February 26, 2006 - March 4, 2006 Archives

Some years ago, a creationist challenged me, “Burt, how would you go about disproving evolution? It’s non-falsifiable and, by definition, cannot be science.”

Challenged me it did - I was unable to think of a good answer. At least, I was unable until I consulted with the brainiacs in Kansas Citizens for Science. The answer, like just about any answer when considering involving evolution, is to look at the past and examine evolution when it was back fighting for its life.

We’ll discuss this limited aspect of the history of evolution, along with why it’s important, on flip side…

John West’s attempt at “swift-boating” sinks

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It seems that Discovery Institute’s John West’s breeches got all tied up in a knot following last week’s New York Times article by Kenneth Chang exposing the signatories DI’s list of “scientists” harboring doubts about “Darwinism” as largely unqualified to express any well-grounded scientific judgment on evolutionary theory, and mostly religiously motivated. Alas, in his hatchet piece on Chang’s reporting, which stoops to insinuating journalistic malpractice before retreating into some mellifluous statement of appreciation of Chang’s openness, West ends up confirming the NYT’s piece key factual points.

Did you know that there really is a scientific controversy over evolution? If you didn’t, it’s because you haven’t been reading the internets. Just do a Google search and you’ll see “Intelligent Design” crop up all over the place, proof positive that there really is a controversy.

You can learn about this and other astounding bits of wisdom from SC Educational Oversight Committee member (and disposable products magnate) Karen Iacovelli, on my new blog. Incidentally, Iacovelli is an odd choice for EOC appointee, given that she doesn’t think that public education should even exist.

One of the new ScienceBloggers, Alex Palazzo, has an article about the origin of the nucleus on his blog, The Daily Transcript. Check it out!

How women evolved blond hair to win cavemen’s hearts

Academic researchers have discovered that women in northern Europe evolved with light hair and blue eyes at the end of the Ice Age to stand out from the crowd and lure men away from the far more common brunette.

First, I’ll note that I’ve not read the paper this article is based on, nor is it my intent to critique it. It may be great, it may be terrible. They may have a point, they may not. [Edited to add: you can find a post here on the actual paper for those interested]. In this case, I’m concerned with the write-up, ‘cause it’s one of my pet peeves.

”…women in N. Europe evolved with light hair…to lure men away from brunettes.” Couple this with the headline, and can’t you just see these primitive Europeans, standing around in their animal skin clothing and discussing the issue?

(Continued at Aetiology)

The University of Kentucky held its debate on ID, and Colin Wier, a law student there, has written a report on it from his notes. I have taken the liberty of correcting typos (he wrote this during the presentations) and posting it below the fold. Many thanks to Colin for this hard work.

[Oops, did I say Kansas? Sorry, this isn’t Kansas any more…]

[Note: everything below this is Colin’s report]

The Stanford Daily, Stanford University’s daily student newspaper, has been publishing several Letters to the Editor in the last week regarding evolution and Intelligent Design, apparently in response to a Feb. 17th editorial (“Intelligent debate of intelligent design”) encouraging the open discussion of evolution, skepticism towards evolution, Intelligent Design, and religiously-influenced science.

On Feb. 21st, Stanford Sophmore, ID supporter, and History major Tristan Abbey applauded the editorial and additionally attempted to dispel what he considered to be 3 myths about ID (“The myths surrounding intelligent design”). Those myths were: 1) That criticism of “neo-Darwinism” is equivalent to promoting ID 2) That creationism is the same as ID 3) That ID advocates advocate mandating the teaching of ID in high school biology classes

Abbey concludes:

Sadly, neo-Darwinists do argue with that by stereotyping critics of evolutionary theory as religious zealots, by reducing the debate to the simplistic but familiar terms of science vs. faith, and by persecuting researchers like the Smithsonian’s Rick Sternberg for keeping an open mind. Pernicious caricatures notwithstanding, the signatories to the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism now stand at over 500 scientists, including several who earned their doctorates from Stanford. As science advances, why has this number continued to grow?

Abbey’s letter is the 2nd on the page. Additionally, Casey Luskin blogged Abbey’s letter, making sure to juxtapose the words “Stanford” and “ID” in the title.

On Feb. 22nd, Biology graduate student Jai Ranganathan wrote a rebuttal to the editorial (“No room for intelligent design”). After concisely critiquing some of ID’s classic examples, he concludes:

Should there be a greater role for religious influences within the public square? There is certainly plenty of room for discussion on this issue, and reasonable people can disagree. But let’s have an honest debate and not attempt to muddy the water with unscientific ideas like intelligent design.

The following day, Feb. 23rd, Stanford Geophysics professor Norman Sleep attacked the science of ID (“Intelligent design must meet evidentiary standards”) with this choice quote from Galileo:

“Surely, God could have caused birds to fly with their bones made of solid gold, with their veins full of quicksilver, with their flesh heavier than lead and with their wings exceedingly small. He did not, and that ought to show something.” It is only in order to shield your ignorance that you put the Lord at every turn to the refuge of a miracle.”

