May 8, 2005 - May 14, 2005 Archives

Well, the Kansas Kangroo Court is over, and it did not produce the outcome that the anti-evolutionists wanted. “Experts” from around the world were flown to Kansas to put on a state funded advertisement for intelligent design creationism because the local lay people were not doing a good job of it. Well, the “experts” that came to Kansas didn’t do a much better job. They routinely answered questions by admitting non-expertise. They were even caught having not read the standards they were supposedly testifying about. (Let’s be honest, the hearings were not about science education in Kansas but about giving intelligent design creationism a forum to advertise.) These revelations did more harm than good for the school board’s impending decision to accept the minority revisions to the standards.

Steve Abrams, chairman of the Kansas State Board of Education, has gone into damage control with a letter to the Wichita Eagle. Steve Case, chair of the Kansas Science Curriculum Standards Committee, has written a letter in response which was read by Pedro Irirgonegaray on the final day of the hearings.

If anyone needed any more evidence that the scientists’ boycott of the Kansas Kangaroo Court was an excellent idea, and that the Kangaroo Court didn’t go at all well for Intelligent Design Creationists (most of the ID proponents were proved to be straight-up creationists at the hearings) – well, here it is.

William Dembski, in a post entitled “The Vise Strategy: Squeezing the Truth out of Darwinists,” is now fantasizing about “the day when the hearings are not voluntary but involve subpoenas that compel evolutionists to be deposed and interrogated at length on their views.”

As a bonus feature, the post features photos of a stuffed Darwin toy with his head being squished in a vise (see photo, above left). (Let me be the first to pass on the indignant cry of Professor Steve Steve and condemn this flagrant abuse of plush toy rights.)

The New York Times has an article today about a new rodent discovered in Southeast Asia that’s so different, it’s been placed in its own family.

‘Oddball Rodent’ Is Called New to Science.

They live in the forests and limestone outcrops of Laos. With long whiskers, stubby legs and a long, furry tail, they are rodents but unlike any seen before by wildlife scientists. They are definitely not rats or squirrels, and are only vaguely like a guinea pig or a chinchilla. And they often show up in Laotian outdoor markets being sold as food.

It was in such markets that visiting scientists came upon the animals, and after long study, determined that they represented a rare find: an entire new family of wildlife. The discovery was announced yesterday by the Wildlife Conservation Society and described in a report in the journal Systematics and Biodiversity.

The new species in this previously unknown family is called kha-nyou (pronounced ga-nyou) by local people. Scientists found that differences in the skull and bone structure and in the animal’s DNA revealed it to be a member of a distinct family that diverged from others of the rodent order millions of years ago. “To find something so distinct in this day and age is just extraordinary,” said Dr. Robert J. Timmins of the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the discoverers. “For all we know, this could be the last remaining mammal family left to be discovered.”

It sure does look delicious. While I don’t know any details about this new mammal, there are several predictions I can make about it based on our knowledge of evolution:

  • It will have red blood cells that lack nuclei.
  • It will have three middle ear bones.
  • It will have continuously growing incisors.
  • It will be endothermic.

And so on. I can make these predictions based on known synapomorphies within the mammal or rodent lineages. These are characters inherited from the common ancestors that all mammals (or rodents) share. If this new species is not related through ancestry with other rodents and mammals, and was perhaps “specially created”, there is no reason to suspect that it would have these characters, especially since they are not relevant to the morphological appearance of the animal.

Some of you may have heard this story on NPR:

Advertisers are finding new and creative ways to sell their films. Sometimes a movie will be mentioned in the middle of a sitcom, or a star of a film will narrate a documentary, which is paid for by the studio. One studio has even manipulated a scientific discovery to coincide with the opening of a film. A look at some of the tactics studios use to seduce moviegoers to their films.

Specifically, the manipulated discovery was by Jack Horner, who fudged the date of discovery of a T. rex fossil to better accommodate the release date of a Jurassic Park movie. My jaw dropped at that news—that is thoroughly deplorable, and as far as I'm concerned, does serious damage to Horner's reputation, as well as making life more difficult for more ethical scientists.

I'm spared a reason to work up a good rant, though, since you can find a good, thoughtful dissection of the issues at Adventures in Ethics and Science (which seems to be a very fine place to consider the subject of the title, by the way).

