July 24, 2005 - July 30, 2005 Archives

A Blind Eye towards reality

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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

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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!

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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.”

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.

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

Dembski vs. Evo Devo

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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?

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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”

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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

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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

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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?”

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