July 2005 Archives

By Russell Durbin

Veteran politician turned science expert Bruce Chapman, founder and president of the Discovery Institute (strategic command center of the “intelligent design” creationism movement), has written an essay that showcases the propaganda techniques of the IDC movement. Herewith a line by line analysis.

First they said that only ignorant rubes doubted Darwin. One was meant to recall the mob scene in the film of “Inherit the Wind.” The image is trite, but it works. However, when Phillip Johnson, a distinguished professor of legal evidence at Berkeley, came along with Darwin on Trial, they changed their line and said that, while he is an intellectual, he is not qualified to speak because he is not a scientist.

You know you’re in for a strawman argument when it starts out with “they said”. Who are “they”? Why not let “them” speak for “them”selves? There is a larger issue here, though, in which DI propaganda is creepily reminiscent of the Soviet style: Chapman tells you what “they” say, and why “they” say it, even what “they” are going to say next. But, as in so many DI disinformation dumps, no links or references are provided to let readers judge for themselves. Only links and references to other DI propaganda pieces are supplied, thus making for a hermetically sealed world of misinformation, unconstrained by any need to compare notes with the reality-based community.

The image Chapman seems to be conjuring here is that “they” continuously change “their” line because the creationists–excuse me, Darwin skeptics–keep proving “them” wrong. (It’s not hard to imagine that the original draft of this piece included moustachio-twirling and “Curses! Foiled again!” quotes.) It may be a great tool for arming the troops with a Kevlar shield of smugness, but it lacks any connection to the real world. The tactic is trite, but it works - if the goal is cheerleading rather than edification.

In fact, there is no shortage of evidence to support the notion that “doubting Darwin” does correlate inversely with education. There is also abundant evidence that Phillip Johnson, just as his lack of any scientific training and credentials suggest, is eminently unqualified to speak on subjects scientific.

The wheels on the bus…

A question

I thought PT readers would have some helpful answers for Raffi Melkonian’s question.

A Blind Eye towards reality


Robert Crowther at the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture reports on a short op-ed by Bruce Chapman in the Washington Post

Chapman Wrote:

There really is a scientific case against Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and another for the alternative of intelligent design, but you will not find them in The Post.

Tuesday, July 19. Afternoon.

With the remains of a once magnificent fajita burrito residing comfortably in my stomach, I faced the afternoon with confidence. My choices were “How Our Textbooks Mislead Us: An Expose of Error and Fraud” in the basic track and “Hubble, Bubble, Big Bang in Trouble” in the Advanced track. Figuring that I had a pretty good sense of what creationists think of modern biology textbooks, I chose the Big Bang.

The talk was delivered by John Hartnett, another in the large Australian contingent at the conference. It was his task to persuade us that the Big Bang was a lot of hooey. Which is interesting, since in other contexts creationists love the Big Bang. It allows them to claim that the universe had a definite beginning in time. (Don't trouble them with details like the fact that time itself apparently came into existence at the Big Bang). Since everything that had a beginning must have had a cause....you fill in the rest.

Massospondylus embryos

Massospondylus embryo

Massospondylus carinatus Owen, 1854 isn't one of those flashy dinosaurs that has a lot of popular appeal to the crowds, but as you can see from the name, it has been known for a long time (first described by Richard Owen in 1854), and many specimens of various ages have been found—if you aren't familiar with what this beastie looks like, here are some photos of a fossilized adult and a reconstruction. It's basically your standard early prosauropod, but from the numbers of specimens found, it must have been a particularly successful species.

Now we know even more about it's life history, though, because several beautiful specimens of unhatched embryos have been discovered in Lower Jurassic strata from South Africa.

Continue reading Massospondylus embryos (on Pharyngula)

Google Fight!


Under the heading “Stupid Web Tricks” file the following:

Google fight between Evolution and Intelligent Design.

(No Darwin dolls were harmed in the making of this demonstration.)

Other results: “sincerity” beats “Dembski” by a 20-1 margin and “Berlinski” is ko’d by “informed criticism.”

More on Gilder, and Kansas


Nick’s thread yesterday about George Gilder of the DI has stimulated a response on the DI’s Evolution News and Views site, by Rob Crowther, in which Gilder responds to what the Crowther says is a quote taken out of context.

Crowther’s article begins,

A Darwinist blog is trumpeting a quote by George Gilder in yesterday’s Boston Globe which they have taken out of context in an attempt to make him look bad.

“Intelligent design itself does not have any content.”

First, it would be helpful to see the quote in context of what was being discussed, namely Discovery Institute’s position on education policy.

“I’m not pushing to have [ID] taught as an ‘alternative’ to Darwin, and neither are they,” he says in response to one question about Discovery’s agenda. “What’s being pushed is to have Darwinism critiqued, to teach there’s a controversy. Intelligent design itself does not have any content.”

I understood what Gilder was driving at, but decided to ask him to clarify the statement, which he has done…

Well, that doesn’t help the situation much, it seems to me. But before going on to tell you what Gilder had to say in clarification, let me point out how this discussion is quite relevant to what is going on in Kansas.

Kennewick Man hearings


Progressive Reaction is keeping on top of the shenanigans at the hearings to amend NAGPRA.

Dembski vs. Evo Devo


William Dembski exemplifies the empty void of Intelligent Design creationism in his criticisms of Michael Ruse's review of Sean Carroll's Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom. Ruse's review was positive (as was mine—it's an excellent introduction to the discipline), but he takes a jab at the creationists at the beginning:

A major problem with the critics of science is that they have a problem with problems.

Let me be a little less cryptic. The critics—notably the creationists, and more recently their smoother descendents, the intelligent design theorists—are always whining that science has unfinished or unsolved problems.

This did not sit well with Dembski, who goes on to write a complaint that demonstrates that Ruse was exactly right in every particular, and also demonstrates several other creationist traits, such as an inability to read with understanding and quote mining.

