April 2004 Archives

Wells as Scientist


Yesterday, I provided a brief examination of Behe’s scientific output since he published Darwins Black Box in 1996, and argued that his adoption of ID effectively stopped any research output. Just as a follow-up of sorts, let’s look at Jonathan Well’s whom we are reminded by Witham is a “biologist [and] design theorist”.

Privileged Planet: The fallout starts


Gonzalez and Richards have posted a response to some of the objections by Kyler Kuehn raised to their Privileged Planet argument.

While I intend to address in more detail Gonzalez et al’s claims in the near future (I am recovering from a nasty cold) I would like to comment on some of their claims directed at Kyler Kuehn

The authors comment how Kyler Kuehn presented his arguments during the 2003 ASA meeting but then continue:

But Kuehn has since posted essentially the same critical response online, and presented on the subject at at least one public conference. Thus, a brief response is appropriate.

Kyler Kuehn’s response has been online for quite some time. I am not sure as to which public conference the authors are refering but since I used Kyler Kuehn’s excellent arguments in my rebuttals of the Privileged Planet I feel partially responsible for these “accusations”. If Kyler Kuehn’s posting of his powerpoint is a reason for rebuttal then why did Gonzalez and Richardson wait until now? The webpage mentions that it was ‘Last Updated by Kyler Kuehn, August 11, 2003 ‘

Isn’t that special?


Have you ever heard of the Manmin Research Center, and the Jaerock Lee Ministry? Neither have I, but William Dembski has—and he's been following it for years. He has recently even endorsed it.

The ministry of the Manmin Church is quite remarkable, and I have been following it now for several years. As a scientist, I tend to be skeptical about events that are supposed to be miracles. Yet as a Christian, I also know that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and that there is nothing to prevent the power of God from working miraculous events. Having visited the Manmin Church and having seen the news reports of Rev. Dr. Jae-Rock Lee's ministry around the globe, I am persuaded that God truly is manifesting himself with works of power through this ministry. There is a great need for people to experience the power of God in their lives. I therefore commend "Manmin World News" for emphasizing this aspect of the Christian life that is so often neglected in the West.

--- Dr. William A. Dembski (Author of "Intelligent Design")

Continue reading  "Isn't that special?" (at Pharyngula)

Behe as Research Scientist


As part of an essay review I am completing, last night I finished reading Larry Witham’s By Design, which “recounts the history of the intelligent design movement [and] … shows how ideas and personalities mix to challenge deep scientific presumptions.” I don’t have time at the moment to go into it, but Witham’s work is deeply flawed as an historical study and clearly demonstrates his support for the design faction (not surprising giving his Unification Church background and friendship with Jonathan Wells). That aside (and it is something I will return to eventually), Witham makes much of Behe’s scientific credentials along with his “conversion” to ID being for evidential (rather than religious) grounds. In Chapter 8 he states:

Although critics call his design idea a “science stopper” (arguing that if a designer is presumed, many questions about origins are settled by fiat), Behe keeps up his research. (p. 132)

Tom Woodward also makes much of Behe’s standing as a research scientist in his Doubts About Darwin (Baker House, 2003), another flawed and partisan history of design.

Let’s examine Behe’s publication record over the past ten years, concentrating on peer-review scientific articles (i.e. ignoring letters, op-ed pieces, etc).

Continue Reading Behe as Research Scientist (at Stranger Fruit)

Anyone who has followed the evolution/creationism issue for any period of time is quite accustomed to seeing articles filled with the most basic factual errors, poor spelling and hackneyed arguments. But this article, written by someone named Brian Cherry in a webmag called the Washington Dispatch, may take the cake. It’s so badly written that for a moment, one suspects that it is a parody. Alas, it’s not. Mr. Cherry actually wrote it and, presumably, believes it. Unfortunately, he can’t even get the most basic facts right, let alone comprehend the larger issues he discusses. Let’s begin the fisking.

Who’s your daddy? It is exactly this sort of question that results in slapped faces and restraining orders if the query is made in a bar. When this question was posed to the State School Board of Ohio and framed in the context of human origins it sparked national debates and threats of lawsuits. The board was tasked with making the decision on whether or not students can be presented with an alternative to the theory of evolution. The alternative in question is the theory of intelligent design.

Mistake #1: There is no “theory of intelligent design”. At this point, ID is nothing more than a technical-sounding argument from ignorance. William Dembski, the leading ID advocate, defines an argument from ignorance as one that takes the form “Not X, therefore Y”. Yet even while denying, in rhetoric, that ID is based upon such an argument, he has created and developed a rather obvious one, the Explanatory Filter (EF). The EF is precisely this form of argument - “If not regularity and if not chance, therefore intelligent design”. This is not a theory in a scientific sense, and there is no actual explanatory model in place for ID. There is no model of how such design took place, by whom, or when. There is no actual positive research in favor of ID, there is only sniping at evolutionary theory as an explanation so that they can repeat the argument from ignorance seen above - if evolution doesn’t (yet) explain it, it must be ID. Sorry, this isn’t a theory.

Continue Reading “Answering a Horrible Pro-ID Article” (at Dispatches From The Culture Wars)

New Contributors


I would like to welcome two new contributors to the Panda’s Thumb crew.

Mike Dunford has been a contributor to talk.origins for so long that he almost doesn’t feel like the new kid on the block any more. Currently, Mike is an Nth year senior at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he is (finally) completing his B.S. in Zoology. Following completion of his undergraduate work, he plans to continue to study evolution in island environments (especially ones with good beaches). Current interests include speciation processes in sympatric populations, and the evolution of introduced species. In the past, he has worked as a paleontological lab technician. Other interests include the history of geology, especially in 19th century England.

Paul R. Gross is University Professor of Life Sciences, emeritus, at the University of Virginia. His baccalaureate and doctoral degrees are from the University of Pennsylvania. He holds honorary degrees from Brown University and the Medical College of Ohio. He is a developmental and molecular biologist who has taught at Brown, Rochester, MIT, and the University of Virginia. A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he served from 1978 to 1988 as President and Director of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, and was Vice President and Provost of the University of Virginia, where he helped to found and served as Director of the Molecular Biology Institute. He is co-author with Norman Levitt of Higher Superstition (Johns Hopkins, 1994, 98) and with Barbara Forrest of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford, 2004).

A hearty Panda’s Thumb welcome to Mike and Paul. Protostome Pilsners are on the house for the next hour. Cheers!

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The Science of the Wedge


Following on from PZ’s post below, if you read the original report from the conference you find the following:

Discussing the various scientific advances that have pointed more and more toward a Creator, the Cambridge-educated [Stephen] Meyer said “the future is very bright” for research into Intelligent Design.

He then revealed that donors have now contributed enough funds to create a laboratory for the study of biomolecular information at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute - a very significant development that could yield new breakthroughs.

“There is,” concluded Meyer, “a lot of good science in the pipeline.”

Just as well, because there has been bugger all in the five plus years since the Wedge was launched. Remember the key scientific research objective from the Wedge document?

One hundred scientific, academic and technical articles by our fellows

Still waiting. Search the scientific citation indices for works by Behe, Dembski, Meyer, Wells, Nelson et al. for primary research that explicitly supports ‘design’ or even tests design as a null hypothesis. Have one beer for every paper you find. Come back here. You’ll be stone-cold sober.

