is to debunk evolution and to do that they are starting to think big. A comparison of 34 industrialized countries finds that the United States ranks near the bottom when it comes to public acceptance of evolution.

As creationism moves into the White House, it remains one of the most polarizing forces in the United States. That is why this film is so important right now.
I will be surprised if this comes anywhere near Knoxville but might appear as a Fathom event.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Petition: Mike Pence Should Ban the Teaching of Evolution

Patheos is pointing to a petition that is being circulated to have incoming vice-President Mike Pence make the teaching of evolution illegal.  Here is part of the petition:
We the undersigned note that, when you were a member of the U.S House of Representatives, you spoke out on the subject of science education and for presenting students with all available information. Recently, we have seen the passage of academic freedom bills in Louisiana and Tennessee which have allowed for critical evaluation in the classroom and improved educational standards. However, whilst an important development, they were only enacted owing to the need to protect students from indoctrination. We object to the teaching of the very controversial theory of evolution as part of the K-12 science curriculum which we regard to be unnecessary and unhelpful.

It is obvious to us that Evolutionism-Darwinism is an anti-Christian atheistic dogma masquerading as science. According to renown philosopher of science, Professor Michael Ruse, himself an ardent evolutionist, there is no doubt that the theory of evolution represents a philosophical worldview: “Evolution is promoted by its practitioners as more than mere science. Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion—a full-fledged alternative to Christianity.”
Aside from the fact that when examined, it turns out that Dr. Ruse has an extraordinarily peculiar view of Christianity and the relationship between what Jesus taught and what Paul taught, there is no sound basis for the idea that evolution is a religion.  If it were, organizations like BioLogos would not exist.   BioLogos seeks to understand the workings of the natural world within the context of a God-created universe.  Ruse is projecting his atheism onto his understanding of evolution.  Because some evolutionary biologists are not Christians does not make it impossible (or improbable) for a Christian to be one.

Onward.  The writers of the petition use three examples of recent research to attempt to bolster their case.  The first one is The Demise of the Genetic Blueprint.  They write:
Two researchers, Monteiro and Podlaha, admit that,“the genetic origin of new and complex traits is probably still one of the most pertinent and fundamental unanswered questions in evolution today.” Harvard professor, Peter Park, goes even further to proclaim that,“it's become very clear that DNA sequences are just a building block. They don’t explain higher-order complexity.” Obviously, if organisms are more than just the epiphenomena of their genes, then the gene-centric Neo-Darwinian paradigm cannot at all explain the diversity of form and so fails utterly.
The problem with the first quote is that it is used entirely out of context. Here is an un-quoted part of the abstract:
In the last two decades we have learned that novel traits appear to be built using old genes wired in novel ways [5], but it is still a mystery whether these novel traits evolve when genes are rewired de novo, one at a time, into new developmental networks, or whether clusters of pre-wired genes are co-opted into the development of the new trait. The speed of evolution of novel complex traits is likely to depend greatly on which of these two mechanisms underlies their origin. It is important, thus, to understand how novel complex traits evolve.
These writers have, in no way, undermined the theory of evolution, they have simply highlighted some areas in which our understanding of the processes are unclear.  This is classic young-earth creationist quote-mining.  The Nature paper, of which Dr. Park is an author, is highly technical and deals with how genomic sequences are regulated.  It does, in no way, cast a negative light on evolution as a process, however.  Once again, the question is simply by which path do complex traits evolve, whether by means of accumulated change or in larger steps (no I am not invoking Goldschmidt).

Example number one shot down.  The second one is The Demise of Cumulative Selectionism.  The petitioners write:
The core premise of Darwin's theory of evolution is that biological features have been produced by the cumulative selection of innumerable slight successive modifications. But as renown biologist Dr. Michael Denton has noted, the theory of evolution has been in crisis for the past 30 years because of the abject failure to show that there is a functional continuum in biology that allows for a gradual change leading to complex new features. In his view,“Darwinian theory of evolution is no more nor less than the great cosmogenic myth.”
Here the authors have reached way into the past to grab a book that was written in 1986—an eternity in scientific terms—as their go-to source. Interestingly Denton updated the book much more recently, and retitled it Evolution: Still a Theory in Crisis.  Sy Garte reviewed this book and writes this:
Denton describes his own worldview throughout the book as “structuralism”, which is all about the form that matter (including biological matter) takes. This contrasts with “functionalism” (the basis of Darwinism), which is about how things work, including adaptation. His hero is Richard Owen, a pre-Darwin naturalist who wrote extensively on the concept of natural law as the basis for biological forms. Denton takes the pre-Darwinian 19th-century concept of Types—clades, such as vertebrates and mammals—as his central theme. According to Denton (and Owen), Types are the manifestation of built-in biological laws; and what distinguishes them are structural homologs that cannot be explained by either slow, progressive steps (the gradualism of classical Darwinism) or purely adaptationist natural selection. This philosophical view fits well with the standard anti-evolution paradigm of Intelligent Design.
This approach is almost diametrically opposed to the modern practice of systematics, in which the focus of evolutionary development is on traits, not whole organisms.Using Owen's blueprint, transitional forms are, indeed, rare and macroevolutionary changes cannot be readily explained.  Once the focus is shifted to traits, however, then one can see how certain traits emerge, change and disappear in the fossil record and taxonomic relationships can much more easily be delineated.

With regards to this petition, however, damningly, Denton clearly writes that evolution has happened and that there is universal common ancestry for all life forms.  According to Garte, he mentions Intelligent design exactly once in the book.

Example number two shot down.  On to number three.  This one is the Demise of the Last Universal Common Ancestor:
The Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) is the hypothetical organism, that lived 4 billion years ago, for which there is no actual physical evidence of at all. It is only inferred because all life shares essentially the same genetic code. Recent scientific research indicates there is no reason to believe that it ever existed. As Professor Ford Doolittle states, “We do doubt that there ever was a single universal common ancestor.” Indeed, the idea that all living organisms are descended from a single ancestor is as preposterous as the discredited hypothesis that all human languages are descended from a prototypical tongue.
Once again, the writers of the petition have not done even the most rudimentary research into the position of the paper that they quote. Lets look at the abstract of the paper:
If the tree of life (TOL) was the thesis and the web of life (WOL) its antithesis, then we are now in the period of disciplinary synthesis. A more realistic (less idealistic and dogmatic) microbial systematics and evolutionary theory will inevitably emerge. WOL advocates (WOLers) will be unable to claim total victory, however, and TOLers will be tempted to redefine what it was they were defending in order to avoid the appearance of defeat (e.g. Galtier & Daubin 2008). Preferable to this, epistemologically and ontologically, would be the adoption of a pluralist perspective, from which this controversy can be seen as but a stage in the development of a more powerful and general reading of Darwin's theory.
A more powerful and general reading of Darwin's theory. That does not sound like anti-evolutionary writing to me. Doolitle, further, writes: “I will propose a more general and relaxed evolutionary theory and point out why anti-evolutionists should take no comfort from disproof of the TOL hypothesis.”

Example number three shot down.  So what we have here is a petition to have the theory of evolution banned by an organization that uses examples from the literature in which the theory of evolution is universally supported.  This does not sound like a winning strategy to me. The salient feature of all of the quoted articles is that the theory of evolution is remarkably strong, explains a great amount of diversity in past and present life but that it is having growing pains and that new ideas are emerging that need to be examined in light of the traditional evolutionary synthesis.

This petition needs to be pitched into the circular file as yet another example of how  anti-evolutionists cannot even take the time to do basic research into what it is that they wish to ban.  No wonder nobody in the scientific world takes these people seriously.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Dinosaur Feathers Found in Amber

Many outlets are reporting the find in Myanmar of perfectly-preserved dinosaur feathers in Amber.  From the Washington Post:
The amber hunters who dug up the segment in Burma (Myanmar) assumed the encased remains were vegetation, making the amber valuable when carved into jewelry. It probably did not occur to them that their discovery could be a dinosaur tail with secrets to tell. But a Chinese paleontologist named Xing Lida, perusing a Burmese amber market in 2015 for objects of scientific interest, recognized the amber’s true value.