Lastly, I responded to Tristan Abbey’s letter on Feb. 28th (“Intelligent design fails as a science”). Those interested can follow the link. However, since I’ve copied everyone else’s conclusion, here’s mine:

ID should be rejected as science because it utterly fails as a science. The religious foundations of ID may help explain why its proponents, many of whom have advanced degrees, continue to advocate its teaching, despite its complete failure to gain any acceptance within the mainstream scientific community. It is entirely possible that a religiously-based theory of origins could be scientific; but ID isn’t, regardless of its inspiration. The sooner people realize that accepting evolution doesn’t require the abandonment of faith, the sooner we can put this sad episode behind us.

Please note: the Daily Stanford website seems to load really slowly, so be patient.

New CSICOP Column

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Update (March 2, 2006): I owe an apology to readers of this entry for an error I made in its initial version. I originally presented two quotes, one of which I attributed to Henry Morris, the other to William Dembski. In reality both quotes were due to Morris. The point I was making was that both ID and scientific creationism assert that the question of the age of the Earth is independent of the scientific question of whether evolution is an adequate explanation for life’s complexity. But in writing this entry I carelssly misread what I had originally written in my essay. I am sorry for the error.

My new column for CSICOP’S Creation Watch web site is now available. This time we take a closer look at the question of whether there is any important difference between ID and scientific creationism. Turns out there’s even less of a difference than you think!

There is a short list of people whose written opinions on Kitzmiller v. Dover I am particularly interested in seeing. One of them was Michael Ruse, whose review of the decision was just published in this month’s issue of Science & Spirit magazine.

Michael Ruse (2005). “Two Cheers for Darwin.” Science & Spirit, March/April 2006.

Ruse was the philosopher of science in the famous 1981 McLean v. Arkansas case where “creation science” was declared unconstitutional. As we went through the trial in Kitzmiller, the historical resonances between the two cases became more and more pronounced – and that was before Robert Gentry pitched up in Harrisburg in the last week of the trial.

Ruse approves in particular of the philosophy of science in Judge Jones’s opinion. Reading between the lines I think he is giving Rob Pennock a big compliment for threading the needle between being too “demarcationist” (which is what Ruse was accused of, unfairly in my view, by another philosopher, Larry Laudan, in an article which ID/creationists have quoted hundreds of times since – see also Ruse’s reply), while also not falling into the “anything goes” trap that many vehement anti-demarcationists end up with.

Aaaannnnddd…it’s live!

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Tangled Bank #48 is up at Aetiology. Check out the latest edition of the best science writing in the blogosphere.

Kansas USD 383: Keith B Miller

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To Dr. Shannon and members of the USD 383 School Board:

I am here to express my strong support for the resolution being put forward by well over 100 science faculty and staff at Kansas State University. I speak as a geologist., educator, parent and committed Christian. I have also been closely involved in the Kansas science standards issue since 1999.

Kansas USD 383: 38 Nobel laureates

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USD 383 Board of Education Manhattan-Ogden Public School District Robinson Education Center 203 1 Poyntz Avenue Manhattan, KS 66502

Dear Board Members:

In September 2005 I and 38 other Nobel Laureates wrote the Kansas State Board of Education in defense of science and education. We urged the Board to reject proposed science standards that were to include alternatives to evolution as explanations for the origin of species. I was disappointed that the Board voted to adopt the proposed standards on November 8,2005. As we stated then, evolution is not a theory, as the term “theory of evolution” seems to indicate, but rather is based upon compelling scientific evidence and is the foundation of much of modern biology. The standards adopted by the Board redefined science in a way that I believe will harm the education of students in Kansas as they try to understand the world in which they live and compete with the world’s workforce.

I applaud the current effort by the science faculty of the Kansas State University not to allow science to be redefined, at least in Manhattan. I urge you to support their resolution not to support the new Kansas Science Standards. In supporting the KSU faculty you would show great leadership and ensure that the students in your district will continue to have a strong science education. You also would be joining the large number of scientific and educational organizations that support rigorous science education.

H. Robert Horvitz Ph.D. Professor of Biology, MIT 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Provided by Keith Miller

HAYS, KS – In response to the Kansas State Board of Education, the Board of Directors of the Kansas Association of Teachers of Science has released a position statement on the State Board of Education’s Science Standards 2005. In a cover letter for the response, KATS Board of Directors President David Pollock said, “The Kansas Association of Teachers of Science (KATS) is the largest science teacher association in the state of Kansas. The 18 elected board members represent elementary through college teachers. The following is the official position of KATS that was passed at the regularly scheduled board meeting January 21,2006.”

