March 2005 Archives

I recant! ID works

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It pains me to say this, and I have to do it on my own blog as the ranters on Panda’s Thumb will delete my entry forever, but I am announcing my conversion to intelligent design, and all that implies…

See more on my [url = http://evolvethought.blogspot.com/2[…]-design.html]Evolving Thoughts[/url] blog entry.

A “Robust” Theory? April Fool!

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I sure wish these IDists would get their act together. In a posting on the Center (for the Renewal of) Science and Culture Media Complaints Division PR man Rob Crowther whines that a recent story in the Seattle Times disses Intelligent Design “theory” by saying

… an opportunity for the Discovery Institute to promote its notion of intelligent design, the controversial idea that parts of life are so complex, they must have been designed by some intelligent agent.

The Media Complaints Division objects

Never mind the demeaning way she describes it as a “notion” – this definition is just flat out inaccurate. Her description –one commonly used by the ACLU and other such Darwinian groups– treats the theory of intelligent design as if it were an argument from ignorance. Things are so complex, they must have been designed, or so they posit. In actuality, it is a positive and robust scientific theory based on what we do know, that examines the natural world for empirical evidence of design.

A “robust” theory? Not a bad PR phrase. But then on the other hand we have C(R)SC Fellow Paul Nelson, who says

Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory right now, and that’s a problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as ‘irreducible complexity’ and ‘specified complexity’-but, as yet, no general theory of biological design. (In Touchstone Magazine, July/August 2004, quoted here)

Lemme understand this. Nelson refers to “notions such as ‘irreducible complexity’, there’s “no general theory of biological design”, and “Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus.” What does ID philosopher and C(R)SC Fellow Nelson know that DI PR flack Crowther doesn’t? Is Crowther’s complaint the DI’s version of an April Fool’s joke?

RBH

A new article in Nature announces, “Apollo bacteria spur lunar erosion.” Yes, that’s right, the bacteria left behind from the Apollo moon landings are slowly eating into the moon and breaking it up.

Pictures captured by an orbiting spacecraft have revealed that the Moon is being heavily eroded. Images of the lunar surface reveal deep cracks and holes that are slowly but surely releasing gas and dust into space.

“This is serious,” says Brad Kawalkowizc, an astrogeologist from the Sprodj Atomic Research Centre in Belgium, who has analysed the pictures. “There really is less Moon up there than there used to be.” If the process continues, he adds, the Moon could eventually crumble away to nothing.Michael Hopkin & Mark Peplow, Apollo bacteria spur lunar erosion.” Nature, Published online: 1 April 2005

It looks like a disaster is in the works. How did scientists discover this?

EvolNews.org!

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I’d like to point you to a new website, EvolNews.org!:

Welcome to EvolNews.org!

EvolNews.org is a site geared toward sharing new and interesting research in Evolutionary Biology with other researchers and with anyone interested. Face it, you’re a busy researcher- and you probably find all fields of Evolutionary Biology interesting, but you barely have time to keep current with the research in your own sub-discipline. Well, this web site is designed to give a brief summary of the latest breaking news in evolutionary research that occurs in peer-reviewed journals, and provide you with handy-dandy links to the articles. There is also the ability to start discussions by posting replies to the articles, but that is for the readership to decide. We are always open to suggestions to improve the website, including adding new topic areas and features, as it’s all fairly uncomplicated with the wonderful software PHP-Nuke. What this site will not support is teologlogical debates, creationism/evolution debates, etc.- although they can be presented as articles and comments if published elsewhere.

I daresay that it is a good thing that they avoid “teologlogical debates,” given the mess they made of the word “teleological”. Never fear, that is what Panda’s Thumb is for!

I am excited to be posting my adventures to the Panda’s Thumb. I would like to thank Reed for introducing me. Last week I got to visit him at the Wyatt W. Anderson Lab at the University of Georgia.

Why sex?

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Continuing my springtime frolicsome mood, a paper in this week's Nature shows that sex is good for us. Well, not necessarily us as individuals, but as a population. This has actually been a longstanding argument in evolutionary biology—sex is risky, it's hard work, and it is prone to failure. Why not just have women reproduce asexually, and bloom into pregnancy automatically as soon as they hit puberty? That would be much more efficient. Sex also has the problem of breaking up good gene combinations; as you may or may not know, my wife is perfect, but in order to reproduce, she has to water down her flawless genes by combining them with those of a lesser member of the species, me. And then of course, there's the problem of us males. We could instantly double the reproductive capacity of our population if all males were equipped with uteruses and could also bear children. It's a weird, weird system.

So why do we bother with sex? Why aren't we being displaced right now by more fecund asexual populations?

Continue reading "Why sex?" (on Pharyngula)

Tomorrow’s issue of Nature carries a story entitled “Biologists snub ‘kangaroo court’ for Darwin.” Apparently, the [url=]Intelligent Design Network[/url] and their friends running the Kansas State Board of Education have had absolutely no luck recruiting real scientists to participate in the Antievolution show-trial they have planned for May. Major kudos to Kansas Citizens for Science, their efforts are now getting noticed internationally as well as nationally.

I have written a more thorough summary of recent events in this NCSE update. You can freely subscribe (with bloglines or something similar) to a news feed for NCSE updates; a weekly email update is also available.

The blogs Thoughts from Kansas and Red State Rabble, Les Lane’s website, and the Kansas Citizens for Science website and discussion forums are the places to go to get the latest on Kansas.

Scopes II and Scopes I

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Today an interesting editorial was published: Michelle M. Simmons, “Why opposing evolution resonates with some,” The Patriot-News, March 30, 2005. It is not the full history of antievolution – Herbert Spencer, the Seventh Day Adventists, and World War I are also important – but worth reading if you haven’t thought about the history before (see Ronald Numbers, The Creationists, for much more).