As reported in Agape Press, “Ga. Schools Denied Time to Appeal Evolution Disclaimer Ruling,” Brian Fahling, “a constitutional lawyer with the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy,” is doing a lot of projection:

Fahling says the opponents of the evolution disclaimers have been showing a tremendous amount of hostility. “The high priests of evolution, if you will, are becoming increasingly shrill in their attacks on, for instance, the intelligent design scientists,” the AFA Law Center attorney notes, “and the reason for that is they’re not able to answer [the proponents of the intelligent design theory]. They can’t debate them and meet them on intellectual and scientific terms.”

A bill has been introduced in New York that would require “all pupils in grades kindergarten through twelve in all public schools in the state [to] receive instruction in both theories of intelligent design and evolution.” Hopefully this is a reminder that creationism is not a political concern for education in just “red” states.

Additionally, Florida’s “Academic Freedom” Act has died. It would have allowed students to sue teachers who stated that evolution is a fact.

How to evolve a vulva

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Creationists are fond of the "it can't happen" argument: they like to point to things like the complexity of the eye or intricate cell lineages and invent bogus rules like "irreducible complexity" so they can claim evolution is impossible. In particular, it's easy for them to take any single organism in isolation and go oooh, aaah over its elaborate detail, and then segue into the argument from personal incredulity.

Two things, one natural and one artificial, help them do this. Organisms are incredibly complicated, there is no denying it. This should be no solace to the anti-evolutionists, though, because one thing natural processes are very good at is building up complexity. The other situation that has helped them is our current reliance on model systems.

We use a few model systems extensively to study development—Drosophila, C. elegans, Danio come to mind—and they give us an unfortunately rigid view of how developmental processes occur. The model systems that are favored for laboratory work are those that have rapid, streamlined development with a great deal of consistency to the pattern—variability is avoided, and we tend to look for reproducible rules. We get a false impression of the rigidity and inflexibility of developmental systems.

How to correct that? We use the model systems as a starting-off point, and look at related organisms. As we start to accumulate information about diverse species, the variability in the patterns of development becomes more prominent, and we see that the evolutionary pathways aren't difficult to see at all. The worm vulva is a great example of how phylogenetic studies of development can inform our understanding of evolution.

vulva evolution

Continue reading How to evolve a vulva (on Pharyngula)

A report from Joshua Rosenau of Thoughts from Kansas:

I see things a little differently from Pat Hayes’s metastory.

Red State Rabble explains The Kansas Science Hearings Metastory, concluding that:

The barnstorming brotherhood of bible college biologists came, they saw, they did not conquer.

That remains to be seen. I’ve seen letters to the editor today complaining about the boycott and others criticizing Kathy Martin in harsh terms. I think the metastory (the story about the story) is still congealing.

I’m optimistic. But we will almost certainly have bad standards, and if the public isn’t outraged enough, anything Governor Sebelius does to delay their implementation could make her re-election campaign more complicated.

The other problem is that the coverage was almost uniformly over the ID vs. evolution perspective. That’s only half the story, at best.

The consistent theme of Saturday’s hearings were not so much a criticism of evolution as an attack on science. Any sort of naturalism was decried as an attack on theistic belief. Teaching science as scientists practice it was attacked as disenfranchisement of religious people. Again and again, practical naturalism (or methodological naturalism) was attacked.

That would open up the door not just to ID, but to creationism, flood geology, and Raelianism. Definitions of science may be in flux, but there’s a pretty sound consensus that flood geology is apologetics, not science. Astrology isn’t science, but it seems to fall within a supernaturalistic form of science. We can all agree that that doesn’t make sense.

And that explains the attacks on “historical sciences.” If evolution, astronomy and geology can be cut off from the other sciences, it makes this radical, fringe agenda seem less insane.

That’s the battle. It isn’t just evolution, it’s “materialism” or “naturalism.” It’s the culture war. I don’t know whether we’re winning that battle.

Here’s the latest from Red State Rabble, where correspondent Pat Hayes is doing a splendid job of tracking the Kansas kangaroo hearings.

This entry, The Kansas Science Hearings Metastory, is worth repeating here at the Panda’s Thumb.