Anyone who’s been involved in E/C debates has likely heard more than once that “evolution is a religion” (see, for instance, Matt Young’s thread here ). Some opponents suggest that because the theory has been modified somewhat over the years since Darwin’s original proposal, it’s a “theory in crisis,” or assert some other prediction of its imminent demise. Others have stated—correctly, in my opinion—that evolution has as much or more support as the germ theory of disease. So why do people attack evolution, but not the germ theory? Let’s compare the two.

The Boston Globe has just published a puff-piece on George Gilder. The article is called, “The evolution of George Gilder.” Anyway, the piece mostly just lets Gilder spout unchallenged about how evolution can’t explain genetic “information”, although it does start off OK by mentioning Pharyngula’s 2004 fisking of a Gilder essay in Wired. For some reason, though, the reporter couldn’t bring himself to make one tiny little phone call to a biologist (I’m sure PZ Myers was ready and willing) to learn how evolution actually can produce new genes with new functions (handy free pdf). Gilder is saying something that is the equivalent of saying “scientists don’t know how volcanos form.” Saying that the origin of new genetic information requires divine intervention is just wrong, anyone who believes it is badly uninformed, and anyone who promotes the idea to the innocent public is a deluded pseudoscientist.

To end on a positive note, Gilder does manage to get one thing right:

“What’s being pushed is to have Darwinism critiqued, to teach there’s a controversy. Intelligent design itself does not have any content.”George Gilder

The Foundation for Thought and Ethics entered a motion to intervene in the Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District case in Dover, Pennsylvania. On July 27th, Judge John E. Jones denied their motion to intervene. Interestingly, I don’t seem to see any place within this decision where Judge Jones agreed that any of FTE’s arguments for intervention had merit.

Is Evolution Religion?


I received the following interesting and thoughtful letter from a retired physician, whom I shall call Dr. S. I have not received permission to publish Dr. S’s letter verbatim, so I will paraphrase it:

Dr. S says he was “raised a Christian but didn’t have it shoved down [his] throat.” He majored in biology and chemistry in college and had a year of biochemistry in medical school. He takes evolution “as a given.”

Dr. S recently read a magazine article defending evolution against intelligent design and also mentions the new book Why Intelligent Design Fails. He asks if we are making a mistake and doing poor science. True scientists, he suggests, would “question the theory of evolution to make sure it’s not just another crackpot idea that has gained wide acceptance.”

Indeed, by defending evolution are we not lowering it from science to religious dogma? Has the theory of evolution become “an anti-religion religion”?

Dr. S thinks we should encourage intelligent design and calls it “a graceful way for Christians and Jews to evolve away from the Old Testament story of creation which is probably a total crock.”

Dr. S raises good points and probably shares his qualms with a great many observers. I will therefore answer him here.

Excellent Blog “NightLight”


I would like to point the interested readers of Panda’s Thumb to another excellent blog called “Nightlight”

A blog site well worth exploring. thumb.jpgthumb.jpgthumb.jpg

William Dembski continues to avoid answering my detailed criticisms of his work. Instead, he continues his personal attacks. Ever more desperate, he now resorts to quoting anonymous e-mail messages attacking me. I guess this is yet another variation on “the lurkers support me in e-mail”. How much lower can he go?

Cats, candy, and evolution


Here's a small taste of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a sweet story about a poor boy and his visit to an amazing candy factory…you've probably heard of it, since the new movie is getting a lot of press.

Only once a year, on his birthday, did Charlie Bucket ever get to taste a bit of chocolate. The whole family saved up their money for that special occasion, and when the great day arrived, Charlie was always presented with one small chocolate bar to eat all by himself. And each time he received it, on those marvelous birthday mornings, he would place it carefully in a small wooden box that he owned, and treasure it as though it were a bar of solid gold; and for the next few days, he would allow himself only to look at it, but never to touch it. Then at last, when he could stand it no longer, he would peel back a tiny bit of the paper wrapping at one corner to expose a tiny bit of chocolate, and then he would take a tiny nibble—just enough to allow the lovely sweet taste to spread out slowly over his tongue. The next day, he would take another tiny nibble, and so on, and so on. And in this way, Charlie would make his ten-cent bar of birthday chocolate last him for more than a month.stop

That's how it is published, at any rate. What if it read something like this?

Only once a year, on his birthday, did Charlie Bucket ever get to taste a bit of chocolate. The whole family saved up their money for that special occasion, and when the great day arrived, Charlie was always presented with one small chocolate bar to eat all by himself. And each time he received it, on those marvelg ynfg, jura ur pbhyq fgnaq vg ab ybatrstop, ur jbhyq stoprry onpx n gval ovg bs gur cncre jenccvat ng bar pbeare gb rkcbfr n gval ovg bs pubpbyngr, naq gura ur jbhyq gnxr n gval avooyr-whfg rabhtu gb nyybj gur ybiryl fjrrg gnfgr gb fcernq bhg fybjyl bire uvf gbathr. Gstopr arkg qnl, ur stopbhyq gnxr nabgure gval avooyr, naq fb ba, naq fb ba. Naq va guvf jnl, Puneyvr jstophyq znxr uvf gra-prag one bs oveguqnl pubpbyngr ynfg uvz sbe zber guna n zbagu.

Continue reading Cats, candy, and evolution (on Pharyngula)

Tangled Bank #33

The Tangled Bank

There is a brand spankin' new Tangled Bank #33 online at evolgen. Enjoy!

I’ve been meaning to follow up on my previous two posts about Cardinal Schönborn’s op-ed in the New York Times. I argued that the Cardinal’s op-ed should not be seen as a theological attack on evolutionary science but instead a theological attack on atheism and anyone who would think that the Catholic Church supports atheism. The Cardinal, although influenced (manipulated?) by the Discovery Institute, was actually arguing a position in opposition to their views on science and religion. This was not immediately clear from the op-ed because it relied heavily on creationist phraseology. However, I feel that subsequent developments have confirmed my interpretation of the op-ed.