It must be Spring…

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…because articles about wild sex are popping up all over the place. Carl Zimmer gets into the act with the story of love darts, a snail's way of tweaking its mate's endocrine system and doing a little kinky body piercing while they're at it. And if you're more interested in how arachnids do it with palpal specializations than molluscan harpoons, I've got an article on how spiders mate. I guess this is the time of year when an evolutionist's fancy turns to thoughts of exotic courtship rituals.

Zimmer also comments on that parental duty of telling one's children about the Facts of Life…it's hard to judge whether biologists are at an advantage or are handicapped in that regard. I have no problem telling my kids how sex works, but I fear I might sound more like a chapter from Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation than your usual American chordate.

In a column discussing the flap over antievolution resistance to reality-based IMAX documentaries, Roger Ebert puts in a plug for the TalkOrigins Archive.

An industry has grown up around the “science” supporting the “argument for intelligent design.” It refuses the possibility that evolution itself is the most elegant and plausible argument for those who wish to believe in intelligent design. If you are interested, you might want to go to www.talkorigins.org, where the errors of creationist science are patiently explained. And you might want to ask at your local IMAX theater why they allow a few of their customers to make decisions for all of the rest.

Film about volcanoes falls victim to creationists

I am here to introduce to you a new contributor to the Panda’s Thumb.

Prof. Steve Steve holds the B. Amboo Chair in Creatoinformatics at the University of Ediacara. He has been nominated five times (only twice by himself) for the Nobel Prize and has received six Barnes and Noble gift certificates. He is an J.D.-M.D.-quintuple Ph.D. (biology, chemistry, literature, mathematics, and philosophy). He has been called the Izaak Walton of information theory and the Ulysses S. Grant of drinking contests. His dissertation on the mating habits of the rufous-throated creationists of northern Alabama has been called “revolutionary,” “a tour de force,” and “nonstop, bodice-ripping action from the first page to the second page.”

At this time of year, Prof. Steve Steve is normally teaching ten classes, writing twenty papers, and directing Noh theatre; however, he recently received the Walker Prize for Walkabouts and has taken a sabbatical to travel the world exploring nature, academia, and the quality of beer in faraway places. He intends to send letters of his journey back to the Panda’s Thumb keeping us informed of his adventure.

The York Daily Record had an article on Sunday on the possible expert witnesses in the Kitzmiller v. Dover School District case.

Experts for the plaintiffs:

  • Brian Alters
  • Barbara Forrest
  • Ken Miller
  • Rob Pennock

Experts for the defendents:

  • Michael Behe
  • John A. Campbell
  • William Dembski
  • Scott Minnich
  • Warren Nord

I think that the court could make money selling tickets for the trial. They should rent an auditorium and get in touch with Ticketmaster…

A Debate Challenge

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[Comments]

I get email. Today, I got a piece of email that I’ve been waiting on over a year. I received a debate challenge from Karl Priest. My reply has been sitting in my files since last April.

Anyone familiar with evolutionary biology will probably have heard of Robert Trivers, the brilliant scientist who made major contributions to evolutionary theory back in the 70s. Unbeknownst to me, he had been on hiatus for a good while. Now it appears he’s back. The Boston Globe has an article about Trivers, his work, his eccentric life, and his impending return to the spotlight:

The evolutionary revolutionary.

It’s a good read.

As previously mentioned on PT, the editors of Scientific American, the august popular science magazine that is over 100 years old, recently caved to creationist/IDist arguments. The editors report in next month’s issue: “Okay, We Give Up.” They are opening their pages to creationism/intelligent design and numerous other attempts to substitute wishful thinking for scientific facts.

The conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, apparently not wanting to allow Commentary to have all the fun, has waded into the anti-evolution biz by publishing this miserable article by Paul McHugh. It is the usual melange of literary arrogance coupled with scientific ignorance. It does, however, provide a useful opportunity to review the various litmus tests you can apply to distinguish between serious commentators on the one hand, and dishonest hacks on the other.

If the author of the article you are reading uses any of the following devices in making his case:

  1. Make a reference to thought control.
  2. Bring up Inherit the Wind.
  3. Imply that evolution is about ideology and not science.
  4. Pretend that evolution has made no progress since Darwin.
  5. Use quotations from scientists misleadingly and without indicating their source.
  6. Bring up Piltdown Man.
  7. Use the term “Darwinian fundamentalist.”
  8. Pretend that the theory of Punctuated Equilibrium refutes core tenets of neo-Darwinism.
  9. Put words into the mouths of scientists without providing citations.
  10. Accuse scientists of being dishonest.
then you are almost certainly reading the work of a dishonest hack. I've fleshed out the details in this post over at EvolutionBlog.

Get your tickets now! The 2005 Megacreation Conference is scheduled to start July 17, in Lynchburg, Virginia.

The conference website is co-sponsored by Answers in Genesis and Liberty University, and is aimed at: “Equipping Christians to defend and proclaim the Gospel in today’s culture! Featuring a stunning lineup of the world’s greatest minds in creation apologetics presenting their premier presentations.”

I would suggest that we try and get someone from the east coast to go and give reports to PT, but the conference is running for five days straight and I’m not sure anyone would want to spend their whole summer vacation at a YEC conference.

Everyone check out “The Apocalypse Will Be Televised” by Gene Lyons at Harper’s Magazine. Lyons reviews the Left Behind series, a wildly popular set of novels that portray, in Tom Clancy style, the Rapture and Armageddon according to dispensationalist beliefs. The antichrist is the head of the U.N. and looks like Robert Redford, the jews must convert or die, that kind of thing. The novels are by prominent fundamentalist Tim LaHaye, who also helped found such notable organizations as the Moral Majority and the Institute for Creation Research (see the Who’s who of prophecy page on LaHaye).

It turns out that creationism is more closely tied to modern fundamentalist prophecy interpretation than I had previously appreciated. I’ll quote the most relevant passages from Lyons’ article.

The first, and most important, question that I asked Calvert was:

There are millions and millions of people who from a religious point of view do not buy your argument that science is antithetical to theism. I would hope that you would respond to that.