“With the new specimen from Myanmar, we finally get that association between identifiable bones and feathers preserved in exquisite detail,” said Ryan McKellar of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada, a paleontologist and an author of the study, in an email to The Washington Post. Lida, McKellar and their Chinese and Canadian colleagues published an analysis of the tail on Thursday in the journal Current Biology.
How do we know it is from a dinosaur and not a bird?
X-ray images revealed that no ancient bird grew this tail. The tail tip belonged to a two-legged dinosaur called a theropod. “We can tell that this specimen came from a theropod dinosaur because the tail is flexible and the vertebrae articulate with each other, instead of being fused together to form a solid rod — which is a characteristic of modern birds and their closest relatives,” McKellar said. Specifically, the researchers hypothesized the animal was a type of dinosaur called a coelurosaur, and likely a juvenile.

Image Credit: A rendition of the coelurosaur. (Chung-tat Cheung and Yi Liu)

This further cements the link between the late Cretaceous theropods and early birds. More pieces of the puzzle.

More Bad News...

After the death of Keith Emerson in March of this year, Greg Lake, of ELP has died after a long battle with cancer.  NPR has a glowing tribute to the lyricist for both King Crimson and ELP. 
Greg Lake spent much of his musical life as the "L" in ELP. He was the band's singer, played guitar (both acoustic and electric) and bass, and wrote lyrics for the beloved 1970s progressive rock band. He often acted as the quiet, contemplative counterpoint to the thunder of drummer Carl Palmer and keyboardist Keith Emerson.

Most people came to know Greg Lake through ELP's first "hit" song "Lucky Man," with its images of white horses, white lace and feathers, and (somewhere in there) the tale of a king and a man who goes off to war to die for his country. These phantasmagoric songs were a pleasant shift in rock music, from the often literal tales and endless songs of love that streamed across the airwaves. The world of wild song structures Greg Lake and his bandmates pioneered was liberating and literate — and it was his sonorous tones that led the charge.
He had a distinctive and powerful voice and, even though I did not care for his philosophical take on life, often angrily anti-religious, the voice dovetailed with the other two members of the band and he was a consummate bassist. Another prog rocker gone. Rest in Peace.

Monday, November 28, 2016

How Will Climate Change Affect Human Evolution?

Gizmodo asked a number of scholars how they thought AGW will affect human evolution.  Some of the answers were interesting. Biological anthropologist John Hawks wrote:
I’ll be honest — the degree of climate change we are talking about in the next couple of centuries, which is on the order of several degrees Celsius, is by and large going to make the temperate regions of the world more similar in temperature to tropical Africa, where all our ancestors originated. We’re effectively terraforming the world to be more like our origins. The effects on humans are much more social and economic than evolutionary.

To the extent we see evolution, it will be changes in plant and animal species. Some will change the timing of their lives, some will invade new areas where they couldn’t adapt before, and many will become extinct — especially those today locked into small “reserves” that will undergo local climate shifts faster than they can adapt. And of course we will exert our own selection and genetic engineering upon our crops and domesticated animals to suit the changing climate.
Biological anthropologist Chris Stringer wrote:
The pace of change is likely to be too fast and dramatic for us to evolve physically to meet the challenges of a much warmer world. Any changes would have to come from cultural or social accommodation to the new situations – if that proves possible.
I think it is still way to early to tell how the earth will respond to anthropogenic changes in climate. If you will recall, only fifteen years ago, people were talking about global cooling.

Monday, November 14, 2016

...And About Creationism Going Extinct in Texas...

Raw Story has a postmortem on the 2016 presidential election and focuses on Texas races that went very badly for Democrats.  Kaiah Collier writes:
Republicans seeking re-election to the State Board of Education managed to hang onto their seats Tuesday despite speculation that the unpopularity of the candidate headlining the GOP ticket, Donald Trump, may flip certain races. And one newcomer seeking an open seat in a deeply conservative East Texas district easily bested his Democratic rival.
So, what effect will this have on the teaching of evolution?
The GOP’s good showing Tuesday is a win for conservative members of the state board who are mounting a fight to keep creationism in Texas’ science curriculum standards. Determining the big topics teachers must impart on the state’s more than 5 million schoolchildren is one of the board’s biggest duties, along with approving textbooks.
Let the skirmishes begin.

Friday, November 11, 2016

New Study on Homo naledi

Lauren Schroeder and colleagues have published a report on the skull of Homo naledi, in which they address the characteristics and attempt to place them in a taxonomic context, using morphometric analysis.  From the abstract:
Our results indicate that, cranially, H. naledi aligns with members of the genus Homo, with closest affiliations to H. erectus. The mandibular results are less clear; H. naledi closely associates with a number of taxa, including some australopiths. However, results also show that although H. naledi shares similarities with H. erectus, some distances from this taxon – especially small-brained members of this taxon – are extreme. The neighbor joining trees place H. naledi firmly within Homo. The trees based on cranial morphology again indicate a close relationship between H. naledi and H. erectus, whereas the mandibular tree places H. naledi closer to basal Homo, suggesting a deeper antiquity. Altogether, these results emphasize the unique combination of features (H. erectus-like cranium, less derived mandible) defining H. naledi. Our results also highlight the variability within Homo, calling for a greater focus on the cause of this variability, and emphasizing the importance of using the total morphological package for species diagnoses.
Another major finding of the study is that a grouping of H. naledi and specimens of Homo erectus "exceeds, in many instances, what we would expect if this grouping represented a single species."  Recall that we have zero idea how old this find is and, to the extent that this is possible, are trying to place this skull using only taxonomic analysis. Nonetheless, it gives us more information about this stage of hominin evolution and suggests that there was considerable variation of morphs running around during the transition from the australopithecines to early Homo

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Richard Dawkins Parody

Warning: this one is a bit off-color but quite funny nonetheless.  Recall, in recent years, the low-level animosity that has been leveled at Starbucks for not having a Christmas-themed coffee cup.  Well, some enterprising soul put up a wicked parody of this with Richard Dawkins on the front of a Dunkin' Donuts cup.  I won't reproduce the image here, this being a family site and all, but I will add the description from the original Above Average site (warning: crude description):
When I stopped into Dunkin Donuts yesterday, I was greeted by a terrible surprise when the cashier handed me my hot chocolate in their new holiday cup. There was no Christmas motif, no red and green, and not a seasonal snowflake to be found. It was just the Dunkin Donuts logo and a picture of notorious atheist Richard Dawkins giving me the finger. I asked to speak to the manager immediately.

“This is outrageous!” I yelled at her. “How could you make such a horrible cup?!”

“I don’t know, I don’t make the cup designs,” she replied sheepishly. “They were just trying to be inclusive I guess? I honestly don’t even know who that is.”
Apparently, quite a few people didn't recognize the parody for what it was and Bookface lit up like a Christmas Tree with complaints about Dunkin' Donuts (which they probably didn't appreciate one bit). The parody showed up on Snopes pretty quickly, who had this to say:
This article was just a satirical take on the annual "War on Christmas" controversies that have in recent years included Starbucks' holiday cups, including the 2015 version that did not feature any religious symbols, as well as the coffee chain's November 2016 (non-holiday) green unity cup.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

What Our Ancestors Ate

NPR has a story on dietary analysis of fossilized hominin teeth called Dental Detectives.  Erin Ross writes:
When scientists want to know what our ancient ancestors ate, they can look at a few things: fossilized animal bones with marks from tools used to butcher and cut them; fossilized poop; and teeth. The first two can tell us a lot, but they're hard to come by in the fossil record. Thankfully, there are a lot of teeth to fill in the gaps.

"They preserve really well," explains Debbie Guatelli-Steinberg, a dental anthropologist at Ohio State University. "It's kind of convenient because teeth hold so much information."