In response to the confusion over his op-ed, Cardinal Schönborn has stated that he was not attacking the science of evolution:

In follow-up remarks published July 11 by Kathpress, an Austrian Catholic news agency, Cardinal Schonborn cited Popes Pius XII and John Paul II as saying that the theory of evolution – as long as it remains within the realm of science and is not made into an ideological “dogma” which cannot be questioned – is in conformity with Catholic teaching.

The cardinal quoted Pope John Paul as saying in 1985 that “the properly understood belief in creation and the properly understood teaching of evolution do not stand in each other’s way.”

Further insight into Cardinal Schönborn’s position can be found in his statement to Time Europe Magazine: “I believe in dogmas of faith but I don’t believe in dogmas of science.”

Tuesday, July 19. Morning.

I had survived my first full day of the conference without calling too much attention to myself. That would change on the second day.

It was only with tremendous effort that I dragged myself out of bed in time for the first talk of the day, at 8:50 in the morning. I skipped the morning devotional entirely. I'm not naturally a morning person, you see, and the thought of going forth into the ridiculous Lynchburg heat at that hour was not appealing. Nonetheless, since the conference schedule promised a true embarrassment of riches, I dragged myself out of bed anyway. The basic track was offering “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made,” by David Menton. The advanced track had “Two Hundred Years of Christian Compromise on the Age of the Earth,” by Terry Mortenson. I chose the latter.

I met a visiting fugitive from the failed democracy of Australia, an erstwhile philosopher by the name of Willikins or Wilks or something (I didn’t catch the name, being attacked by predators as I was at the time). He has a description of the event at his blog.

Steve Steve and the T. rex at UCMP

One of the lessons that evolution teaches us is that you really shouldn’t release alien species onto remote, isolated islands (or other such isolated habitat). This is because 1) these places often contain unique species that have evolved to fit their particular, often predator-free locale. And 2) newly introduced species, finding abundant prey and few of their own predators, are likely to run amok, quickly adapting to local conditions and killing everything in sight. If you care about biodiversity, keep the aliens away.

Unfortunately, we’ve got this kind of problem on our hands in the South Atlantic. While the victims of the feast are not some flightless, defenseless animal that’s been living in paradise too long, they are mostly dependent on one particular island for nesting, meaning that the sudden predation they’re suffering could threaten them with extinction. And the best part is, the perpetrators are… house mice! Mice that have quickly evolved to 3 times their normal size, and have recently started taking on prey that is much, much larger than themselves, acting extremely aggressive and voracious. If not for the threat this poses to endangered sea birds, this would actually be cool. Here is the story :

Rare island birds threatened by ‘super mice’.

“Gough Island hosts an astonishing community of seabirds and this catastrophe could make many extinct within decades,” said Dr Geoff Hilton, a senior research biologist with Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

“We think there are about 700,000 mice, which have somehow learned to eat chicks alive,” he said in a statement.

The island is home to 99 percent of the world’s Tristan albatross and Atlantic petrel populations – the birds most often attacked. Just 2,000 Tristan albatross pairs remain.

“The albatross chicks weigh up to 10 kg (22 lb) and … the mice weigh just 35 grams; it is like a tabby cat attacking a hippopotamus,” Hilton said.

The house mice – believed to have made their way to Gough decades ago on sealing and whaling ships – have evolved to about three times their normal size.

This is a common phenomenon on island habitats – for reasons much debated among scientists – where small animal species often grow larger while big species such as elephants display “dwarfism” and become smaller.

In the case of the mice of Gough Island, their remarkable growth seems to have been given a boost by a vast reservoir of fresh meat and protein.


The rapacious rodents gnaw into the bodies of the defenseless and flightless chicks, leaving a gaping wound that leads to an agonising death. Scientists say once one mouse attacks the blood seems to draw others to the feast.

While predation by oversized mice is unusual, birds on small islands are especially vulnerable to extinction from human activities such as the introduction of alien species.

This is because many birds that have evolved on isolated islands with no predators have become what biologists term “ecologically naive” – meaning they do not recognize danger from other animals.

The image of rapacious packs of killer house mice devouring prey which dwarfs them in size is really too much. I don’t think I’ll be sleeping well tonight.

Update: In comments, nihilan was nice enough to point out that Nature News has an article on this as well, with a video of the carnage.

If you were beginning to fear that this series of posts was going to go on forever, then at least I will have recreated some of what I felt as I listened to the conference presentations. Seriously though, there will be two more installments after this one. Part five will deal mostly with Werner Gitt's talk, “In the Beginning Was Information,” while part six will focus mainly on Georgia Purdom's talk “The Intelligent Design Movement, How Intelligent is it?”

As should be clear from the previous entries in this series, I am providing an account of the conference presentations that I attended, in the order in which I attended them. I attended nine talks at the conference, out of forty that were available (not counting devotionals). I mention this because a commenter to one of my previous entries rattled off a list of talks he challeneged me to provide scientific refutations to. Sadly, most of the talks he mentioned were ones that I did not attend. Such scientific content as there was in the talks I did attend was of such low quality that I am not optimistic about what was presented in the remaining sessions. I will discuss some specific scientific assertions made in the talks as I go, but the only one that I am planning to go into great detail on is the one by Werner Gitt, entitled “In the Beginning was Information.” That will come in part five of this series.

Now, back to the conference!

mouse head and neck

Neck anatomy has long terrified me. Way back when I was a grad student, my lab studied the organization and development of the hindbrain, which was relatively tidy and segmental; my research was studying the organization and development of the spinal cord, which was also tidy and segmental. The cervical region, though, was complicated territory. It's a kind of transitional zone between two simple patterns, and all kinds of elaborate nuclei and new cell types and structural organizations flowered there. I drew a line at the fifth spinal segment and said I'm not even going to look further anteriorly…good thing, too, or I'd probably still be trying to finish my degree.