What do you think about these people who don’t believe that just because science seeks natural explanations it’s inherently materialistic and atheistic? They don’t believe the theory of evolution teaches their children they’re mere occurances. They believe that religious beliefs incorporate scientific beliefs about the physical world and other beliefs about meaning, purpose and values. To put it bluntly, do you think they’re wrong? How do you respond to this large silent majority of religious people who are being wedged out of the conversation?

Calvert’s answer, both in his emails to me and in his other writings, basically reiterates his position without addressing the issues:

Report #1 on Questions to Calvert

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I have had a short email exchange with John Calvert concerning the questions I have asked him in the past (See http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archi[…]/000893.html.) He did provide some short answers to the questions, but he didn’t give me permission to make his responses public, and he didn’t want to continue the discussion. Therefore, I will paraphrase his answers, with occasional short quotes.

One of the things he said was that he had a number of published works that one could consult to see his take on things. The problem with this response is that he thus avoids responding to criticism of his ideas. I know what his ideas are, because I have read his works: what I want him to do is subject his ideas to scrutiny - to listen to critiques, answer questions, and otherwise defend his views.

I asked two sets of questions, one on religion and “theistic evolutionists,” and the other on the “theory of Intelligent Design.” I’m going to discuss the “theory of Intelligent Design” questions here, and the religion ones in a separate post. Let me take the questions in reverse order of interest.

The Florida Legislature is considering a “Student & Faculty Academic Freedom Bill.” The bill “provides student rights to academic freedom; provides postsecondary student & faculty academic bill of rights; specifies student, faculty, & instructor rights; requires dissemination of copies of act to state universities & community colleges.” The bill is sponsored by Rep. Dennis Baxley (R) a funeral director from Ocala, but it is not original. It is part of a movement among conservatives to “fix” a public education system that they think is anti-conservative.

HEROic Steves

A nice write-up on Project Steve appeared today in HERO, also known as Higher Education & Research Opportunities. The piece, “Steve-olution,” consists of an interview with NCSE’s always-erudite assistant director Glenn Branch. If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard of Project Steve, check out previous Panda’s Thumb posts and the NCSE Project Steve website.

The Steve-o-meter currently sits at 553, in case you were wondering. The Steve-o-meter on the much-vaunted Discovery Institute list of scientists (well, some of them aren’t scientists, but who is counting?) kinda-sorta-vaguely doubting certain parts of “neo-darwinism” reads, at last count, four. Even if you have heard of Project Steve, you might not have heard the Steve Song yet. Sort of like the Monty Python spam song, but slightly different.

The Bathroom Wall

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With any tavern, one can expect that certain things that get said are out-of-place. But there is one place where almost any saying or scribble can find a home: the bathroom wall. This is where random thoughts and oddments that don’t follow the other entries at the Panda’s Thumb wind up. As with most bathroom walls, expect to sort through a lot of oyster guts before you locate any pearls of wisdom.

Just because this is the bathroom wall does not mean that you should put your #$%& on it.

The previous wall got a little cluttered, so we’ve splashed a coat of paint on it.

Dembski’s continuing contradictions

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Dembski has ‘responded’ to Wesley Elsberry’s and Mark Perakh’s criticicsm at ARN

Panda’s Thumb.

Does the discussion at the Panda’s Thumb advance the discussion we had on this board about that paper? As I mentioned in another post, that paper will be the basis for my technical lecture at the Trotter Prize Lecture Series at Texas A&M coming up the beginning of April. I’d enjoy meeting any critics on this board there (as well as supporters, of course).

Other than the usual self inflation, Dembski has little to say about the critiques themselves.

When pressed for details as to how Dembski ‘abuses’ critics, Dembski responded:

Challenge Accepted

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USA Today has a short article about the on-going creationist attacks on science education, and the understandable irritation this is causing among leading scientists and educators: ‘Call to Arms’ on Evolution.

It’s kind of the same old thing – presenting it as a he-said/she-said issue and giving the ID advocates space to state their falsehoods. But of course that’s not good enough for the Discovery Institute’s Media Complaints Division, which finds it necessary to complain about every news article that doesn’t specifically advocate ID using pro-ID talking-points and spin. The DI’s Rob Crowther has a lot of silly things to say about the article, but this is the silliest:

The letter [from the NAS] singles out for criticism people who don’t believe in the big bang, that the earth is older than 10,000 years a [sic] plate tectonics. Please. I challenge you to find a serious, leading intellectual ID proponent who does not subscribe to the big bang or does not believe the earth is billions of years old. It’s ludicrous to try and demean design theory by mistakenly equating design theorists with other non-scientific anti-evolutionists.

Challenge accepted.

The possible discovery of a non-Mendelian form of inheritance in the tiny mustard plant Arabidopsis thaliana – the lab rat of the plant world – has hit the news in a big way this week. See e.g. Carl Zimmer’s blog post “Move Over, Mendel (But Don’t Move Too Far)”, the New York Times story “Startling Scientists, Plant Fixes Its Flawed Gene,” a blurb from the NSF, “Cress overturns textbook genetics” at Nature News, and the actual March 24 Nature article, Lolle et al. (2005), “Genome-wide non-mendelian inheritance of extra-genomic information in Arabidopsis,” Nature, 434, 505-509.

Basically, there is a gene, HOTHEAD, abbreviated HTH, and the recessive null mutant of this gene, hth, produces plants with fused flowers. When HTH/hth heterozygotes are self-fertilized, the progeny phenotypes are 75% normal and 25% mutant, as Mendelian genetics predicts. However, when hth/hth plants are self-fertilized, instead of producing 100% hth phenotypes, up to 10% of the progeny are HTH/hth and have the HTH phenotype.

As Project Steve Steve Steven Jacobsen put it in Nature News: “It’s really weird.”

As was mentioned in a comment, the Star Telegram of the Fort Worth/Dallas area is reporting (reg. req) that the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History has reversed its decision not to show the Imax film Volcanoes of the Deep Sea because of evolutionary content.

