March 28, 2004 - April 3, 2004 Archives
There was a recent interview with Bill Dembski, leading light o' the ID movement, on Dick Staub. It's mostly the same old garbage, but I thought I'd highlight one part in particular:
Q. Well, let me ask you this. If intelligent design became broadly accepted within the scientific community, how would science have to change? In other words, what about the current scientific process would have to be different? Is intelligent design testable right now within science, you know? There's a strict adherence to certain testability quotients and so forth. How does science change if they accept intelligent design?
A. Well, I just want to speak to the testability business. I would say intelligent design is testable and, in fact, Darwinian evolution is not testable. Darwin said that for a complex organ to form it would have to form according to a series by a numerous successive slight modifications. And then he said, you know, I can't think of anything that couldn't have formed that way. Well of course, I mean, if you don't specify a process any more specifically than numerous successive slight modification, that anything might be the result of that process, such a process. [...]
Claims like this would be irritating if they weren't so hilarious. It's not too uncommon for Dembski to contradict himself, but sometimes the degree is startling. This is the plain fact of the matter: Dembski's method of "detecting design" requires, absolutely, that Darwinian evolution is testable. That's all there is to it. Since he and his fellow ID travelers find "evidence" of design whenever some natural process is supposedly incapable of doing the job, then there's no way he can claim to have evidence of design unless the natural process in question can be definitively ruled out. Dembski has just admitted that his whole design detection methodology is bunk. Nice going.
The good people of Alabama are facing an election year assault on reason and education in the form of "teach the controversy" legislation. The current scene is a proposed "Academic Freedom" act that encourages teachers to teach creationism. Early last month, Dr. Joe Lary (recently retired from a federal government science career) wrote an editorial for the Tuscaloosa News which I debunked between rounds here at Panda's Thumb. I sent the copy to the Tuscaloosa News, but they never responded. So, since the mountain wouldn't come to me ... I went to the mountain.
You will often hear creationists claim that there is a growing number of scientists who question evolution, and that Dobzhansky's dictum, that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, is false. They obviously don't read the scientific literature. What's clear in biology is that evolution is the indispensable integrator, the idea that ties together great and growing swathes of information, and that evolutionary biology is becoming ever more essential in research.
A case in point: the latest issue of Nature includes yet another landmark article, a description of the completion of the high-quality rough draft of the rat (Rattus norvegicus) genome (RGSPC, 2004). This is the third mammalian species (after the human and mouse) to have its genome fully sequenced, and we're seeing something that is going to be increasingly true as more and more genomes are completed: much of the interest now is in comparing the gigabytes of data extracted from each of these species, and using that information to evaluate evolutionary hypotheses.
Continue reading "The rat genome" (on Pharyngula)
Unfortunately, The American Scholar is not online, so you'll have to pick up a copy at Borders, but I recommend you do so and give a look to the spring 2004 issue's "Scientific Method" column by Natalie Angier. She explains her reaction when biologists approach her and urge her to teach people about evolution. Aside from its rather lame humor, I think her response is right on target--but you'll have to read it to see.
We all know about William Dembski's many educational degrees -- in part because he isn't shy about reeling them off. It's not the usual man who can exhibit two master's degrees and two Ph. D.'s. Such educational experience suggests a man who is in love with learning and who respects scholarship. All the more strange, then, that Dembski seems to be so completely incompetent when it comes to quotations.
A creationist has graced our little blog with a long rant on how evolution is wrong. The comment is mostly plagairized material. (Why are cut-and-pastes so popular with creationists? Can they not take the time to do their own work or critically evaluate the work of others?) The "arguments" and "facts" were the same ole, repetitive creationist shtick that we've seen so often before. In fact claims like these are so popular that Mark Issak has worked up an entire index of creationist claims for the talkorigins archive. It is a very useful resource, and I use it to respond to our friend's "points." Not only does it demonstrate that the comment is completley error ridden, but also that it isn't all that original.
