Actias luna

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Photograph by Tom Gillespie.

Photography Contest, Second Place.


Actias luna – Luna moth, Duluth, Georgia. Shot from underneath, as it was resting upside-down in my azalea bush.

Domesticated: Book review

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A number of years ago, I found a family of raccoons living in my chimney.1 I got them out by dropping a trouble light down the flue and turning it on for a few days. According to Richard C. Francis, in his splendid book, Domesticated, animals such as raccoons living in urbanized areas represent the first step toward domesticating those animals.

The full title of the book is Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World, and Francis shows in considerable detail how various animals became domesticated: dogs, cats, pigs, sheep and goats, reindeer, camels, horses, rodents, and perhaps humans, as well as other predators such as raccoons and ferrets. Each scenario is slightly different, each seems well documented, and each has just a little bit of just-so story in it.

(edited to add a point on Aegirocassis and Parapeytoia)

This week, the Discovery Institute Press put out another book called Debating Darwin’s Doubt. I took one for the team and bought it, in part because a a decent chunk of the book is responding to me. I’m pretty sure I’ve never been mentioned so much in a book!

Sadly, though, looking through it, almost all of it is material re-hashed from the DI “Evolution News and Views” blog and is no better than it was the first time. There is, however, a new chapter (I think it is new) by Casey Luskin, chapter 9, “Cladistics to the Rescue?” responding to me. If you don’t want to buy the book, there is a free podcast at ID the Future (heh), “Debating Darwin’s Doubt: Casey Luskin on Classification of Organisms” that interviews Luskin (although I think he wrote the questions). It has mostly the same material.

Unfortunately, I do not have time at the moment to write the introductory-level-tutorial-from-square-one that would be required to really explain the basics of cladistics and phylogenetics to Luskin et al. I have literally just moved to Australia to start as a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) Fellow in the Division of Ecology, Evolution, and Genetics, Research School of Biology, at The Australian National University in Canberra. Once I have a bed and a computer in my office I may be in better shape to do things more thoroughly – I have a bit of a fantasy about writing an R vignette or R package called something like BasicPhylogeneticsForCreationistsEspeciallyLuskin (I’ll take suggestions on a better name/acronym).

However, below, I can briefly hit the high points on the small bit of Luskin’s chapter that was new.

Melting of polar ice

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Photograph by Dan Moore.

Photography Contest VII: Winner.


Melting of polar ice. Mr. Moore writes, “Our ship got caught in the ice and had to be freed by a Canadian ice breaker. Global warming – what?? Actually, yes – we could not get through because so much ice broke free further north near the polar ice cap and was blown south into the shipping channels.” Mr. Moore will receive a signed copy of Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails), which has been donated by one of the authors.

Pluto and Spiderman

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Spiderman Shpiderman – a penpal of mine, who can identify himself if he likes (I will of course understand if he demurs), asks,

There’s a lot of excitement and amazement about the lack of cratering and the height and sharpness of the geological features on Pluto. It appears that, contrary to earlier speculation, Pluto is geologically active and thus geologically young…though “young” in the sense that these features are probably less than 100 million years old.

Now that the results are in, how long do you think it’ll be until AIG posts something about how a “Young Pluto Supports Recent Creation” and “Secular scientists with atheistic uniformitarian assumptions predicted that Pluto would be a dead planet pockmarked by craters, but the evidence of recent geologic activity should come as no surprise to Christians, who know that Pluto was created along with all the other celestial bodies on the Fourth Day just over 6,000 years ago!”

The closest approach of the New Horizons spacecraft was last Tuesday, around noon UTC, and my penpal wrote, “I will give them until Friday morning.” Friday has come and gone, and Saturday is nearly gone in Kentucky, but the latest post from AIG concerns the burning question of whether Spiderman really exists.

Perhaps the AIG-ites can use a little help. We invite our readers to suggest explanations (post hoc, of course, and within a creationist framework) for why Pluto and Charon are geologically active even though they are so small and so distant from the Sun.

We also suggest a Pluto Pool, wherein our readers try to guess the date and time of AIG’s first comment on the fascinating geology of Pluto and Charon. The winner of the pool is the person who most closely predicts the correct date and time, but whose prediction predates that date and time. Entry into the pool costs nothing, and the winner receives a commensurate amount, because AIG’s comment on the subject is bound to be worth that amount.

Little Ice Age coming?