Museum Director Van Romans, with the blessing of the board of directors, reversed the museum’s decision and said the film will open in Fort Worth “before summer.” The film is already being promoted on the museum’s Web site.

“We’re going to show things that have scientific credibility, and people can make their own decisions,” Romans said Wednesday. “That’s a very personal choice. But we are a science and history institution. We have a responsibility to the public to share with them.”

Everyone’s favorite defender of the 10 Commandments, Roy Moore, has spoken out against evolution on MSNBC’s “Hardball.”

ID in Schools, Redux

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Everyone’s probably seen it already, but Jay Mathews has written an Op-Ed in today’s Washington Post about teaching ID in schools titled Who’s Afraid of Intelligent Design?.

Mathews, who is not an ID advocate, argues that we should teach ID and have public school children debate the issue in order to liven-up biology class. I made a good sized post last week about why this is not a good idea in response to a similar argument put forth by Brad Plumer on Political Animal.

Since my last post was generic enough to cover most of Mathews’ claims as well, I won’t go into detail and repeat everything I wrote previously. But there are a few things I would like to address, just to make things clear.

Charles Darwin has a posse

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Chaz has a posse

Colin Purrington of Swarthmore has done it again, exploiting the media to spread a subversive message. This time, it's another pro-evolution theme: Darwin has a posse. And it's just in time for the Panda's Thumb birthday party! Download the pdfs and follow the instructions to create bookmarks, labels, temporary tattoos, etc., all bearing the logo to the left.

Tangled Bank #24

The Tangled Bank

Tangled Bank #24 is now available, and it's richly populated and diverse. Set aside a good chunk of time to scan through all of this fascinating science.

The next Tangled Bank will be held on April 6 over at Respectful Insolence. You can submit your science related posts to Orac, me, or host@tangledbank.net.

Today, March 23, 2005, marks the Panda’s Thumb weblog first year of service. Now we have nearly 900 posts, nearly 22,000 comments, and over 450,000 visits logged by Sitemeter. We’re around ranking #508 in the “Truth Laid Bear Ecosystem”. Site traffic runs about two-thirds that of the TalkOrigins Archive. Happy Birthday, Panda’s Thumb!

This past year, PT brought its readers the first public notice of the Stephen C. Meyer article in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. As a scoop, it was a doozy, leading notice in Nature, Science, and other venues. PT also led with a technical critique of a paper by Michael Behe and David Snoke on evolving complex adaptations. (Both of these are also linked in the “Must Read” sidebar on the right of the PT main page.) This sort of leadership did not go unmissed: Panda’s Thumb ran high in the vote tallies for the Koufax Awards in the “Best Group Blog” category.

We’ve had a lot of laughs at the expense of the Discovery Institute Media Complaints Division, but we’ve also kept in touch with the serious side of all this, which is the integrity of science education in our public schools. There is humor to be had while we take care of serious business, and we’ll be keeping this in mind in the coming year. I’m not sure what to say to the Panda’s Thumb Bar Crew besides, “Thanks, and another round, please.”

Questions for John Calvert

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In an article in the Wichita Eagle about Intelligent Design network leaders John Calvert and Bill Harris here, it says:

But Krebs, who is vice president of pro-evolution Kansas Citizens for Science, said Calvert refuses to answer some questions about the evidence for intelligent design or about Christians who accept evolution.

“There’s some really fatal flaws in his talk, but being a lawyer, he is used to building a case and won’t answer questions,” Krebs said.

Calvert denied dodging questions.

“If you can show me a question I refused to answer, I’d be happy to answer it,” Calvert said.

Well, good. Thanks for the offer, John.

Here are some questions I’ve asked John that he’s refused to answer. I’ll alert him (and the Wichita paper) that the questions are here, and we’ll see if he’s happy enough to answer my questions that he will come here and respond.

[Note: cross-posted to the KCFS forums here]

As noted in my previous post, on 16 February Dr. Vincent Cassone debated Intelligent Design advocate Dr. Michael Behe. The debate was sponsored by the TAMU Veritas Forum.

One of the items in this outline of the debate is a recurring theme for Behe.

“Behe … Brings up the clotting cascade, and points out an error made by Russ Doolittle in a Boston Review article in 1997. Doolittle mischaracterized a 1996 paper on double knockout mice lacking two proteins in the clotting cascade. Behe introduces a theme for the evening: if Russ Doolittle, the world’s expert, makes mistakes about the clotting cascade, then there is no evidence that it arose by DEM.”

Behe has brought up Doolittles alleged “mistake” several times. Would it surprise you that Behe is being less than forthright?

The Tangled Bank

The next edition of Tangled Bank will be posted on Wednesday at Syaffolee, so send your submissions to syaffolee@gmail.com or host@tangledbank.net or pzmyers@pharyngula.org by March 22 with the words "Tangled Bank" in the subject line.

In case you're wondering what's involved and what the rewards are, Hedwig has written up her experiences in hosting the last one.

Scientific American Throws in the Towel

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Scientific American, that venerable purveyor of mainstream science to the literate, has decided to change its dogmatic ways. From the April 2005 issue, just out:

In retrospect, this magazine’s coverage of so-called evolution has been hideously one-sided. For decades, we published articles in every issue that endorsed the ideas of Charles Darwin and his cronies.

Moreover, we shamefully mistreated the Intelligent Design (ID) theorists by lumping them in with creationists. Creationists believe that God designed all life, and that’s a somewhat religious idea. But ID theorists think that at unspecified times some unnamed superpowerful entity designed life, or maybe just some species, or maybe just some of the stuff in cells. That’s what makes ID a superior scientific theory: it doesn’t get bogged down in details.