Dr. Rosenhouse pointed out an absurd article on National Review Online which accuses the National Center for Science Education of "using federal tax dollars to insert religion into biology classrooms," because it has posted a website which says, in its entirety, that
The misconception that one has to choose between science and religion is divisive. Most Christian and Jewish religious groups have no conflict with the theory of evolution or other scientific findings. In fact, many religious people, including theologians, feel that a deeper understanding of nature actually enriches their faith. Moreover, in the scientific community there are thousands of scientists who are devoutly religious and also accept evolution.According to Prof. West, this represents an "effort to use religion to endorse evolution [a]s part of a larger public-relations strategy...to defuse skepticism of neo-Darwinism." By which he means, it's part of an attempt to explain to people that they really can accept the fact of evolution without abandoning their religious faith. Whether NCSE is right about that or not isn't relevant to West's allegation that NCSE's use of government grants to create this website violates "Supreme Court precedents on the establishment clause of the First Amendment." He is wrong about this.
Occasionally a creationist or an aideeist will make the wild assertion that biologists do not understand math/statistics and that math/statistics actually disproves evolution. This is followed by some random math argument based on ignorance of biology. The irony is that biologists probably understand math better than mathematicians understand biology, for the simple fact that biologists use math in their work more than mathematicians use biology in their work.
Once more into the breech. Remember that dreadful series of four Intelligent Design articles in World magazine? Jason Rosenhouse has tackled the articles by Johnson and Dembski, and I took on Wells, which leaves one more: Jeffrey Schwartz. Though it leaves an unpleasant taste in my mouth, we cannot leave such ugly droppings on the sidewalk for others to step in, so here we go once more.
Continue reading "World magazine. Schwartz. Ugh." (on Pharyngula)
Inspired by the bold initiative of the conservative Christian magazine, World, to exorcise the demon of Darwinism from the soul of biology (here), we at WHIRLED have rolled up our sleeves and taken on atomic theory, the atheistic core of chemistry and physics.Read it all here on TalkReason.
A while back, Wesley Elsberry explained how Reader's Digest and various other things led him to science. For myself, it was a longer and more tortuous route.
Shubin et al. (2004) have found an interesting new fragmentary fossil of a late Devonian tetrapod, one that they suggest represents a new transitional form between the distinctly fishy Panderichthys and the significantly more amphibian-like Acanthostega.
It is 'only' the humerus, or upper arm bone, but this is a significant part of the animal, since it is these limbs that were undergoing a transformation as the lineage evolved away from the water and towards a more terrestrial lifestyle. The experts suggest that the structure of this particular limb was not appropriate for crawling on land, but was a step away from the paddles of a fish and was part of a stout limb that could have propped up the heavy, bony head of this predator as it lurked on the bottom.
Every so often I get these what you can only call snarky emails from people who think they can score a point - whether with me or God or whoever - by being sarcastic. I got one today, and surprise, surprise, it was inadvertently right in almost all its criticisms. Just not of actual biological theory...
For your amusement, read on.
National Review Online has posted this article, entitled "Evolving Double Standards: Establishing a state-funded church of Darwin". Its author, John West, claims that the NCSE is using religion to promote evolution, and using federal tax dollars to do it! Here's a representative quote:
The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is on the front lines of the battle to keep religion out of the nation's science classrooms. A group whose self-described mission is "Defending the Teaching of Evolution in the Public Schools," the NCSE routinely condemns anyone who wants to teach faith-based criticisms of evolutionary theory for trying to unconstitutionally mix church and state.
But in an ironic twist, it now turns out that the NCSE itself is using federal tax dollars to insert religion into biology classrooms. Earlier this year, the NCSE and the University of California Museum of Paleontology unveiled a website for teachers entitled "Understanding Evolution." Funded in part by a nearly half-million-dollar federal grant, the website encourages teachers to use religion to promote evolution. Apparently the NCSE thinks mixing science and religion is okay after all -- as long as religion is used to support evolution.
The website in question can be found here.
Is the NRO right? Of course not. I have posted some comments in reply to Mr. West over at EvolutionBlog. Enjoy!
