October 3, 2004 - October 9, 2004 Archives

The Ascent of Man

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I see the Discovery Science channel is showing Jacob Bronowski's 1973 miniseries The Ascent of Man. It's a classic work of science, history, and philosophy, eloquently and beautifully created, and certainly Bronowski's masterpiece, despite several small flaws. I'm a great admirer of Bronowski (about whom I wrote for Liberty magazine in December, 2002). One astounding thing about this 13-hour miniseries is that it was almost entirely performed extemporaneously: the director pointed the camera at Bronowski, and he just talked. It's a magnificent achievement, and I encourage our readers to tune in!

After my speech at the University of Kansas a few weeks ago (see Kansas Citizens for Science), a number of ID supporters complained that even though both Chancellor Hemenway and I referred to the discussion as a debate, my speech just represented one side of the issue. In response to a post on a local discussion forum, I promised I would address this complaint, which I will now do here.

There’s a new article out about a new breakthrough in controlling pesticide resistant insects in Australia, one which involes trying to shut down their ability to resist pesticides:

Australian and British scientists have achieved a technical breakthrough to help control insects that have developed resistance to common agricultural pesticides, the New South Wales state government said on Thursday.

[…]

”Developed by the NSW Department of Primary Industries and Rothamsted Research in the UK, the technique relies on the use of naturally occurring enzyme inhibitors to disarm an insect’s defense system,” Macdonald said.

”The enzyme inhibitor acts first to shut down an insect’s resistance mechanisms. A few hours later, while the bug’s defenses are still low, the pesticide kicks in.”

Gotcha!…?

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Daniel Dennett is among the foremost writers on the philosophical issues surrounding evolution. Indeed, I consider him the greatest philosopher alive. Among his books are Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Consciousness Explained, and Freedom Evolves. He's attacked creationism and its surrounding notions time and time again. But--gasp!--he's admitted that Intelligent Design makes sense!

No, not really.

Newest NAGPRA News

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The Center for the Study of the First Americans has issued their comment on the amendment to NAGPRA. This amendment, as I've blogged before, would appease creationists by seriously curtailing the ability to do research on ancient skeletons in America. More on how you can help protect science here.

Urochordates and neural crest

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urochordates

The neural crest is an example of a profound evolutionary innovation in vertebrates. It seems to be something simple—it's a population of cells that are 'left over' at the closure of the neural tube, and that wander out into the other tissues of the body—but it has been co-opted in numerous ways to provide major vertebrate features. You wouldn't have much of a face without the neural crest, for instance; this plastic population of migrating cells get recruited to build much of what lies below your eye sockets, along with some radical reorganization of branchial arches. These cells also form the myelin sheaths of your peripheral nerves, and most visibly, form all of the pigmentation in your skin. Having neural crest in the embryo, obscure as it is to most people, is considered to be one of the hallmarks of being a vertebrate.

One particularly pressing question, then, is where the neural crest came from (and no, divine prestidigitation or alien tweaking aren't under consideration, at least not until someone comes up with actual evidence for such designer intervention.) Where should we look? In lineages that branched off of the chordate line before the evolution of vertebrate neural crest. One such lineage is the urochordata.

Continue reading "Urochordates and neural crest" (on Pharyngula)

Maurice Wilkins, whose X-ray photographs of DNA were central to Watson and Crick's later elucidation of the structure of DNA, and who shared the Nobel Prize with them, died in London Tuesday.

Why, it looks like a big chicken!

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Here are some closeups of some fossilized bones from the early Cretaceous. Look closely:

tyrannosaurid

They've got fine filamentous feathery hairs all over them—it's a dinosaur with feathers. One very cool thing about it is that this is a basal tyrannosaurid, a new species named Dilong paradoxus.

Continue reading "Why, it looks like a big chicken!" (on Pharyngula)

Tipler on Peer Review

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I have resumed my analysis of the essays in William Dembski's anthology Uncommon Dissent. I am currently working my way through Frank Tipler's contribution, entitled “Refereed Journals: Do They Insure Quality or Enforce Orthodoxy?” This essay seems especially important in light of Stephen Meyer's recent paper, reported on extensively at this site and others.

My first two posts, over at EvolutionBlog, can be found here and here, I discuss four examples of Tipler distorting other's people's work or telling dubious anecdotes. For example, he suggests that the criticisms of neo-Darwinian theory offered by Lynn Margulis in her book Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origin of Species are effectively equivalent to those being made by Behe and Dembski. He further asserts that Ernst Mayr, in his foreward to the book, agrees that neo-Darwinism has the flaws Margulis (and by extension Behe and Dembski) describe. I show that both of these claims are nonsense.

Tipler's essay is long on arrogance and dubious generalities, but very short on substance. His bombast has to be cleared out of the way before his arguments can be addressed. I have not yet addressed his arguments on peer review, but that is coming in a later posting. Enjoy!