Fortunately, Matsuoka et al. were braver than I was and they have applied some new molecular techniques to sort out some of the details of how the neck and shoulder are assembled. This is a developmental study of how the muscles and bones of the shoulder girdle and neck are derived, and what they've identified is 1) a fairly simple rule for part of the organization, 2) an explanation for some human pathologies, and 3) some interesting observations about evolution. It is very cool to find a paper that ties together molecular genetics, development, paleontology, and medicine together so inseparably.

Continue reading Development, medicine, and evolution of the neck and shoulder (on Pharyngula)

This one sort of fits how I feel, too:

Frank: The Jesuits taught me how to think. I haven’t felt safe since. –Homicide: Life on the Street

Monday, July 17. Morning.

After Falwell came David DeWitt, who directs the Center for Creation Research at Liberty University. He made only a few brief remarks, emphasizing Liberty's adherence to a literal interpretation of the Bible from “Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21” In particular, they believe Adam and Eve were real people and that God created in six literal days.

The Tangled Bank

Much to appeal to the scientifically minded is coming up on the weblogs.

First, The thirteenth Skeptics' Circle is available for reading right now at Respectful Insolence. This is the weblog carnival for critical thinking.

Second, the second I and the Bird is up—I'm impressed. It's long. There must be an awful lot of birdwatchers out there, blogging away.

Third, there is another Tangled Bank coming up next Wednesday at evolgen. If you've written anything on science or natural history, send a link to evolgen@yahoo.com, host@tangledbank.net, or pzmyers@pharyngula.org, and we'll make sure to talk about your writing.

Finally, I've managed to volunteer myself to host Grand Rounds next Tuesday. Now you may be thinking to yourself, "Myers is no MD; what are his qualifications to host a collection of posts by real doctors and nurses?" I'll have you know, though, that I am an accomplished neurosurgeon…it's just that all of my patients have been fish and insect embryos, and none of them have ever survived the operation. Keep that in mind as you submit your carefully crafted medblog articles to my caring hands.

Most species do their own evolving, making it up as they go along, which is the way Nature intended. And this is all very natural and organic and in tune with mysterious cycles of the cosmos, which believes that there’s nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error to give a species moral fiber and, in some cases, backbone. –Terry Pratchett

The vacuity of ID: Falsification


Jonathan Witt reports at evolution news on a letter in Newsweek.

George Will says the theory of intelligent design isn’t falsifiable–isn’t “a testable hypothesis.” Actually, particular design arguments are falsifiable. Design theorist Michael Behe, for instance, argues that we can detect design in the bacterial flagellum because the tiny motor needs all of its parts to function at all. That’s a problem for Darwinian evolution, which builds novel form one tiny functional mutation at a time. How to falsify Behe’s argument? Provide a detailed evolutionary pathway from simple ancestor to present motor. The flagellum might still be designed, but Behe’s argument that such design is detectable would have been falsified.

With the Intelligent Design (ID) proponents sucking up all the anti-evolution oxygen these days, it is easy to forget that the young-Earthers are still around. No doubt motivated partly by a desire to remind everyone they're still here, they have organized the Creation Mega Conference this week at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. That being just down the road from my digs in Harrisonburg, I decided to check it out. Over the next few days I will be posting several blog entries describing my experiences there.

You should also check out Ronald Bailey's account for Reason magazine. Judging from this first entry in the series it seems he is mostly giving a straight description of some of the goings-on at the conference. I will be focussing more on the specific claims made during the talks.

Also, if you would like a description of the conference that is more charitable than the one I am going to provide, check out the conference blog.

Now, on to the conference!

Making Satire Redundant


The satirical newspaper The Onion has an “Onion in History” feature whereby they present back issues with wild headlines about past events. This week’s “Onion in History” is an issue dated July 20, 1925, and contains a headline blaring, “SCOPE’S MONKEY TRIAL RAISES TROUBLING QUESTION: IS SCIENCE BEING TAUGHT IN OUR SCHOOLS?

It contains a few amusing articles, but sometimes the reality of the situation is bad enough that it’s impossible to exaggerate. Below the fold, we’ll compare an excerpt from one of the “joke” articles with an actual report from the ongoing Creation Mega Conference.

This one comes from my “arrogant things people say in the scientific literature” file.

There is no credible evidence to justify the portrayal on the January 2002 Auk of Microraptor with a thick, white downy coating of putative protofeathers (A. Feduccia pers. obs.). –Alan Feduccia Birds are Dinosaurs: Simple Answer to a Complex Problem The Auk: Vol. 119, No. 4, pp. 1187–1201.

Spindizzy in Seattle


On the blog of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, John West throws a hissy about my recent dissection of the statement of two members of Bryan Leonard’s dissertation committee published by the DI. Mr. West takes umbrage at several remarks I made.

More below the fold.

Quote of the Day 18 July 2005


With magic, you can turn a frog into a prince. With science, you can turn a frog into a Ph.D and you still have the frog you started with. –Terry Pratchett The Science of Discworld

Last week, Reed Cartwright posted a news item here about Jon Buell, director of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE), who testified that FTE was not a religious organization and that an early draft of the FTE supplemental textbook, Of Pandas and People, that used the word “creationism” still did not imply religious entanglement:

Buell said the word creationism was a “placeholder term.” The definition of creationism changed to include a religious context after the draft was written, so the writers changed the word, he said.

Buell is apparently referring to the 1987 SCOTUS decision in Edwards v. Aguillard as the event that tagged “creationism” as religious. So what are we to make of Buell’s own words in a 1983 publication from FTE that links “creation” and “theism”?

“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” –Douglas Adams Last Chance to See

Over at Dembski’s blog you will find him commenting on neuroscience.

