January 2005 Archives

Francis Beckwith has an article about the Cobb County disclaimer case in Legal Times which is misleading and alarmist. According to Professor Beckwith, the decision is a threat to religious tolerance. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

Nazis, Nazis all …


Former chemist and professional creationist Jonathan Sarfati of Answers in Genesis Ministry continued today in the decades old creationist tradition of trying to directly equate evolutionary biology with the Nazis. In an article for The Conservative Voice, called “The Holocaust and Evolution”, Sarfati accuses biologists and science educators of complicity with, if not out and out responsibility for, the Nazi Holocaust, and the Columbine High School killings.

I normally do not read posts on Access Research Network (ARN). Sometimes, though, some of my colleagues point to certain curious posts there and in such rare cases I briefly look them up. Such was the occasion a few days ago when a contributor to ARN advised about a funny exchange of posts on ARN with the participation of William Dembski.

That consistency is not William Dembski’s forte is not news. However, once in a while this inordinately prolific propagandist for intelligent design offers notions that are so obviously contrary to others of his own notions that one wonders whether Dembski is serious or his opuses are spoofs designed mainly to attract attention to his voluminous output. Also, it is funny that there is a bunch of Dembski’s admirers (such as, for example, Salvador Cordova) always ready to spin his notions in a positive light, often doing that in a truly acrobatic manner.

A group of eight ID/creationists on the Kansas state science standards committee recently submitted a proposal for revisions to the first draft of the standards that are a mishmash of typical claims: science needs to not be limited to natural explanations, “origins science” is different because we can’t really observe the past, common descent and macroevolution are unproven and in doubt, and so on. (The proposal can be found here)

Fortunately, at the science standards meeting last Thursday all but one of the ID proposals were rejected by committee vote (and the one was a reasonable suggestion.) Reporters from all over the state (and from the London Times) were at the meeting: you can read newspaper reports here at the Salina paper, here in Topeka, here from the AP, and here this morning in the London Times.

However, one interesting part of the story has gone unpublicized: committee chairperson Steve Case received responses to the ID proposal from a number of quite respectable and reputable scientists, all of whom gave the committee permission to make their responses public.

Consequently, Kansas Citizens for Science is putting these papers on our website: visit KCFS: Standards 2005 to see reviews by * Joe Heppert, University of Kansas * Kenneth Miller, Brown University * Robert Dennison, Texas biology teacher * E.O. Wiley, University of Kansas * Taner Edis, Truman State University * Gary Hurd, Ph.D. * Douglas L. Theobald, University of Colorado at Boulder * Scott Brand, University of Alabama at Birmingham * Patricia Princehouse, Case Western Reserve University

I don’t have time to summarize the results here, but this all makes pretty interesting reading - there are some pretty scathing and on-target remarks here. The IDnet’s proposal is quite a bit more thorough and extensive than any of the disclaimers or policies that have been in the news elsewhere recently, and so it provides more specific issues to respond to. Enjoy.

Icons of ID: Apples and Oranges


On ARN Mike Gene is arguing, amongst others, that there is a similarity between the publication of Meyer’s paper in PBSW and Pennock’s paper in Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics. Mike is wrong.

When the Meyer paper came out, the critics began to complain the Meyer paper was a drastic departure from the traditional focus of the journal. Now that we can see how the Pennock paper undercuts this complaint, we finally get some ad hoc rationalizations. I am utterly unswayed by Myrmecos’ attempt to argue one is a drastic departure from the traditional focus, while the other is not.

The hugely successful Media Complaints Division at the Discovery Institute Center for [the Renewal of] Science and Culture already covers the major land masses of three medium sized planets and is the only part of the Institute to have shown a consistent growth in recent years.* Just last week, Time magazine reviewed the various recent attempts by creationists and “intelligent design” advocates to force public schools to misinform students about the scientific status of modern evolutionary theory (see previous PT post). The DI Media Complaints Division, working overtime this week, put extra effort into complaining about the Time article (DI #1, DI #2).

For good measure they have been complaining about the “Legacy Media” in general. (I think that somebody at the Media Complaints Division flipped a switch and activated a microchip telling all employees to insert “Legacy Media” wherever a normal person would say “the media.”) Strangely, all this talk about the “Legacy Media” temporarily disappeared on Friday, when a pro-ID opinion piece (probably wildly inaccurate – we’ll see what the other side says) appeared in the Wall Street Journal with the apparent purpose of attempting to incite a witch hunt against the rabid pack of herpetologists, acarologists and cephalopodologists (especially those crazy cephalopodologists) at the Smithsonian. So I guess the media is only “legacy” when they aren’t trumpetting your cause. But really, who cares about self-consistency and favoring honesty over spin when you are trying to get good coverage from the media? (Except maybe the media, which has a tough time with complex science but which can sniff spin from 100 feet away – but remember, they’re just the “Legacy Media.”)

But you haven’t seen anything yet. With the publication of a longish story on the various ID battles in the February 7 issue of Newsweek, the DI Media Complaints Division might have to expand onto a fourth medium-sized planet.

PBS Affiliate KNME Gets Some Support


Howdy folks.

Here are links to some recent articles supporting KNME’s decision not to air the creationist ‘infomercial’, “Unlocking the Mystery of Life.” Cheers, Dave

KNME Put Lock on Infomercial (N.M. Academy of Science )

The reason ID supporters want “Unlocking” shown on public television instead of religious stations is that they want the implied “seal of approval” that comes with being aired on KNME. They want to ride the coattails of PBS programs such as “Nova” and “Nature.” They want the respect given modern science, but they have not earned that respect in the science community.

Albuquerque Tribune Editorial: KNME did right thing to pull ‘science’ show

Journalists recognize the techniques in the program as “spinning” - in this case enlisting peer-reviewed science in making the case for an idea that hasn’t been submitted to the intense rigor of that same peer-review process. Intelligent design so far has failed to meet the most basic of scientific standards.

KNME is a precious community, regional and national TV resource. In this decision, it affirmed worthy and cherished values of public broadcasting. In adhering to those values, it deserves the support of Albuquerque and other New Mexico citizens.

Crosswinds Weekly: “Posing as science” by Steve Lawrence (will be over-written after this week…)

New Mexico’s largest public television station, KNME (channel 5), remains under fire for refusing to air an ersatz documentary that pushes creationism as science.

It is apparently well known that Albuquerque’s Public School administrators have refused to fire a high school science teacher nicknamed “Six-thousand-year Phil” who teaches his science students that the earth is only 6,000 years old. His proof? The Bible says so.

