February 2007 Archives

Allah vs evolution


Joseph Meert, a professor of Hydrocephalic Earth Studies and Structure at Bayou University in Gainesville, Florida (I guess in plain English it has something to do with geology) reports on an appearance there of an Islamic advocate of creationism who explained to the audience of a few tens of students that evolution is impossible because fish is very different from land walking animals. Dr. Meert’s post can be seen here.

I only today ran across this speech Christopher Hitchens gave in September of 2005 at Monticello, to commemorate his book on Thomas Jefferson. In the question and answer session, he was asked about the attempt by some pseudo-historians to portray America as an essentially Christian nation, and he had a few choice words to say about church, state, and Intelligent Design.

Refuting Johnson

During my recent blog vacation, Phillip Johnson emerged to post some thoughts on the current state and future prospects of ID. It's standard Johnsonian fare, full of distortions and inaccuracies. Reading between the lines, however, it is a remarkably blunt statement of the failure of ID to make much progress among scientists. I've provided a detailed dissection of Johnson's claims over at EvolutionBlog. Comments can be left there. Let me know what you think!


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A Blog Around the Clock and The Intersection have recently posted some pictures that I took of Prof. Steve Steve: gallery.

Professor Steve Steve - new pictures

Prof. Steve-Steve Drinks Me Under the Table

In the next few days, I’ll post pictures from the Triangle meetup.

On Wesley R. Elsberry’s blog at antievolution.org, Wesley discusses the recently stated position of the Templeton Foundation on “Intelligent Design”.

The Templeton Foundation, the deep pockets people for science and religion studies, says that its stance has been misconstrued on “intelligent design” in letters to the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street journal.

Pamela Thompson, Templeton Foundation spokesperson, says in her letter to the LA Times:

We do not believe that the science underpinning the intelligent-design movement is sound, we do not support research or programs that deny large areas of well-documented scientific knowledge, and the foundation is a nonpolitical entity and does not engage in or support political movements.

The statement is probably overdone a bit. The Templeton Foundation did fund a number of projects and people in the “intelligent design” creationism movement. While early recognition of the depth of worthlessness and the essential political nature of “intelligent design” creationism was probably too much to ask, certainly by mid-2000 these elements should have been clear to granting entities like the Templeton Foundation. Templeton’s retreat from IDC, though, only became apparent in 2005.

Good to know that even foundations like the Templeton Foundation are taking a clear distance from the scientific vacuity known as Intelligent Design. Not surprising, ID has remained void of scientific research and proposals. At best, we have some pseudo-mathematical musings and an overarching appeal to ignorance.

Sean Carroll on Wisconsin Science Teachers’ Podcast

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There’s a recent interview with Sean Carroll, author of Endless Forms Most Beautiful and The Making of the Fittest on the Wisconsin Society of Science Teachers podcast. Carroll has some pointed remarks about efforts to weaken the teaching of evolution in the public schools:

I really can’t paint this in too rosy of a picture. We’ve been the destination for the rest of the world for education and for training and even without this controversy the rest of the world has been catching up in various ways. But now if you look at the climate in the United States, we’ve so handcuffed things like stem cell research with public officials making preposterous statements about evolutionary science. We have an administration that has denied the global warming data until I guess it probably just couldn’t resist it any longer and you have if you look at some of the agencies, I will point the finger at the FDA, you have scientific decisions being made by ideologues. Now, [if] that goes on for a number of years it’s demoralizing to the scientific community.

And more. (He also talks about icefish.)

There’s a bunch of other podcasts on their site that look good too, especially for teachers.


Reviewing Monkey Girl

During my recent trip to Buffalo I managed to read all of Edward Humes' new book Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion and the Battle for America's Soul. I have posted a brief review over at EvolutionBlog. Comments can be left there. I have mostly praise for the book, but a few criticisms as well. Let me know what you think!

State senatory Raymond Finney of Tennessee (a retired physician—hey, we've been making Orac squirm uncomfortably a lot lately) has just filed a resolution that asks a few questions. Actually, he's demanding that the Tennessee Department of Education answer these questions within a year or … well, I don't know what. He might stamp his foot and have a snit.

Continue reading "Raymond Finney asks questions, I got answers" (on Pharyngula)

Evolution by Any Other Name


A little more than a week ago, word went around our circles here at The Thumb regarding a paper published on Public Library of Science on the use of the word evolution in medical journal articles. In essence, the authors compare the use of the word evolution in articles written by and published in journals generally read by evolutionary biologists versus physicians. Unsurprisingly, the evolutionary biologists mentioned evolution more by name, even if both groups appealed to the same concepts. Why physicians don’t use the word evolution to describe implications or the concept of evolution is the issue.

Other authors (PZ Myers, Orac, and Sequiteur, among others) have dealt with the topic, but it hasn’t appeared here on PT yet, so I thought I’d just ditto Orac’s opinion with a few thoughts of my own. Find them below, after the jump.