Pollock is a teacher at Hays High School, Hays USD 489.

We, the undersigned faculty and professional staff of Kansas State University science departments, express our continued commitment to maintaining the highest quality science education for the children of USD 383 and Kansas. We are also concerned about the negative impact the Science Standards recently passed by the Kansas State Board of Education will have on our children, our community, and Kansas State University. We are especially concerned about the continued high quality of science teaching, and the continuing recruitment efforts to bring talented workers and educators to our community. We ask that you adopt the following resolution:

Better late than never…


Next edition of Tangled Bank goes live tomorrow at Aetiology. Send any last-minute contributions here!

From our friends at the NCSE, we hear how a local school district has rejected Kansas’s antievolution standards.

The Manhattan-Ogden school district (USD 383) became the first local school district in Kansas to reject the state science standards adopted by the Kansas state board of education in November 2005. At its meeting on February 15, 2006, the USD 383 board of education voted 6-0 to adopt a resolution that endorses the original writing committee’s description of science as “a human activity of systematically seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us.”

Seems that once again the Dover ruling, although not legally binding in Kansas played its role in the decision

USD 383 superintendent Bob Shannon told the Kansas State Collegian (February 16, 2006) that it is unlikely that the adoption of the resolution will have any financial or legal ramifications for the district. Board member Beth Tatarko added that in fact accepting the state standards might be financially and legally precarious, citing the outcome of Kitzmiller v. Dover: “If we had someone in our district teaching Intelligent Design right now, those costs would come back to us.”

Life will find a way

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Creationists sometimes try to argue that what we consider straightforward, well-demonstrated cytological and genetic events don't and can't occur: that you can't get chromosome rearrangements, or that variations in chromosome number and organization are obstacles to evolution, making discussions of synteny, or the rearrangement of chromosomal material in evolution, an impossibility. These are absurd conclusions, of course—we see evidence of chromosomal variation in people all the time.

For example, A friend sent along (yes, Virginia, there is a secret network of evilutionists busily sharing information with one another) a remarkable case study of a radical chromosome arrangement in a mother and daughter. When you see how these chromosomes are scrambled, you'll wonder how they ever managed to sort themselves out meiotically to produce viable offspring…but life will find a way.

Continue reading Life will find a way" (on Pharyngula)


Buttars’ crazy anti-evolution bill has been killed in Utah.

The evolution bill is no more.

The Utah House of Representatives voted 46-28 to kill SB96, which cast doubt on the teaching of evolution.

”There are a number of influential legislators who believe you evolved from an ape. I didn’t,” said Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, who sponsored the bill.

He said it was “doubtful” that he would try a similar bill in the future.

The bill would have required a teacher to say the state does not endorse evolution and that the controversial theory is not a proven fact before teaching Charles Darwin’s ideas.

Source: Salt Lake Tribune

NCSE’s Take

TJ Esq in one of the comments provided me with a link to the following article New evidence that natural selection is a general driving force behind the origin of species. The article describes the work by Daniel J. Funk, Patrik Nosil, and William J. Etges titled Ecological divergence exhibits consistently positive associations with reproductive isolation across disparate taxa PNAS published February 21, 2006, 10.1073/pnas.0508653103

“This helps fill a big gap that has existed in evolutionary studies,” says Daniel Funk, assistant professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University. He authored the study with Patrik Nosil from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and William J. Etges from the University of Arkansas. “We have known for some time that when species invade a new environment or ecological niche, a common result is the formation of a great diversity of new species. However, we haven’t really understood how or whether the process of adaptation generally drives this pattern of species diversification.”

When the truth hurts

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Intelligent Design activists seem to be upset with the Media for point ing out that intelligent design requires a supernatural designer, “or other guiding force”. That ID proponents have spent much effort to disguise this foundational principle has been well-documented. Thus when ID activists claim that ID

… merely proposes that there is good evidence that some features of nature–like the intricate molecular motors within cells and the finely-tuned laws of physics–are best explained as the products of an intelligent cause, not chance and necessity. Whether this intelligent cause identified through the scientific method is (or is not) “god” cannot be answered by the science alone and is therefore outside the scope of the theory of intelligent design.

the media aa well as the judge in the Dover case have found these claims without much merrit.

West, faced with an uncooperative media, decided to send of a letter to the newspaper complaining about using ‘inaccurate descriptions’ of Intelligent Design (by refusing to accept ID’s definition and instead looking at the logical consequences of ID’s claims). Worse, the editors, according to West, ‘surpressed a more accurate description’…. Not to mention the use of the pejorative ‘watering down’ when describing ID’s efforts. And yet, the judge ruled that

Moreover, ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.

ID, by raising mostly irrelevant objections to evolutionary theory (see for example Icons of Evolution) is trying to water down evolutionary theory. Lest people are confused what drives ID proponents to ‘teach the controversy’, let me quote West

John West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, said he considered the revisions a victory for his group. The revisions in Glencoe and Holt books are tantamount to an admission by “Darwinists” that evolution theory is flawed, he said. “This vindicates us.”