Dembski Wrote:

My good friend and colleague Jeffrey Schwartz (along with Mario Beauregard and Henry Stapp) has just published a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society that challenges the materialism endemic to so much of contemporary neuroscience. By contrast, it argues for the irreducibility of mind (and therefore intelligence) to material mechanisms.

Unfortunately for Dembski, this is completely wrong. The paper, “Quantum physics in neuroscience and psychology: a neurophysical model of mind-brain interaction” Jeffrey M. Schwartz, Henry P. Stapp, Mario Beauregard, Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 2005 argues for a quantum mechanical approach to the problem of mind-brain interaction. Quantum mechanics may seem really weird to the non-physicist, and involve things like “spooky action at a distance” but quantum mechanics is part of the material world in the sense that both scientists use it and Schwartz et al., are using the this paper [1].

Schwartz Wrote:

…brain is made up entirely of material particles and fields, and that all causal mechanisms relevant to neuroscience can therefore be formulated solely in terms of properties of these elements. (Emphasis added)

An electron is no less material in quantum mechanics for it being described as a probability distribution. What Schwartz et al. are arguing for is a non-mechanistic description (in the classical physics sense) of mind-brain interaction, not a non-materialist one (in Dembski’s sense). Furthermore, it is not “irreducible” in Dembski’s sense either.

Kennewick Man Hearing

You will recall Sen. John McCain's bill that would essentially give Indian tribes veto power over archaeology in America. A hearing has been scheduled for July 28. More at Overlawyered.com.

“…it is always advisable to perceive clearly our ignorance.”

Darwin Wrote:

“We can allow satellites, planets, suns, universe, nay whole systems of universes, to be governed by laws, but the smallest insect, we wish to be created at once by special act.”

Charles Darwin as quoted by Gavin Rylands De Beer

Creation Mega Conference 2005!


If you are looking for entertainment this week, I recommend you follow the Answers in Genesis Creation Mega Conference 2005 blog. The conference is starting today, July 17, and is running through July 22 – and it’s Featuring a stunning lineup of the world’s greatest minds in creation apologetics presenting their premier presentations. It looks like they will put some devotions and videos online, but if any Thumb-ites happen to be in the vicinity of Lynchburg, Virginia, and have the courage to attend for a day – you should come prepared to be stunned – we would be glad to post a report.

According to a story today in the Salt Lake City Tribune:

Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, had earlier suggested he would propose legislation that would enforce the teaching of alternative concepts of human existence. Now he says conversations with the state superintendent of schools have left him confident that teachers who teach the evolution of humanity “will be dealt with.”

Given the high media profile of discussions about evolutionary biology and educational policy for public schools, several of the Panda’s Thumb contributors have agreed to make themselves available for representatives of the media. PT contributors often have credentials and expertise in relevant fields, or long experience in analyzing the arguments presented by various antievolutionary groups. The following list gives concise background information about each member of the Panda’s Thumb Media Advisory Panel.

Today’s entry comes from the “creatively nasty” file:

Lorentzen and Sieg (1991) have insisted that parsimony analysis should properly result in the display of all possible assignments of ancestral nodes (and thus all possible placements of changes of state) for each character. Their objective may find little support outside of the pulp and paper industry. –Joeseph Felsenstein Inferring Phylogenies (p70)

Some of you may recall that the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, publisher of the creationist textbook, Of Pandas and People, wants to intervene in the Dover, PA lawsuit to protect its intellectual property. Their textbook is central to the case that the school board violated the separation of church and state. In fact, the plaintiffs have subpoenaed FTE’s records about the textbook to help demonstrate its religious nature.

However, the publisher believes that their sales will be hurt if their textbook is found to be a leading cause of a first amendment violation. Therefore, FTE is trying to intervene in the case to convince the court that its textbook is something other than what it is.

Yesterday, the York Dispatch reported on some developments in the case: “Textbook publisher wants to join lawsuit - Says company is not a religious organization”.

Buell said his organization is “not at all” Christian or religious in nature. But attorney Eric Rothschild with the Philadelphia-based law firm Pepper Hamilton pointed out that the not-for-profit organization’s Internal Revenue Service tax exemption form says their primary purpose is “promoting and publishing textbooks presenting a Christian perspective.”

Buell blamed the “error” on a new accountant who was “not even from the state of Texas.”

He said he had never seen the form until Rothschild pointed out that his initials were on the bottom of one page.

The organization’s Articles of Incorporation from the state of Texas also mention religion, Christianity and the Bible.

Buell blamed that on the attorney who filed the papers.

“So the accountant got it wrong and the attorney got it wrong?” Rothschild asked.

“That’s true,” Buell said.

Rothschild also brought forth several other examples of the foundation’s possible religious ties, including an early draft of the book, which in its infant stages was titled “Biology of Origins.”

The draft mentioned “creationism” frequently. But in the final copy of the book, after the title was changed, the word creationism was replaced with the phrase “intelligent design.”

Buell said the word creationism was a “placeholder term.” The definition of creationism changed to include a religious context after the draft was written, so the writers changed the word, he said.

Utah and Human Evolution

Some of you may remember the story of Chris Buttars, the Utah state legislator who submitted a bill to require the teaching of "divine design" in public school science classrooms in that state. That led to a couple of long exchanges between myself and John West, associate director of the Discovery Institute. One of my readers from Utah sent me an update on the story. It seems that Buttars has now dropped his plan because he found out that Utah public schools don't teach human evolution anyway:

The Utah lawmaker who was kicking around the idea that Utah's schools should teach the theory of "divine" or "intelligent" design alongside biological evolution is abandoning the effort.

Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, said Thursday that after talks with the state Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington, he is comfortable -- at least for now -- with what Utah classrooms are teaching.

"She assured me in a phone call and then followed up with a letter, that we should not be teaching human evolution of any kind," Buttars said Thursday.