Previously on The Thumb:

Albuquerque PBS Station Under Fire by Creationists

The Discovery Institute’s Strange Allies (Jan. 21, 2005)

Today, Representative Ben Bridges of the Georgia House, introduced a bill, HB 179, that would require evidence against evolution be taught in Georgia’s public schools whenever evidence for evolution is taught. (However, his fairness is a one-way street.)

Word has it that the Republican leadership will not support the bill, which ensures it will have a short life.

The news is fresh, but it should be covered by the evening news and tomorrows papers. The only story on it so far is a short one.

I’ve gotten a hold of the meat of the bill and addressed it on my blog, De Rerum Natura.

Read it atGA HB 179: Bridges’ Ding Bill.”

Promiscuity in Evolution


No, this is not another post about the sexual habits of female apes. This is about enzymes, and their ability to catalyze different reactions with different substrates, even those that aren’t found in nature. It’s a property known as “promiscuity”, one that’s being increasingly recognized as important in enzymology and enzyme evolution.

The usefulness of enzymes derives in part from their specificity, in that they don’t just catalyze any old reaction with any old substrate. It would be hard for cells to maintain homeostasis if enzymes were highly nonspecific; helpful reactions would be coupled with harmful side reactions, regulation would be impossible, and things would get messy real quick. So it’s useful for enzymes to specialize in certain functions so that they can be applied for specific tasks at specific times. But because nature is a bit sloppy, enzymes are often able to catalyze many reactions weakly in addition to the “native” functions that they specialize in. These additional weak activities are referred to as promiscuous activities, and they’re potentially very important in enzyme evolution. Now a recent study (subscription required) published in Nature Genetics by Amir Aharoni and coworkers sheds some light on why enzymes are promiscuous, and what it means for their evolvability. (There is some good non-technical commentary on the paper here and here.) It also badly knocks down some bold claims made by leading ID proponents.

Modeling metazoan cell lineages


A while back, I criticized this poorly implemented idea from Paul Nelson of the Discovery Institute, a thing that he claimed was a measure of organismal complexity called Ontogenetic Depth. I was not impressed. The short summary of my complaints:

  • Unworkable idea: There was no explanation about how we could implement and test the idea, and despite promises at the time, Nelson still hasn't produced his methods.
  • False assertions and confusing examples: He claims that all changes in early lineages are destructive, for instance, which is false.
  • Bad metaphors: He uses a terribly flawed metaphor of a marching band to explain how development works; I'd say that it's a better example of how development doesn't occur.
  • No research: Which is really a major shortcoming for a research program, that no research is being done.

Recently, Nature published a paper by Azevedo et al. that superficially might resemble Nelson's proposal, in that it attempts to quantify the complexity of developing organisms by looking at the pattern within their early lineages. The differences are instructive, though: this paper clearly explains their methodology, presents many of the limitations, and draws mostly reasonable conclusions from the work. It is an interesting paper and contains some good ideas, but has a few flaws of its own, I think. My main objections are that its limitations are even greater than the authors mention, and there are some conclusions that are driven by a strongly adaptationist bias.

Continue reading "Modeling metazoan cell lineages" (on Pharyngula)

Morris on Dembski

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William Dembski's book, The Design Revolution, has attracted the notice of the Institute for Creation Research. Henry M. Morris has a brief review and critique in the February 2005 issue of Back to Genesis titled "The Design Revelation".

That makes a score of Tangled Banks!

The Tangled Bank

It's another Tangled Bank at Jasmine Cola—these things just seem to grow and grow, and there's a pile of stuff to read over there.

The next event will be hosted at About Town on 9 February. Send links for the next edition to me, to host@tangledbank.net, or to Xavier.

Another Tangled Bank is almost upon us

The Tangled Bank

Another Tangled Bank will be appearing at JasmineCola this Wednesday. Have you sent a link to your science writing to host@tangledbank.net, PZMyers, or using the contact form at JasmineCola yet? You're running out of time!

If you've never heard of this strange Tangled Bank thing, check out the description at the Tangled Bank homepage, where you'll also find many links to other science articles on the web.

Creationists often dismiss examples of evolutionary change as “that’s just a loss of information.” There are many problems with this claim (see also here and here), but here is a new one: it appears that in at least one case, humans evolved by “loss of information” (in this case, loss of a gene) from their apelike ancestors. Carl Zimmer mentions this in passing in a post on the cell-surface sugars, Neu5Ac and Neu5Gc:

A new article in Time Magazine just came across my bloglines account.

Stealth Attack On Evolution” was on the whole a decent article. I am sure the Discovery Institute will carp anyway, even though they get quoted and even get their list of 300+ scientists cited (translation: 300+ scientists signing on to an extremely vague statement not even supporting ID, and with only 4 Steves), because they will be annoyed that the the article points out the fact that this represents a miniscule proportion of the scientific community.

One passage in the Time article was particularly groanworthy:

They [evolutionary biologists] developed the theory of punctuated equilibriums, for example, to address the fact that species remain unchanged for long periods, then suddenly start evolving.

“Equilibriums”? Eh? And most everything else about the sentence is wrong, also. How hard would it be for a journalist to say,

By the 1940’s, biologists had synthesized Darwin’s natural selection and Mendel’s genetics into the discipline of population genetics, the mathematical theory describing how genes spread through populations under the influence of natural selection. A finding from population genetics was that small populations can evolve more rapidly than large populations, and this finding, along with extensive field observations, were combined to produce the theory of allopatric (geographically localized) speciation. In 1972, Gould and Eldredge applied these results about speciation to the fossil record, producing the model of “punctuated equilibria.” They argued that if speciation was typically allopatric, the fossil record would most commonly record only widespread species, and that these would typically evolve slowly. New species (closely related to the old species) would tend to evolve in small, isolated populations, and then spread. They would therefore appear “suddenly”, geologically speaking. Punctuated equilibria therefore predicts that species-species transitions involving whole populations would tend to be relatively rare in the fossil record. It specifically did not say that “transitional fossils” in general are absent. Gould, annoyed at creationist misrepresentations of his position, specifically said in rebuttal, “Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups.” *

Sigh. Well, I can dream, can’t I?

Psychologists tell us that one of the primary manifestations of guilt is to accuse others of doing what one is guilty of themselves. This is why, for instance, a cheating husband will often exhibit jealous paranoia about his wife cheating on him, and vice versa. They know the lies that they've been telling, so they continually presume that they are being lied to as well. For a perfect illustration of this phenomenon, look no further than the recent obsession of ID apologists like Casey Luskin with Nazi comparisons in the ID/evolution dispute. While howling in feigned outrage at the terrible unfairness of such comparisons, they ignore the fact that such comparisons have been used by them and their colleagues for constantly for years. The latest example is John West's post on the DI blog, complaining about a comment made by Jeffrey Selman, the plaintiff in the Cobb County case. He writes:

I went back and reread Antony Flew’s essay, “Theology and Falsification,” and the ensuing discussion, and posted an essay about them as a Web Exclusive of the magazine Free Inquiry, http://www.secularhumanism.org/libr[…]ng_01-05.htm. As I conclude there, the young Antony Flew would never have been swayed by an argument from ignorance.