Jason South of Borneo Chela has posted an account of an 'Intelligent Design' lecture by a Dr Gunnar Dieckmann. It was basically the standard creationist jabber: microevolution, not macroevolution; quote-mining; straw men; polls; faulty definitions; and of course, the new weapon in the creationist armamentarium, Intelligent Design handwaving.
I've been to a few of these kinds of little talks by creationists, which are usually held in local churches before a friendly crowd, and they are something to experience, just to see what kind of crap is getting peddled. If you've never been to one, try it sometime—they are common, and there seems to be a whole crop of these guys on the low-budget church picnic circuit. If you don't think you could stomach it, read Jason's article to find out what they are like.
I received notice through the MARMAM listserve of two upcoming meetings open to the public on marine mammals and public policy. I will append the announcements.
The U.S. Marine Mammal Commission will host a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Acoustic Impacts on Marine Mammals, to be held April 28-30, 2004, in Arlington, VA. See this page for the meeting agenda and instructions for public comment.
The U.S. Marine Mammal Commission will host a workshop on the vulnerability of beaked whales to anthropogenic sound, to be held April 13-16, 2004, in Baltimore, MD. The public may attend as observers to this technical meeting. An agenda and information page will be posted for the meeting.
It's April Fool's Day, and our thoughts turn lightly to some memorable April Fool's jokes of years past. The antievolution crowd have proved good targets, primarily because of the general willingness to accept any argument, no matter how lame, if it seems to give them something against evolutionary biology.
I'm going to highlight three stories from the files:
This tale starts with the April 1997 issue of Discover magazine, which contained an article about work on Neanderthals by German paleontologist Oscar Todkopf. It talked about apparent musical instruments (the "tuba" being made from a 6' piece of mammoth tusk) and a cave painting showing marching musicians. It continues with the Institute for Creation Research claiming in a radio show in 2000 that there is overwhelming evidence for Neanderthals being musically inclined. Enjoy.
The P. T. Barnum "One Born Every Minute" Award goes to "Dr. Dino" himself, creationist speaker Kent Hovind, who on May 7th, 1999, in a packed room in Philadelphia, urged his audience to study convincing new evidence of humans living with dinosaurs. Hovind's evidence, a web site at http://www.darwindisproved.com/Archive.html, turned out to be the annual NMSR April Fool's prank.
A mysterious find from the depths of time proves our distant ancestors had high technology! Or does it? The Coso Artifact did baffle a number of people, including a laundry list of creationists. Its metallic components and suggestive X-ray analysis kept them guessing... until a collector of vintage spark plugs stepped in and resolved the mystery. This one's a Champion...
Previous entries at this blog have mentioned the cover story of the current issue of World magazine. The premise was that by the year 2025 the long-promised triumph of ID over Darwin will have happened. The magazine asked four leading design proponents to write "future histories" about how that triumph occurred.
On Monday I wrote a point-by-point reply to Phillip Johnson's contribution. I have now done likewise for William Dembski. His essay is available here. You can find my comments over at EvolutionBlog. Enjoy!
I have decided that I will not post a specific reply to Jeffrey Schwartz's essay. It is the least insane of the four (very faint praise), and should be replied to by someone who knows more about cognitive science than I do.
Irreducible complexity is at the core of of the Intelligent Design movement's claims about the unevolvability of certain kinds of systems, and is interpreted by ID proponents to be a signature of design by an Intelligent Agency. But if systems meeting the definition of irreducible complexity can evolve in a context that instantiates the general properties of evolutionary systems, then that claim is weakened, and indeed, is falsified with respect to the claim about evolutionary processes in general. And that's what the Lenski, et al., paper does: it demonstrates that systems meeting the definition of IC can evolve in a context that instantiates the general properties and processes of evolutionary systems.Read the whole posting on ISCID
An essay by Wesley R. Elsberry and Dave E. Thomas
The phrase "dogmatic Darwinists" has become a commonplace in antievolutionary writings. We are going to examine what is meant by the use of this phrase and why it is simply a dismissive rhetorical tactic employed by the antievolutionists, who otherwise would actually have to address the substantive arguments and persuasive evidence presented by biologists.
The following examples show the actual use of the charge of "dogmatic Darwinism" being made by various anti-evolutionists.