The state's core science curricula doesn't teach the evolution of the human species as a scientific fact, Harrington said. It does, however, emphasize that biological diversity is a result of millions of years of evolution.

"Science is a way of knowing and a knowing based up on evidence," Harrington said by telephone from Cedar City Thursday. "There is not evidence yet to claim how the Earth was created and no evidence to connect the family of apes with the family of man."

Yikes. The Superintendant of Public Instruction in Utah doesn't understand the difference between a family and a genus, and thinks that there is no evidence to connect humans and apes. I suppose this might be true if one ignores the incredible genetic similarities, the shared retroviral sequences in our DNA, the well known series of paleo-species that appear in just the right temporal and anatomical sequence showing a gradual increase in brain size, bipedal adaptation, technological sophistication and cultural development leading from the late Miocene primates to modern Homo sapiens. It's one thing to say that one doesn't find such evidence compelling; to claim it doesn't exist is sheer lunacy; and to come up with an explanation for it other than evolution appears to be fantasy. My favorite quote from Buttars:

"It's not fact," Buttars said. "It's a theory. You know, the trouble with the missing link, is that it's still missing."

As a basic rule, anytime you find someone speaking about the "missing link" or using the "it's not a fact it's a theory" argument, you're dealing with someone whose understanding of evolution stopped at about the 5th grade level. Is it really too much to ask that those who want to change science education be at least minimally educated in science?

The totality of life, known as the biosphere to scientists and creation to theologians, is a membrane of organisms wrapped around the earth so thin that it cannot be seen edgewise from a spacce shuttle, yet so internally complex that most species composing it remain undiscovered. –E.O. Wilson The Future of Life (2002)

Bill Dembski has a post up about Roger Ebert’s review of Spielberg’s new adaptation of War of the Worlds. It’s actually Jim Emerson’s review on rogerebert.suntimes.com, but whatever. (Roger Ebert, unlike everyone else, didn’t like the movie – he let his inner scientific nit-picker take over on this one). Emerson gets in some good gratuitous jabs at ID, which Ebert himself has done in the past.

Anyhow, the movie is very much worth seeing, and the review is worth reading. As everyone knows, what dooms the aliens in The War of the Worlds is microbial disease, to which the aliens have no resistance (feel free to do the scientific nitpick on this, I would be interested in opinions). What I found striking about the conclusion of the movie (which also struck Emerson) was the voiceover by Morgan Freeman, which is basically a very strong statement of theistic evolution. I can’t find a transcript of the movie version, but here is H.G. Wells’s original version, from an online e-text of War of the Worlds:

If you will indulge a bit of self-promotion, my new column for CSICOP's Creation Watch website is now available. In it I offer some thoughts on why gradual evolution is a more plausible explanation than ID for the existence of complex biological systems. Enjoy!

The DI Spins Leonard


A month ago I described the Bryan Leonard dissertation story, reporting that in light of several concerns raised by three senior faculty members at the Ohio State University, Leonard’s supervisor had requested a delay in Leonard’s defense. Now the Discovery Institute spin machine has ramped up its whining with this publication of a statement from the two ID creationist members of Leonard’s committee, Robert DiSilvestro and Glen Needham (hereinafter “D&N”). While one could fisk it in detail, I will here just touch on a couple of the highlights (lowlights?).

More below the fold.

Dinosaur Lungs

bird respiration

Next time you're cutting up a fresh bird, try looking for the lungs. They're about where you'd expect them to be, but they're nestled up dorsally against the ribs and vertebrae, and they're surprisingly small. If you think about it, the the thorax of a bird is a fairly rigid box, with that large sternal keel up front and short ribs—it's a wonder that they are able to get enough air from those tiny organs with relatively little capability for expanding and contracting the chest.

How they do it is an amazing story. Birds have a radically effective respiratory system that works rather differently than ours, with multiple adaptations working together to improve their ability to take in oxygen. There is also a growing body of evidence that dinosaurs also shared many of these adaptations, tightening their link to birds and also making them potentially even more fierce—they were big, they were active, and their lungs were turbocharged.

Continue reading Dinosaur lungs (on Pharyngula)

Darwin on the argument from Ignorance


Charles Darwin, seems to have “predicted” Intelligent Design’s, vacuous approaches to science when he commented:

Darwin Wrote:

Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume under the form of an abstract, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine. It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the “plan of creation” or “unity of design,” etc., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact. Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject the theory

But it deserves especial notice that the more important objections relate to questions on which we are confessedly ignorant; nor do we know how ignorant we are. We do not know all the possible transitional gradations between the simplest and the most perfect organs; it cannot be pretended that we know all the varied means of Distribution during the long lapse of years, or that we know how imperfect is the Geological Record. Serious as these several objections are, in my judgment they are by no means sufficient to overthrow the theory of descent with subsequent modification.


And especially relevant were his words about ignorance which describe ID so accurately.

Darwin Wrote:

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science”

Descent of Man



Since this is the Panda's Thumb, it's only appropriate to throw in a photo of the baby pandas just born at the Washington Zoo. All together now…

baby pandas

Awwwwww, how cute!

(via Majikthise)

Quote of the Day - 14 July 2005

| 1 Comment

Another old, but still relevant, quote…

And thus, a true Theory is a Fact; a Fact is a familiar Theory. That which is a Fact under one aspect, is a Theory under another. The most recondite Theories when firmly established are Facts: the simplest Facts involve something of the nature of Theory. –William Whewell Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (2nd ed, 1847)

The more things change…

“What men of science want is only a fair day’s wages for more than a fair day’s work; and most of us, I suspect, would be well content if, for our days and nights of unremitting toil, we could secure the pay which a first-class Treasury clerk earns without any obviously trying strain upon his faculties.” –Thomas Henry Huxley Administrative Nihilism (1871)

The L.A. Times had this excellent article on ID the other day. In short, if we are all the product of intelligent design, why is the result so imperfect? (Hat tip: Noodle Food.)