Hewlett and Peters are the next scientists, in a long line of scientists, who have written about the scientific vacuity of Intelligent Design. The understanding that it is unnecessary to argue about whether or not ID is science has allowed scientists to focus on the lack of fertility or as others call it the ‘scientific vacuity’ of Intelligent Design. In their paper, Who Sets the Evolution Agenda? published in Theology and Science, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2006, Martinez Hewlett, a professor Emeritus at the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology of the University of Arizona and Ted Peters, a professor of Systematic Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, explain their objections to Intelligent Design:

In the meantime, we work with the premise that the Darwinian model is the best model for apprehending evolutionary biology. We believe the Darwinian model has proved itself the most fertile. It leads to new knowledge, which demonstrates its fertility. The difficulty with the Intelligent Design and Creationist models is that they lack fertility. They fail to produce progressive research programs. In a scientific sense, they cannot produce testable models. We believe that the dialogue with theology must take place with the best of science, not with a substitute that is a philosophical position and not science at all.

Evolution of Signaling in Artificial Agents


Some time ago I wrote about the evolution of novel strategies for cooperation in computer models of evolutionary processes involving artificial agents with very rudimentary sensory-motor capabilities. Now another such study has appeared showing evolution of the communication of meaningful signals among artificial agents. I was in the process of writing a PT post on it when I was beaten to it by Carl Zimmer. So I’ll only say that starting from scratch (random neural nets), robots who could sense their environments and move and emit light themselves, evolved in a ‘field’ in which there was a food source and a poison source, both of which also emitted light. Under those conditions the robots evolved to signal either the location of the food or the location of the poison. Especially in populations composed of ‘kin’ – genetically related robots – the evolution of signaling resulted in substantially more efficient food gathering and poison avoidance.

Zimmer’s post is here and the original paper is here. Read and enjoy.


Egnor responds, falls flat on his face


The other day, the Time magazine blog strongly criticized the DI's list of irrelevant, unqualified scientists who "dissent from Darwin", and singled out a surgeon, Michael Egnor, as an example of the foolishness of the people who support the DI. I took apart some of Egnor's claims, that evolutionary processes can't generate new information. In particular, I showed that there are lots of publications that show new information emerging in organisms.

Egnor replied in a comment. He's still completely wrong. The Discovery Institute has posted his vapid comment, too, as if it says something, so let's briefly show where he has gone wrong.

Continue reading "Egnor responds, falls flat on his face" (on Pharyngula)

Triangle Meetup Today


I’m just here reminding y’all that Prof. Steve Steve will have lunch at Cafe Cyclo in Raleigh, NC’s Cameron Village today (Saturday). Come by at 1 PM if you want to hang out with a septuple-PhD.


Via From Right 2 Left, I see that U of Iowa physics professor. Fred Skiff, will be speaking on intelligent design next week:

At the next “Finding God at Iowa” Lunch Forum, Fred Skiff, University of Iowa professor of physics and astronomy, will speak on the theory of intelligent design. The forum will be held from noon to 1 p.m. March 2, in the Ohio State Room (Room 343) on the third floor of the Iowa Memorial Union.

Skiff will offer “A ‘Fireside Chat’ on Intelligent Design.” He will discuss some of the questions underlying the debate over intelligent design in nature, such as: What are the appropriate assumptions, methods, and limits of science? Can the intelligent design argument be properly made within the realm of science?

Why am I so dismayed (well, besides the obvious)? Read more about it at Aetiology

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland featured a strange creature called the Cheshire Cat, which could disappear gradually until nothing was left but its toothy grin.

I was reminded of this strange feline by a recent mailing from a new group calling itself the “New Mexico Science Foundation.”

The group recently sent a package of materials to science teachers in the embattled Rio Rancho School District, where the Intelligent Design/Creationist-friendly Science Policy 401 was adopted, and then amended after strong protests.

You wouldn’t know who is behind this mailing from the group’s website, which has quotes from Einstein, captions like “Dedicated to the pursuit of the scientific method,” and links to bonafide science organizations, like the National Science Foundation, the National Science Teachers Association, the Institute for Systems Biology, and more.

The NMSF site does have a few hints of its real agenda online, for example, links to “Scientific Dissent From Darwinism,” and articles titled “Historical Science versus Empirical Science.”

Some colleagues and I thought it might be a new cover organization for the New Mexico branch of the Intelligent Design Network, or perhaps something done under the auspices of the Discovery Institute.

We were wrong.

The New Mexico Science Foundation website is the work of Bible-believing young-earth creationists (YECs), but you wouldn’t know it just by looking at it. All that’s left of its original YEC incarnation is a toothy grin.

Tomorrow, Talk of the Nation/Science Friday is doing a show with Edward Humes, author of Monkey Girl (blog, website), Randy Olson, director of Flock of Dodos, and yours truly, author of this spiffy blogpost.

We are in the second hour, so it should be on from 12-1 Pacific time. Apart from the radio, NPR is streamed live from many websites, and the Talk of the Nation archived shows are put online a few hours later.

Professor Steve Steve does AAAS


Greetings again!

I’ve just returned from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS for you acronymophiles) in San Francisco. What a city! I mean, sure, I hang out here a lot with the NCSE folks, but I rarely have a chance to schmooze with other scientists of my caliber from out of town. I mean, not that anyone I met has quite my qualifications, but I had a lot of fun meeting people (including the hottie in the picture) and, of course, hearing more about evolutionary biology in the meantime. Read all about it over at Aetiology.