The structure of a tooth and even the amount of enamel, for example, hint at what the teeth are adapted to eat.
Peter Ungar, of the University of Arkansas, adds this:
“If you eat Jell-O almost every day of the year, but sometimes you need to eat rocks ... you want teeth that can eat rocks,” he explains. So, teeth are usually adapted for the toughest component of an animal's diet, not what it eats on a daily basis.

To see what an animal was actually eating, Ungar studies something called dental microwear, the marks left behind by food on teeth. As we chew on say, a celery stick, hard particles — either bits of silica from the plants' cells or sand and grit from the surrounding environment — are dragged across and pressed into our teeth.
Beyond this, though, detailed isotope analysis of teeth has revealed changes in migration and patterns: Ross writes:
Teeth from more recent fossils reveal more because they have more isotopes preserved in them. For example, the nitrogen in the teeth of Neanderthals can reveal whether the protein they ate came from plants or animals. It's one of many reasons researchers think Neanderthals hunted large mammals, though scientists have also found fossilized plants stuck in Neanderthal teeth.

Researchers were even able to use isotopes to find out when one Neanderthal started weaning her baby. As teeth grow, they lay down layers of enamel. And barium, a molecule children get from breast feeding mothers, builds up in baby teeth until the mother stops nursing. By comparing barium in a Neanderthal tooth with levels in donated present day baby teeth, the scientists were able to find out that the Neanderthal baby had been weaned at about seven months.
More pieces to the puzzle. Read the whole thing.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Oh Ye of Great Faith!

Zack Kopplin writes in the Daily Beast that creationism could go extinct in Texas with this election cycle.  Oh Ye of Great Faith!  To wit: 
Teaching creationism in Texas public schools may become illegal next year.

In September, a group of educators chosen by the Texas Education Agency to streamline the state’s science curriculum standards removed portions of four passages that contained creationist language. The new standards must still be approved by the Texas State Board of Education where creationists are fighting to reverse the changes. The board members, unlike the education agency staff, are elected officials. That means the fate of creationism in Texas could be determined on Election Day.

If the decision stands, it would be a major blow to political creationism and the first time in a decade for any state’s creationism policy to be overturned.
Texas has always been a battleground state for evolution, but great strides have been made in recent years, first with the ousting of Don McLeroy, a strident creationist who famously said “I disagree with these experts. Someone has got to stand up to experts.”  McLeroy, if you will recall, was a dentist.  Kopplin is, in my view, being overly optimistic.  They will never go gently into that good night.  They will rage, rage, against the dying of the light (apologies to Dylan Thomas).  He continues:
The final vote on the new standards will take place next spring and control of the 15 member board is narrowly split 6-6 between moderates and religious conservatives, with 3 more Republican board members acting as swing voters. If the vote were held today, it’s probable the new standards would be approved. But after the election, the vote becomes less clear.
Creationism tends to reappear in continuous fashion, because so much of the populace supports it and the legislators (many of whom have sympathies in this direction) fell compelled to support their constituencies. If the standards get voted out this election cycle, they will be back for the next one.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Lucy Fell From a Tree?

New research from John Kappelman suggests that the australopithecine specimen known as Lucy, the famous find from the 1970s that put hominins on the map, died from a fall from a tree.  Jen Viegas writes:
In order to assess Lucy's cause of death, Kappelman and his team studied her remains, which include parts of her skull, hand, axial skeleton, pelvis and foot. The scientists used computed tomographic scans to analyze these parts in detail, and then compared the findings to various documented clinical cases where the cause of death is clearly noted.

In addition to discovering that Lucy's cause of death is consistent with a fall from a high place -- presumed to have been from a tall tree due to where her remains were found in the Afar region of Ethiopia -- the fossil clues presented another key piece of evidence.

Fractures in Lucy's upper arms suggest that she stretched out her arms in an attempt to break her fall. This tells us that she was very much alive when she toppled to her demise, and did not die of a heart attack or from some other cause beforehand.
Somehow, given the important role that she has portrayed in the pantheon of human evolution, and the lightning rod she has been for creationists, it seems sad that she came to such an ignominious end. Oh well, we all have to die somehow. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Amanda Glaze: Teaching Evolution in the South

Vox has an interview with Amanda Glaze, a professor at Georgia Southern University, about what it is like to teach evolution in the south.  Sean Illing writes:
Earlier this year, she produced a video for about the challenges she’s encountered as a science educator. 
Teaching science, evolution in particular, can be a thankless job in this part of the country. In some communities, you’re colliding with a culture and a worldview that is both central to the identity of people and deeply threatened by scientific materialism.
“It is such a deeply personal and gut-wrenching reconstruction of identity,” Glaze says, “and you really have to be empathetic to that personal restructuring experience to understand why so many people reject evolution in spite of knowing a lot about it.”
One of the principle comments that she makes is that, while we suspect that evolution rejection is higher in the south, we really don't know for sure:
I am hoping that with the national study data we’re assembling now I can finally answer the question as to whether people in the South are more resistant to evolution than others. As of right now there has not been a study to look at this nationally. So what we are going on is based on the breakdown of small studies that suggest that religiosity is a big factor, more so in some places than others, and that literal interpretations of creation are one of the leading points of contention.

It might turn out that there are other regions that are just as likely to accept or reject, but right now we don't have data to represent those areas. We are making inferences based on the different data sets that are out there and the things that they appear to point to as we learn more. That is precisely why this national study is important.

What we do know is that, at the very least, the South seems to be the region that is the most widely vocal in their anti-evolution positions. It will be very enlightening to see what happens now that we have, and are continuing to collect, data from around the country.
I would be most curious to find out this as well. Given that I have never lived anywhere in this country outside the south, I have no perspective on this, unfortunately. Read the whole thing.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Of Stone Tools and Human Cognition

One of the things that is taught in human origins classes all over the world is that the earliest stone tools were likely made at the site of Dikika, and date to around 3.4 million years ago.  That perspective has now been called into question with the observation that monkeys can create exactly the same kinds of tools—by accident. Sarah Knapton, writing in the Telegraph has this:
In a discovery that calls into question decades of research, a band of wild bearded capuchin monkeys in Brazil were seen hammering rocks to extract minerals, causing large flakes to fly off.

Previously archaeologists believed the flakes were only made by humans through a process called ‘stone-knapping’ where a larger rock is hammered with another stone to produce sharp blade-like slivers which can be used for arrows, spears or knives.

The flakes were thought to represent a turning point in human evolution because they demonstrated a level of planning, cognition and hand manipulation that could not be achieved by other animals.

But the new research suggests that flakes can be made without any such foresight. In fact they can simply be made by accident.

“The fact that we have discovered monkeys can produce the same result does throw a bit of a spanner in the works in our thinking on evolutionary behaviour and how we attribute such artefacts,” said Dr Michael Haslam, lead of the Primate Archaeology project at the University of Oxford.
This is possible and it may be that some of the earliest “tools” aren't any such thing. When hominins started using tools in a concerted fashion has always been a large question in the evolutionary picture. It is very clear that by what we know as the Acheulean, manufactured by Homo ergaster, Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis, the hand axes are clearly human-made. Before that, maybe more research needs to be done to verify that what we think is human behavior actually is.  It is natural to want to impart human intelligence to our ancestors as far back as we can, in an effort to “humanize” them but, sometimes, this might be just wishful thinking.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Joel Edmund Anderson: The Heresy of Ham

In my convalescence, I finished Joel Edmund Anderson's The Heresy of Ham: What Every Evangelical Needs to Know About the Creation-Evolution Controversy.