Yes, I actually am going to try to get a quote up every day. I’m also going to try to keep them at least moderately relevant to this blog’s topic. Some will be short and sweet, and some will be accompanied by commentary. Today’s is one of the commentary ones.

It has now been shown, though most briefly and imperfectly, how the law that “Every species has come into existence coincident both in time and space with a pre-existing closely allied species,” connects together and renders intelligible a vast number of independent and hitherto unexplained facts. The natural system of arrangement of organic beings, their geographical distribution, their geological sequence, the phaenomena of representative and substituted groups in all their modifications, and the most singular peculiarites of anatomical structure, are all explained and illustrated by it, in perfect accordance with the vast mass of facts which the researches of modern naturalists have brought together, and, it is believed, not materially opposed to any of them. It also claims a superiority over previous hypotheses, on the ground that it not merely explains, but necessitates what exists. Granted the law, and many of the most important facts in Nature could not have been otherwise, but are almost as necessary deductions from it, as are the elliptic orbits of the planets from the law of gravitation. –Alfred Russel Wallace ON THE LAW WHICH HAS REGULATED THE INTRODUCTION OF NEW SPECIES (1855)

Commentary on the flipside.

Carl Zimmer: Tangling the tree


Carl Zimmer on “The Loom” describes recent work on the phylogenetic tree. Researchers have looked at vertical and horizontal transmission of genetic information in various bacteria.

I would like to focus on a particular aspect of the findings, namely the [u]scale free[/u] nature of the horizontal gene transfer networks. People may remember the scale free networks in RNA for instance and how such networks have some very important properties. Scale free networks can be explained through the simple process of duplication and preferential attachment. In this case, the researchers showed that the horizontal ‘vines’ of the tree form scale free networks.

So what?

Greetings once again!


Hi all. I recently accompanied Dr. Tara Smith to the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) meeting down in Atlanta, GA. What a blast that was, though I was unable to make it over to Cobb County, where I hear they have some kind of famous sticker store! Anyway, Atlanta was fun too, though I have to say their bamboo still doesn’t compare to Manhattan.

Quote of the Day - 11 July


A million million spermatozoa All of them alive; Out of their cataclysm but one poor Noah Dare hope to survive.

And among that billion minus one Might have chanced to be Shakespeare, another Newton, a new Donne– But the One was Me.

–Aldous Huxley

The San Francisco Chronicle had an opinion essay from New Scientist editor James Randerson yesterday. See “80 years later, Scopes trial debate still alive”. Yesterday, notably, was the 80th Anniversiary of the Scopes Trial, which still informs discussion of all modern battles over evolution education – and rightly so in my opinion. The modern situation cannot be understood without William Jennings Bryan and his 1921-1925 anti-evolution crusade. You think “theory, not fact” policies are new? Well, Bryan got his crusade going a few years before the 1925 Scopes Trial. The first antievolution law was passed in Oklahoma in 1923, followed by Bryan’s home state of Florida. 1924 was a legislative off-year, but in the Scopes era some states took nonlegislative actions. According to Ed Larson, Trial and Error (2003, p. 75):

Supplementing this legislative activity, some state and local educational boards took the initiative in moving against evolutionary teaching. A year before the Scopes trial, the state Board of Education in California had directed teachers to present Darwinism “as a theory only”.…

(Other action was subsequently taken by the North Carolina Board of Education, the Texas Textbook Commission (sound familiar?), and the Louisiana Superintendent of Education.)

NPR’s On the Media did a story, “Evolving Coverage” yesterday on the Scopes media coverage – one interesting factoid is that they rolled wire all the way down to Dayton to pipe the audio out to national radio stations. And All Things Considered has a timeline, photo series, and story collection on Scopes then and now.

Another Tangled Bank is on the way…

The Tangled Bank

…this Wednesday, at TechnoGypsy. Send those links to science writing to kmenard, pzmyers, or host@tangledbank.net.

Table of geologic time

The PT Metamorphosis


The Panda’s Thumb weblog is switching servers and software this weekend.

The New York Times has a full story today on Cardinal Schönborn’s op-ed: Leading Cardinal Redefines Church’s View on Evolution. According to the story the op-ed was written with the urging of the Discovery Institute’s Mark Ryland but was not approved by the Vatican.

In a telephone interview from a monastery in Austria, where he was on retreat, the cardinal said that his essay had not been approved by the Vatican, but that two or three weeks before Pope Benedict XVI’s election in April, he spoke with the pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, about the church’s position on evolution. “I said I would like to have a more explicit statement about that, and he encouraged me to go on,” said Cardinal Schönborn.

He said that he had been “angry” for years about writers and theologians, many Catholics, who he said had “misrepresented” the church’s position as endorsing the idea of evolution as a random process.

The involvement of Mark Ryland explains why many of the Discovery Institution’s talking points appeared in the Cardinal op-ed.

I still doubt that the Cardinal’s op-ed offers a change to the Catholic Church’s teaching of evolution or our understanding of their official position on it. It is clear that the Catholic Church doesn’t see evolution as a godless process divorced from Providence. But I don’t think that this was ever in doubt, despite what Cardinal Schönborn says.

One Queen Returns


Monarch butterflies are among the … um … well, monarchs of the lepidopteran world, at least in North America. Their numbers are declining. The decline is due in part to the loss of over-wintering habitat in Mexico caused by deforestation in the isolated forests in which migrating monarchs spend the winter clustered in trees, and in part due to the loss of milkweeds in North America, their sole breeding host plant, often regarded as a weed plant. As a result, whereas decades ago it was commonplace to see monarchs in roadside milkweed patches, today it is more and more of an ‘event’ to see even one monarch.