The Tangled Bank

Tangled Bank #13 is online at Preposterous Universe, and it contains 19 entries. Wow—that's our record so far. And while you're over there, be sure to send belated birthday greetings to Sean.

And there's more to come! The next edition will be at Prashant Mullick on October 20th. Send your submissions directly to Prashant, to host@tangledbank.net, or to me.

Creationists like to say that evolution's influence is dying and that it is of little importance to doing biology. They take advantage of the layperson's lack of familiarity with the scientific literature to argue that evolution has little relevance, or that Dobzhansky's aphorism that "nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution" is false. Anyone who actually reads the biological literature, though, will come away with exactly the opposite impression: the journals are full of references to evolution, even in disciplines and journals that don't have "evolution" in their title. The concept is central; it's as ubiquitous as references to "genes".

To demonstrate, I've carried out a quick exercise, similar to one I've done before. The latest copy of one of the major journals in my field, Developmental Biology, just arrived in my mailbox. It's a top-notch journal, affiliated with our biggest organization, the Society for Developmental Biology. It's not evolutionary biology directly, but there has been an increasing awareness of the significance of evolution to our field, so it's a good representative of an expanding, hot field which is experiencing some synergy with other disciplines.

What I did was to quickly skim through each of the 21 articles in Volume 274, Issue 2, of Developmental Biology, and ask myself how much each article depended upon or discussed the topic of evolution. I categorized and color-coded each one by the following criteria:

Blue articles are explicit in their discussion of evolution, proposing evolutionary connections or even testing evolutionary hypotheses. The evolutionary aspect may not be the major point of the paper, but it is discussed.
Green articles treat evolution as implicit; they may work with molecules homologous between different species, but they don't specifically address evolutionary ideas. This is not to say that they have a lesser commitment to evolution, but more that they take it for granted.
Gray articles don't say anything one way or the other about evolutionary relationships. Most often these are papers that are tightly focused on analysis of data from a single species. It's entirely possible to imagine a creationist writing these, but of course there is no implication that the authors deny evolution.
Black articles would be ones that directly discuss Intelligent Design or other anti-evolutionary ideas about science. This is a hypothetical category; none were found.

Here is my classification of each of those articles, with a brief justification for why I put each in its particular category.

Continue reading "How often do biologists talk about this evolution stuff, anyway?" (on Pharyngula)

I was extremely disappointed to see that the Society for American Archaeology has issued a statement supporting the amendment of NAGPRA which, if passed, would severely limit the ability of scientists to study ancient remains found on federal land. (More on this amendment below.) SAA says that they're just fine with the destruction of ancient skeletal remains, intended to appease American Indian creationists; they just oppose the way the amendment was introduced (rather quietly, and without substantial public comment). More on how you can help protect science at the Friends of America's Past.

Update: Thanks to inappropriate response, here is what the American Association of Physical Anthropologists has to say.


The school district in York, Pennsylvania has come to a compromise of sorts on the use of the book Of Pandas And People (1989) in the classroom. This book is controversial because it includes various ID elements. I haven't read it, but glancing through it, there are some pretty objectionable statements--statements that show how illusory is the attempted distinction between creationism and ID.

Phillip Johnson has once again “clarified” his position on the age of the Earth. You can read my previous comments about this issue here.

On the comments page of Touchstone magazine, we’re treated to an email that Johnson sent to his list. (Note: this is not a permanent link, it will eventually be archived.) Johnson is apparently touring the U.K. with Andrew Snelling from the Institute for Creation Research, a fervently YEC outfit. So does this mean Johnson is showing his true colors as a YEC? This is what he has to say:

I received the message below, forwarded from from [sic] a theistic evolutionist Christian College professor (the explanations in brackets are mine, not Phil’s):

The following paragraph comes from a post on the ASA list, citing information in a publication from ICR. This would tend to support John Wilson’s implicit suggestion in his Christianity Today article, that Phil is moving toward a YEC [young earth creationist] position. If Phil has any comments, I’m all ears.

The latest issue of ACTS AND FACTS arrived today. I see that Phillip Johnson and Andrew Snelling (of ICR [the Institute of Creation Research, I think]) will be making a joint speaking tour in England from 10/26 to 11/13. The tour is being underwritten by Elim Churches and several “evangelical alliances.”

I have consistently said that I take no position on the age of the earth, and that I regard the issue as not ripe for debate yet. I have also rejected all suggestions that I should denounce the YECs and instead have said that I regard high-quality YECs like Andrew Snelling as respected allies.

I am not upset when YECs criticize me for not embracing their position, nor am I upset when theistic evolutionists or progressive creationists criticize me for being overly friendly with YECs. For now I am standing right where I want to stand. When developments make it appropriate for me to clarify or adjust my position, I will not hesitate to do so.