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I do not know what to make of this, but UPI reports that a team from the University of Northumbria, “saying they understand solar cycles better than ever, predict that the sun’s normal activity will decrease by 60 percent around 2030 – triggering the ‘mini ice age’ that could last for a decade.” That sentence is unclear, but I presume they mean “normal sunspot activity.” As they do not quite say, the northern hemisphere (at least) experienced the Little Ice Age about 300 years ago. The Little Ice Age corresponded with a period of minimal sunspot activity known as the Maunder minimum, and Wikipedia states that a causal connection has recently been established.

Nothing in this report contradicts conclusions about climate change and anthropogenic global warming. Nevertheless, expect climate-change deniers to have a field day!

Professor Steve Steve informs us of an article Why are pandas so lazy? in Science Now. Professor Steve Steve takes exception to the claim that he is lazy. Yes, it is true that the giant panda’s daily energy expenditure is about 5 MJ: roughly one-third that of a dog and about the same as a three-toed sloth. It is also true that Professor Steve Steve moves slowly and basks a lot in the sun. Why? Because the giant panda is a carnivore that survives on a low-energy plant diet, which his body is ill-equipped to digest. To conserve energy, he maintains a low body temperature, and his organs, including his brain, are small.

Professor Steve Steve demurs. He claims that he is not lazy; he is simply ruminating.

Here are the finalists of the 2015 photography contest. We received 16 photographs from 7 photographers, somewhat fewer than in previous years. This year we decided to choose 1 picture from each entrant and enlisted our wife to help with the choices. The text was written by the photographers and lightly edited for consistency.

The finalists are given below the proverbial fold, in alphabetical order of last name. Please look through their photographs before voting for your favorite. You will have to be logged in to vote on the poll. We know it is possible to game these polls. Please be responsible and vote only once. If we think that the results are invalid, we will cancel the contest.

Polling will close Friday, July 17, at approximately 12:00 CST.

Reed Cartwright contributed to this post.

Zenaida macroura

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Zenaida macroura – mourning dove, Walden Ponds Wildlife Habitat, Boulder, Colorado, spring, 2015. I have not seen nor heard a mourning dove within the city limits since the collared doves took over.

Photography contest finalists next week, July 6, noon, CST.

I have got to stop following links in e-mails from AIG. Today I read the most bizarre article by Dr. Danny Faulkner, an astrophysicist who must have slept through his celestial mechanics courses. Dr. Faulkner discusses the leap second that will be added at 23:59:59 UTC (GMT) on June 30. He notes correctly that the rotation of the Earth is slowing down, and the moon is consequently drifting farther from the Earth. He then observes,

Finally, there is a long-term secular (non-periodic) slowing in the earth’s rotation caused by the tidal interaction of the earth and moon. As the earth slows its rotation, the moon spirals away from the earth. Therefore, in the past the earth spun more rapidly and the moon was much closer to the earth. Direct computation shows that the earth and moon would have been in contact about 1.3 billion years ago. Even a billion years ago the moon would have been so close to the earth that tides would have been a mile high. No one–including those who believe that the earth is far older than a billion years–thinks that tides were ever that high or that the moon and the earth touched a little more than a billion years ago.

However, since the earth and moon are only thousands of years old as the Bible clearly indicates, the long-term change in the earth-moon system is no problem. Indeed, what we see in the interaction between the earth and moon offers powerful evidence that the earth and moon are young.

I do not know the nature of the “direct computation,” but I would bet that it is based on the radius of the moon’s orbit increasing at a constant rate. Not obviously a good assumption; an article from Cornell University (which has a scientific reputation at least as distinguished as that of AIG) notes,

The exact rate of the Moon’s movement away from Earth has varied a lot over time. It depends both on the distance between the Earth and the Moon, and the exact shape of the Earth. The details of continents and oceans moving around on Earth actually change the rate, which make it a very hard thing to estimate. The rate is currently slowing down slightly, .…

Worse, look at Dr. Faulkner’s statement that “the earth and moon would have been in contact about 1.3 billion years ago.” An absolutely remarkable statement from a person who purports to have a PhD in physics and astronomy! Has he never heard of Roche’s limit? Roche’s limit is the smallest radius that a large satellite can maintain without being torn apart by tidal forces caused by the gravitational field of the main planet. According to NASA, Roche’s limit for the Moon is about 20 000 km, so I can assure Dr. Faulkner that the Earth and the Moon have never been in contact – not 1.3 billion years ago, not ever. When the Moon was formed, it had to have been formed outside Roche’s limit, and then it drifted away from the Earth at a rate that is not a constant and therefore not amenable to simple calculations.