Chris Mooney is an indispensable source for the examination of the effects of political policy on science, and his latest piece in his series on "sound" science is great reading. The issues he discusses, which are largely on environmental science in this case, are also highly relevant to the evolution creation debate. He quotes from a scathing report by George Brown that has the following sections:
Boy, but that sounds familiar. The Intelligent Design movement practically has those written down as bylaws: uncritically accept whatever kooky minority supports your views, present a misleadingly simplistic view of science, and work from the desired result to the data you want, rather than drawing your conclusions from the data.
I've also made a few more comments on this subject at Pharyngula.
A common charge of anti-evolutionists is to say "but what are the chances of this all happening by mechanistic and unguided processes?" Well, in this article (which I saw on Arts & Letters Daily), Freeman Dyson explains "Littlewood's Law of Miracles," which "states that in the course of any normal person's life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month." Reminds me of how Richard Feynman used to put it. "Today on the freeway, I drove behind a car whose license plate was 3SVD543. Can you imagine how small the chances are of that happening?"
For more on the unremarkability of extremely rare coincidences, see chapter 7 of Richard Dawkins' magnificent Unweaving The Rainbow.
Thrift is a virtue, right? No. Not when you see it in a member of a minority group. Then it is not thrift but stinginess.
At least that's the way many prejudiced people see it. An attribute that they consider a virtue in themselves is miraculously transformed into an evil in people they dislike. Thus, "I spend my money wisely; Jews [or whoever] are stingy." "I have a large circle of friends, and we all belong to the same church; Jews are cliquish." "I like to relax and enjoy my coffee breaks; blacks are lazy."
According to William Dembski, Phillip Johnson, and others, supporters of evolution know full well that the theory is in tatters, but they support it because of dogmatic adherence to naturalism. I argue, to the contrary, that Dembski and Johnson are in fact projecting their own dogmatism onto "Darwinists." Specifically, they see dogmatism as a virtue in themselves but not in their opponents.
There are certain resources out there known to those of us who keep tabs on the antievolution movement, day in, day out, that deserve a wider readership. Brian Poindexter's The Horse's Mouth is one of these. Brian has collected in this two-page PDF a number of quotations from leading antievolution figures where they explicitly invoke God and religious purposes as their reason for doing what they do. The PDF format means that it makes a great way to print off a number of these as needed for taking along to school board meetings, public comment periods, and the like.
Here's the introductory paragraph and first example from Brian's file.
Intelligent Design (ID) proponents deny any hidden creationist agendas, but rather claim they are only trying to promote good solid science in our public schools. To clear up any confusion over this matter, let's hear about it straight from the mouths of those leading the Intelligent Design movement.
"We are taking an intuition most people have [the belief in God] and making it a scientific and academic enterprise. We are removing the most important cultural roadblock to accepting the role of God as creator."
- Phillip Johnson quoted, Enlisting Science to Find the Fingerprints of a Creator, The LA Times, 3/25/2001.
John Baez from UCal-Riverside, in addition to his many contributions to the field of mathematical physics, has given to us the enormously useful Crackpot Index. His index, which awards varying point values based upon the attributes of the claims being made, gives a fairly reliable indication of whether what is being offered is a genuinely useful new idea in science and what is simply crank science.
14. 10 points for each new term you invent and use without properly defining it.
This is an essay I wrote a few years ago when Jonathan Wells published the execrable Icons of Evolution. It was to be published in a book that never came to fruition, so I put it on my website. It is appropriate for The Panda's Thumb, I think. Read it, and weep, seriously...
On my way to the Thumb for an afternoon break, my collegue Alan Gishlick passed to me his booknote on The Cambrian Fossils of Chengjiang, China: The Flowering of Early Life. Although many Thumb patrons work (more or less) at University of Ediacara, we maintain an interest in the Cambrian even though the Cambrian critters are Johnnies-come-lately from our perspective.
