January 2, 2005 - January 8, 2005 Archives

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

| | Comments (3)

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”).

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.

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.

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.

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