The book is a work of passion, borne out of exhaustive examination of Answers in Genesis and some terrible treatment by fellow “Christians” who hew only to the young earth model and cannot see beyond that. The book covers the early church and how the church fathers saw the collected works that became the Bible and how it addressed the numerous heresies that arose in the first two centuries after Christ. Then it works directly into how the Reformation altered the understanding of the early church and the theological chaos that followed. He finishes up with how young earth creationism, as practiced by Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis is heresy. This is laid out succintly here:
The heresy of Ham that is actively “subverting, destabilizing, and destroying” the core of the Christian faith is the claim that a modern, scientific interpretation of Genesis 1-11 as literal history is fundamental prerequisite for the trustworthiness of the Gospel of Christ. It is the claim that if the universe is not 6,000 years old, if there was no historical Adam and Eve, and if there was no worldwide flood 4,000 years ago, then that would make God a liar, that would mean there is no such thing as sin, and that would mean Christ died for nothing. Such a message is heresy, and that message has subverted, destabilized, and destroyed the Christian faith of many people, has destroyed careers, and unfortunately, has taken root within a significant portion of Evangelical Christianity.
Along the way, he quotes liberally from the writings of the Hammish one, himself, who clearly has no idea how science is actually practiced.  One point that he makes, though, that is quite interesting is that, when comparing Ham to enlightenment thinkers who sought to divest the bible from the practice of science, he notes that Ham is, in fact, no different.  For example:
In an ironic twist of fate, we find that Ken Ham and Richard Dawkins are both thorough Enlightenment thinkers who share the same fundamental worldview. Both have determined that the physical sciences are the ultimate determiner of truth and reality, and the trustworthiness of the Bible is dependent on whether or not Genesis 1-11 is scientifically accurate. Such thinking actually turns the medieval notion of theology being the “queen of the sciences” on its head.
He is quite correct about this. If we are to take the Primeval History as scientifically accurate, and it is the foundation of our faith, then it MUST reflect reality.  The two are inextricably linked: if we find holes in the scientific accuracy of the PH, then our faith crumbles.  It can do nothing else.  If, on the other hand, we view parts of the PH as non-literal, then science and faith can be decoupled, a position that Ken Ham is unwilling to take.  Yet, if we decouple them, then faith thrives and scientific discourse retains its integrity.  Otherwise, we have what Michael Dowd calls “Flat Earth Religion.” It is not capable of growing theologically or spiritually and it is always on the defensive, always fending off attacks from mainstream science.  Young Earth creationism cannot grow spiritually because it is eternally tied to how it understands physical reality.  That is ironic, indeed.

This, to me, is the central heresy in not just Ken Ham's understanding of reality but in young earth creationism, in general: that is it tied to physical reality and that our understanding of who God is, is tied to this reality.  It deprecates the spiritual realm in favor of what is tangible and observable.  In some senses, young earth creationists argue that the physical world is all there is and that the PH reflects this physical world.  So much for faith.

He ends his book with a clarion call in the last chapter:
Many sincere Evangelical Christians today are desperately trying to “get back to the early Church,” thinking for some reason that back then things were just perfect. “If only we could get back the to the early Church,” some think, “then we would be the kind of Church Christ wants!” As well-intentioned as that kind of thinking may be, the fact is, it is entirely misguided. Our challenge as Christians today isn’t to “get back to the early Church.” Rather, it is to take the creedal [sic] fundamentals of the Christian faith—the Capital-T Tradition that defines the Church and that articulates what Christians have always believed—and translate that Living Tradition to our world today, and thus let the transforming power of the Holy Spirit work through the Church, which is the Body of Christ, continue to redeem, not just individual people, but communities, societies, and ultimately the world.
P.S. A caveat to the book: I would ordinarily give it five stars because of the content but, as I noted above, it was clearly written in passion and frustration.  As a result, it is written in a very colloquial, almost conversational style.  The advantage to this is that you feel the frustration that he feels.  The disadvantage is that the prose is, often, repetitive and he sometimes makes assertions that are not directly or completely sourced, and the reader has to go elsewhere to determine their veracity.  From an academic perspective, this is annoying.

I enjoyed this book, despite the slight misgivings above and, if you, like me, have always wondered whether or not young earth creationism borders on heresy, this might answer the question for you.  

On the Other Side...

Whew.  Made it.  Sort of...  There is still a long way to go in terms of healing and getting things back to normal, but the surgery seems to have gone well and the doctor is over 95% confident that he got all of the cancer.  It was more aggressive and widespread than even he thought it would be, based on the biopsy and had begun to perforate the capsule of the prostate.  Another three months or so and it would have gotten out.  As it is, we are going to watch it like a hawk, just to be on the safe side.

Onward and upward.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Going Dark For a Bit

My surgery is 8:00 in the morning and I will be out of commission for at least a few weeks. I will post more when I can.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Scientifice American: "Creationism Invades Europe"

Scientific American is sounding an alarm that creationism is gaining support in Europe. Stefaan Blancke and Peter C. Kjærgaard write:
We are used to thinking about creationism as an exclusively North American phenomenon. It is not. Although it originated in the U.S., organized creationism has gone global. But in Europe creationism does not represent a united community; it varies strongly from one country to the next. In some countries creationism provides an identity to smaller local religious communities, and has little impact. This is the case in Scandinavia. In other places creationism is tied to substantial and well-organized subcultures. We find this in the Netherlands. And in some places creationism exists among religious elites that have considerable political power. Russia is a notable example.

For years, although creationists were growing in number in European countries and gradually developing an influence in schools and local communities, they mostly kept under the radar and were not a major concern. Not until, at least, about a decade ago, when the Council of Europe issued a warning against the growth of creationism and the potential threat to the educational system it posed. At that point, creationism became a matter of public and political debate. Polls were taken all over Europe to determine public opinion. Some online polls were hijacked by creationists in Turkey to alter the outcome. Books, pamphlets and Web sites were launched and circulated. And the media loved it.
While one does tend to think of young earth creationism as a uniquely American phenomenon (after all, it sprang from the Seventh Day Adventists in the early 1900s), it is important to note that the currently reigning king of creatonism, Ken Ham, is Australian by birth and upbringing.

The authors remark that the scientific community got caught flat-footed and now are scrambling to catch up to the wave of web sites, pamphlets, magazines and TV programs that are being sponsored by the young earth creation groups.  This is similar to what happened here in the United States.  It was only dimly understood that creationism was making inroads in society, despite the high-profile cases involving the public schools.  The home school community is almost lock-step creationist, a situation that has caused no small amount of grief in our household.  The post below this one is but one example of this. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Answers in Genesis' Deceptive Video on Radiometric Dating

Answers in Genesis now has a “Check this Out” feature where they tackle a scientific claim which argues for an old earth and try to debunk it.  Recently, much to my dismay, one of the home school teachers sent out a link to one of these videos on radiometric dating.  Aside from the mistakes inherent in the video, itself, it betrays a deep misunderstanding of how science works.  Here is the short video.