Get ready for a new Scientific American. … This magazine will be dedicated purely to science, fair and balanced science, not just the science that scientists say is science. (All italics original)

[Comments]

Lenny Flank is a long-time activist for science education. While Lenny has been a participant in many online fora and owns the Yahoo “DebunkCreation” group, Lenny is not “just talk”. His group’s most recent action was to send a box of books as a donation to the Dover, Pennsylvania High School Library. This has opened a new chapter in the ongoing struggle in Dover over the inclusion of “intelligent design” in the high school science curriculum.

The Dover Area School District is reviewing science books donated by an anti-creationism group to determine whether to add the books to its library.

A group called DebunkCreation in St. Petersburg, Fla., donated 23 books of various scientific interests to the high school’s library. Supt. Richard Nilsen said the books will have to be reviewed either by the board’s curriculum committee, the administration, library personnel or a combination of those groups to ensure the books are educationally appropriate.

Some of the books are written by noted scientists, including Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins. All support scientific methods and theories that include Darwin’s theories of evolution.

Lenny Flank, who founded DebunkCreation in 1989, said the donations were made in an effort to “increase knowledge and decrease ignorance.”

York Daily Record, 2005/03/20, “Dover to review donated books”

While Joseph Maldonado’s YDR article is informative, it doesn’t list the books, so I asked Lenny which books the “DebunkCreation” group had sent. He graciously sent me the list, his correspondence with Dover officials, and permission to post it all.

The New York Times has an article (reg required) about Imax theatres refusing to carry films that mention evolution for fear of pissing off the religions right.

People who follow trends at commercial and institutional Imax theaters say that in recent years, religious controversy has adversely affected the distribution of a number of films, including “Cosmic Voyage,” which depicts the universe in dimensions running from the scale of subatomic particles to clusters of galaxies; “Galápagos,” about the islands where Darwin theorized about evolution; and “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea,” an underwater epic about the bizarre creatures that flourish in the hot, sulfurous emanations from vents in the ocean floor.

People who follow the issue say it is more likely to arise at science centers and other public institutions than at commercial theaters. The filmmaker James Cameron, who was a producer on “Volcanoes,” said the commercial film he made on the same topic, “Aliens of the Deep,” had not encountered opposition, except during post-production, when “it was requested from some theaters that we change a line of dialogue” relating to sun worship by ancient Egyptians. The line remained, he said.

Mr. Cameron said he was “surprised and somewhat offended” that people were sensitive to the references to evolution in “Volcanoes.”

“It seems to be a new phenomenon,” he said, “obviously symptomatic of our shift away from empiricism in science to faith-based science.”

The journalist Judith Hooper has recently leveled unfounded charges of fraud against Bernard Kettlewell, the distinguished naturalist who demonstrated natural selection in the peppered moth in Britain. My colleague Ian Musgrave and I recently analyzed Kettlwell’s data and Hooper’s charges, and concluded that the charges are wholly without merit. What follows are lightly edited excerpts from our paper in Skeptical Inquirer.

Evolution of the X chromosome

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This week's Nature has an article summarizing the sequencing of the human X chromosome by Ross et al. (that should be Ross ET AL.!!!; see the author list at the end). There is an impressive wealth of quantitative and genetic detail here, but I'm not going to reiterate it. Mostly, I want to outline the evolutionary story.

And it really is an obligate evolutionary story they're telling. A paper on the sequence of a chromosome is not just a recitation of As, Gs, Cs, and Ts—it is about extensive analyses, comparisons of genomes from different species, reconstructions of past translocations, inversions, and mutations, and about the logical and mathematical modeling of the history of transformations that produced a particular arrangement of genes. What we have in the X chromosome is a text that shows the smudges and strike-outs and rearrangements of hundreds of millions of years of editing.

Continue reading "Evolution of the X chromosome" (on Pharyngula)

New Scientist reports on the findings of a study on the impact of genes on religious inclinations

Genes may help determine how religious a person is, suggests a new study of US twins. And the effects of a religious upbringing may fade with time.

Until about 25 years ago, scientists assumed that religious behaviour was simply the product of a person’s socialisation - or “nurture”. But more recent studies, including those on adult twins who were raised apart, suggest genes contribute about 40% of the variability in a person’s religiousness.

But it is not clear how that contribution changes with age. A few studies on children and teenagers - with biological or adoptive parents - show the children tend to mirror the religious beliefs and behaviours of the parents with whom they live. That suggests genes play a small role in religiousness at that age.

Now, researchers led by Laura Koenig, a psychology graduate student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, US, have tried to tease apart how the effects of nature and nurture vary with time. Their study suggests that as adolescents grow into adults, genetic factors become more important in determining how religious a person is, while environmental factors wane.

The study can be found in Journal of Personality (vol 73, p 471)

We’ve all seen ID advocates bristle at the suggestion that ID is no different than astrology, Holocaust denial, UFOlogy, or any other pseudoscience. Why declare ID wrong before it even gets out of the gate? How dare we tar them with that brush!

In my mind, the biggest danger that ID poses to the world is the threat of making satire redundant. Check these guys out:

http://www.BenevolentDesign.com/

It’s an ID site run by people called the Christian Guardians Fellowship. It begins with the header, “EVOLUTION THEORY IS A MONUMENTAL HOAX.” At first glance, you’d think it’s just more of the same old stupidity, but there’s a neat twist. They have a new and superior method for proving Intelligent Design. And that method is… wait for it… astrology.

Torquarator bullocki

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enteropneust

The deuterostomes are a superphylum of animals that includes three phyla: the chordates (us!), the familiar echinoderms (sea urchins and starfish), and a peculiar group called the hemichordates (at times, you will see another phylum, the chaetognaths or arrow worms, grouped in the deuterostomes, but there is now evidence that they don't belong there). All are linked by their pattern of development. During gastrulation, animals form a structure called the blastopore, which is where migrating tissues tuck themselves inward to establish the three germ layers of the embryo. In deuterostomes, the blastopore will eventually become the anus. In the complementary category, the protostomes, which includes annelids and arthropods, the blastopore develops into the mouth.