It’s worth pointing out that some of their other objective have been met - “Thirty published books on design and its cultural implications” and “Significant coverage in national media”. Indeed they even have had some success in making “states begin to rectify ideological imbalance in their science curricula & include design theory”. Just no science.

At a recent ID conference, Phillip Johnson was awarded the "Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth" (I know, creationists, irony, yadda yadda yadda). He spoke, and this is the subject he chose to bring up:

In accepting the award, Johnson noted the pending U.S. Supreme Court case over the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and said that the next burning issue in our culture will be the fundamental question of whether or not God exists. In fact, he said the ultimate question of whether God is real or imaginary—and whether God's moral authority has any standing in American society—"is the most important issue since slavery."

"It is the issue that divides our culture and it needs to be addressed," he said. "Every politician should address the issue of the existence of a Creator.

Ah, but of course Intelligent Design is an entirely secular, non-religious, scientific program of research.

I will address the issue, though. Every individual is free to decide whether god is real or imaginary. Personally, I've decided that he's a worthless fantasy, but I don't get to try and compel others to think likewise. Similarly, some may believe otherwise, but they don't get to tell me that I'm fired from my job or should be thrown in jail or should suffer some quaintly evil Old Testament torture for my beliefs—it's that "liberty and freedom" thing, Phil. And because we are a pluralist society that supports diverse religious beliefs, "God's" moral authority has no standing in American society. None at all. It can be a matter of private conscience, but not public policy.

Don't expect the theocrats at the Discovery Institute to grasp that concept any time soon, though. Making their interpretation of Biblical law the ruling principle of the United States legal system is their goal.

During the first world war, according to a hoary old tale, the message was sent from the trenches to the command post behind the main front of the British Army from soldier to soldier. The message was sent as Send reinforcements, we're going to advance, but was received as Send three and fourpence, we're going to a dance. As things are transmitted, they change. School children are often introduced to this as the game "postman".

KwickCode is Here

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I have developed a revision of the MovableType plugin QuickCcode, named KwickCode, to suit the needs of our blog. The syntax should be familiar to anyone used to posting on web bbses. It comes in two flavors, one for posts and a restricted one for comments.

Creationists Explain Things: Logic and Sweet Reason


Please note that these are all direct quotes from creationists taken from the many public domain creation/evolution debates. I have collected these for years, and many of the debate sites no longer exist. Even so, I wager that I could replace them today without too much trouble. I have arranged them some, but I have not altered original spelling or grammar. GH

Logic and Sweet Reason

“There is proof in math and logic… ok. I’ll give you proof. You go first. “

Creationists Explain Things: “Fossil Dating”


Please note that these are all direct quotes from creationists taken from the many public domain creation/evolution debates. I have collected these for years, and many of the debate sites no longer exist. Even so, I wager that I could replace them today without too much trouble. I have arranged them some, but I have not altered original spelling or grammar. GH Dating Fossils

“Although personally, evolution is a load of crock. I think the fossil records speak for themselves in that area. As does logic. If you truly beleive that all species are evolving, and changing and that the earth is a billions of years old, explain to me why all of the species alive today can be found in the fossil record from millions of years ago. Fossils are just creatures that died in the flood and were buried. All the sediment deposits and massive lava flows and oil deposits are the remnants of a tremendous global cataclysm. It’s that simple and that’s all you need to explain it. It isn’t complicated.”

In reforming its school system, Italy has dropped evolution from its primary and middle school curricula.

This isn’t exactly breaking news, but I’m just catching up with things following hospitalization.

A post by David Wilson on talk.origins translates one of the Italian news articles about this change and gives a summary of the situation.

Creationists Explain Things: Human Evolution


Please note that these are all direct quotes from creationists taken from the many public domain creation/evolution debates. I have collected these for years, and many of the debate sites no longer exist. Even so, I wager that I could replace them today without too much trouble. I have arranged them some, but I have not altered original spelling or grammar. GH

“Creation has just as much evidence as evolution does. That is a known fact. Besides it is just a theory. If you really look at the evidence for evolution, and the evidence for creation, you will see that science supports a young-earth. Evolution has NEVER been observed. That is a FACT. “

Sorry, this one's about a week late. But best to have it logged for future reference... Our close buddy Kent Hovind is apparently in trouble with the law (yet again) for tax evasion. Hovind (or Dr. Dino as he prefers to be called, though his 'PhD' is from a diploma mill) is a popular, if totally wacky, YEC who runs a "ministry" down in Florida, complete with Dinosaur Adventure Land theme park. It's basically a home-made obstacle course that seems to have nothing to do with dinosaurs, other than looking very dangerous.

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Andrea Bottaro has shown by example the irrelevance of William Dembski’s explanatory filter to archaeology. In this contribution, I want to show how in the real world the explanatory filter can lead to a false positive.

Dembski’s vaunted explanatory filter is no more than a flow chart designed to distinguish events of low probability. If the probability of an event is low enough and if Dembski can discern a pattern, then he concludes that the event must have been the product of design. Dembski admits that the explanatory filter may produce a false negative (fail to infer design where design exists) but claims it will never produce a false positive (infer design where none exists). In this article, I will give a real example wherein the explanatory filter could have yielded a false positive.

John Maynard Smith


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I'm trying a little experiment on the web—a project to highlight and encourage other people to write about biology or medicine or natural history by posting a biweekly digest of interesting weblog articles on those topics. The project is called The Tangled Bank. The first entry is currently posted at my website, and the next edition will be published in two weeks and hosted at the Invasive Species Weblog. These will be places where you can learn about other weblogs that should be of interest to readers of The Panda's Thumb.

Our first edition has only seven entries, but we hope that will grow, and that's why I'm mentioning it here. If you even occasionally write about science on your weblog, send a URL to one of your recent articles, preferably with a brief synopsis, to host@tangledbank.net. If the article meets our generous criteria, we'll acknowledge you with a link in the next edition. Join in, make connections, spread the word about good science!

Some time ago, an Insight article by Stephen Goode quoted ID advocate and Discovery Institute Senior Fellow William A. Dembski as saying that biologists opposed to “intelligent design” were like the repressive former Soviet regime. Knowing something of the history of science under Soviet rule, I knew that the actual lessons of history were being completely inverted by Dembski. Scientists who applied principles of biology accepted in the West were, in fact, repressed under Soviet politically mandated biological doctrines, specifically those teleological principles of Michurinism promulgated by Trofim Denisovich Lysenko.

I joined with Mark Perakh, who lived through Soviet scientific repression and encountered Nazi materials in World War II, to write an essay that explores the ID advocates’ deployment of invidious comparisons of biologists to the Soviet and Nazi regimes. We conclude that these comparisons cannot be sustained, that they can only be proposed through thorough ignorance of the actual historical record, that politically mandated biology is a costly proposition, and that the elements of self-aggrandizement in ID advocacy ironically echo the Soviet and Nazi regimes that they invoke as being like their opponents.

The essay is available on TalkReason.org and as a PDF at TalkDesign.org and atAntievolution.org.