We will take this bit by bit.
  • 0:28 – the narrator states that most scientists regard the age of the earth as between 4.55 and 4.6 and then remarks that, if this is so accurate, why the 50 million year discrepancy?  He then states “That seems like a lot.”  50 million divided by 4.55 billion is 1.09%.  That is the standard error. This date range is made up of thousands of individual dates. The speedometer on your car is less accurate than that (standard error of 2.5%).  In fact, in any statistical test a 1% standard error is considered is equivalent to saying that you are 99% confident that the results you have are accurate. 1% is not a lot of anything. Also carefully omitted from the narrative is that these dates are derived from at least five different kinds of radiometric isochron dating: 
    • Lead-Lead isochron
    • Samarium-Neodymium isochron
    • Rubidium-Strontium isochron
    • Rhenium-Osmium isochron and 
    • Argon-Argon isochron.  
All of these dating methods have different decay states, decay rates and half lives and yet all give dates to within 1% error
  • 1:52 – After a reasonably straightforward description of radiometric dating, the narrator then, while admitting that it is true that a decay rate can be measured using “observational science,” it requires “historical science” to tell how old the rock actually is. He states that in order to get accurate measures from rocks, one would have to know both the decay rate and the initial conditions of the rock, otherwise we cannot directly measure the ages of rocks.  He asks “how do we know what the initial conditions were in the rock sample?”  and “How do we know the amounts of parent or daughter elements haven't been altered by other process in the past?” and How does someone know the decay rate has remained constant in the past?"   He then says “They don't.” This is false.
  • Timothy Heaton, Chair of the Department of Earth Sciences & Physics at South Dakota State University writes this about the parent/daughter ratios:
    Isochron dating bypasses the necessity of knowing the quantity of initial daughter product in the rock by not using that value in the computation. Instead of using the initial quantity of daughter isotope, the ratio of daughter isotope compared to another isotope of the same element (which is not the product of any decay process) is used as the comparison for isochron dating. The plot of the ratios of the number of atoms of the parent isotope to the number of atoms in the non-daughter isotope compared to the number of atoms of the daughter isotope to the non-daughter isotope should result in a straight line that intersects the vertical y-axis (which is the ratio of daughter to non-daughter isotopes). This point of intersection gives the initial ratio of daughter to non-daughter isotopes, which would also be the ratio in a mineral that crystallized without any parent isotope present.
    Here is a web site that shows how this plot works in graphic fashion. The narrator's  hourglass analogy is, therefore, inaccurate.  We don't need to know how much sand was in the hourglass to begin with, nor did we need to observe the process.  The decay rate is well-known and invariate, which leads to his second statement.
  • As far as the variation in decay rates of radiogenic isotopes goes, they have been shown to vary only  0.1% in response to outside influences (here, and here) and have been shown to vary significantly only under extreme laboratory conditions not found on earth.
As noted above, buried deep in this video and others that Answers in Genesis puts out is a particular philosophical bent that sees “observational science” as real science and “historical science” as not. Ken Ham is often quoted as rejecting historical science by rhetorically asking “Were you there?”  In other words, we cannot know historical processes because we did not observe them.  Consequently, when the narrator of this video says “we don't” in answer to how we can know how some of our assumptions about radiometric dating are correct, it is this philosophical bent in action.

Such a perspective is facile, as it completely disregards the fact that we reconstruct past events every day at all levels, from the simple act of encountering a broken glass on the floor with ice and water beside it (someone dropped a glass of water) to complex murder investigations in which no one but the murderer was present.  No one questions the validity of these assumptions and they form the basis for much of what we do in life, including our entire criminal justice system.

Secondary to this notion that we can reconstruct the past is that the processes that occur today also occurred in the past.  If I am digging in a field and encounter, at a depth of three or so feet, a series of horizontal metal beams that are four and a half feet apart with ties in between them, because I know that distance is the standard railway gauge, I can reasonably assume that what I have uncovered is part of an old railway.  Was I there when they built it?  No, but I didn't have to be to have a pretty good idea of what it is.

This is true not just of human constructs but also of natural formations.  Because we have modern floods, hurricanes, meteorite craters and so on, we can identify these formations in the past.

This puts historical science and all of its reconstructive observational power on level footing with observational science.  While Ken Ham and others at Answers in Genesis might say otherwise, it simply is not so.

It is amazing how much damage to scientific and academic integrity one can do in a three-minute video.  Answers in Genesis is, apparently, up to the task.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Creationism Not To Be Taught in Ohio Schools

World Religion News is reporting that the kerfuffle going on regarding the use of the Adnan Oktar (nee Harun Yahya) video on creationism has prompted the CEO of Youngstown, Ohio schools to issue a statement that creationism will not be taught.  Elisa Meyer writes:
The Ohio school curriculum has required that teachers show a creationist video as part of the tenth grade education program. The video, “Cambrian Fossils and The Creation of Species“, depicts the creationist theory of the origin of life.

However, things are going to change across Youngstown schools with the new decision made by Mohip. The CEO said they will follow a curriculum that will be completely in line with the guidelines as laid down by the Education Department of Ohio. Ohio has directed schools and institutions to base their education completely on a scientific approach and to avoid religious and pseudo-scientific beliefs and theories altogether.
World Religion News paints it as an ‘iconic’ victory for atheists, which is fundamentally myopic but indicative of how this disagreement is being framed these days.

A Personal Note: Of Life and Prostates

Funny thing about the prostate gland.  It is absolutely essential for procreation.  Put simply (and I know some people who did not know this), the prostate gland produces semen, without which the sperm would have nothing in which to travel.  Not prostate, no children.  On paper, it is a somewhat elegant solution except for the fact that, as Robin Williams once quipped: “The human body was designed by a civil engineer. Who else would run a toxic waste pipeline through a recreational area?”

The sad fact of the matter is, however, once the children have been conceived and borne, and middle age descends like a ton of bricks, the prostate becomes not just irrelevant, it actually becomes a hindrance  to every-day life.  I have many friends who are dealing with prostate problems of one sort or another.

Where am I going with this?  On September 26, I will have surgery to remove stage three cancer from my prostate.We are told, as men, that if we live long enough, 75% of us will get some form of prostate cancer.  For most men, it strikes late in life, and they typically die from something else.

My cancer is different.  I am only 54.  As I remarked to my fellow church members, this is the Dan Fogelberg, Bill Bixby, Frank Zappa kind of cancer.  It is the kind that kills. For those of you familiar with such things, it has a Gleason score of 7.   Fortunately, for me, all indications are that the cancer has not spread, so this should take care of it.  It will result, nonetheless, in some somewhat unwanted life changes.  Oh well. Can't be helped. 

Long story short: that is why the posting has been somewhat spotty.  I have been trying to get ahead at work and working long hours to that effect.  I have also had one stinkin' medical test after another (some not so fun at all) and am worn out.  I hope to be back in the saddle soon.  My doctor seems confident that I will be back to work in four weeks.  One of the things that complicates things a bit is that I have type 2 diabetes which will prolong the healing process.  As soon as I am able, I will begin posting again. 

Please forgive the personal nature of this post but if you are a believer, please pray for me and my family.  Thanks.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Barbara King Responds to the Critics of Her NPR Post

Barbara King, in a follow-up post to her plea to teach evolution to promote science literacy on NPR, responds to critics that her suggestions promote only one view of many different viable options to teaching evolution, and, therefore, deprives students of different views of a complex subject.  She notes:
With more than 4,100 entries in the comment section plus hundreds more responses on Facebook and Twitter, and private email messages arriving at my inbox, too, I haven't attempted to categorize the responses in any formal way. More than a few were startling, like the warning that came to me via email that because I was supporting "programming children" in my views on evolution, God "will have to allow you to go to a particularly brutal place (yes there are levels of torment in hell), and you will consciously have eternal regret."

But there was also genuine concern that evolutionary scientists, including me, advocate forcing children to learn one way and one way only. In response after response, the idea was put forth that all views about how and when life appeared on Earth should be taught so kids can make up their own minds.
She also takes direct aim at the John Ellis article on PJ Media, which I also addressed.The responses she cites, however, indicate something very ominous: many, many people out there have no idea how science proceeds, or even what it is.  One response she quotes is this:
"Shouldn't we leave people to decide what they believe? Our nation is too large and too diverse to have a nice black and white, right vs wrong answer to group everyone into. It was a nation founded upon religious freedom. Freedom to believe, freedom not to believe. We're all losing sight of that and creationism vs evolution isn't the only place."
This is so backward, I don't even know where to start. As I noted in my post on this subject, science is not democratic. You can't vote for the kind of science you want. Teaching alchemy is not a viable alternative to modern chemistry. There is no justification for teaching the theory that there is a giant vacuum cleaner inside the earth that is responsible for things falling to the ground. There is no empirical justification for it. She reiterates this:
Freedom to believe anything one wants in the religious sphere is incredibly important. I'll have no part of scientists' religion-bashing. People who celebrate a 6,000-year-old Earth and the sweeping effects of a "great flood" on Earth and its inhabitants in church have as much right to do that as any of us have to espouse our particular brand of religiosity — or of agnosticism or atheism.

In my Ark Encounter post, my point is different: When it comes to science, we shouldn't let our children believe anything they want. Science isn't about belief.