Additionally, may I recommend Victor Stenger’s piece, “Flew’s Flawed Science,” which has (miraculously?) already appeared in the print version of Free Inquiry (February-March, 2005, pp. 17-18)? You may also find it at http://www.secularhumanism.org/libr[…]er_25_2.html.

For additional references, see my previous postings, “Antony Flew’s Conversion to Deism,” http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archi[…]/000687.html, and an update at http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archi[…]/000723.html.

AiG Follows DI


Well, Answers in Genesis Ministries, whom a Discovery Institute spokesman has referred to as “guitar-strumming hillbillies,” have produced their response to Judge Cooper’s decision in the Cobb Country disclaimer-sticker case. It echoes (borrows, steals?) much of the Discovery Institute’s spin which I have already dispatched. I’ll make three points again.

  • The judge found that the disclaimer-stickers hurt biology education and did not foster critical thinking, despite the board’s best intentions.
  • In fact, he found that the disclaimer-stickers hurt education in such a way that only sectarian interests (creationism et al.) benefited. This caused a violation of the Lemon test.
  • The decision is neither activist nor bizarre. All Lemon prongs must be satisfied, not just one.

Well, folks, the flap over our local (Albuquerque, New Mexico) PBS affiliate, KNME, and its refusal to show “Unlocking the Mysteries of Life” is still going strong.

A local columnist, Jeffry Gardner, wrote a column on Thursday Jan. 20th about the flap. This very strange piece slammed our science group, NMSR, for supporting KNME.

Gardner writes

In making the decision to cancel the show “Unlocking the Mystery of Life,” derisively referred to as “creationism” by the rabidly anti-Christian voices that squeak like greaseless wheels in the so-called science community, KNME-Channel 5’s radio marketing manager Joan Rebecchi said “Life’s” producers had not just an agenda but a religious agenda.

KNME’s decision was cheered by a group called New Mexicans for Science and Reason. The Science and Reason folks slammed the show as “religious propaganda” and made it clear we all benefited from their and KNME’s collective protection.

The Cato Institute's Neal McCluskey has this article commenting on the Cobb County decision. Although I disagree that the decision was "ridiculous," I agree with McCluskey's argument that this controversy simply cannot be settled so long as government runs schools: "the fight over evolution is just one of numerous struggles precipitated by a system for which all must pay, but only a select few control."

O’Reilly and Scarborough


Thanks to P. Z. Myers and one of my commenters for directing me to transcript of the O'Reilly segment I reported on yesterday. I have fisked the entire thing in this entry, over at EvolutionBlog. O'Reilly's insanity is so complex and multi-layered, at times it is difficult to compose a reply.

I have also prepared this entry about yet another awful segment on this subject from last Friday's Scarborough Country. Enjoy!

In Academe magazine (which I’m sure everyone has on their coffee table), there’s a new article out by Barbara Forrest and Glenn Branch:

Wedging Creationism into the Academy.

Kind of an all-around smack-down on the ID movement, the Wedge, etc. Most readers here will be familiar with the information presented therein, but it combines a lot of diverse sources into a single (and brief) document. So it’s a good reference. And if you know someone who’s not familiar with the ID movement, it’s a good introduction.

Bill O’Reilly explains science


Here's something to give you all the heebie-jeebies: Jason Rosenhouse watches Bill O'Reilly expounding on Intelligent Design creationism. This is quite possibly the most ridiculous, extravagantly bogus mangling of basic scientific concepts I have seen in my entire career, but Jason manages to discuss it far more dispassionately than I ever could. There is also a transcript available online.

Check it out only if you've got your blood pressure under control. Mild sedatives recommended before reading.

Pigliucci Blog

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Massimo Pigliucci, evolutionary biologist at SUNY-Stony Brook, has a blog, (mostly) Rationally Speaking. Pigliucci is well known for his popular writings about evolution, skepticism, and humanism.

Adam Felbers has a hilarious take on the ID movement, a Q&A on the theory of Intelligent Design:

Q: So what is ID doing to research the identity and characteristics of this "intelligence" that it posits?
A: Well, nothing that I've found yet...

Q: Because if they really wanted to research stuff, they'd be saying things like, "Well, could a giant lobster make a flower?" and, "Is there anything about the design of DNA that looks like something a space crustacean would come up with?"
A: I really think you need to get off this whole lobster thing.

Q: But these ID guys aren't looking into just who this intelligence is, are they?
A: No.

Q: Because they think it's God, right?
A: They don't say that.

Q: Because if they thought they saw evidence of giant superintelligent eyestalks peering down on them from under a celestial carapace, they'd be seriously bummed, wouldn't they?
A: I think this Q&A is over now.

It's funny because it is so, so true.

Evolution law blog

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I ran across this cool blog, Law, Evolution, and Junk Science. I thought the FAQ put it very well:

Intelligent Design is a paradigm of junk science and abuse of the legal system, both in court, at the local school board level...and at state and federal [legislative] and executive branches of government. Furthermore, Intelligent Design, and its Scientific Creationism parent, have both been spearheaded by lawyers, from William Jennings Bryan in the 1920s, through Wendell Bird in the 1970s , to Phillip E. Johnson, today. To rebut the spurious claims of these fellow members of the bar, a very large number of scientists have had to take time from productive research to deal with the issue. I feel the obligation to undo the damage these lawyers have done.

Hear, hear!

Cobb Will Appeal

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I just heard through the grapevine that Cobb decided tonight to appeal Judge Cooper’s ruling.

Only two board members objected to appealing.

The appeal is contingent on their lawyers doing it for free.

While wandering the web the other day, I noticed Crux Magazine - "determined to supply a high-quality alternative to the principle tastemakers of our target demographic, young adults aged 25 to 45 ... a creative and trailblazing entity in our own right, the embodiment of a fresh and radical perspective on culture that is gaining adherents by the day, [with the aim of] redeeming the times and redirecting the prevailing orthodoxy of our age." Stirring stuff. At the site you can read a plug for Priviledged Planet [link] and By Design or By Chance? [link].

Things get interesting when you look at the Editorial Advisory Board. There we see Beckwith, Budziszewski, Dembski, Johnson, Meyer, Moreland, Nelson, Reynolds, Richards, and West - a veritable cluster of Discovery Fellows and fellow travellers. Also on the list are Norm Geisler and Hugh Ross.