There is a thread on invidious comparisons used by “intelligent design” advocates on the Antievolution.org discussion board.

The Stars like Dust


I was somewhat bemused by Francis Beckwith’s report that ID advocates consider Forensic Science to not be a part of natural science (perhaps natural science is only that which is presented by David Attenbrough). How could reasonable people not see that Forensic science is part of natural science thought I.

Then I had one of my semiannual encounters with the public understanding of science.

Corrupting the Youth

Following Pharyngula's lead I have posted a reply to this breathtakingly stupid column from the conservative website WorldNetDaily. Its author, Kelly Hollowell, repeats the usual charges about how teaching evolution corrupts the youth, turning them into a bunch of knuckle-dragging, godless moral relativists. What's novel here is her insistence that it is not just evolution, but also the theory of relativity that corrupts the youth. Here's a sample, make sure you're sitting down. This is not a parody:
The basis of Einstein's life-changing view called the theory of relativity can be summed this way: Time is not constant. Both velocity and gravity can distort time. Nearly nine decades ago, this surprising discovery shook the very foundation of human perception, understanding and reality. Mistakenly, in the minds of many, the theory of relativity became relativism. So it was in the 1920s and still today that the popular interpreter of Einstein's work finds himself saying "All things are relative" and thinks that he is voicing a scientific discovery. This notion of "all things relative" moved from the laboratory into the public domain, creating an era in which all absolutes disappeared. Relativism has become the prevailing spirit of thought and action in our modern culture, but that is just half the equation.
My reply is available at EvolutionBlog. Enjoy!

The purpose of life is a beach part 2

This morning, on my way to work, I listened to NPR. One of the guests, Ebbesmeyer described his recent work on tracking items found by beach combers. Once again I came to realize how the beach provides us not just with pleasurability but also measurability. Without beaches we would not be able to track Rubber duckies.

The discovery in microbes of two oxygen-packing proteins, the earliest known ancestors to hemoglobin, brings scientists closer to identifying the earliest life forms to use oxygen.

Hemoglobins are ubiquitous in Eukarya and Bacteria but, until now, have not been found in Archaea. A phylogenetic analysis of the recently revealed microbial family of globin-coupled heme-based sensors suggests that these sensors descended from an ancient globin-only progenitor, or a protoglobin (Pgb). Here, we report the discovery and characterization of two Pgbs from the Archaea: ApPgb from the obligately aerobic hyperthermophile Aeropyrum pernix, and MaPgb from the strictly anaerobic methanogen Methanosarcina acetivorans. Both ApPgb and MaPgb bind molecular oxygen, nitric oxide, and carbon monoxide by means of a heme moiety that is coordinated to the protein through the F8 histidine (histidine 120). We postulate that these archaeal globins are the ancestors of contemporary hemoglobins.


  • Tracey Allen K. Freitas, Shaobin Hou, Elhadji M. Dioum, Jennifer A. Saito, James Newhouse, Gonzalo Gonzalez, Marie-Alda Gilles-Gonzalez, and Maqsudul Alam, “Ancestral hemoglobins in Archaea” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published April 19, 2004, 10.1073/pnas.0308657101 [link].

EurekAlert press release.

Recently Alabama Citizens for Science Education (www.alscience.org/) has formed, the tenth of similar citizen groups in states around the nation. As has been the case with other groups, ACSE formed partially in response to creationist bills in their legislature seeking to allow the teaching of "alternate theories" to evolution. As vice-president of Kansas Citizens for Science (KCFS), I would like to welcome Alabama to the growing list of citizen groups working to combat these political attempts to insert creationism into the public school system.

Recently deceased NYU professor and postmodernist cultural critic Neil Postman (1931-2003) has a cult following for books such as Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly. I have always been mystified by this, since Postman demonstrated again and again in his writings that he was actually remarkably ignorant of the technology he chose to criticize.

This week I picked up a copy of Postman's 1988 book Conscientious Objections at a local book sale. Not surprisingly, Postman's ignorance is on display again, this time about evolution.

I am starting what I intend to be a regular contribution in which I will share some of my almost spiritual experiences and insights gained when I was on the beach. It was this unforgettable moment late summer, the first time that I realized how special the beach really is.
[size=200%]Anthropic Principle[/size] My claim is that it is exactly in areas where life and science develop were expect to see science discover a correlation between habitability and measurability. Without habitability we would not have been here, without measurability we would not have science to lead us to this conclusion. Does this mean that there was purpose involved, or just a matter of fact statement?

Aesthetics and the Brain

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[Via Boing Boing] A brain study released today shows that the human ability to appreciate aesthetics is based in the prefontal cortex, part of the brain involved in decision making. The scientists at the Balearic Islands University in Spain came to this conclusion by imaging their subjects' brains while looking at art and photography. According to the study, quoted in Scientific American, "'a phylogenetic change in the prefontal cortex could give way to the decorative and artistic profusion' in humans." [article]
William Dembski posted two new pieces vividly displaying his unbounded arrogance (here and here). Among other points in these two ridiculously self-confident pieces of sheer polemics, Dembski, apparently offended by the critique of his work so highly acclaimed by his cohorts, accuses his opponents of underestimating the intelligence of his co-travelers and supporters Johnson, Wells, and Gonzales. Here is a quotation from the first of the above posts: By any objective standards, the principal players in the ID movement are reasonably intelligent people. Phillip Johnson, for instance, graduated first in his law school class at the University of Chicago and clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren. Jonathan Wells got double 800s on his SATs and was awarded a full, merit-based undergraduate scholarship at Princeton in the 1960s. Guillermo Gonzalez, though a young assistant professor, has over sixty articles in refereed astronomy and astrophysical journals. These are just a few examples off the top of my head. In fact, Dembski's opponents have not asserted that Dembski and his friends are "not intelligent" or "not smart." (If I am wrong, Dembski is welcome to provide relevant references). If the opponents of ID do not specifically stress how smart Dembski and Co are, that is because there is no need to do so - Dembski and his colleagues take care of that themselves - they routinely unabashedly praise each other and sometimes themselves in superlative terms (a documented proof of that is forthcoming from Elsberry and myself).

A curious thing: I reported yesterday on this lovely work on the genetic regulation of pelvic limbs in fish, and got a comment that the "modularity and surprisingly robust flexibility" of the system was evidence of design. Quite the contrary, I see evidence of mechanisms that permit integrated evolution of organisms, with no designer required. There's another example briefly described in a news article in this week's Science (Pennisi, 2004) that describes work presented at a Cold Spring Harbor conference on the evolution of developmental diversity. It expands further on this matter.

Cichlid fishes are examples of a recent, rapid radiation into new forms. One of the reasons behind their success seems to be the adaptability of their jaws, which have allowed them to diversify into many ecological niches by changes in their feeding apparatus (Albertson et al., 1999, 2003). What's becoming clear is that the modular and interlinked network of regulatory genes does not hinder change, it facilitates concordant change in the patterns of expression of multiple genes to produce an integrated morphology of the jaw.