Children need to be taught the facts from geology, biology, anthropology and other sciences, how those facts were determined, and how those facts will be refined with new knowledge over time. Ark Encounter, its sister attraction the Creation Museum, and their creationist supporters push religion as science; they claim that evolutionary "theory" means the science is wishy-washy on facts, which is a major misunderstanding of what theory means in science; they push false information as fact. None of that is OK.
This message is lost on people like John Ellis, who think that teaching evolution as modern science constitutes “scientism slurping” and “science worshipping.” What would people like Ellis have us do? There seems to be very little realization that the same methods that we apply to engineering, astronomy, geology, biology and medicine, we also apply to evolutionary science. For some reason, evolutionary science is separated as if it were some wholly different enterprise.  I rather suspect that Ellis wouldn't describe an aerospace engineer as “scientism slurping” in working out the construction of a rocket engine. Yet, he has no compunction at doing so for evolution.  How do you reach people like this?  Especially people like Ellis, who has no science background at all? 

I'm open to suggestions. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Matthew Walther Writes About What He Found at the Ark Encounter

Matthew Walther, writing for the Washington Free Beacon chronicles his visit to the Ark Encounter and asks some basic questions:
The question that Christian visitors to the museum will ask themselves is what the point of all this is. Looking at elaborate reconstructions of pre-Deluge ungodly living—robed priests on the steps of a ziggurat handing over babies to be sacrificed to a gilt snake idol, slave maidens striking titillating poses and feeding grapes to Sumerian emperors—and pondering the question of Noah’s occupation—they think he might have been a blacksmith—is fun, but is it spiritually edifying?

There is something striking, even sublime about the sight of the Ark itself, which is being billed as the “largest timber-frame structure in the world.” But was it worth spending $100 million, most of it in junk-grade municipal bonds via an arrangement that I cannot imagine many of our current federal judges think constitutional? What about the zip-line course across the surrounding valley that I decided to forego and the Noah’s Chili With Cheese and $2.50 soft drinks (no refills) at the adjacent restaurant and the planned Tower of Babel—not to be built to scale, one presumes—and pre-Flood city exhibits? Will this strengthen anyone’s faith or bring a single soul to Christ?

Or is it merely a monument to the nitpickers amongst us?
Or is it just another monument to the Disney-ization of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Evolution of the Eye

Here is a nifty little video on the formation of the eye by evolutionary processes that was created by Essilor.  It is hand-drawn animation and is quite informative. Enjoy.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

PJ Media Takes on NPR on Science and Completely Misses the Point

Science is not a democratic exercise.  There is either scientific support for a theory or there is not.  If there are competing views about how some kind of observable phenomena should be explained, one of those views is usually shown to be incorrect.  That is how science proceeds.  Consequently, the idea of “teaching the full range of views” on a subject should be viewed with some skepticism. It is certainly valid to do so in an historical context to get a picture of how scientific understanding of a given phenomenon has progressed, but not as far as teaching prevailing scientific understanding of it. Yet, that is exactly what is being suggested by PJ Media writer John Ellis.

Ellis is responding to an NPR post, which is supportive of evolutionary theory, and he is critical of the post writer, Barbara King, for her position that evolutionary theory should be taught uniformly throughout primary and secondary institutions.

First, the NPR post.  King writes:
Watching the NBC Nightly News broadcast on a Friday earlier this month, I gaped as the last segment aired.

Kevin Tibbles was reporting from the site of Kentucky's Ark Encounter, constructed by Christian fundamentalist, young-Earth creationist and Answers in Genesis president Ken Ham. At the time, Ark Encounter was set to open to the public the following week.

Tibbles described Ark Encounter as telling "the Old Testament story of Noah, the animals and, of course, the flood." He interviewed Ham and closed out the 2-minute piece by noting Ham's hope that people will come in droves "to study the story of Noah for generations to come."
Astounded that the Ark Encounter showed humans and dinosaurs coexisting, despite the fact that dinosaurs had been extinct for some 60 million years before our ancestors arrived on the scene, she wondered how to best respond to this misinformation. 
*Speak out and speak up to school boards. Parents can insist that biology teachers in public schools be well-qualified to teach evolution; currently, many are not. In a related vein, check in with the "Take Action" page of the NCSE.
*Let the media know when they do a poor job of covering evolution-related issues or, conversely, a good one. The week after the NBC Nightly News segment, CBS News aired a report from Ark Encounter. Correspondent Mark Strassmann talked to Ham — and to a visitor who confirmed her belief that dinosaurs and people "walked hand-in-hand" a few thousand years ago on Earth. But he went on also to interview Jim Helton from Tri-State Freethinkers and science communicator Bill Nye "The Science Guy" as well, who stood up for evolutionary science.
*Read science- and evolution-based books to, and with, your children. Even young kids may enjoy and learn from age-appropriate writing that gets across concepts of evolution. Last year, I wrote here about Grandmother Fish by Jonathan Tweet and illustrator Karen Lewis. Another example is Evolutionary Tales by Matt Cubberly and illustrator May Villani, a short book that invites children to think about adaptive features of animals like the sugar glider, tarsier and pileated woodpecker.
*Ask evolution-related questions of political candidates and their staff. Science is, of course, a big issue in presidential campaigns. It's clear that the Hillary Clinton campaign accepts anthropogenic climate change as a serious risk to the world that requires science-based policy initiatives, whereas the Donald Trump campaign does not. But on evolution, it's much harder to find evidence of questions asked and answered. (An attempt to reach Trump senior communications adviser Jason Miller this week did not produce a reply; even asking evolution-related questions may be valuable, though, because they let staffers know what voters care about.)
It should be pointed out that this column came out before Trump named Mike Pence as his running mate, a man who has not shown support for evolutionary theory in the past.

So....what did John Ellis of PJ Media have to say about Barbara King's suggestions?  Well, one can get a pretty clear idea from the title of the column, which is “NPR Writer Having a Meltdown Because YOUR Children Might Learn About Noah's Ark.”  Actually, King only mentions the Ark Encounter as a lead-in to promote the teaching of evolution.  As noted above, she correctly points out that there are 65 million years in between modern humans and dinosaurs, a geological point firmly established by many lines of evidence.  Beyond that, though, her point, and it is a very good one, is that the general public is woefully uneducated about basic evolutionary theory, a theory that underpins all of modern biology.  That is her target.

Ellis goes on:
Last week, NPR treated us to a condescending and science-worshipping article written by Barbara King, an anthropology professor whose latest book is titled How Animals Grieve. If King had stopped at the usual scientism slurping, that would have been bad enough. King, however, took the extra step and demanded an obeisance from parents and the complete sacrifice of their children to the god of contemporary science.

Taking aim at young earth creationism as manifest by Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis, Barbara King scolds reporters who give any positive attention to, in King's words, "anti-science creationist discourse." She goes on to explain how society has failed our children by allowing them to be exposed to anything but evolution. After a series of proposed remedies, King concludes her condescending rant by declaring that, "Our children must be taught about evolutionary science in order to be science-literate."
First off, this column kind of surprised me coming out of PJ Media. This is the kind of thing I would expect to read from the Discovery Institute, the intelligent design think tank out in Washington state.  Who is John Ellis?  If you click on his name, you are greeted with this:
Having spent the majority of his adult life as a theatre artist throughout the Southeast, John now lives in the DC area with his wife and two kids. Besides writing, he works on the staff at his church. Prior to writing for PJ Media, he was a columnist for No Depression and regular contributor to Bearded Gentleman Music.
In other words, he has no scientific training whatsoever.  He is a musician and writer (and not of science).  Here is what he writes next:
Since scientism is a faith-based religion, and a faith-based religion that has the entire trajectory of science history undermining it, scientism's adherents have to forcefully clear the worldview deck in order for their religion to flourish. In the marketplace of ideas, the weaker ideas are going to need some handicapping, so to speak.