The hemichordates are probably unfamiliar to most people reading this. They are marine worms that share two characteristics with us chordates: a hollow, dorsal nerve cord and a perforated feeding structure, the pharynx. They lack two others, the notochord and post-anal tail, hence the name hemichordate. There are two classes of hemichordate, the pterobranchs and the enteropneusts, which differ greatly in appearance and lifestyle.

Continue reading "Torquarator bullocki" (on Pharyngula)

There’s a post on ID over on Political Animal written by guest blogger Brad Plumer, who is apparently filling in for Kevin Drum. He gives us a nice plug, mentioning that he hasn’t seen us before and didn’t know that there are scientists who do indeed take the effort to address the claims of the ID movement. (Kevin though has seen us before - he linked to us on our second day of existence, nearly a year ago, sending us a much welcomed flood of traffic right from the start.) We certainly do put a fair amount of effort into rebutting the claims of the ID movement, quite successfully in my opinion, but of course that hasn’t stopped them or even seem to have slowed them down much. And that’s partly why I would like to address Plumer’s main point that perhaps (just maybe) we should concede the ID advocates’ push to get their ideas taught in public school science classes alongside evolution. Plumer writes:

Still, when the Washington Post today headlines the coming battle over creationism in the classroom, I wonder if a slight retreat by the reality-based community on evolution might not in fact be the best tactic, in order to vanquish the ID silliness in the long term. Really.

and later…

What I’m saying, essentially, is that if ID is truly as ridiculous as we all think it is, then why not shove it on the stage and force it to cluck around in public?

This is not an unreasonable sounding idea. Others have come up with it before, notably Richard Dawkins, who once stated something to the effect that we should spend the ten minutes it would take to rebut creationism and then move on. Unfortunately, things are not that simple. Let me explain why this probably isn’t a good idea.

Introduction. In the beginning of March 2005 William Dembski sent an email message to several critics of his output, including me. Dembski wrote:

“Dear Critics,

Attached is a paper that fills in the details of chapter 4 of No Free Lunch, which David Wolpert referred to as “written in jello.” The key result is a displacement theorem. Along the way I prove and (sic) measure-theoretic variant of the No Free Lunch theorems.”

Dembski concluded his message as follows:

”… I expect that Ken Miller’s public remarks about intelligent design being a ‘total, dismal failure scientifically’ will become increasingly difficult to sustain. This paper, and subsequent revisions, can be found on my website www.designinference.com. I welcome any constructive comments about it.”

Intelligent design, indeed

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I occasionally run PubMed searches on “intelligent design” – not to see if any IDists have published any new research supporting ID, that never seems to happen – but to see if any new editorials about or critiques of ID have appeared lately.

Actually, most of what you get on these searches are references to engineering-related publications describing new inventions and the like. Sometimes you get publications about biomimetics, the process of using biological “designs” to inspire human invention.

Today, this was the top hit on my “intelligent design” search. It has to be seen to be believed:

Zuo J, Yan G, Gao Z. (2005). “A micro creeping robot for colonoscopy based on the earthworm.” Journal of Medical Engineering Technology Jan-Feb;29(1):1-7. OpenURL Link

If ever there was a shoe-in for an IgNobel Prize, this is it. The obvious question is, should the Prize be awarded in Biology, Engineering, or Medicine?

The Bathroom Wall

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With any tavern, one can expect that certain things that get said are out-of-place. But there is one place where almost any saying or scribble can find a home: the bathroom wall. This is where random thoughts and oddments that don’t follow the other entries at the Panda’s Thumb wind up. As with most bathroom walls, expect to sort through a lot of oyster guts before you locate any pearls of wisdom.

The previous wall got a little cluttered, so we’ve splashed a coat of paint on it.

Swallow Hard Fred, its a caterpillar!

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Fred Reed, right-wing creationist hero of the moment asked what he imagined to be hard questions that challenge the validity of evolutionary biology. They are actually rather tired and often answered “problems.” When confronted with any creationist making bold pronouncements, one should first look in The Index of Creationist Claims, or Creationist Lies and Blunders. That will take care of a majority of their so-called “evidenecs.” Several of Reed’s arguments have been debunked here already; The Neck of the Giraffe, and How I Spent My Morning. The key appeal of the Fred Reeds of the world is that they are ignorant, and lazy. It is neither a shame nor a crime to be ignorant, we are all born totally ingnorant. It is not a crime to be lazy, but it is a waste of ability. And true enough, it is not a crime to be ignorant and lazy, nor should it be even abstractly. But what chafes my butt is that I am actually forced to pay thousands of dollars a year on “professional liability insurance” because I am legally acknowledged as an expert in certain areas, and people, and courts of law, and corporations pay me cash money to provide them with my professional expert opinion. The salt in the wound is that ignoramuses like Fred Reed can promote their inanities without liability. Something to do with the First Amendment freedom of speech ‘guarantee.’ Nothing is ever truly secure and ironically the seperation of Church and State also ‘guaranteed’ in the First Amendment is under attack by the far-right. Because he isn’t an expert at anything, and even stressed that he doesn’t know what he is writing about, Fred’s not accountable for his false statements. This is a classic example of ‘buyer beware.”

How to piss off a scientist

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By now, most regular readers of this blog have probably seen PZ’s recent analysis of Berlinski’s latest screed on “Darwin’s theory”. As most of you undoubtedly saw, PZ was somewhat irked by what Berlinski wrote.

After reading the full text of Berlinski’s polemic, my first thought was that PZ’s response was actually quite understated. I’ve cooled off a bit since then, but I still need to vent a little, so I thought I’d share one of the things that is extremely irritating about Berlinski-like anti-evolution claims.

The Kraken Wakes

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On 16 February Dr. Vincent Cassone debated Intelligent Design advocate Dr. Michael Behe. The debate was sponsored by the TAMU Veritas Forum.

Here is an outline of the debate. A number of issues caught my eye, but I will deal with one particular issue in this post.