Continue reading "More development. More evolution. More genes. More fish. Cichlid jaws!" (on Pharyngula)

In the short article "Middle Stone Age Shell Beads from South Africa" (subscription required), published in tomorrow's issue of Science magazine, Henshilwood and coworkers report the finding of 41 perforated tick shell beads (from the mollusk Nassarius kraussianus) dated as about 75,000 years old. They provide evidence that the beads are human-made artifacts - the oldest known personal ornaments and a sign of the emergence of symbolic thought in early humans.

Clearly, pace all the ID advocates' recent claims, upon finding the perforated shells Henshilwood and his colleagues considered "intelligent agency" as a possible cause (perhaps they didn't know that methodological naturalism supposedly proscribes such consideration, according to Francis Beckwith).

Montanan Shenanigans


There's rumbling in Darby, Montana. The school board there seems to be ready to adopt an ID curriculum, and they anticipate lawsuits over it, although they have support from the Speaker of the House of the state legislature. But now, the board's in trouble because they held a behind-closed-doors meeting where they apparently decided to rescind a job offer extended to a new superintendent of schools, and offer it instead to another person because of his "a sense of strong spirituality."

The Ravalli Republic, a local newspaper, has filed suit against the board for its closed meetings. Now, Montana law on open meetings appears to be pretty strong--the state Constitution, Art. II s 9, declares that "No person shall be deprived of the right to...observe the deliberations of all public bodies...except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure," and under the statutes enforcing open meetings requirements, courts can void decisions made at closed-door meetings. See, e.g., Bryan v. Yellowstone County Elementary School Dist. No. 2, 312 Mont. 257, 274 (Mont.,2002) ("open meetings violations remain of utmost concern to this Court. Nothing in this opinion should be interpreted to suggest that violations of open meeting laws by any entity subject to those laws will not result in voiding decisions so reached. We will not hesitate to affirm a district court's determination to void such decisions or reverse a court's refusal to do so." quoting Common Cause of Montana v. Statutory Committee to Nominate Candidates for Com'r of Political Practices, 263 Mont. 324, 333-34 (1994)). Why the school board secrecy, though? Because not all the parents are real thrilled about their kids being taught lies. Not to mention the fact that "Both federal and Montana's civil rights acts forbid religious discrimination by employers." Wolfe v. State, Dept. of Labor and Industry, Bd. of Personnel Appeals ex rel. Helena Educ. Ass'n, 255 Mont. 336, 339 (1992). See also McCann v. Trustees, Dodson School Dist., 249 Mont. 362, 364 (1991).

Since John Lynch mentioned it first, why yes, I have read this article on limb loss in vertebrates.

Some of the complicating features of developmental genetics are pleiotropy and multigenic effects: that is, that the genes required to build an organism are all tangled together in an intricate web, with multiple genes required to properly assemble each character (that's the multigenic part), and each gene having multiple effects on multiple characters (that's pleiotropy). One might think of the organism as a house of cards, each card supporting all of the cards above it, so that tinkering with any one piece leads to catastrophic collapse. This isn't the case, of course. While developing systems are all elaborately interlocked, they also exhibit modularity and surprisingly robust flexibility. One recently published example can be found in Shapiro et al. (2004) which describes the developmental flexibility of the regulation of the pelvic appendages in sticklebacks, and ties it all neatly to patterns of evolution.

Continue reading "Development. Evolution. Genes. Fish. What's not to like?" (on Pharyngula)

Compare Dembski and Coulomb

William Dembski (in Intelligent Design, 1999) suggested the so-called "Law of Conservation of Information (LCI). On page 170 he wrote about his own alleged new law: "LCI has profound implications for science." In his later book No Free Lunch (2002) Dembski claimed that LCI is in fact not less than the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics. Since 1999, there is not a single reference to that alleged new law in scientific publications on information theory or physics. Moreover, in publications specifically devoted to the discussion of Dembski's work, this alleged law has been shown to make no sense - by mathematicians, information theorists, physicists, philosophers and biologists. However, ID advocates have praised this "law" in superlative terms. For example, Dembski's colleague, another Fellow of the Discovery Institute Rob Koons wrote a blurb to Intelligent Design where referred to Dembski as "the Isaac Newton of information theory and one of the most important thinkers of our time." Koons claimed that LCI is a "revolutionary breakthrough." Such exaggerated praises and self-aggrandizing claims are typical of the ID writing (as is documented in an essay by Elsberry and myself to be published shortly).

Dumping on Dembski II

Here at The Panda's Thumb we try to keep the discourse at a tolerably high level. Certain parodies of inane creationist cartoons notwithstanding, we are united by the belief that the arguments offered by creationists of all stripes are fundamentally mistaken, and the facts of modern biology are far more interesting than the caricature they present. But in the midst of all this high-mindedness we should not fancy ourselves above pouncing on instances of poor phrasing and unfortunate choices of words when we find them. Of course, such instances are evidence of nothing more than poor editing, and say nothing about the argument being made. Still, show me the curmudgeon who does not get a kick out of the following sentence, which appears on page 135 of William Dembski's The Design Revolution: Claude Shannon invented the mathematical theory of information shortly after World War II. The inspiration for his theory derived from his work during the war on cryptography. War on cryptography? Is that like the War on Drugs or the War on poverty? I guess Shannon didn't like number theorists. Or this one, from page 143: The Darwinian mechanism is a trial-and-error mechanism, with natural selection providing the trial and random variation providing the error. Ahem. Actually, it is random variation that provides the trial. Selection plays the role of “error”. If you're looking for more high-minded criticism of Dembski, go visit EvolutionBlog. I have just added a lengthy post about the limitations of intelligence and the difference between embodied and disembodied designers. Enjoy!

Francis Beckwith has posted a more well thought-out response to my posts criticizing his claim that the NCSE website violates the Establishment Clause. Some quick notes:

Limb Loss in Vertebrates


An interesting article in this week's edition of Nature suggests that at least in some fish, alterations in a single gene bring about evolutionary change in the form of limb (fin) loss.

Genetic and developmental basis of evolutionary pelvic reduction in threespine sticklebacks
Nature 428, 717–723

Eurekalert press release
Original Article
Discussion by Shubin & Dahn

Answers in Nemesis


They say that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. But for our good friends at Answers in Genesis (AiG), fiction and truth are freely interchangeable. The latest bit of hilarity comes courtesy of AiG's legal counsel, who, aside from not being able to take a joke, apparently has a poor grasp of both the legal and ethical meaning of intellectual (sic) property law.

To begin with the beginning, AiG is America's leading young-earth creationist outfit, and like all high-caliber scientific organizations, it has its own resident cartoonist. Dan Lietha writes two cartoon series which appear on AiG's website: CreationWise and After Eden. The drawings are kind of nice in an Ziggy sort of way, but they're not quite as funny as Mary Worth. Basically, they're not much more than inane creationist claims made to look cartoonish. . . um, that is, being made into visual form. But they certainly contain lots of unintentional humor, so there's only one thing left to do: Poke fun at them.

Making parodies of visual materials over the web is hardly a new thing, and as anyone familiar with the frequent Photoshop contests on Fark.com can tell you, they're a great venue for fun and artistic talent. So when participants of the Humor forum of the Internet Infidels Discussion Board (IIDB) decided to do a parody of AiG's cartoons, they were just having harmless, legally permissible fun. Right?