The thing is, next to no one is attempting to keep children from learning about evolution. Creationists that have any sway over policy want children to learn options. There is a concerted effort, however, to frame worldview discussions in a manner that eliminates any worldview that doesn't bow down to the current, most-privileged group-think. In other words, Barbara King isn't really concerned that your children be science-literate; she wants to make sure that your children aren't exposed to ideas that threaten her larger worldview. She wants control.

Controlling the education of children is one of the front lines in the battle of worldviews. Barbara King realizes that for her religion of scientism to flourish, children's education has to be devoid of competing ideas.
There are numerous problems with this column. Ellis uses phrases like "the usual scientism slurping" as if such were a common thing in scientific discourse, yet does not define or explain in any satisfactory way what "scientism" is or why Dr. King's writing should be characterized as such.  Further, his use of the phrase "god of contemporary science," suggests that he holds the scientific enterprise in very low regard.  Given his background, one wonders what qualifications he has to write this column and who green lighted it in the first place.

He mentions "taking aim" at young earth creationism.  This is, perhaps, because young earth creationism is an easy target at which to take aim.  There is no defensible science that supports the young earth position.  We have known for almost a hundred years that the earth is not 6,000 years old and the evidence for the young earth position gets weaker every day.  Consequently, defense of young earth creationism, by people like Ken Ham and others, has begun to focus on how acceptance of an old earth and evolution amounts to "compromising the biblical message," that, as Christians, we should know better than to accept evolution, or how evolutionary thought leads to the gross evils of mankind (despite the fact that evil has been around considerably longer than evolutionary theory).  This is a blatant move to appeal to the emotions of supporters and to their religious perspectives.  After all, if the Bible clearly says that the earth was created in six literal days (and that is really big IF), then modern science MUST be wrong.

He speaks derisively of Dr. King's statements that we must teach evolutionary biology to kids to keep them science-literate and that the difference between creationists and evolutionists is that creationists don't worship science.  It is hard to combat an argument like this because it is so lazy.  How do "evolutionists" worship science?  He doesn't say.  Evolutionary biologists don't worship science, they practice it.  He says that the strength of creationists is that they are not "threatened by competing views."

Would he make the same argument that we should teach our kids alchemy, instead of modern chemistry?  What about teaching the various theories of gravitation prior to our modern understanding?  There are, after all, people that still subscribe to those.  What about geocentrism?  How about the Flat Earth Society?

Anyone that tried to seriously teach these would be laughed at, and rightly so.  Why, given that modern young earth creationism has no scientific support, should we treat it differently?  Why, if evolution has more support than most scientific theories, does teaching it constitute sacrificing school kids to "the god of contemporary science?"  If competing views have been shown to be false, why should we teach them?

He writes that scientism (once again, undefined) is faith-based and that it has the entire history of science undermining it, therefore, promoters of scientism need to "handicap" the weaker ideas.  News flash: that is what science does.  It weeds out the weaker ideas.  Back to my initial point: science is not democratic.  Ideas that have no empirical support get put in the dustbin of history.  Science does and must proceed this way or we have no way of understanding the world and universe in which we live.

He writes that no one is trying to keep people from learning evolution.  This simply isn't so.  One of the principle findings of the Dover trial in 2005 is that the defense witnesses lied repeatedly about why they wanted an alternative to evolution taught.  Most of the defense witnesses could not even identify what Intelligent Design was.  When pressed, it became clear that they wanted creationism taught. 

Recent reports from other places in the country indicate that, almost uniformly, attempts to "teach the controversy" or "teach the full range of ideas" are smokescreens for getting young earth creationism (and hence, anti-evolution) into the classroom (For example, see here, here, here, and here).  Most of these bill supporters would like nothing better than to have evolution stripped from the curriculum of public education.  That they have not been very successful so far is not for lack of trying.

This is a very poorly-written article.  While blasting what he calls "scientism," Ellis makes no effort to explain why we should teach creationism in its place.  Further, he makes no effort to explain why the teaching of evolution should not happen, simply that he thinks it consists of a "world view."  If teaching evolutionary theory constitutes teaching a "world view" then guess what?  Most of what we teach as science entails a "world view."

Heliocentrism is a "world view" and we teach that. When Galileo confirmed Copernicus' finding that the earth was not in the center of the universe, it sent shockwaves throughout the church, such that the work of Copernicus was banned. Much like the modern struggle against evolution, it literally changed their "world view" in such a way that they couldn't incorporate it into their understanding of scripture.  Does any educated person today doubt that the earth is not in the center of the universe?   

Gravitational theory changed our understanding of the universe and introduced us to black holes, quantum mechanics and string theory.  Plate tectonic theory changed our understanding of how our earth works, why earthquakes and volcanoes happen where and when they do and why most natural disasters happen.  Science News has a great little article on the Top 10 Revolutionary Scientific Theories, every one of which changed our "world view."  Ellis is just upset because King's world view differs from his.  The catch is that there is empirical support for her world view and there is none for his.  As such, his argument that her promotion of evolutionary theory constitutes "scientism" fails. 

Sunday, August 07, 2016

New Scientist: Public Schools Should Not Take Their Kids to the Ark Encounter

A post in the New Scientist has come out squarely against the idea that public schools should take kids on field trips to the Ark Encounter, despite a plea from Ken Ham to do so.  Josh Rosenau, of the NCSE writes:
Throughout the Ark, wordy signs, animatronic mannequins and strident videos all insist that it is no Sunday school tale, but a “historically authentic” boat that existed just as Ham and others on the young-earth creationist fringe imagine it.
Perhaps because of disappointing visitor numbers so far, it is offering reduced rates – $1 a student and free tickets for accompanying teachers – to tempt schoolchildren through its doors. Schools and parents should know that a visit wouldn’t educate or entertain, it would misinform and browbeat.

Publicly-funded schools certainly should not take their charges to the park. The US Constitution prohibits government bodies, including schools, from endorsing one particular religious belief over others. Ark Encounter is all about endorsing Ham’s particular reading of Genesis as the literal truth. The constitutions of nearby states, from which a trip might be feasible, echo that proscription.
While this may be true, that is not the best reason to stay away from the exhibit. I am always a little bit leery of anything the FFRF says, because, as an organization, it would think absolutely nothing of trampling religious freedoms in an effort to squash religion altogether. Having said that, it would be pretty hard to square a tax-payer funded public school trip to an attraction that is designed specifically to convert people to its particular brand of Christianity.  Especially when there is not a shred of scientific evidence that the flood on which the story is based actually happened.  As Christian geologist Carol Hill writes:
No geologic evidence whatsoever exists for a universal flood, flood geology, or the canopy theory. Modern geologists, hydrologists, paleontologists, and geophysicists know exactly how the different types of sedimentary rock form, how fossils form and what they represent, and how fast the continents are moving apart...
Kids can go see Ken Ham's monument to the Disney-ization of Christianity, but it will probably never happen as part of a sanctioned field trip.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Viruses have a strong role in Evolution

A story making the rounds reports on a study that suggests that viruses may have had a very strong influence on human evolution.  The Economic Times reports the following:
In a new study, researchers apply big-data analysis to reveal the full extent of viruses' impact on the evolution of humans and other mammals.

The findings suggest an astonishing 30 per cent of all protein adaptations since humans' divergence with chimpanzees have been driven by viruses.

"When you have a pandemic or an epidemic at some point in evolution, the population that is targeted by the virus either adapts, or goes extinct," said David Enard, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University.

“We knew that, but what really surprised us is the strength and clarity of the pattern we found,” said Enard.
This is not so surprising. We already know that endogenous retroviruses have had a very large role to play in human evolution and that the pattern of their dispersal provides some of the best evidence of common ancestry.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

William Dembski Comes Face to Face With the Closed-Mindedness of Young Earth Creationism

Disgraced Christian Comedian Mike Warnke once upon a time referred to someone as being so narrow-minded that he “could look through a keyhole with both eyes.” That is, apparently, what William Dembski found when he attempted to engage the young earth creationism movement about some of their core claims. He has a fairly lengthy post on his own site, in which he reposts an updated interview that he did with The Best Schools.