[Disclaimer: I am a co-author of the research discussed below, but I felt it would be of interest to the community particularly as it may help clarify hominid relationships]
A paper by Charlie Lockwood (of University College London), Bill Kimbel (of Arizona State University) and I (also of ASU) just published in this weeks Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled "Morphometrics and hominoid phylogeny: Support for a chimpanzee-human clade and differentiation among great ape subspecies," finds a strong agreement beween morphological and genetic variation among great apes when using a specific bone of the skull (the temporal) and a specific set of techniques (geometric morphometrics and distance-based tree generation). As the temporal bone is often well preserved in fossil hominids, we suggest that this combination of techniques may allow the inference of accurate phylogenies (i.e. congruent with genetic data) from such material. All very exciting, as it re-affirms the importance of morphological data in the phylogentic analysis of extinct hominids and opens up a range of possibilities for future studies, in that we feel reasonably confident that morphological trees thus derived using fossil material have a strong relationship to the patterns we would get if genetic data were available from the fossils.
Creationists often pretend that getting criticism that points out their ideas are completely invalid is a validation. It's enough that they can get a scientist into a debate; even if they are hopelessly outclassed, babble and lie and treat a scientific debate as if it were a tent revival, they will afterwards strut and preen and pretend that their participation alone makes them a legitimate member of the scientific community. Dawkins made this point in his essay, "Why I won't debate creationists",
Sometime in the 1980s when I was on a visit to the United States, a television station wanted to stage a debate between me and a prominent creationist called, I think, Duane P Gish. I telephoned Stephen Gould for advice. He was friendly and decisive: "Don't do it." The point is not, he said, whether or not you would "win" the debate. Winning is not what the creationists realistically aspire to. For them, it is sufficient that the debate happens at all. They need the publicity. We don't. To the gullible public that is their natural constituency, it is enough that their man is seen sharing a platform with a real scientist. "There must be something in creationism, or Dr. So-and-So would not have agreed to debate it on equal terms." Inevitably, when you turn down the invitation, you will be accused of cowardice or of inability to defend your own beliefs. But that is better than supplying the creationists with what they crave: the oxygen of respectability in the world of real science.
Well, now Francis Beckwith has now fallen squarely into that good ol' creationist tradition of crowing triumph where there is none.
Contine reading "What's that whining noise?" (on Pharyngula)
Following Pharyngula's lead I have read the current cover story of World magazine. In it, the editors asked four contributors to imagine a future time, 2025 to be exact, when ID has replaced evolution. They are to write essays explaining how this change took place.
Pharyngula has already written an admirable dissection of Jonathan Wells' fantasies. Over at EvolutionBlog I offer my thoughts on Phillip Johnson's contribution.
In next few days I will have a look at Dembski's and Schwartz's contributions, unless other bloggers beat me to it, of course.
I've written a few articles in the past about the evolution of human brain size: Big brains, big genes (which followed up on an essay by Zimmer on The Genes Behind Big Brains), Brain size and allometry, More on ASPM and the evolution of brain size, and Adaptive evolution of ASPM. These describe a gene, ASPM, identified as causing human microcephaly. ASPM is interesting for several reasons; it's homologous to a gene in Drosophila that also regulates the amount of neural tissue in that animal, and it seems to operate by controlling the pattern of mitoses, regulating the number of cells allocated in early development of the brain for commitment to the formation of the cortex. This is pretty cool stuff—genes that define how much brain tissue we have are likely to be important in human evolution. As I mentioned then, though, there is much more to building a good brain than raw bulk.
Now, in a recent article in Science, Piao et al. (2004) have identified another gene important in building brains, GPR56, which plays a role in organizing the distribution of cells within the cortex.
Continue reading "A very groovy brain gene" (on Pharyngula)
The Institute for Creation Research is a well known young-earth creationist outfit in California, which describes itself as a "Christ-Focused Creation Ministry." But it also operates a graduate school which awards advanced degrees in biology, geology, and geophysics. That's not a shocker--anyone who wants to can legally set up a "school" and award "degrees" (although some states do prohibit schools from using words like "degree" without state authorization). What's troublesome is the ICR's school is actually accredited by a nationally recognized accreditation agency.