“Behe’s rebuttal: The bad design argument [of the eye] is an argument from ignorance. May be reasons; in the case of retina, arrangement improves blood supply.”

No, it doesn’t. Behe shows his colours by giving a bad rehash of a bad creationist argument. I’ve briefly blogged the “blood supply” argument before, but I’ll put in a bit of detail this time.

"Intelligent Design" advocate William A. Dembski recently announced his completion of another draft paper. Titled "Searching Large Spaces: Displacement and the No Free Lunch Regress", Dembski's paper is an assertion, with math, that he was right about "No Free Lunch" all along.

After several failed attempts to get “intelligent design” into the Kansas Science Standards via regular channels, it appears that the Kansas Board of Education (which gained a 6-4 conservative majority last November) has settled on a plan to have six days of hearings, with equal time given to evolution and intelligent design. On the table are 20+ pages of revisions to the high school science standards, proposed by the Kansas Intelligent Design Network. These revisions systematically redefine science to include the supernatural (see the proposed revisions). The IDNet proposals were rejected by the Board of Education’s own appointed science standards committee (made up of Kansas scientists and educators), and were also rejected by 12 independent scientists who reviewed the proposed revisions the reviews are up on the Kansas Department of Education website).

According to one scientist who contacted NCSE, the Kansas Department of Education is beginning to contact scientists around the country and invite them to participate in the hearings, all expenses paid. The suspicion is that an equal number of “intelligent design” proponents from the Discovery Institute are going to be invited to testify as if they were equally credible experts.

The veteran pro-science group in Kansas, Kansas Citizens for Science, is recommending that scientists and educators boycott these hearings. They are calling the hearings a “Kangaroo Court”, with a predetermined conclusion, and they argue that the Board of Education is attempting to devise an ad hoc justification to override the conclusions of their own science standards committee and of the independent reviewers.

For a summary of recent events in Kansas, see NCSE.

Updates and position statements on the KCFS website.

KCFS Position Press Release 3-3-05.

KCFS Resolution concerning the “Science Hearings”

David Berlinski is babbling against evolution again (an abridged version has been published in the Wichita Eagle), and it's dreadful. This is a guy who is a competent mathematician with a degree from Princeton, and all he can do is whip out creationist lies in a lather of fury against Darwin. I've tried to dissect it as well as I can, while trying to choke back the nausea induced by such putrid arguments.

Continue reading "Berlinski: I can't believe I'm wasting time on this guy." (on Pharyngula)

New news from Dover

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The York Daily Record is once again outdoing itself in coverage of the story on the Dover ID policy and court case. In the Dover Biology section, Lauri Lebo has done another major story on intelligent design, this time on Of Pandas and People and the problems with it.

The story is entitled, “Furor breathes new life into aging ‘Pandas’: Book used in Dover a dated look at intelligent design concept.” The fact that the second edition of Pandas is 12 years old is a major theme (actually, the book is basically composed of creationist criticisms of 1980’s science, and the book couldn’t even get that right – see the comprehensive NCSE Pandas page).

It turns out that even Jon Buell, head of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, the group that produced Pandas, would not have recommended his own book:

The Neck of the Giraffe

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The Discovery Institute has put up a long screed by Fred Reed that was originally published in something called Men’s Daily News. The article is entitled, “The Metaphysics of Evolution.” Fred Reed claims those nasty evolutionists don’t really know anything, they rely on plausibility rather than evidence, that evolution is an religion of anti-creationism, and that Fred Reed has stumped all them evolutionists on the internet.

A representative quote is below. Hey Fred, if you want some answers to your questions, come on over to the Panda’s Thumb and ask them. Or, you could consider just going to a library, rather than wildly assuming that your personal ignorance bears some relationship to reality.

Good ol’ Career Day

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Mike Dunford’s post the other day reminded me of an event a few years ago.

I am married to a 4th grade teacher in southern California. Each year I do two days of “career day” for a total of around 600 kids from Kindergarden through 5th grade. I bring stone tools, and deer bones to pass around, and it is great fun.

I don’t teach archaeology to the kids- I talk about what archaeologists do for a living. Career day is supposed to show kids about different careers- thats why it is called Career Day. I also show them gadgets like a GPS, maps, etc… I also carry around a 500 page thick CRM report that nobody ever bothered to read.

Well, it’s better than boiling mud (1). One of the iconic images of Australia is the Merino sheep, an extremely woolly, arid-land adapted animal that is the backbone of our wool industry. One draw back of their wooliness is that urine and feces accumulate on the sheep’s wool between the hind legs. This attracts flies that lay eggs there, and when the maggots hatch they start eating the sheep alive.

To combat this “fly strike”, Australian farmers have surigally removed the wool-bearing skin between the sheep’s hind legs, a process called Mulesing. This is done without anaesthesia on farms, so the Animal rights group PETA has kicked up a fuss and there is a looming trade boycott on Australian wool.

However, just recently a group of mutant sheep were found on a remote property here in South Australia (listen to the audio presentation for full details). The sheep lack the wool and the folds of skin between the legs found on normal Merinos, and so are relatively immune to fly strike. It remains to be seen if this beneficial mutation can be bred into Australia’s herd successfully, but it would be amusing if the wrath of PETA was averted by mutant sheep.

(1) The title is taken from comedian John Clarke’s alternative national anthem “God Loves New Zealand, He gave us Boiling Mud”

Every now and then, I find myself so frustrated with the whole anti-evolution situation that I am tempted to simply wash my hands of the whole affair and walk away. After all, in the grand scheme of things, why does it really matter what kids get taught about biology. Most of them are never going to use the information when they grow up, and any creationism-induced knowledge deficits can be rectified later on in the education of those who are going to go on in fields related to the biological sciences. OK, so it’s nice to teach things that aren’t massively wrong, and all that, but is it really so important as to justify all this fuss?

Last week, I got a lesson on just exactly why all this really is so important.

Oliver Sacks has some nice reflections on the late Francis Crick. (Hat tip: AL Daily.)