I, and others (here, here and here), have been very critical of Dembski over the years because of his persistent misunderstanding of the basic workings of evolution.   Nonetheless, I share his consternation.  A bit back, he wrote a book titled The End of Christianity (which I am embarrassed to say I have yet to read) in which he addressed the notion of evil within a Christian context that allowed for an old earth creation. He writes:
What I was dealing with in The End of Christianity is a more narrow problem, namely, how to account for evil within a Christian framework given a reading of Genesis that allows the earth and universe to be billions, rather than merely thousands, of years old. I’m an old-earth creationist, so I accept that the earth and universe are billions of years old. Young-earth creationism, which is the more traditional view, holds that the earth is only thousands of years old.

The reason this divergence between young-earth and old-earth creationists is relevant to the problem of evil is that Christians have traditionally believed that both moral and natural evil are a consequence of the fall of humanity. But natural evil, such as animals killing and parasitizing each other, would predate the arrival of humans on the scene if the earth is old and animal life preceded them. So, how could their suffering be a consequence of human sin and the Fall? My solution is to argue that the Fall had retroactive effects in history (much as the salvation of Christ on the Cross acts not only forward in time to save people now, but also backward in time to save the Old Testament saints).
Make no mistake, Dembski still does not accept biological evolution, at least not to the level that is traditionally accepted within the scientific community.

The overall reaction he received surprised him, although in hind sight, some of it should have been predictable:
Ken Ham went ballistic on it, going around the country denouncing me as a heretic, and encouraging people to write to my theological employers to see to it that I get fired for the views I take in it.
That's the “both eyes” part.  Then he says something that I have thought for some time, and it is something that has been touched on by writers such as Mark Noll and Karl Giberson:
There’s a mentality I see prevalent in conservative Christian circles that one can never be quite conservative enough. This got me thinking about fundamentalism and the bane it is. It’s one thing to hold views passionately. It’s another to hold one particular view so dogmatically that all others may not even be discussed, or their logical consequences considered. This worries me about the future of evangelicalism.
I have seen this mentality rise within the young earth creation community. To an extent, it has always been there, in that there is, in published book after book (no scholarly articles), no possibility broached that the strict, literal reading of the Primeval History cannot be correct.  This is a serious problem within fundamentalist evangelicalism and is part and parcel of the entire problem that the movement has with any sort of reasoned academic debate.

It is also the same mentality that encourages the break with the historical church and the writings of the church fathers, to the point where many fundamentalist evangelicals are so busy trying to be evangelical that they don't know what "Christian" actually means.  One last quote from Dembski drives this point home:
Fundamentalism, as I’m using it, is not concerned with any doctrinal position, however conservative or traditional. What’s at stake is a harsh, wooden-headed attitude that not only involves knowing one is right, but refuses to listen to, learn from, or understand other Christians, to say nothing of outsiders to the faith. Fundamentalism in this sense is a brain-dead, soul-stifling attitude. I see it as a huge danger for evangelicals.
The young earth creation movement is the embodiment of this mindset.

I encourage you to read the whole interview.  He has some very damning things to say about how the fundamentalist evangelical world treated him after the book came out.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Lauren Saville: The Importance of Teaching Human Evolution

Lauren Saville has written a post for NCSE titled "The Importance of Teaching Evolution."  Inevitably, the post deals not just with human evolution, but with climate change as well because, just as rejection of human evolution goes hand in hand with climate change skepticism on the right, acceptance of the two go hand in hand on the left.  So, why should we teach human evolution?
From an early age we wonder where we come from; evolution explains that for us. From the amazing array of fossils that have been found in Africa, Asia, and Europe we can piece together our evolutionary lineage from Australopithecus to early Homo sapiens and explore the different species that branched off in between. By studying the fossil record we can understand when we began walking upright, by noting all the huge morphological changes that distinguish us from other great apes, such as our wide bowl-shaped pelvis, big toes in line with the rest of our feet and shorter arms. We can see when our brain size increased (when Homo erectus came about) and the subsequent huge change in our technology. As they say, the rest is history.

Tapping into our inherent curiosity about our history and origins is a great way to get students excited about science. Who does not want to know why we do the things we do and look the way we do? Learning about our own evolution helps students feel connected to science.
I would add that one of the reasons we should teach human evolution is because it places us in the wide pantheon of evolution on the earth, which began some 3.5 billion years ago. It gives us an idea of the vastness of time. Humans, in their (relatively) current form, have been around for almost 200 thousand years. Our genus has been around for over 2 million years. How long is that? If you started counting by ones out loud, it would take you twenty-two days of straight counting to get to two million.

To count to one billion would take you 31 years!!

Evolution has been going on for three and a half times that long. We are part and parcel of the grand design of life and should take joy in that.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Ken Ham, Evolutionary Creationism and Reality, Part II

As I mentioned a few days ago in a post on Ken Ham's attack on evolutionary creationists, the thrust of his argument is that Christians who accept the science of evolution “are mixing the religion of death with the religion of life — death came after sin, Jesus conquered it. Evolution requires death over millions of years, death is a 'friend' that produces life and death ends it all,"  Implicit in this approach is that physical death accompanied the fall of Adam, a real person, and that, in contrast to the world prior to Adam's sin, death now pervades the natural world.  Acceptance of evolution, therefore, requires acceptance of death before Adam's sin.  Yesterday, I suggested some theological alternatives to this perspective.  But there is also another response to Ham's attack.

It is irrelevant.

Ham argues that, as Christians, we cannot accept evolutionary creationism because we reject the purpose of Christ's death and resurrection as having atoned for the sins of one man: Adam. Even if this were true, what bearing does it have on the reality of evolution or the age of the earth?

One of the pervasive features of the arguments that are posited in favor of a creation that is 6,000 years old is that they simply do not stand up to scrutiny.  Entire books and web sites are devoted to pointing out the holes in young earth creationist arguments.  For example take just about any paper in TalkOrigins, NCSE, or BioLogos and you will find concrete evidence for evolution and an old earth creation and articles debunking of young earth arguments.  This is a very fruitful area of research.  Excellent books exist, written by geologists, palaeontologists and historians.  These include
  • Don Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters
  • David Montgomery's The Rocks Don't Lie
  • Kenneth Miller's Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul and Finding Darwin's God
  • Carol Hill, Gregg Davidson and Wayne Ranney: Grand Canyon: Monument to An Ancient Earth
  • Davis Young and Ralph Stearley: The Bible, Rocks and Time
  • Davis Young: The Biblical Flood: A Case Study of the Church's Response to Extrabibilical Evidence
  • Andrew J. Petto and Laurie Godfrey: Scientists Confront Creationism: Intelligent Design and Beyond
Many of these books are written by Christians who have analyzed the evidence and have concluded that there is undeniable evidence of an ancient earth and that evolutionary theory does, in fact, accurately describe present and past biological diversity.   This is, by no means, an exhaustive list and a search of Amazon will bring up literally hundreds of such books.

In other words, Ken Ham can rail against the acceptance of evolution by Christians but it takes on the air of someone railing against something like atomic energy.  There is no shortage of people out there who protest against the use of atomic energy and decry the evils that it brings upon the world.  This has no bearing on the existence of atomic energy.  It simply is.  The massive amounts of evidence that support evolution reflect the fact that it simply is.  It has as much evidence to support it as there is to support an ancient earth.  And as with an ancient earth, there is no escaping the concept of death.

 Consequently, Ham's attempts to attach moral and spiritual significance to both evolution and “millions of years” are misguided.  The vast majority of theologians understand this and the relevant science has, at least incipiently, been in place for over seventy years.  They also understand the pitfalls of interpreting the scriptures literally, as I pointed out in the post a few days ago.  It is only the supporters of the  relatively recent young earth creation perspective who fail to understand this.