Brian Leiter has a post up about the reactions of some Federalist Society members concerning the recent Van Dyke flare-up.

A distinguished legal scholar and well-known Federalist Society figure reacted to my recent comments on Stuart Buck and Lawrence VanDyke, in which I quipped that they seem "intent on making sure the Federalist Society gets a reputation as a hotbed of dense apologists for Intelligent Design." This reader objects:

"[H]olding the Federalist Society responsible for idiotic design people in its midst is like holding the Democratic Party responsible for Larouchies. [...]

Youch! It's quite an interesting issue, but I think it's worth noting that many conservatives care little for the ID movement, despite the fact that ID was originally conceived for the express purpose of advocating a strain of conservative ideology. Can't blame 'em.

An excellent opinion piece by Dr. Brian McEnnis on the "critical analysis" lesson plan for the new Ohio model science curriculum has been published in the Marion Star newspaper.

Here's the ending:

Mr. Hedges refers to the support of Sen. Edward Kennedy, echoing a claim made by Sen. Santorum in the Washington Times of March 14, 2002. Kennedy responded in a letter to the editor, published in the same newspaper on March 21, 2002:

"The March 14 Commentary piece, 'Illiberal education in Ohio schools,' written by my colleague Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, erroneously suggested that I support the teaching of 'Intelligent Design' as an alternative to biological evolution. That simply is not true. Rather, I believe that public school science classes should focus on teaching students how to understand and critically analyze genuine scientific theories. Unlike biological evolution, 'Intelligent Design' is not a genuine scientific theory and, therefore, has no place in the curriculum of our nation's public school science classes."

So much for the claim of Kennedy's support! This type of misrepresentation and shading of the truth is typical of the way that Intelligent Design proponents present their case. The lesson plan that they wrote is similarly riddled with deceit and error.

If it is honest science you want, this lesson plan is not it. It is scientific fraud, and has no place in the classroom.

I have a situation report from just before the Ohio Board of Education approved the lesson plan for inclusion into the model curriculum that gives the background.

Technical analysis of the lesson plan was performed by geologist Thomas A. Baillieul on both references used and website links used in the lesson plan.

Further news about the situation in Ohio can be had on the Ohio Citizens for Science website.

The death of Darwin

Charles Darwin died on April 19th, 1882, at the age of 73. The 122nd anniversary of his death would be a week from today, and I'd intended to make this post then, but I'm prompted by an odd question about Darwin's dying words to jump the gun a little bit.

The subject is relevant to several things being discussed here, because much to the surprise of many creationists (and many atheists, as well) Darwin was not a bitter, hateful old atheist. He was an agnostic who held his Christian friends and family in respect, who refused before his death to engage in any public debate about the truth or falsehood of religion.

Continue reading "The death of Darwin" (on Pharyngula)

Happy Easter

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I hope everyone who wanted one had a good Easter. Hungry the Cow sure did, and he wants to tell you all, “eat mor bunnie.”

Now, can any of our readers explain why Hungry the Cow is eating this rabbit? Double bonus if you can identify the journal and paper that this unmodified photo is associated with.

[size=200%]The Design Inference[/size] Gonzalez et al appeal Dembski's Design Inference to show how the correlation of habitability and measurability shows evidence of 'purpose' in the universe. Various people such as Wein, or various authors on Talkreasons.org, have already shown what is wrong with the design inference. I will limit my comments to the claims by Gonzalez et al to show that their appeal to the design inference is inappropriate.

That a priori muddle


We've had a few discussions here, and there have been several more elsewhere, on a strange idea: that scientists automatically exclude the supernatural from science because of some close-minded metaphysical bigotry, that for instance there is an a priori determination that any explanation that mentions the words "ghosts" must be wrong and excluded from science. I disagree. We practice methodological naturalism, and all that matters is whether we have an operational toolkit to evaluate a claim. I don't dismiss "ghosts" (or Intelligent Design) because I have some prejudice against supernatural beings, but because those beings are so poorly described and delimited by their proponents that I have no way to evaluate them—and if these proponents want to be taken seriously, they must make the effort to establish clear definitions, criteria, and procedures for their study, something Intelligent Design creationists have steadfastly refused to do.

Now Brian Leiter has ripped into this topic at length. One of the interesting points there is that this represents a common strategy of trying to muddy the waters and pretend that science is religion, and that religion is science, and therefore religiously-motivated babble, like Intelligent Design creationism, is on an equal footing with evolutionary biology.

I assumed that he [VanDyke] --like all the others who peddle Intelligent Design--might be making a non-trivial point, namely, that methodological naturalism was genuinely a priori, i.e., a dogma immune from and indifferent to the empirical evidence, and thus on a par, epistemically, with supernaturalism. If that were true, then we would have an argument for saying that evolutionary biology, with its genuinely a priori commitment to methodological naturalism, was indistinguishable from supernaturalism. Alas, it is not true that methodological naturalism is a priori in the only sense that is relevant.

I've also written up an anecdote from 1999, Scientific bias and the Void-Of-Course Moon. Scientists are willing to consider even the most ridiculous hypotheses, if they are stated with sufficient clarity that they can actually assess them. Even if the idea is as absurd as astrology.

Just in case you aren't as tired with the whole NCSE-violating-the-Establishment-Clause thing as I am. . .

Where purpose and function meet

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Benjamin Wiker, who was recently heard accusing Darwinists of being in panic over 'specified complexity', seems to continue his wishful thinking in this article in Crisis Magazine. There seems to be indeed a crisis but contrary to Wiker's suggestions, the crisis seems to be in the ID camp where ID's failure to deliver scientifically relevant contributions seems to have cause much confusion.
Guillermo Gonzalez, assistant professor in astronomy and fellow at the Center for (the Renewal of) Science and Culture of the Discovery Institute and Jay Richards, formerly a fellow in philosophy and theology and vice president and senior fellow at the Center for (the Renewal of) Science and Culture of the Discovery Institute recently published a book called "Privileged Planet" in which they argue for purpose in the Universe. Their arguments are very similar to those found in "Rare Earth" by Ward and Brownlee and for good reasons, Gonzalez used to work at the same University of Washington where Ward and Brownlee work and was closely involved in the development of their thesis an aspect I intend to further address in a future posting. The main difference between the two books is that in "Privileged Planet" the authors argue for 'purpose' based on the "Rare Earth" argument of probability and additionally a novel argument based on a correlation between habitability and measurability. The combination of low probability and specification (correlation) implies, using Dembski's "Design Inference", design. Gonzalez et al's presentation at the "Who is the Designer: Reasons to Believe 2003" conference was critically reviewed during the Conference at the American Scientific Affiliation 2003 Annual Meeting "The Heavens Declare the Glory of God". Kyler Kuehn presented a critical analysis of the Privileged Planet hypothesis (PPT). In a series of "Privileged Planet" postings I intent to present, explore and critique their arguments. In part 1 I describe a lecture by Gonzalez et al on April 8th 2004 in the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. A day earlier Gonzalez et al had presented their arguments at the University of Washington. Both events were co-sponsored by the Discovery Institute. I regret that I was not present during their presentation at the UW since it would be interesting to hear the opinions from astronomers and especially Ward and Brownlee. Andrea Bottaro wrote some earlier comments on the Privileged Planet on this blog.