Oh dear, it's happening again. We scientists are usually rather mellow, undemanding folk. Give us a cyclotron or an electron microscope and we will happily stay out of peoples way (pausing only to invent Plasma TV screens, or some such frippery). But what really gets our goat is when people decide to tell us what science is. It's bad enough when philosophers or sociologists do it, but now lawyers want to get in on the act. Yes, lawyers (see Is Beckwith Right? Does MN entail PN?) have decided that since science uses Methodological Naturalism, it automatically means we are all dedicated to Philosophical Naturalism. Well, that gets an entire heard of caprine organisms! Well, we scientists have bad news for you lawyer buckos, we don't do isms. We test things. And sometimes we test things that everyone widely accepts as "supernatural" that our lawyer friends would have us believe that dread Methodological/Philosophical whatever-it-is-ism will not allow us to test.
If there is one thing that bugs me more than creationist folderol, it's wimpy and inept defenses of evolution from scholars who really ought to know better.
I am currently wading through the book Darwinism, Design, and Public Education edited by John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer, published by Michigan State University Press. Meyer and Campbell are defenders of ID, but the book contains a selection of essays ostensibly defending evolution.
Alas, it quickly becomes clear that evolution's defenders were carefully chosen. Consider the following statement from William Provine's contirbution. It is actually a self-quote from an earlier essay of his:
It is, wrote the Roman poet Horace, fit and proper to die for one's homeland. The word he used for homeland was "patria" (dulce et decorum est pro patria mori), and the word has entered into biology as the suffix for exactly that. Unlike Horace's slogan, though, it applies more to living than dying. It would be nice if we humans could attempt to live for our homelands rather than die for them, but that's another rant for another time.
There are a cluster of terms used by biologists to describe where organisms live or grow, and they are: sympatric, allopatric, parapatric, peripatric, stasipatric, and dichopatric. This flock of technical terms is confusing to the newcomer (and to some biologists), but there is a kind of logic - as much as in the evolution of any technical jargon - that will make it clearer, and at the same time allow us to set up the alternative views on the fundamental evolutionary process of common descent: speciation.
I'm in a reflective mood today, so you get something a bit different. I'm casting back some, oh, thirty-three years to my middle school days, trying to figure out how I ended up in science. It certainly wasn't a foregone conclusion. I'm sure that my parents would have been just as pleased if I'd been able to carve out a career in some form of money-grubbing, and probably would be more at ease about my financial future. I've come up with three unlikely factors that moved me in the direction of science: the Reader's Digest, a general education sixth-grade teacher, and a handbook on seashell collecting. I'll try to explain myself...
This morning, I bought a copy of Jonathan Weiner's Pulitzer-prize winning The Beak of The Finch. I don't know when I'll get a chance to read it--I've got a half dozen books I'm now halfway through--but I got it because a few weeks ago I caught a fascinating nature special called Islands of The Vampire Birds. The birds in question are finches--you know, the cute little birds that you see in pet shops all the time (or, for that matter, hanging around the patios of Starbucks waiting for handouts); when I was a kid I called then "deeder birds," after the "deeder-deeder" sound they make. Well, these ones are not quite so cute: during an awful drought on the Galapagos Islands, these finches learn to drink blood--and even to peck at the flesh of other birds on the islands, to start them bleeding. It's an awesome, and slightly disturbing show about evolution in action right before your eyes, and if you can catch it, it's definitely worth watching. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be available on tape or DVD. (If I'm wrong about this, I'm sure a helpful reader will let me know!)
You just know Reed is going to slam you with some math, and Wilkins is going to blast you with some philosophy, and Tim is going to lose you in constitutional law, and the rest of the gang here are going to challenge your brain...so before you have to sit down and think, take a moment to breeze through some easy, light stuff.
- You like the Thumb, evolutionary biology, that science stuff? Come grab some standard-sized buttons and badges. Cover your site with 'em. Use them to link back to us and promote good science.
- Lots of us science nerds like the Sci-Fi, right? I've posted a review of Stephen Baxter's Evolution. Great title. Good book. It's a mixed review and I can tell it's not going to be for everyone, but I can say that at least the science in it is mostly right.