Only Crux is solely committed to exposing the pernicious ideologies that have degraded the American mind. Only Crux is open-minded enough to look beyond popular assumptions and locate insights that have been buried by the mainstream media. Only Crux is giving a voice to those on the margins, to the academics, scientists, celebrities, and artists who simply will not kowtow to convention or the party line.

Another front in the Wedge strategy, methinks.

The European Space Agency has put up a mosaic of the images taken during the Huygens descent.

I think that Huygens landed in the middle of the dark stuff. If so, the images and data from the surface indicate that this isn’t strictly an “ocean,” rather it is some kind of spongy material. A giant hydrocarbon bog, perhaps? Huygens had a GC/MS on board that took samples for 70 minutes, so we should get a quite thorough analysis of the molecular composition of the atmosphere during descent, and the surface material.

The clouds/fog are also very interesting, if they represent “moisture” evaporating off of the “ocean” and then “raining” on the “land” to form the channels. We may be seeing a complete “hydrologic” cycle, except for the “hydro” part , since the molecules involved are hydrocarbons rather than H2O. It appears that a whole new vocabulary will be needed to describe the physical geography of Titan.

See also this article in The Scientist for what astrobiologists are saying:


There was an article by Bill Toland in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that was published last weekend about “intelligent design” and the situation in Dover. I had the privilege of being interviewed by Toland and quoted a couple of times in the article.

Journalists are people who know a lot about communicating briefly with other people, and usually have no very detailed knowledge of specific topics. So they do research, and interview people, in order to get a fix on just what the story might be. Sometimes this works very well, and sometimes not so well. Errors of fact may be made. Quotes may not be exact. And, sometimes, journalists don’t treat every possible viewpoint as being of equal value.

The Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture has long had a standard method of response when “intelligent design” is mentioned in prominent news articles: the press release. The formula is simple: refer to opinions and reports as “objective” if they credulously take the DI CRSC’s line, and denounce reports as “biased” if they allow even a hint of criticism or skepticism to be reported. They’ve recently discovered blogging. So now there is a blog at http://www.evolutionnews.org where DI staffers let the press know in the bluntest terms possible just how they feel about recent coverage. (I’m not going to complain about the domain name. Fair’s fair, and we’ve picked up http://www.evolutionnews.net and pointed it where it can do the most good.) Blogging is different from doing press releases. For one thing, it is a lot cheaper. This means that, if you have the time, you can do a lot more kvetching than through press releases. And apparently DI staffers have the time. Robert Crowther of the DI has a post up to take Bill Toland to task for his article…

What is interesting is that for a group complaining about inaccuracy in the media, the Discovery Institute shows a curious bias in their complaints. There were a number of inaccuracies in the original article (go to the page and note the corrections at the bottom) which the Discovery Institute passes over in silence, and various things accurately reported by Toland that the Discovery Institute tries to spin its way. This particular spin job is the work of Robert Crowther, an employee of the Discovery Institute, posting on a blog whose domain is owned by the Discovery Institute and which is hosted by the Discovery Institute, and yet the disclaimer at the bottom says the Discovery Institute is not responsible for the content of blog posts. It seems they were prescient in this case, as there is much to disclaim.

According to a report in the AJC, the Cobb County Board of Education will decide Monday in a closed door meeting with their lawyers whether to appeal Judge Cooper’s ruling. I am hopeful that, if their real intention was to improve science education, the board will accept the decision of the Court and that of biologists and biology educators that the disclaimer hurts biology education and should be removed.

To Mr. Cartwright's excellent rebuttal of the DI's spin on the Cobb County case, allow me to add the following:

Seth Cooper has a post up on DI's blog also trying spinning the Cobb County decision. In it he clings to the libel that defenders of evolution are just mindless robots reciting a party line as programmed: "it remains constitutional for students to critically analyze aspects of chemical and biological evolutionary theories," he says. Well, that's certainly a relief, eh?

The Discovery Institute has now begun to spin Judge Cooper’s ruling in Selman v Cobb County School District. No word yet from Answers in Genesis. Let’s be clear about the ruling from the outset:

For the above-stated reasons, the Court hereby FINDS and CONCLUDES that the Sticker adopted by the Cobb County Board of Education violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and Article I, Section II, Paragraph VII of the Constitution of the State of Georgia.

Creation Apologists should take note of that final point, lest they attack the ruling as if it were based solely on the federal constitution.

Wnt signaling

The Wnt genes produce signalling proteins that play important roles in early development, regulating cell proliferation, differentiation and migration. It's hugely important, used in everything from early axis specification in the embryo to fine-tuning axon pathfinding in the nervous system. The way they work is that the Wnt proteins are secreted by cells, and they then bind to receptors on other cells (one receptor is named Frizzled, and others are LRP-5 and 6), which then, by a chain of cytoplasmic signalling events, removes β-catenin from a degradation pathway and promotes its import into the nucleus, where it can modify patterns of gene expression. This cascade can also interact with the cytoskeleton and trigger changes in cell migration and cell adhesion. The diagram below illustrates the molecular aspects of its function.

Wnt signaling

This is greatly simplified, of course. There are different pathways and different roles in different cells under different conditions. Mammals have 19 Wnt genes, so far, and as I mentioned above, have diverse functions. The obvious questions are where all this complexity originated, and what role the original Wnt gene played. One way to answer this question is to examine simpler organisms that separated from our messily complicated lineage long, long ago, and by comparison, try to infer what Wnt genes were present in our last common ancestor. Kusserow et al. (2005) have done this in a sea anemone, Nematostella vectensis, and got a somewhat surprising answer: our last common ancestor with a diploblast also had an elaborate array of Wnt genes.

Continue reading "A complex regulatory network in a diploblast" (on Pharyngula)

Titan image: Holy moly



Huygens success = image = drainage pattern = rivers = rain = oceans.

(From CNN.)

Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words and a few billion dollars.

Since I need a few more lines to provide space for the image:




Ed Larson online interview


An interesting interview with Ed Larson at the Washington Post. The Cobb decision, ID and the history of creationism, etc., are discussed.

An example of something that is not well-enough noticed by the media:

Many Christians accept the theory of evolution, seeing it as God’s means of creation. Catholic schools typically teach the theory of evolution in biology classes, as do many other Christian schools. Indeed, many conservative evangelical Christians fully accept theistic evolution. For these people, the important point typically is to distinguish between scientific theories of physical origins and religious concepts of the human and divine soul. The judge in the Cobb County decision assumes this point when he repeatedly identifies those opposed to teaching evolution in public schools as “Christian Fundamentalists and creationists.” Is is a sub-set of all Christians. Indeed, belief or disbelief in the theory of evolution divides the Christian church – which helps to explain why it is such a major issue for some Christians. This is as much a dispute among Christians as between science and religion.