We have recently had the jaw dropping experience of Joe Carter stating that Forensic Science does not use "methodological naturalism" because the mind is a "supernatural" entity. However, this kind of reasoning is used by other ID advocates. Francis Beckwith has written:

ID theorists maintain that contemporary science's repudiation of intelligent agency as a legitimate category of explanation is not the result of carefully assessing ID's arguments and finding them wanting, but rather, it is the result of an a priori philosophical commitment to methodological naturalism (MN), (n4) an epistemological point of view that entails ontological materialism (OM),(n5) but which ID proponents contend is not a necessary condition for the practice of science.(n6) (p. 457, "Science and Religion Twenty Years after McLean v. Arkansas: Evolution, Public Education, and the New Challenge of Intelligent Design." Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 26.2 (Spring 2003: 455-499)

To paraphrase Mr. Babbage, I cannot apprehend the confusion of mind that would result in the above statement. What do ID "theorists" think that forensic science, anthropology and archeology do if not address intelligent agency as a legitimate category of explanation? Last time I looked, forensic science, anthropology and archeology were all standard science fields using "methodological naturalism". We've looked for intelligent agency in the origin of the HIV virus (and come up negative). Maybe ID "theorists" object to the fact that they deal with design by human intelligence, but science also deals with design by non-human intelligent agents, as I noted in my comment on the ability to determine that certain stone piles in rainforests were chimpanzee hammer stones, and the investigation of creative tool-making by Pacific Island ravens (Bird Brain will never mean the same thing again). Again they might object that the intelligent agents were all contemporary, and we could observe them, but we can also discern design by long vanished non-human intelligent agents, australopithecines (and Homo erectus, but they are human, although not modern).

As Francis Beckwith visits this blog, and had to discuss this issue with ID "theorists" to write the above paragraph, perhaps he could be so kind as to inform us what ID "theorists" mean by "intelligent agency" that it excludes humans, australopithecines, chimpanzees and Pacific Island Ravens.

Miss me, anyone?

I'm in the hospital with my worst-ever flare-up of Crohn's disease. I promise to spare you the disgusting details, but it has been bad enough to keep me away from an Internet connection for almost a week. That should tell you something.

But I did learn about some preliminary research that indicates that perhaps my condition results from changing the environmental conditions away from the usual coevolutionary relationship between humans and intestinal parasites. A small clinical trial tested the effect of giving Crohn's and ulcerative colitis patients porcine whipworm, Trichuris suis, and got some intriguing results. The researchers note that the initial study is too small to separate possible placebo effects, but positive responses in several patients indicate the need for a larger controlled study.

The basic gist behind this is that the porcine whipworm parasites are invasive enough to obtain an appropriate response from the gut, while being out-of-place enough in the human system that they don't pose a significant health risk of their own. The researchers also note an observed inverse relationship between incidence of Crohn's and colitis cases and prevalence of intestinal parasitic infections. If this works out, continuing maintenance of Crohn's and ulcerative colitis in at least some patients may include a routine of ingesting porcine whipworm eggs periodically. While I usually shudder at the idea of deliberate nematode ingestion, my recent experiences certainly put me in favor of giving it a try.

Squid Hox genes


It's April, it's Minnesota, and it's snowing here. On days like this, my thoughts turn to spicy, garlicky delicacies and warm, sunny days on a lovely tropical reef—it's a squiddy day, in otherwords, and I've got a double-dose of squidblogging on this Friday afternoon, with one article on the vampire squid, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, and this one, on squid evolution and cephalopod Hox genes.

Continue reading "Squid Hox genes" (on Pharyngula)

I came across this passage in another blog, Alcaide's Cafe, written by Russell Husted. As a general rule, Russell's page is considerably more sophisticated and better written than most of its kind, but this passage came as a surprise to me. In this post, he discusses the fact that finding water and methane on Mars is not necessarily evidence of life on Mars, and on that point he is of course correct. Those things might provide evidence that microbial life was once present, or is now present, on Mars, but that is still an entirely open question. But he doesn't stop there. He seems to think that if we do find life on Mars, this will be a problem for evolution because that life, presumably, stayed at the microbial level and did not "advance" to more complex, multicellular life. He writes:

When reading Andrea Bottaro's fine post of April 6 (titled Getting Away With "heresy") where he tells telltale stories about non-orthodox ideas taking hold in mainstream biology, it reminded me some stories that took place in my field. I am taking the liberty of telling here a story from my own past with a hope it will not be found inappropriate for this forum. I guess the name of Lev Landau is known to most of the readers of this blog. He was a very prominent theoretical physicist, a Nobel laureate and a founder and a long-time leader of a group of outstanding theoretical physicists in Russia. His authority among physicists in the USSR was immense and undisputed. To argue against Dau (as he usually was referred to) one could only at one's peril. Every physicist viewed it an honor to be allowed to give a presentation at Landau's famous weekly seminar. If Landau approved the presentation it would immensely enhance the prestige of the presenter. On the other hand, if Landau disliked the thesis he would make mincemeat of the offender with a few very caustic and witty remarks. After being thus disparaged, the hapless offender had nowhere to appeal. There was in the USSR a professor of physics by the name of Pines who authored an authoritative book on X-rays technique. Once he submitted to Landau a paper which he wished to present at Landau's seminar. This paper was a theoretical treatise about Poisson coefficient. Poisson coefficient is the ratio between the relative transverse and longitudinal strains of a solid body. It had been a commonly accepted view that Poisson coefficient may have only positive values up to k=1/2. Positive value of k means that when a body is stretched along some axis, it shrinks in the transverse direction. (For example, this is stated in the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics). In fact, a thermodynamic analysis (which I performed in ‘69) shows that no law of physics forbids a negative value of k, so that k may in principle have values between -1 and +1/2 . Negative k means that a body, while being stretched along some axis, would simultaneously expand along the transverse direction. Such a behavior was, though, never observed, and to the best of my knowledge, the thermodynamic analysis I mentioned was never conducted before, so the common notion had been that k is always positive and not exceeding 1/2 . I have not read Pines's article so I don't know what his arguments were, except for the general idea - he suggested some theoretical consideration showing that solid bodies with a negative Poisson coefficient may exist. I could not read Pines's article for a simple reason - Landau derided Pines, and his article was never published and was nowhere to be found. Some of my colleagues who happened to witness the story, told that, having looked over Pines's article, Landau said, "You know, Pines, if you swap i and e in your name you get the only body in the world that expands sideways when stretching. " End of Pines's prestige and of his theory. Now jump to 1969. I had at that time a doctoral student Vitaly Balagurov. He was one of only four of my doctoral students (out of the total of 26) who failed to get the doctoral degree. (In 1970 Balagurov had to abandon his research because of family circumstances). In '69 he was conducting experiments with films of magnetic alloys deposited in strong magnetic fields. He was frustrated by the stubborn instability of the data he got while measuring stress in these films - which was the task I gave him. For a while I was very busy with some other research and kept postponing a review of his data. Finally I turned to his raw data and, to my amazement, realized that the alleged instability was caused by what seemed to be a bizarre effect - when the films were stretched along one of the axes, they seemed to expand in the transverse direction. It was hard to believe, so I set out to check the data and to find the glitch in measurements which surely must have been somewhere. Together with Balagurov, we conducted hundreds of measurements, modifying the set-ups, the conditions etc, and, after a long-long series of experiments (as far as I recall, it took a whole year) I came to the conclusion that it was a real effect - these films had a negative Poisson ratio! Of course everybody knew it was impossible - the great Landau himself said so a few years earlier and destroyed the poor Pines who dared to suggest otherwise. What could I do - to openly go against Landau and common knowledge? That was exactly what I did. I wrote an article (with Balagurov as a co-author) where not only described the experimental results but also dared to offer a model suggesting a mechanism for the observed bizarre phenomenon, and sent it to the prestigious journal of the Academy of Sciences - Fizika Tverdogo Tela (Physics of Solids). The submissions to this journal always are reviewed by at least two anonymous referees. It usually takes some time. What happened, neither Landau's prestige nor the "common knowledge" played a role - our article was published, and unusually soon - in less than two months. The "orthodox" scientific "establishment" was obviously more interested in the unusual results than in preserving prestige, orthodox views, or using the alleged mechanism of peer-review to kill unwanted data - all those malaises of science attributed to it by the ID crowd. In physics and biology alike - what counts is evidence, and that is what the ID champions have in a very short supply.