One wonders just what developments could possibly make Johnson make up his mind about the age of the Earth. Is he holding out for some new and improved radiometric dating technique? Waiting for new ice core results? I somehow doubt it. He’s probably referring to political, not scientific, developments. The scientific case for an old Earth is quite overwhelming, as can be seen by any open-minded person willing to invest some time researching it. But Johnson’s “Big Tent” strategy requires him to do the exact opposite of what he pretentiously claims to be doing, which is following the evidence wherever it leads. Instead, he has to sweep the evidence under the rug when it’s politically incorrect to do otherwise.

It’s funny that ID advocates have been known to deride evolutionary theory as “19th century science”, even though the modern synthesis was developed in the 20th century. Perhaps, previously, I didn’t appreciate what they meant by that. Maybe instead of insinuating that evolutionary theory is old and stale, they meant that it’s futuristic and scary. Because anyone who thinks that the age of the Earth is “not ripe for debate yet” is living in a bygone era, well before Darwin.


NAGPRA is a federal law which requires that any skeleton found on federal land or in a federal museum which is the skeleton of an American Indian, must be returned to that person's tribe, usually for burial or other form of ceremonial destruction. Archaeologists are troubled by some of the extreme implications of this law, which has already cast a dark shadow over attempts to study ancient skeletons, such as Kennewick Man. Now there is a possibility that NAGPRA will get even worse.

Axel and Buck win the Nobel Prize

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The announcement is on the Nobel site. Carl Zimmer has the summary.

Axel's and Buck's work was on odorant receptors, and what they accomplished was to demonstrate on the molecular level how your nose works. It's very nifty stuff from a physiological standpoint, showing how an olfactory signal is transduced via G protein coupled receptors into a change in cyclic AMP levels, which then opened membrane channels to change the electrical potential of the cell. It also turned out to have evolutionary significance, because what they discovered was a huge gene family; every different class of odorant has its own unique receptor molecule, and roughly 3% of our genome is dedicated to this one task that we take for granted. We aren't even particularly well endowed with odorant receptors, and our genome is further riddled with broken odorant receptor pseudogenes, relics of the more discerning noses of our distant ancestors.

Testing fundamental evolutionary hypotheses by David Penny, Michael Hendy and Anthony Pool was published in Journal of Theoretical Biology volume 223, pages 377-385 in 2003. Penny et al show that ‘Intelligent Design’ can be formulated as a testable hypothesis but this requires us to formulate motivation(s), means and/or opportunity to restrain the explanatory power of an ‘intelligent designer’. Additionally, they show why various potential ID hypotheses can be rejected based on the experimental evidence. Until ID proposes other hypotheses, common descent seems to remain the best hypothesis available. Since the Geoscience Research Institute (GRISDA) proposes an alternative theory of ID (multiple independent origins) I will explore this hypothesis and show that again the data do not bode well for ID.

The Tangled Bank

We're looking for more submissions to the next edition of the Tangled Bank, which will be at Preposterous Universe on Wednesday. Send links to your science writing to carroll [at] theory.uchicago.edu, to pzmyers@pharyngula.org, or to host@tangledbank.net. Get 'em in as soon as you can!

Dembski on Human Origins, reprise

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William Dembski has posted a revised version of his essay on human origins on www.designinference.com. This was way back in August, but I’ve been busy. In the acknowledgements he thanks me, amongst others, for helpful criticism. Now I’m quite chuffed that I could help the greatest philosopher of our time with his essay, but it might have been nicer if he actually had acted on my criticisms.

As before, there are still numerous biological mistakes Dembski makes in this essay. He didn’t take my advice to get a real biologist to look over it carefully. What about my specific criticisms?

Report on KU Speech

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Last Tuesday, September 28, 2004, about 300 people attended my speech “Kansas Science Standards 2004: Will It Be 1999 All Over Again?”, sponsored by the Chancellor’s Office and all the natural science departments at the University of Kansas. Generally the audience was supportive and appreciative, although a few ID advocates and supporters were there (including Intelligent Design managing director John Calvert.)

If you are interested, links to some materials, including mp3’s of the speech, are on the Kansas Citizens for Science website www.kcfs.org. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in Kansas, much of this talk is pertinent to anyone interested in the ID movement.

1) The Powerpoint presentation is here.

2) A Word version of the Powerpoint text, with cues to the mp3 files is here. This is a more useful (and much smaller) document.

3) The speech itself is separated into a small mp3 files corresponding to the Powerpoint presentation, which you can either listen to directly or download to listen to consecutively later. I recommend listening while following the Word document. The files are all here.

The reaction by the IDists was strong - perhaps even a little over-the-top.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from October 2004 listed from newest to oldest.

September 26, 2004 - October 2, 2004 is the previous archive.

October 10, 2004 - October 16, 2004 is the next archive.

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