Monday, May 09, 2005 The message that intelligent design proponents hoped would come out of last week’s testimony in Topeka is that there is a controversy between scientists over the validity evolutionary theory.

‘There is a genuine scientific controversy,’ insisted John Calvert, the intelligent design attorney, somewhat plaintively as the hearings came to a close Saturday.

The false notion that scientists are divided is key to the intelligent design movement’s strategy to convince school districts around the country to ‘teach the controversy’ over evolution.

That, of course, is only the first step on the road to their ultimate goal of replacing religiously neutral science with a science consonant with their own narrow Christian and theistic convictions.

Dembski in a blog posting called Evolution: Vast Ignorance and Trifling Understanding shows once again why ID is scientifically vacuous and nothing more than a gap theory.

Dembski Wrote:

‘[ID theorists] are very good at raising questions in areas of ignorance: ‘You can’t explain this, therefore it’s intelligent design.’ You can’t just put God into our gaps in knowledge.’ What I find remarkable about this standing refrain by evolutionists is the presumption that their theory deserves the benefit of the doubt.

It doesn’t of course. What these ID critics correctly point out is that ID is an argument from ignorance also known as a gap theory, based on an eliminative filter which following Dembski’s ‘logic’ is useless.

The Jewish voice of reason

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Jewish voices of reason have joined in criticizing Intelligent Design. In Jews eye ‘intelligent design’ hearings

“It doesn’t seem to me that intelligent design theory really lives up to scientific standards. Having said that, I don’t think science is the ultimate explanation of our world. Science is an elaborate conceptual game, but it’s not the only game.” “I believe in intelligent design,” said Rabbi Mark Levin of the Reform Congregation Beth Torah. “But it isn’t science; it’s theology.” The rabbi said he believes in a divine intelligence behind the creation of the world and its natural laws. And yet he sees the attempt to introduce the notion of “intelligent design” into schools as one that breaches the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. “It is clearly objectionable to teach theology as though it is science,” said Rabbi Levin, “because … it misinforms children and introduces religious faith into the public school system under the guise of science.”

The Kansas Citizens for Science website has many useful documents relating to evolution, intelligent design and the ongoing struggle in Kansas.

Short note: I accidentally came across some extras from a recent World magazine interview with Phil Johnson. They are posted on the World magazine blog as “Creationists and intelligent design” and “Christian college professors vs. Intelligent Design“. This is one of those pages you want to save as a web archive format (MHT) for future reference (see how to do this in IE or Firefox).

The Star Tribune letters


I put out a call for letters to the editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune on the Intelligent Design creationism issue last week. They've published a selection of them now, and the pro-biology side is in a strong majority. I've commented on the few creationist letters here.

(Important Preliminary Note: The phrase, “Why do the Muslims hate us?” is derived from political discussions after the 9/11 terror attacks and is based on bogus assumptions on several levels. It is employed in the title as parody. See point 4 of this post for the context.)

While a flood of news stories came out at the beginning of the Kansas Kangaroo Court, stories on the end of the hearings (Day 3) seem to be coming out very slowly. Here is the first and only one I’ve seen so far. I suspect that exhaustion, boredom, and/or cynicism took their toll on the reporters. (See Note 1)

The slow press coverage is kind of a shame for the IDers, because it appears that they scheduled their A-team for Day 3 – Stephen C. Meyer (director of the Discovery Institute Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, and a very rare pro-ID Steve to boot); Warren Nord (religion-in-public-schools advocate and Dover expert witness for ID); Angus Menuge (a philosopher with a serious-sounding name at the serious-sounding Cranach Institute; if I recall correctly, Ronald Numbers pegs the Cranach Institute as the home of the Lutheran Young-Earth Creationists), the famed Michael Behe as the cleanup hitter, and the obligatory non-conservative-Christian ID supporter, the conservative Muslim Mustafa Akyol.

Mustafa Akyol is an interesting character. Earlier this week, Tony Ortega of The Pitch, an alternative newspaper in Kansas City, published a detailed writeup on Akyol (Ortega’s full story on the Kansas hearings, “Your OFFICIAL program to the Scopes II Kansas Monkey Trial, is a must-read).

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