Indeed, the goal seems to not be to strengthen evolutionary theory but rather to suggest that Darwinian theory is flawed. And yet, West is surprised when the media describes the efforts as ‘watering down’ evolution.

It may be helpful for the reader to be reminded of the ‘arguments’ by ID activists which lead to the inevitable conclusion that ID is all about the supernatural, although given the recent ‘successes in the courts’, it should not come as a surprise that ID activist have tried unnusccesfully to ‘divorce’ ID from its religious foundations.

And people wonder why so many are starting to realize that Intelligent Design is scientifically vacuous.

Larry Witham: ID Flack


I am currently re-reading Larry Witham’s 2003 overview of the intelligent design movement, By Design: Science and the Search for God. Those who follow the ID movement closely know Witham as a former religion reporter for the Moonie-controlled Washington Times, and as the author of several uncritical articles about ID. Another tip-off that the content would be slanted was that this volume was donated to my university by the Trinity Evangelical Missionary Church, a local group that has donated a significant fraction of the antievolutionary content of our library. So it did not come as a surprise to me in my first reading that By Design was slanted. What did come as a surprise was the level of bias and misrepresentation, even to the point of blatant self-contradiction. I’ve finally gotten around to listing some of them.

Read more at Recursivity, and leave comments there.

Judge for himself

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NCSE reports that the Philadelphia Enquirer has an interview with Judge Jones. Judge Jones is the judge who presided over the Kitzmiller v Dover case and ruled strongly against Intelligent Design.

Asked about his ruling on Intelligent Design not being science the Judge reminds us of a simple fact: Both sides had insisted a ruling on this issue

The controversial part of the ruling was whether intelligent design is in fact science. Lost in the post-decision debate was that both sides, plaintiffs and defense, asked me to rule on that issue.

Over at Daily Kos, DarkSyde continues his series on Know Your Creationists. This episode is about the Discovery Institute’s Jonathan Witt, and while Witt may be a bit player, Darksyde finds plenty to hammer on. In particular, he makes an excellent point about the ID advocates’ use (or rather abuse) of the term “Darwinist”:

Exhibit B: Darwinism. Judging by frequency of usage, DR Witt, along with every other IDCists on the planet, seems enamored with that word. I asked him recently what he meant by Darwinism, and he replied in part “I use the term to refer to a person who believes that natural selection working on random variation produced all the diversity of organic life we see around us.” DR Witt is entitled to speak for himself, but I work with biologists every day as part of my ongoing battle with creationisim, and I haven’t met one yet who refers to himself as a Darwinist, or his field of research as Darwinism. At best it’s a quaint older term which is no longer used among biologists and hasn’t been for decades. At worst, it’s intentionally chosen to present evolutionary biology as a rival ideology to theism by hired guns marketing Intelligent Design Creationism to the Christian laypublic, and Darwin’s name is used specifically to nurture latent resentment, and to conjure up the ever present book-burners and witch-burners who still lurk among the lucid, among that grass roots demographic.

Worse still, DR Witt’s straightforward answer does little to reassure me of his probity: In the very same venue where I asked that question, DR Witt had used the term Darwinism to clearly refer to a school of thought in philosophy, as for example when he said “Thus, in practice the materialist/Darwinists’ fourth … “ and this is just one of many such statements threatening the consistency of his self professed definition.

As best I can tell, Darwinism as used by IDCists can mean pretty much anything the IDCist wants it to mean. They can and do use it to refer to common descent and all modes of speciation/diversification, abiogenesis, cosmology or most any field of science. But it’s by no means limited to science. It’s bandied about in contexts of abstract philosophical claptrap; metaphysical naturalism, materialism, secular humanism, all of which are often nothing more than covert references to atheism. If it served the IDCist purpose in discrediting science, Darwinism could probably mean Killers of Small Furry Animals.

That’s pretty spot on. Let me emphasize that the term “Darwinism” is only rarely, if ever used in the scientific literature. There’s a good reason for this: It has no fixed meaning. It has at times been used to describe the mere process of natural selection causing adaptations (something almost every biologist agrees with) and at other times used to describe the notion that natural selection alone is responsible for evolutionary change (something almost no biologist agrees with). Hence it is usually either redundant or it doesn’t apply. Yet ID advocates use the term almost exclusively to describe anyone and everyone who accepts mainstream evolutionary biology. I don’t know why they expect scientists to take them seriously when they lack the professional courtesy to use accurate terms when describing those with whom they disagree.

To illustrate the fact that biologists almost never use the term “Darwinist” when talking about evolution, I did some literature searches for relevant terms in PubMed. This is an experiment the kids can try at home. The results are below the fold.

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