In what is turning out to be a pretty darn good week for science, the Huygens probe from the Cassini spacecraft has apparently entered the atmosphere of the shrouded moon Titan, the parachutes deployed, and data was successfully transmitted. This blows away all previous surface landings on extraterrestrial bodies and is, well, really cool.

Huygens-Cassini Live Blogging: Titan Touchdown

category - Science Update: 10:25 Cassini is now sending ‘dummy packets’. The signal has been acquired by JPL/ESA. Good news.

Update: 9:35 JPL Mission briefing. “We know all three parachutes did deploy and the heat shield worked. We know it survived for at least half an hour on the surface of Titan.” Note-some of the data intended for and likely received by Cassini “leaked” all the way to earth, in addition to the carrier signal, indicating data was received from onboard instruments. Cassini should turn to earth and start sending at 10:07 EST. 67 minutes later we begin to download Huygens data. It will take some time to compile

Update: 8:30 ESA/ESOC Mission briefing. Huygens is STILL transmitting earth time. Data Stream appears ‘very rich’. Huygens appears to have survived and is still transmitting well beyond impact/touchdown on Titan’s surface. Cassini will listen for Huygens’s signal as long as there is the slightest possibility that it can be detected. Once Huygens’s landing site disappears below the horizon, there’s no more chance of signal, and Huygens’s work is finished. Cassini-Huygens Data stream is scheduled to commence at 10:07 EST but will not be acquired until 11:14 EST earth time

Update: 7:50 Contact at JPL tells me that Earth bound radio observatory believes they also detected ‘solid’ image data from the DISR . This remains unconfirmed officially.

Update: 7:46 Data in stream confirmed. Doppler data from one of the onboard instruments was detected via earth bound observatory being transmitted to cassini. Hod damn I think this may have worked folks.

Update: 7:30 AM EST Mission Briefing From ESA/ESOC in Germany, reporting “We have a signal, so we know Huygens is alive”. “Signal was solid for a long time”. “Signal was solid for two hours!”. Confirmed data transmission from Huygens to Cassini by earth bound radio observatories world wide!! Very encouraging!!!!

BBC: Moon mission ‘probably a success’

Cassini webpage: Radio Astronomers Confirm Huygens Entry in the Atmosphere of Titan

The decision in Selman is pretty straightforward. When deciding whether something violates the Establishment Clause, courts apply the Lemon test, which says that something violates the Establishment Clause if it is (1) not adopted for a secular purpose (2) if its operation inhibits or promotes religion, or (3) if it creates an excessive entanglement of government and religion. More recent cases have combined the second and third parts of this test, but that's still the rough outline.

Georgia - stickers must go!

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This just in from CNN

Judge: Evolution stickers must be removed from textbooks

Thursday, January 13, 2005 Posted: 11:42 AM EST (1642 GMT) ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) – A U.S. District Court judge has ruled that a school district in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, must remove an evolution disclaimer inside textbooks.

The stickers inside the Cobb County School District’s science books said “Evolution is a theory not a fact.”

The ruling issued by U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper said the stickers violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Parents in Cobb County, a politically conservative area northwest of Atlanta, and the American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the stickers in court, arguing they violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

You can get the entire ruling in a 2 mb pdf file here.

Repenomamus giganticus


I'm sure everyone has already heard about the discovery of a dinosaur-eating mammal from the Cretaceous. Here are some photos of the creature from the announcement in Nature.

I'm also sure that the scientifically-literate readers of the Panda's Thumb and Pharyngula won't be terribly surprised by this—the mammal-like reptiles are older than the dinosaurs, and mammals were contemporaries of the dinosaurs. The surprise is that what was discovered was a bandy-legged brute that was relatively large (about the size of your average dog) and was so danged uppity that it had been eating dinosaurs. That's a bit more temerity than had been expected from our long-lost relatives.

Continue reading "Repenomamus giganticus" (on Pharyngula)

In breaking news from The Christian Post, crack reporters declare:

ACLU Abandons Lawsuit Against Intelligent Design Notice

American Civil Liberties Union abandoned its lawsuit challenging a Pennsylvania school district’s decision to notify biology students of theories other than evolution

Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2005 Posted: 4:32:27PM EST

Just kidding. This report is totally, 100%, clear-as-day false.

But this is a real live news story that just came across Google News. The “reporter” evidently misread this Thomas More Law Center press release, or read only the title (“ACLU Abandons Early Effort To Stop School District From Making Students Aware of Controversy Surrounding Evolution”). They appear to have mistakenly concluded that the ACLU et al. had given up, and then constructed an entire news story around this assumption.

It’s actually a quite extraordinary bit of self-delusion, especially considering the last sentence in the TMLC press release (“The ACLU lawsuit will continue with a trial expected in early summer.”). I think it highlights the fact that propaganda can have two messages: the official message, with technically accurate (well, sometimes) text, and the emotional message for the public, which is the message that the innocent reader gets. Put a snappy title on a press release, exude confidence, and declare victory, and, don’t you know it, people conclude that you’ve won!

ID-Day delayed

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The ID lesson in Dover was originally scheduled to occur tomorrow, on Thursday. It now appears that it won’t occur until next Monday or Tuesday. So we are still at ID-Day minus 5.

York Daily Record story: Dover to discuss “design” next week

Special section at the YDR: Dover Biology

York Dispatch: Dover delays biology class statement

The letters on the York Dispatch webpage are a bit harder to find, but there have been some excellent ones:

See also the many previous posts on Dover on The Panda’s Thumb.

The Tangled Bank

We skip one edition, and all the science contributions pile up—this week's Tangled Bank #19 is huge. Work is going to come to a standstill all across the country as everyone stops for a few hours to read about science…but we will be a better nation for it.

We're going to be sure not to miss any dates from now on, so do check our Tangled Bank schedule and honor roll, and submit a link to the next edition for the 26th of January, or volunteer to be a host!

Nick mentioned this in a couple of comments, but I think it needs a post of its own.

Richard Thompson, chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, which is defending the Dover Area School District’s new “intelligent design” policy, responded to an open letter from biology and philosophy professors at the University of Pennsylvania. I don’t think I’m the only one who finds it amusing that a lawyer thinks that he can correct Ivy League biologists about biology and science. Thompson begins,

Thompson Wrote:

If the level of inquiry supporting your letter is an example of the type of inquiry you make before arriving at scientific conclusions, I suggest that at the very least, your students should get their tuition money back, and more appropriately, the University should fire you as a scientist. It is clear that you do not have the slightest idea of the actual Dover school policy that you so vehemently condemn, and so let me educate you.