More below the fold

Via Chris Mooney, I see that The New Republic has an article (free registration required) in which they ask a number of leading conservative pundits what they think about evolution, intelligent design, and how they think schools should handle them. Some of the answers are good, some are bad, and some are just incoherent. Mooney seems to think that the big picture is “fairly dismal”, but I find it unsurprising, and possibly even encouraging. My quick poll has 7 of them taking the pro-science side (or at least close enough), 5 of them giving a “don’t know” or otherwise wishy-washy answer, and only 3 of them taking the ID position outright. I was also impressed with some of the members of The National Review, given that their magazine has in the past published a number of ID diatribes. Maybe when they were actually forced to read the stuff it became apparent what was wrong with it. Anyway, I highlight a few fun points below the fold, stuff which I find more strange than disagreeable.

The Tulsa Zoo has voted 3-1 to reverse its decision to create a creationism display.

A group called Friends of Religion and Science … collected nearly 2,000 signatures on an online petition asking the park board to reverse its decision.

Previous Post

Today the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about evolution and the Catholic faith: “Finding Design in Nature”. On a quick read the op-ed appears to place the Catholic Church in league with “intelligent design” creationism. (I’m sure you will hear such victory cheers from the neo-Paleyists.) However, this quick read is deceiving, since the author made some mistakes when choosing his words for a US audience.

Before getting upset at what the Archbishop wrote, consider this:

The Archbishop is not writing to align Catholic theology with the anti-evolution movement. Instead he is writing to reaffirm the Catholic faith’s commitment to theistic evolution and to eliminate any confusion that it is committed to atheistic evolution. (I have no idea why he thought that this needed to be done.)

Compare and contrast the Archbishop’s words to “Creationism talk suggests need to revisit Catholic education” in this week’s Catholic Telegraph from Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

In a recent blog entry, William Dembski alleges I am guilty of various and sundry offenses, but avoids once again answering my critiques of his work. I doubt his smokescreen will convince anyone except the usual sycophants, but in case anyone takes his bluster seriously, I’ll make a response.

News, news, news!


We’re having another one of those media frenzies again. The 80th anniversiary of the Scopes Trial, plus continuing legal and political battles over evolution around the country, have provoked a number of high-quality, in-depth stories this week. NPR’s All Things Considered reviewed the history of the Scopes Trial on Tuesday (see the previous PT post ). I think the various NPR links to various pro-evolution websites related to PT are partially responsible for the slowdowns we had yesterday. The Scientist reported on the Leonard affair at Ohio State University. Ben Feller of the Associated Press wrote a widely redistributed story, “Teachers debate how to handle evolution,” reporting on the dilemmas teachers face and on commentary at the recent National Educators Association meeting. This story is hosted at MSNBC among other places, and MSNBC has set up a whole special website, “The Future of Evolution,” which links to many previous stories, on both science and politics. (For reasons that remain obscure, MSNBC decided to put a Conehead alien, or something, in their banner for that page.)

And, best of all, New Scientist devoted the cover of their July 9, 2005 issue to “The End of Reason: Creationism’s new front in the battle of ideas.” The “Creationism Special” (or was that special creationism?) includes:

It has often been said that it takes two pages of science to correct all the misinformation an anti-evolutionist can pack into one sentence. A recent interview featuring Discovery Institute Fellow Jonathan Wells illustrates this rule of thumb. In a short space he makes numerous errors. For brevity I’d like to focus on two specific areas, but the rest of his pronouncements in this short piece are just as flawed.

Jon Pastor, with whom I?ve been corresponding recently, reports that his public radio affiliate recently aired a 3-part series on intelligent-design creationism. Mr. Pastor is a computer scientist and artificial intelligence researcher by profession, with strong avocational interests in typography, page layout, and Web design. Unaware that the name was about to be co-opted by creationists, he registered the domain ?intelligent-design.net? back in 1998, when it seemed like a felicitous description of both his professional and amateur interests. Here is his essay:

A new article appeared in the education section of CNN.com. For those following the debate, there’s not much new material here. However, as evidenced by this article, the media seems to be getting better and better at filtering through the IDists’ spin. Gone is all pretence that ID is not based on religion, or has anything to do with science.

The National Public Radio website now has a set of articles up giving a historical perspective on trials concerning evolution and creation.

The entry point is “The Scopes Monkey Trial, 80 Years Later”.

The linked articles include “Timeline: Remembering the Scopes Monkey Trial by Noah Adams “, an audio report on “Echoes of Scopes Trial in Maryland by Barbara Bradley Hagerty”, and a report on “Scopes 2: Arkansas’ Creationism Trial by Jeffrey Katz”.

The last article links to the McLean v. Arkansas Documentation Project. There is some news there: a new member of the McLean Project, Jason Wiles, is in Arkansas this summer, and is collecting various of the materials on the Project wish list. The TalkOrigins Foundation is now providing financial support for the Project. Transcription charges don’t come cheap, so if you’d like to help, please use the donation button at the bottom of McLean Project main page.

Mea Culpa


The comments are now back online. Our spam blocker no longer sees every post as inappropriate.

Last night we got some specifically crafted spam that when despamed could create a rule that would match any comment submitted. I didn’t pay enough attention when I despamed it and thus the omnibus rule was added to our filter causing all comments to be rejected.

I apologize for any frustration that this has caused our readers.

Clone war of the sexes

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fire ants

All of the parthenogenetic species with which I'm familiar are female. Females, obviously, have all the machinery for reproduction in place, and all they have to replace is the function of one itty-bitty little sperm, while for a male to reproduce without females, he'd have to replace the functions of big, well-stocked eggs and uteruses or whatever equivalent organs the mother of the species has at her disposal. It's hard for males to get around the female contribution to reproduction. At last, though, one species of fire ant has shown a way to do it, not that I'd ever want to go down this particular road.

I'm going to expand on this strange genetic pattern John Wilkins described. First, though, here's a little background on haplodiploid sex determinatiion.

Continue reading "Clone war of the sexes" (on Pharyngula)

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