How I spent my morning.

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A google search this morning turned up a right-wing, err “conservative voice” in the person of Fred Reed. Mr. Reed apparently failed as a chemistry student (hey Fred- I hit the P Chem wall too), and instead had a career in journalism. He is quite upset with science, and particularly evolution. Fredwin On Evolution. He attracted some dupes at a free “blogspace” (scan down to “Fred on evolution” posted on Tuesday).

Well, I asked myself, “Self, do you want to play with these guys?” And, myself replied, “The last fishing boat left an hour ago, no editors are particularly ticked off at you (at the moment), and it is better than poking out your eyes with sharp pointy sticks.”

But, I still wondered, “Are you sure that it is better than poking out our eyes with sharp pointy sticks.”

And myself settled the matter with an irrefutable argument, “Trust me! If you can’t trust your self, who can you trust?”

I got a Tangled Bank for my birthday!

The Tangled Bank

Yay! Tangled Bank #23 is now online at Living the Scientific Life. It's a long one, so be prepared to spend a little time on it. I notice we also have a lot of first-timers in the list, so this is a good one for picking up on new and interesting weblogs.

If you want to join in and contribute to the party, the next edition will be on 23 March, at Syaffolee. Send links to S.Y. Affolee, PZ Myers, or host@tangledbank.net.

Check it out--proof of design! The David's Star appears in a cellular formation in the "Survivor Flower," (Ranunculus asiaticus). It's a miracle almost as impressive as John F. Kennedy's face in a hillside in Hawaii.

Ooo, pretty pictures!

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polychaete cartilage

Hmmm, it's awfully quiet around the Panda's Thumb today—everyone must be busy preparing thunderbolts of enlightenment to hurl at benighted creationists. While you're waiting for the fun to begin, I'll mention that I've just posted some information about comparative histology and invertebrate cartilage over at Pharyngula…come on over and look at the pretty pictures.

This essay has been called to life by Steve Reuland’s post to Panda’s Thumb titled “What good is half an underlying language structure?” ( www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archives/000853.html ) which refers to Carl Zimmer’s posts to Loom (http://www.corante.com/loom/archive[…]part_one.php and http://www.corante.com/loom/archive[…]part_two.php ). One point touched upon in passing by Zimmer and by some comments’ writers, was the question of whether or not natural languages have all evolved from the same proto-language.

The Tangled Bank

Hey, gang, Wednesday is my birthday! I'm sure many of you have already made your reservations and are planning to show up at my house with armfuls of gifts and bottles of champagne for an evening of wild partying, but if you can't make it, no worries: there's another way you can celebrate. Write something, anything about science or the natural world and post it to your weblog, and then send a link to it to grrlscientist, me, or host@tangledbank.net. Then, on 9 March, after all the champagne has been drunk and the revelers have toddled home or passed out on the floor, I'll be able to pull up the laptop, aim my browser at Living the Scientific Life, and spend some pleasant time seeing what smart people say about science on The Tangled Bank.

C'mon. As a favor to an old man getting older.

The Discovery Institute Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture’s Media Complaints Division has a short whine by Robert Crowther about a column in Scientific American by Steve Mirsky. Mirsky made fun of disclaimers for textbooks, specifically mentioning the Selman v. Cobb County case decision.

There’s a general cluelessness about Crowther’s discussion of publications like Scientific American and their printing schedules. But an even more egregious bit from Crowther is a complaint about a lack of originality in Mirsky’s piece.

Brief Update on Kansas

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Between keeping up with my personal life/day job and with the flurry of events here in Kansas, I’ve had little time to reflect and inform here at the Panda’s Thumb. If you are interested, the best place to do some reading is at the KCFS Update forum, where we archive our KCFS Updates. See particularly:

The brain of Homo floresiensis

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Scoot on over to The Loom for the latest details on the brain of Homo floresiensis. The results from a detailed CT-scan of the skull of the fossil hominid are in, and they are very interesting. The short answer: the brain of the hobbit most closely resembles that of Homo erectus and does not look like the brain of a microcephalic, but it does have its own peculiarities. Read Carl's story for all of the details.

There's an essay here from Spiked that makes some good points on the philosophical and intellectual causes of the Intelligent Design problem. (And it quotes me, so therefore it's very good!) It's a little long, but the thesis is that

It is suspicion of all groups who claim authority rather than excessive respect for religion that drives hostility to science....[T]he theme of anti-intellectualism on the American right has drawn vigour from the critique of expertise developed since the 1960s by their opponents in the culture wars. It was radicals who pioneered the idea that children should educate the teachers, that doctors were no more expert than their patients, and that claims to expertise generally were little more than an excuse to assert power by marginalising the voice of the victim. In this picture scientists are not disinterested investigators of the truth so much as spin doctors for their paymasters in business or government. It is the coming together of these two strands from left and right that represents the real danger for science.

I think that goes a little far. I would certainly agree that there is just as much quackery and hoodooism on the left as on the right--I live in Northern California, so I should know--and I agree that the tendency to ignore what a person says on the grounds that "he's funded by so-and-so" is an illogical and childish attitude that is all too common. But the problem isn't just hostility to people who claim authority. Such hostility can actually be pretty helpful; I understand the motto of the Royal Society is "On the Words of No One," which is a pretty anti-authoritarian sentiment. Rather, the problem (other than simple ignorance) is hostility to reason and objective science. That hostility takes the form of both traditional fundamentalism (by which reason and science subvert the unquestioning faith demanded of us by God and society) and newfangled Pomo tergiversation (by which science is exploitative, inherently racist, and part of an intellectual scheme to oppress the proletariat and deprive them of their health insurance coverage).

Thanks to reader Kelvin Kean for the pointer.

Zimmer has another two-part series up, this time on the evolution of language.

Building Gab: Part One.

Building Gab: Part Two.

It concerns a long-running debate between linguists about how language was acquired by our species. Go read it right now.

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