Response to John Calvert

This past Tuesday (April 6, 2004) I gave a short 25 minute speech at a luncheon sponsored by the student activities program at the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC). The other speaker at the event was John Calvert, founder of the Intelligent Design network (IDnet). Calvert is a primary spokesperson for the central ID argument that science, by seeking natural explanations, essentially embraces materialism and atheism; therefore censors the evidence for design and unfairly excludes design inferences; and thus unconstitutionally indoctrinates our children in materialism when they are taught "evolution only" in our public schools. Calvert has taken this argument to boards of education, legislators and the public all over the country since 2000. I directly addressed this primary argument, first putting it in the context of the Wedge strategy and then explaining how it misrepresents the nature of science and dismisses and insults the religious beliefs of millions of people. An outline of my talk, my presentation slides, and mp3 files of my speech itself are available at the Kansas Citizens for Science website here After my speech (I went first), Calvert prefaced his prepared remarks with the following statement: I would characterize Jack's argument against design as essentially an ad hominem attack. I don't see Jack really discussing the substance of the science relating to design. That's really where the rubber meets the road. I think you need to get there if you really want to understand intelligent design. Now in my speech I had quickly dismissed the subject of the "science" of ID in order to focus on what I considered the more important topic. While I would be glad to discuss Calvert remarks about science, I take strong exception to Calvert's remark that my argument was "essentially an ad hominem attack." It is that mischaracterization that I would like to discuss in this post.

In the first installment of EvoMath, I derived the Hardy-Weinberg Principle and discussed its significance to biology. In the second installment I will demonstrate how to test if a population deviates from Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium.

One of the more difficult conceptual problems the layperson has with biology lies in the simple word "primitive". It has many antonyms - "modern", "evolved" and "derived", and like many biological uses of ordinary words, everybody thinks they understand it, and doesn't.

I've dealt already with the argument that the NCSE website's funding by the National Science Foundation violates the Establishment Clause, and Francis Beckwith's article really makes no new points. But I have a few more thoughts about it--and about the sloppy thinking it reveals (which is pretty common among creationists).

The ID crowd just continues to push this ridiculous argument that the Understanding Evolution website, by pointing out that evolution is not necessarily in conflict with religion and that many Christians and other types of theists accept evolution without giving up their faith, violates the establishment clause. The latest is from our old friend Francis Beckwith. This argument has been completely shredded by Timothy Sandefur, in a piece that Beckwith has no doubt seen. Yet he continues to push this, on his blog and in print. I'm sure he made a few bucks with the article in the American Spectator, but I still think it's kind of silly to keep pushing an argument this silly.

In fact, I think it's time for a challenge. Frank, I know you read this blog. If you really think you have an argument here, take it to court. If you really think this is a violation of the establishment clause, file a suit. John West is making the same argument and the DI has lots and lots of money to cover the legal fees. You and David Dewolf can design the legal strategy. I predict that you won't do it, because you know that this argument would be greeted with exactly the kind of response it is due, primarily laughter. I think you know how bad this argument is, but continue to push it, and ignore the criticisms that have been made of it, because it suits the DI's public relations agenda.

Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost has jumped into the Leiter/VanDyke fray, in a post filled with misconceptions and illogical statements. He begins:

For a legal scholar and professor of philosophy, Brian Leiter has a remarkably poor grasp of basic logic. For the past week Leiter has been bashing a defender of Intelligent Design theory using his typical rhetorical style of bullying and bluster. Instead of thinking up creative new ad hominem attacks, though, he should be paying closer attention to his reasoning.

William Dembski's latest book, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design consists of 44 questions about intelligent design with short answers by Dembski -- each answer takes about 6 or 7 pages, on average. Critics of Dembski -- such as Mark Perakh -- who were looking forward to having their objections addressed will be disappointed. The Design Revolution is even more intellectually dishonest than I thought possible. The easy questions Dembski actually addresses are answered disingenuously; the really hard questions he avoids entirely. This book should have been titled Desperately Evading the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design.

Disclaimer news


A judge in Atlanta, Georgia, has refused to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a group of parents against the Cobb County School District. The parents are arguing that the district's placement of stickers bearing a "disclaimer" about evolution is illegal.

The disclaimer says "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered." The parents, who are represented by the Georgia ACLU argue that the School Board's use of this sticker violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Although I think such disclaimers are incredibly stupid, I don't think that they violate the Constitution.

Conspiracy mongering and accusations of censorship have become standard fare in the writings of even the supposedly more serious Intelligent Design advocates, perhaps paralleling their progressive realization of utter scientific irrelevance. By their own meter, in the Wedge document ID leaders confidently set themselves a goal of 100 published scientific, technical or academic articles by 2003. Since this goal has not even remotely been achieved, nor seems likely to be achievable in any distantly foreseeable future, unsubstantiated claims like:

"To question Darwinism is dangerous for all professional scholars but especially biologists." W.A. Dembski, The Myths of Darwinism, in Uncommon Dissent


"There's good reason to be afraid. Even if you're not fired from your job, you will easily be passed over for promotions." M. Behe, quoted in Harvard Political Review, 5/12/02

and hyperbolic accusations of "stifling orthodoxy" or "Stalinist repression" have understandably replaced the bold forecasts of yore.

Contrary to these accusations, however, it can be easily shown how in the last few decades evolutionary biology has seen a number of unorthodox ideas gain acceptance, probably even more than most other branches of science. The symbiotic origin of mitochondria and plastids, the catastrophic theory of the dinosaurs' extinction, the neutral theory of molecular evolution, the existence of an entire new kingdom of organisms (Archaebacteria) and punctuated equilibria are all examples of unconventional hypotheses which have become mainstream within a few years from their original formulation, based on the strength of evidence. This is not to claim that science does not suffer from a reluctance to change - just like any other human activity - but rather that, when a new idea has merit, it arguably has more chances of receiving a fair hearing in science than, say, in politics or business (let alone activities that thrive on strict adherence to tradition, like kabuki theatre or religion).