Modern astronomy is not threatened, and the Earth is not young.

You can read it for yourself here. But, for my money, Mr. Kopplin exposes Gov. Bobby Jindal’s inner hypocrite with these too kind words:

“I mean, who knows? I could be totally wrong, and maybe Jindal believes this [creationism] with his whole heart. Which is more why I go back to what his kids are learning. I had their seventh-grade biology teacher at [University Laboratory School] where I went for middle school, and I know she doesn’t just teach evolution–she’s absolutely obsessive about it. If Jindal actually was a creationist, I think he’d have a much bigger problem with his kids being taught what evolution is.”

Mr. Kopplin, who is on the verge of graduating from Rice University,

has continued to beat the drum on what he views as the erosion of public schools. He has broadened his focus to include the governor’s voucher program, which diverts state money to religious schools that question evolution and openly discriminate against students who violate their moral code. … And Kopplin has expanded his push to Texas, where he discovered that students at the state’s biggest charter school network were being taught that the “sketchy” fossil record undermines the theory of evolution.

Dan Phelps alerted us to the fact that AIG’s Allosaurus fossil had been donated by an organization headed by Michael Peroutka, a man affiliated with “a white supremacist, neo-Confederate and pro-secessionist organization that has been named a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.” Mr. Phelps now writes,

Interesting that this press release didn’t get any coverage when I sent out the information last year. The Creation Museum received an Allosaurus dinosaur fossil appraised at $1 million from a donor who was on the Board of Directors of the League of the South. Various politicians are returning donations from hate groups after the recent Charleston shooting. According to the Encyclopedia of Modern American Extremists and Extremist Groups (by Steven E. Atkins, 2002, Greenwood Press), “Close ties have been formed between the LOS [League of the South] and the Council of Conservative Citizens with a significant cross-membership” (p. 174). Horrifyingly, Dylann Roof received some of his inspiration from the Council of Conservative Citizens [a direct descendant of the White Citizens’ Councils that were established in the 1950’s, primarily to oppose school integration].

Answers in Genesis (the owners of the Creation Museum) admirably makes anti-racist statements at times, but has taken a valuable donation from Michael Peroutka, a former Board Member of the racist hate group known as the League of the South. Why doesn’t the Creation Museum return the fossil or give it to a real science museum?

Unidentified fossil

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David MacMillan, who wrote an 8-part series on creationism for us, sent us these 4 photographs, along with the following request:

“I recently moved back to central Kentucky. One of the things I came across while visiting my family was this fossilized object I discovered near my home here when I was about 9 or 10 years old.

“Back in the late 90s, we were living in a new development and there was a lot of excavation going on near our house. I believe I found this half-buried in the bottom of a rain-fed creek just after a particularly heavy period of excavation followed by some heavy rainstorms.

“It appears to be a vertebra, due to the shape and orientation of the various spurs, and what seems to be a very large nerve opening going in the side. The exterior is dotted with what appear to be marine fossil concretions, including scallops and similar creatures.

“This region of Kentucky comprises primarily Ordovician limestone and shales, which is puzzling because this would have to be a pretty large marine vertebrate, and there were virtually no large bony vertebrates in the Ordovician. Perhaps this is actually not a vertebra at all and is rather some sort of oddly-shaped shell?

“The largest human lumbar vertebrae are around 13 mm thick, while this measures over 5 cm thick. If it is a vertebra, it would have to come from an animal with a spinal column at least five times the length of a human spine.

“Basically, I’m stumped. Any idea whether any of the readers of Panda’s Thumb might be able to identify it?”

Ondatra zibethicus

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Ondatra zibethicus – muskrat, Elmer’s Two-Mile Creek, Boulder, Colorado, May, 2015. The muskrat shown here disappeared after the 2013 flood, and I did not see any muskrats again till this spring.

Don’t forget to enter the photography contest – 1 week remaining!

The Washington Post reported the other day that Justice Antonin Scalia, in a commencement address, said,

Humanity has been around for at least some 5,000 years or so, and I doubt that the basic challenges as confronted are any worse now, or alas even much different, from what they ever were.