Wow, looks like the Dover Area School District sure picked a winner to represent them. There are numerous problems with Thompson’s accusations, as I will demonstrate below.

Feddie from Southern Appeal sent me a link to NRO for a post by John Derbyshire weighing in against ID, much to my surprise. Derbyshire writes:

(1) If scientist X passes a remark about the universe sure being a mysterious place, he has not thereby placed himself in the ID camp. ID is a specific set of arguments about specific scientific topics. Of those arguments I have seen, none struck me as very convincing.

(2) None of the ID people I have encountered (in person or books) is an open-minded inquirer trying to uncover facts about the world. Every one I know of is a Christian looking to justify his faith. This naturally inclines me to think that they are grinding axes, not conducting dispassionate science. This is, in my opinion, not only a path to bad science, but also a path to bad theology.

Evolution of Hormone Signaling


Last week, I received some delusional e-mail from Phil Skell, who claims that modern biology has no use for evolutionary theory.

This will raise hysterical screeches from its true-believers. But, instead they should take a deep breath and tell us how the theory is relevant to the modern biology. For examples let them tell the relevance of the theory to learning…the discovery and function of hormones…[long list of scientific disciplines truncated]

Dr Skell is a sad case. He apparently repeats his mantra that biology has no need of evolution everywhere he goes, and has never bothered to actually crack a biology journal open to see if biologists actually do use the theory. In my reply to him, I did briefly list how evolution is used in every single one of his numerous examples, but today I'm going to focus on just the one I quoted above: hormones.

Now I'm not an endocrinologist, and I don't usually read much in the hormone literature, so it was just chance that I stumbled across a review article on this very topic in BioEssays. My point is that you don't have to be an expert in the discipline to find evidence that Skell is completely wrong; all it takes is a casual perusal of the general scientific literature and a prepared mind (alas, I fear that creationists don't do the first and lack the second. One of the reasons I am concerned about science education in grade schools is that one of the aims of the creationist movement is to make sure our kids lack prepared minds, too.)

The review paper by Heyland et al. (2004a) is well worth looking up. It has a long introduction that covers several important themes in modern evo-devo, that I'll just summarize briefly here.

Continue reading "Evolution of Hormone Signaling" (on Pharyngula)

EvolutionBlog Returns


Just wanted to let everyone know that my recent travels have now concluded, and the new semester has begun. Consequently, regular blogging will now resume. Generally I post new material Sunday-Thursday, usually in the evenings.

A few days a number of us here at the Panda’s Thumb, as well as some other “defenders of evolution” around the country, received an email from someone named Jonathan Sampson. Sampson’s email said he was interested in seeing examples of concrete evidence that would possibly falsify evolution (and by this he meant common descent).

Now I know that a common creationist argument is that evolution is unfalsifiable - that the theory is so flexible that it can accommodate any evidence. Often I do not respond to such unsolicited emails, but I did this time both because it was addressed to me at my Panda’s Thumb email address (and we are a a forum for defending evolution and reporting on anti-evolution news) and because I had just had my conversation about common descent with Jerry Agar. (See my previous post on this encounter here)

As this discussion progressed we found out that Mr. Sampson is the webmaster for and radio co-host with Kent Hovind (Dr. Dino), and that he was collecting responses with the idea of writing an article. After some discussion, Mr. Sampson and I agreed that we were not granting permission to each other to posts each other emails.

Here’s a report on how my exchange with Mr. Sampson went.

The New Monkey Trial


Today’s Salon.com has a good cover story by Michelle Goldberg focusing primarily on the Dover controversy, but also commenting on the general upsurge of neo-creationism around the country these days. Our own Nick Matzke gets quoted a few times: The New Monkey Trial. (If you’re not a member, you can watch a short ad to see the article for free.)

Salon is a left-leaning rag, so the article focuses a lot on the political aspect of the “controversy”, particularly the machinations of the Religious Right and their self-declared mandate. For a different political angle, see Origin of the Specious, an older article from Reason, which is one of my all-time favorites. It looks at anti-evolution as an ideological imperative for Neoconservative movement. Short answer: Neoconservatives aren’t religious, but think it’s important that everyone is. After reading these articles, try not to drive or operate heavy machinery.

The Constitutionality of Teaching ID

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Matt Brauer, a founding contributor to Panda’s Thumb, has been noticeably absent lately. Courtesy of Ed Brayton we now know why. With Constitutional scholar Stephen Gey and philosopher/historian of science Barbara Forrest (of Creationism’s Trojan Horse fame), he has been working on a massive analysis of the constitutionality of teaching ID in public schools, Is it Science Yet?: Intelligent Design Creationism and the Constitution. Be warned! It’s a 195-page document. I won’t reproduce the Abstract here: the link above is to it and the working paper itself is available for download at that link.

New paradigm needed: More intelligent ‘intelligent design’

Richard D. Colling is chairman of the biology department at Olivet Nazarene University and author of “Random Designer – Created from Chaos to Connect with the Creator. His e-mail address is Richard Colling

Dr Colling points out how the debate about evolution and religious faith has been fueled by unsupportable statements by both atheists and creationists.

Fueled by bold, but unsupportable atheistic pronouncements from a few scientists that science and evolution render God superfluous, and reinforced by a continuous barrage of heated anti-evolution rhetoric flowing from scientifically naive creationist voices over many years, this idea of mutual exclusivity has seemingly become entrenched as the prevailing premise in contemporary American culture.

This has caused a tension which is now spreading into issues of public policy and education.

In an earlier essay, I described Antony Flew’s apparent conversion from atheism to deism and took Professor Flew to task for accepting the arguments of the pseudoscientist Gerald Schroeder. I wished “that Professor Flew had read Mr. Schroeder’s work more carefully or had consulted critical references to Mr. Schroeder’s work before pronouncing Mr. Schroeder kosher.”

According to Richard Carrier (2005), who has become sort of an unofficial mouthpiece for Professor Flew, Professor Flew now admits that he has been “mistaught” by Mr. Schroeder and also, astonishingly, blames Richard Dawkins for his own misunderstanding of abiogenesis, or the development of life from nonliving matter.

Mr. Carrier adds further that Professor Flew appears to remain a deist but calls his new belief a “very modest defection from [his] previous unbelief.”


Carrier, Richard, 2005, “Antony Flew Considers God - Sort of,” The Secular Web, http://www.secweb.org/asset.asp?AssetID=369. … Scroll down to “Update (January 2005).”

Young, Matt, 2004, “Antony Flew’s Conversion to Deism,” Panda’s Thumb, http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archi[…]/000687.html.