But what about ideas that actually challenge the most fundamental tenets of evolutionary theory, especially its darwinian components? Are those being censored?

Dumping on Dembski


Having temporarily put aside the MSUP ID anthology, I've recently started making a more concerted effort to get through Dembski's The Design Revolution. I previously posted some thoughts on two especially outrageous quotes I found (upon opening the book to a random page) over at EvolutionBlog, in my entry for March 16.

So I came into my office this morning all set to unload a real sockdolager of a post on the sheer, unmitigated awfulness of Dembski's latest, only to discover that Jeffrey Shallit had beaten me to it. Sigh. As it happens though, there is so much to criticize in Dembski's book that Shallit has only scratched the surface.

I have lately been engaged in a conversation that is just making me more and more annoyed. It began with a blogger named Rusty Lopez saying,

Yet, one wonders what thoughts the likes of Eugenie Scott, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, et. al., are having as they smirk behind Miller's back.
And quoting Bill Dembski saying,
Not to put too fine a point on it, the Darwinian establishment views theistic evolution as a weak-kneed sycophant that desperately wants the respectability that comes with being a full-blooded Darwinist but refuses to follow the logic of Darwinism through to the end. It takes courage to give up the comforting belief that life on earth has a purpose. It takes courage to live without the consolation of afterlife. Theistic evolutionists lack the stomach to face the ultimate meaninglessness of life, and it is this failure of courage that makes them contemptible in the eyes of full-blooded Darwinists.

Leiter v VanDyke Redux

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Brian Leiter has replied to VanDyke's latest response, posted on Ex Parte and as a comment here, and it is a devestating reply, to be sure. I was hoping Brian would get around to doing this, mostly because I've been too busy to do it myself. The misuse, probably born of misunderstanding and trusting Beckwith's portrayal, of Laudan, Kuhn and other philosophers of science and their positions on methodological naturalism, fairly screamed out from VanDyke's reply and Leiter corrects the misconceptions very well.

VanDyke gets himself into particular trouble, I think, with this smug citation of Laudan:

"If [Leiter] had even perused Dr. Beckwith's book he would have come in modest contact with some of the leading lights in this literature including Larry Laudan, a philosopher of science who is currently on the faculty at the University of Texas and whose greatness Leiter himself extols..."
This is a brave leap in the dark, ending with a resounding thud as he lands. Leiter is infinitely better equipped to discuss Laudan's contributions to philosophy of science and the demarcation problem than VanDyke, not only because he's actually read Laudan's work on the subject (VanDyke clearly has not) but because Laudan's office is right down the hall from Leiter's office at UT. As Leiter notes:
My colleague Larry Laudan is, needless to say, well beyond being amazed anymore by the gross misrepresentations of his views--and of issues in the philosophy of science--in law reviews and by proponents of ID. (Didn't it occur to VanDyke that I might walk down the hall and point out his nonsense to Laudan? He just rolled his eyes and chuckled).
While I still tend to think that Leiter's rhetoric is a bit overly harsh, I think he's absolutely right when he says that this is all an example of a guy (VanDyke) who simply got in way over his head, pontificating on a subject he knew virtually nothing about, and his reputation took a justifiable beating as a result. It's time for him to just take his lumps and decide that should he venture into such territory again, he'll be better prepared to defend his views than he was in this case. Unfortunately, I think, based upon his reaction so far, that rather than doing that, he's going to continue to filter this through his perceptions of persecution by the "Darwinian establishment" and continue to strike the martyr pose. And as Leiter correctly notes, this is hardly an auspicious beginning for a prospective scholar.

Mooney vs. Marburger


There was a question in one of the comments about any responses to Marburger's reply to the Union of Concerned Scientist's report on the corruption of science policy under Bush. The answer is yes; I've said a few words about it, but the best reply is to be found on Chris Mooney's site. His summary:

In my view, there are serious problems both with Marburger's strategy for rebutting the barrage of scientific charges against the administration, and with his specific rebuttal itself. Granted, Marburger scores a couple of points against the administration's critics. But these are really glancing blows. For the most part, the UCS document still stands relatively intact.

Really, though, this is one where you need to read the details.

About a year ago, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) circulated a statement in support of evolution to a select group of scientists. How select? They only asked scientists named Steve (or Stephanie, or some other variation) to sign it. The purpose? To mock the use of lists, recently put forward by the Discovery Institute (DI), that suggest that significant numbers of scientists questioned evolution. By limiting the eligible signatories to such a small group, it also conveyed to the public just how much more support there was for within the scientific community evolution than against. To celebrate the 1 year anniversary of Project Steve (okay, we missed it by about a month and a half), The Panda's Thumb is revisiting the project. While the NCSE did all the actual work for Project Steve, and rightfully deserves the credit for it, the original idea was spawned from the members of the TalkDesign.org website (who are closely affiliated with this blog). You can read all about Project Steve at the NCSE website. There you can find links to the actual list, the original press release, newspaper articles, and the Steve-o-meter, which is currently at 431. To read all about the project from its creators, Glenn Branch and Skip Evans, check out this Geotimes article. You can also read Eugenie Scott's take here. The following article relives the joy that was Project Steve, and discusses the appeal to authority.

The Hardy-Weinberg Principle states that a population satisfying certain primary conditions will not evolve. This result is very important because any departure from these conditions will result in an evolving population. Three scientists in the early 20th century (G.H Hardy, Wilhelm Weinberg, and W.E. Castle) independently discovered this principle which is now used as the null model of population biology.

Consider a group of interbreeding organisms (a population)…

Fairy circles and stone circles


brauer_fig3.jpgbrauer_fig6Last week I introduced Dawkins' term "designoid" with a striking example. These objects have been found in a variety of places, but the most controversial of them come from the site of putative neolithic habitations in the present Gulf of Cambay, India. The "artifacts" have been used to bolster the controversial theory that a highly developed civilization existed at the site nearly 10,000 years ago.

I just noticed (via Chad Orzel) that the Washington Monthly has another relevant post up—Kevin Drum chastises the NRO's John West for his silly article about the NCSE pushing religion, the same subject discussed here.

Drum is asking good, pointed questions, and the ensuing comments are also interesting.

Addendum: see also this followup by Drum.

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.

    Dear Editor


    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.

    The rat genome

    science rat

    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.

    World magazine. Schwartz. Ugh.

    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)

    Daltonian Theory Abandoned!

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    Russell Durbin reports exciting new developments in the war on materialistic so-called "science":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.

    How I discovered evolution

    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.

    Continue reading "Uh-oh. Evolutionists discover two new gaps in the fossil record!" (on Pharyngula).

    3 myths and a canard


    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!

    A creationist lecture at UMD

    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.

    The schedule of upcoming meetings of the Marine Mammal Commission.

    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:

    The "Institute for Creation Research" and the Case of the Tuba-Playing Neanderthal

    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.

    "Dr." Kent Hovind and the Case of "Onyate Man"

    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.


    The Case of the Coso Artifact

    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...

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