I suppose that “at least 5000 years” gives you some wiggle room, but I would hardly call, say, 200,000 years “at least 5000 years.” That is a bit like saying, “The trip from Boulder to New York is at least 20 kilometers.”

Jerry Coyne, who is much nicer than I am, thinks that it might have been “just an offhand remark that’s been blown out of proportion.” Well, maybe, but I watched most of the speech on Professor Coyne’s website, and I could not help but notice that Justice Scalia was reading that text: he did not misspeak.

Justice Scalia dissented in Edwards vs. Aguillar, but he seemed more concerned with whether the legislature intended creation “science” as a religious doctrine than with its scientific merit. He also supported the “balanced treatment” argument to the effect that students who learn evolution are entitled to the opposing view as well. His argument was well reasoned but depended on the assumption that creation science is not a religious doctrine if its supporters think it is not.

Contrary to some reports, Justice Scalia did not say, “The body of scientific evidence supporting creation science is as strong as that supporting evolution”; rather, he was paraphrasing the testimony of witnesses and states explicitly “that I by no means intend to endorse its accuracy” but that “what is crucial is not [the legislature’s] wisdom in believing that [a certain secular] purpose would be achieved by the bill, but their sincerity in believing it would be” [italics in original].

Still, Justice Scalia generally comes across as an authoritarian, uncomfortable with ambiguity and guided by literalist interpretations. If he takes the Bible as literally as he takes the Constitution, then it is easy to see that he might well believe in a young Earth. I hope I am wrong and Professor Coyne is right.

Photography Contest VII

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Polish your lenses, oil your tripods, search your archives – the seventh Panda’s Thumb photography contest, begins – now!


Polaroid Land Camera, Model 160, 1962-1965. Apologies for the moiré pattern on the face of camera!

We will accept entries from 12:00 CST, June 8, through 12:00 CST, June 22. We encourage pictures of just about anything of scientific interest. If we get enough entries, consistently with Rules 11 and 12, we may assign entries to different categories and award additional prizes, presuming, of course, that we can find more prizes.

The first-place winner will receive a signed copy of Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails), which has been donated by one of the authors. The second-place winner will receive a copy of The Devil in Dover, which has been generously donated by the National Center for Science Education.

Selasphorus platycercus

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Photograph by David Young.


Selasphorus platycercus – broad-tailed hummingbird, Boulder, Colorado, May, 2015.

… June 8. That is, we will accept entries from noon, June 8, to noon, June 22, where noon is defined by the Panda’s Thumb server, which thinks it is still in Central Standard Time, or UTC(GMT) – 5 h. The rules will be essentially the same as previous years’. We have not chosen categories yet, but please be assured that they (or it) will be all-inclusive. So wipe your lenses, grease your shutters, and be ready!

Chrysemys picta

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Chrysemys picta – painted turtle, Walden Ponds Wildlife Habitat, Boulder, yesterday. See also here.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Recent Comments

  • eric: I believe the standard explanation is the ‘helper’ one, not some genetic attraction to males. Meaning that the evolutionary strategy of successfully raising two nephews/nieces to adulthood is equivalent read more
  • Henry J: Re “What is “Intelligent Design”?” Oh, that’s where something intelligent manufactured all the predators, parasites, and agricultural pests that we have to deal with on a daily basis. (And we’re read more
  • TomS: What strikes me is that they will not describe their doctrine other than saying that there is a fatal flaw in “naturalism”. In particular, the evolutionary account for the read more
  • Michael Fugate: I do find myself repeatedly turning to John Wilkin’s The Salem Region: Two Mindsets about Science as an explanation. read more
  • Henry J: Do you suppose that happens when all the siblings have a stronger than average attraction to males? read more
  • Mike Elzinga: There may be a lot of truth to that. From what I have observed of all of the ID/creationist leaders over the years, it seems to be all about read more
  • Michael Fugate: Maybe assertion is better than belief.… read more
  • harold: To make it clear, I agree with this simultaneously posted comment by Mike Elzinga. I’m not arguing that they don’t believe in their deity, I’m arguing that there are read more
  • harold: Possible. I only look at behavior. I observe this behavior - “I demand harsh authoritarian rules be imposed on others, although I frequently, albeit secretly, break the very rules read more
  • Mike Elzinga: Even if there weren’t any socio/political evidence for the connections between YECs and ID - i.e., cdesign proponentsists, Kitzmiller v. Dover and other court cases, Pandas and People, etc read more



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