The Tangled Bank is coming back!

The Tangled Bank

The Tangled Bank has been on a brief hiatus over Christmas, but it's coming back this Wednesday. That means, of course, that you've had a whole month to build up all kinds of spiffy stuff on science, and are anxious to share it with the world. So send a link to your science writing to me, or to host@tangledbank.net. The next edition will be online this January 12 at Science and Politics.

In a stunning development the Discovery Institute’s Center for the renewal of Science and Culture blogging website has been censoring user comments made to their site.

Read more Here

Thanks to the reader who passed on this very interesting opinion of the Attorney General of Tennessee. It turns out that in that state,

There shall be no public exhibition or display of Native American Indian human remains, except as evidence in a judicial proceeding.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 11-6-117. According to the definition section of the law, "remains" means "the bodies of deceased persons, in whatever stage of decomposition. . .." Tenn Code Ann. § 11-6-102 (7) (emphasis added).

As if Michael Behe wasn’t embarrassed enough, yet another paper has appeared in the literature providing more answers to the evolution of the adaptive immune system, one of his featured irreducibly complex (IC) systems in Darwin’s Black Box (see here and here for previous PT blogs on immune system evolution). In this new article, published in last week’s issue of Nature, the authors reported the discovery and biochemical characterization of a genetic element found in the common housefly, called Hermes, a member of the hAT superfamily of transposons. The significance? The mechanism of the transposition reaction is nearly identical to the reaction that generates antibody diversity in the adaptive immune system. This means that one component of the IC antibody generating system is found fully functional in an organism that lacks antibodies. That’s exactly the kind of thing that wouldn’t be predicted if IC systems were unevolvable.

One of the things I am interested in is the common “man in the street” objections to the theory of evolution. A very common concern is the “micro” vs. “macro” distinction: many people can accept evolution within a species, but just can not see how one species can ever evolve into something else. Such people therefore can not accept common descent, which is a central tenet of evolutionary theory.

I’ve recently had two interesting encounters with this: one last week during an appearance on a conservative radio talk show and the other in response to an unsolicited email from a member of Dr. Kent Hovind’s staff. In both cases I was met with considerable resistance to the obvious question of “if common descent isn’t the means by which new species have came into existence, then what is?” The obvious answer - the one which was the default historically before the theory of common descent and the one held by many anti-evolutionists today, is special creation: creation ex nihilo, the immediate materialization into existence of new organisms. However, as the following encounters show, anti-evolutionists are reluctant to put this on the table as an actual “competing hypothesis.”

In order to illustrate, I would like to summarize these two encounters, the first here in this post and the other in a second, separate post.

As blogged in PT comments on December 17, nearly 200 Wisconsin pastors recently spoke up in opposition to creationist-inspired policy in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, requiring the teaching of “the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory.” (See [url=]Pastors protest district policy[/url] and the NCSE update story).

Yesterday, Rob Zaleski of the The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin wrote a detailed column on the situation in Grantsburg, and interviewed one of the 187 pastors, Tisha Brown, that signed the statement opposing the policy, as well as the UW dean, Michael Zimmerman, that organized the effort. Read Zaleski’s interesting article, and send him feedback if you like it.

Still, while the situation remains “murky,” Zimmerman says there’s no question that the clergy letter in particular has had an effect.

“Many, many people in the (Grantsburg) community and beyond are now well aware that many, many Christian clergy members have no problems with evolution,” he says. “This in itself is an important accomplishment. It’s essential that people realize that the fight is not between religion and science but rather between those who hold a very narrow, fundamentalist perspective and the rest of the world.”

Brown, a graduate of Monroe High School, says she just hopes that right-wing extremists now understand they “can’t just waltz in” and dictate how we live - as they’ve done elsewhere.

Though it’s undoubtedly been weakened by years of budget cuts, Wisconsin’s educational system is still one of the best in the nation, she notes.

“I don’t think we want to jeopardize that.”

I will also quote the pastors’ letter on PT for posterity:

It has already been reported (Associated Press, York Daily Record) that the science teachers in Dover defied the administration and school board and refused to read the antievolution/ID disclaimer before their students (NCSE news page, PT 1, PT 2). The administration has given in, so now the disclaimer will be read by administrators instead of teachers. The teachers objected to ID purely on the grounds of their professional standards – they won’t teach fake science, and ID is fake science. The letter that the teachers wrote to the administration is a powerful statement, it is quoted in full below. A representative quote:


Some more details and links are available in the NCSE update. The full letter is quoted below.

Posted January 7, 2005 by Dave Thomas President, New Mexicans for Science and Reason (NMSR)

KUDOS for KNME! Or, Responsible Programming is Not Censorship

The local PBS affiliate, KNME TV-5, is embroiled in a flap largely created from whole cloth by New Mexico’s “Intelligent Design” (ID) creationists. Members of IDnet-NM have lobbied KNME for years to carry the ID documentary video called “Unlocking the Mystery of Life”. The KNME program director turned down requests to air the video last summer, telling IDnet-NM “…a reasonable segment of the public might readily conclude that the program was created solely to promote the interests of the funder.”

After that program director left KNME, IDnet-NM sensed a new opportunity, and managed to get somebody at KNME to schedule the ID video for Friday, Jan. 7th, at 9PM. When scientists in various watchdog groups (New Mexico Academy of Science, CESE, and NMSR) noticed the schedule, calls were made to KNME, asking why they had reversed their previous decision not to air the pseudo-documentary. When KNME senior management looked into the situation, the decision was made to pull the video. As reported in the Albuquerque Journal on Jan. 7th (subscription required),

The funders of this program have a clear and specific agenda that they openly promote,’ said KNME marketing manager Joan Rebecchi. ‘KNME has no position regarding this agenda, but we must guard against the public perception that editorial control might have been exercised by the program funders.’…

As soon as news came out that the ID video would not be shown, IDers and creationists began to scream Bloody Murder. KNME has been condemned locally by the Creation Science Fellowship of NM and by IDnet-NM, and nationally at World Net Daily, the Discovery Institute, Agape Press, the Southern Baptist Press, and the Discovery Institute’s new Blog. (The CESE site has a compendium of creationist whining about KNME.)

Dover teachers want out


All but one of the high school’s science instructors want to opt out of reading a statement on intelligent design.

“We believe that reading the (‘intelligent design’) statement violates our responsibility as educators as set forth in the code,” Miller said. “Students are allowed to opt out from hearing the statement. We should be allowed to opt out from reading it.”

Read more at York Daily Record

All I want to say is bravo to the high school faculty in Dover!

All but one teacher in the Dover Area School District's high school science department signed a letter Thursday requesting that they be allowed to "opt out" of reading the "Intelligent Design Theory" statement meant for students.

"We do not believe this is science," said high school science teacher Jen Miller.

While the teachers do not cite the Constitution, their written request does cite Pennsylvania's Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Educators.

"We believe that reading the ('intelligent design') statement violates our responsibility as educators as set forth in the code," Miller said. "Students are allowed to opt out from hearing the statement. We should be allowed to opt out from reading it."

Aren't science teachers wonderful people?

But wait…the letter wasn't signed unanimously.

The one teacher who did not sign the letter does not teach biology.

I am not surprised.

According to this blog post by Michael Weisberg, “Penn Faculty Responds to Dover School Board,” about 30 members of the Biology and Philosophy Departments at the University of Pennsylvania (an Official Ivy League School, it is worth mentioning) have signed on to an open letter opposing the “intelligent design” policy of the Dover Area School Board.

This follows a similar letter last month by the Biology Department of York College (see the PT post Doverian doings and the news story “College biologists blast Dover”).

Natural Reading

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Those of us involved in the debate about evolution are often amazed at how little impact the enormous evidence for evolution has on anti-evolutionists. Each piece of positive evidence is treated in isolation and belittled, while every open question is treated as proof of the demise of evolution. Positive scientific evidence for special creation is absent, yet every perceived weakness of the theory of evolution is regarded as positive evidence for special creation. There is a reason for this, which will not come as a surprise to most readers of The Panda’s Thumb, but I want to say it again as part of the foundation for what I am about to write. The issue from the creationist point of view is really religious and not scientific, and this is true whether one is advocating young earth or old earth creationism, or even intelligent design. If we did not have a story of creation in the sacred literature of the dominant religious tradition in America, and if that story was not being taken as some sort of scientific evidence, the debate would not be between special creation and evolution, but rather would be between the dominant understanding of evolution and various modifications that might be made to it.

Further, the status of the evidence provided by the Bible is elevated above that of scientific evidence.

Vote in the Koufax Awards


The Koufax Awards are being voted upon now. The Panda’s Thumb is a nominee in the group blog category. Voting for group blogs is at this page. Please go vote for some group blog, right now. They have a convenient list of links to the nominees.

Dean Esmay’s Latest on ID


I have to confess that I’m beginning to wonder why I had previously thought Dean Esmay was really interested in a reasoned discussion about ID in public schools. Following his post of a few weeks ago asking for someone who is opposed to ID to explain the negative consequences of teaching about ID in public school science classrooms, I replied with a detailed and, I thought, compelling essay. No reply from Dean, who was informed that I had attempted to answer his question. Then in returning to his blog to see if he had ever bothered to respond, I found this post, which contains the absolutely bizarre claim that the idea that mutation can drive rapid evolutionary change “flies in the face of most evolutionary theory”. I replied and pointed out that the article that he had linked to did not, in any way whatsoever, posit anything that “flew in the face” of evolution, and in fact that what was found was perfectly consistent with evolution and exactly the sort of research that allows evolutionary scientists to explain the world’s biodiversity. That made me wonder out loud whether Dean really understands evolution at all, since his statement about the theory was so far from reality.

But his latest post on the subject just makes me wonder if he has any interest in having an honest and reasoned look at the subject or not. Let me explain why.

Continue reading Dean Esmay’s Latest on ID at Dispatches from the Culture Wars

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The Spring 2004 issue of the Louisiana Law Review contains an article about the evolution/creationism controversy: Arianne Ellerbe, We Didn't Start The Fire: The Origins Science Battle Rages on More Than 75 Years After Scopes, 64 La. L. Rev. 589 (2004). (Sorry, it's not on line.) Ellerbe, a summa cum laude graduate of LSU, has received awards for her youth-ministry work, and helps run Refined By Fire Ministries. Her article, however, demonstrates significant misunderstandings of the legal issues surrounding the religion clauses of the First Amendment in general, and evolution education specifically.

bull terrier

All of us mammals have pretty much the same set of genes, yet obviously there have to be some significant differences to differentiate a man from a mouse. What we currently think is the major source of morphological diversity is in the cis regulatory regions; that is, stretches of DNA outside the actual coding region of the gene that are responsible for switching the gene on and off. We might all have hair, but where we differ is when and where mice and men grow it on their bodies, and that is under the control of these regulatory elements.

A new paper by Fondon and Garner suggests that there is another source of variation between individuals: tandem repeats. Tandem repeats are short lengths of DNA that are repeated multiple times within a gene, anywhere from a handful of copies to more than a hundred. They are also called VNTRs, or variable number tandem repeats, because different individuals within a population may have different numbers of repeats. These VNTRs are relatively easy to detect with molecular tools, and we know that populations (humans included) may carry a large reservoir of different numbers of repeats, but what exactly the differences do has never been clear. One person might carry 3 tandem repeats in a particular gene, while her neighbor might bear 15, with no obvious differences between them that can be traced to that particular gene. So the question is what, if anything, does having a different number of tandem repeats do to an organism?

Continue reading "Tandem repeats and morphological variation" (on Pharyngula)

Richard Feynman, as far as I know, never commented on intelligent design. But I happened to be rereading his chapter, “Seeking New Laws,” taken from a series of lectures he gave at Cornell in 1964 (Feynman 1965), when I chanced upon “ID and Falsifiability,” by Francis Beckwith (2004).

Mr. Beckwith is seriously confused, as has been noted in the comments to his essay, if he thinks that the truth or falsity of design theory has any bearing on the truth or falsity of evolutionary theory. Consistently with other creationists, Mr. Beckwith presents a false dichotomy, pretending that the choices are between evolutionary theory and creationism, in this case, intelligent-design creationism. Mr. Beckwith’s thinking is surprisingly black and white. He will do well to heed a warning by Michael Friedlander (1995), a physics professor at Washington University: “There are many more wrong answers than right ones, and they are easier to find.” Science is not a contest between two competing ideologies, with one winning by default if the other is discredited.

Discovery Institute Fellow Jonathan Witt has a post over on his blog (“Darwinism and Demarcation: Ducking the Debate”, see also his comments on that post and his subsequent post, Comments on Ducking the Debate).

Witt is quite confident that modern biology is totally wrong, but it’s clear that he doesn’t even understand the basics.

“Micajah,” a commenter on Witt’s blog, cites this press release about the cover story of this week’s issue of Cell. The Cell article, “Accelerated Evolution of Nervous System Genes in the Origin of Homo sapiens, gives new insight into how the human brain evolved.

Unfortunately, the comments by Witt in reply to “Micajah” and other posters indicate almost total unfamiliarity with the relevant science. It is, I think, an example of “this is your brain on ID/creationism.”

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