Russian Scopes Trial over


Well, I was having a hard time imagining this one anyway:

Anti-Darwin Suit Dismissed

The Oktyabrsky District Court in St. Petersburg on Wednesday threw out a lawsuit filed by Maria Shraiber, a 15-year-old who argued that being taught the theory of evolution in school violated her civil rights, Interfax reported.

The court also dismissed Shraiber’s request that the government provide her with a written apology for offending her religious beliefs. Shraiber’s representatives vowed to appeal the ruling to St. Petersburg’s City Court. (MT)

Next country to watch: the Dominican Republic.

Shuffling Off to Buffalo

If you're going to be anywhere near Amherst, NY this Saturday, why not stop by the Center for Inquiry? I'll be speaking about evolution and creationism, starting at 6:00 pm. At 3:00 there will be a screening of Inherit the Wind. For more information, please contact Barry Karr at (716) 636-4869 Ext 217, or by email at bkarr@centerforinquiry.net.

Look behind you, Sen. Buttars


Everyone remembers Utah state senator Chris Buttars, who pushed the “divine design” legislation last year? Looks like someone else remembers him also…

Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, left, and Lee Gardner, Salt Lake County assessor, are oblivious to the fact that they are being stalked by an extinct dodo roaming between the East and West Capitol buildings on Monday. The dodo visited the state Legislature to drum up interest for the documentary film “Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus.” The local showing is sponsored by the Salt Lake City Film Center and Utah Museum of Natural History. It will be be shown at 7 tonight at the Rose Wagner Center. (Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake Tribune)

Evolution as Feedback?


Last week I went to a colloquium given by Douglas Robertson of the University of Colorado. Professor Robertson began with two observations:

Changes in fitness functions can cause changes in the distributions of phenotypes.

Changes in the distribution of phenotypes can cause changes in fitness functions.

Biologists, according to Professor Robertson, agree with the statements but yawn. Electrical engineers, by contrast, immediately recognize the possibility for positive feedback and announce, “That population is toast.” I am not an electrical engineer, but I am a fellow traveler, and Professor Robertson’s work, um, resonated with me.

Previous activity on Intelligent Design/Creationist bills in the New Mexico Legislature were discussed here and here.

Today, House Bill 506, “AN ACT RELATING TO PUBLIC EDUCATION; PROVIDING FOR SCHOOL SCIENCE CONTENT STANDARDS AND RULES REGARDING THE TEACHING OF THEORIES OF BIOLOGICAL ORIGINS.” was heard today in the NM House Education Committee: only Mike Edenburn, at sponsor Dub Williams’ side, spoke in favor of the bill. Speaking against were several scientists and educators, myself included.

After the comments, sponsor Dub Williams himself voted to table the bill, which was then tabled 8-4. (I was expecting the same 7-5 split as for the bill on teaching Bible as History, HB 498, which was tabled just before the HB 506 discussion.) But Williams himself moved to table his bill.

Only the Senate measures (Senate Bill 371, “SCHOOL SCIENCE CONTENT STANDARDS,” and Senate Joint Memorial 9, “OBJECTIVE TEACHING OF BIOLOGICAL ORIGINS.”) remain under consideration in the current session.

Two down, two to go.

Eugenie C. Scott honored by AAAS


From the NCSE Eugenie C. Scott honored by AAAS

NCSE’s executive director Eugenie C. Scott, along with nine science teachers who have been on the front lines of the evolution wars, is receiving the American Association for Advancement of Science’s 2006 Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility. A press release from AAAS describes Scott as “tireless in her efforts to offer assistance and information to those trying to stop local and statewide efforts to undermine science education,” adding, “She has led workshops, conferences and seminars for teachers and others to explain the well-established scientific basis for evolutionary theory and why ‘intelligent design’ fails to meet science criteria.” Scott will receive the award on February 17, 2007, at the AAAS’s annual meeting in San Francisco.

ROBERT JOHN RUSSELL ”Intelligent Design is Not Science and Does Not Qualify to be Taught in Public School Science Classes” Theology and Science, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2005

Russell points out correctly that ID provides two alternatives for “agency”: either a natural agent or God.

The theory of ID does not qualify to be taught in public school science classes as an alternative to Darwinian evolution. The reason is straightforward. Even though ID supporters will not specify what they mean by the intelligent agency that supposedly accounts for the origin and evolution of life, there are only two options for what ”agency” could possibly mean: either a natural agent or God. The first option ultimately relies on the very theory, Darwinian evolution, that it proposes to challenge and the second option is a theological claim. Thus, ID does not qualify to be taught in public school science classes as an alternative scientific theory to Darwinian evolution.

He ends with a warning to Christians

The lesson to Christians is that we should abandon ID as fools’ gold and accept the challenge of true discipleship and dialogue—to engage contemporary science as it describes the universe by working out a challenging but immanently more honest interpretation of science in light of Christian faith. So where does one start? Check out the CTNS website (www.ctns.org) and its links to a world of Christian friends who are ready to offer hope that is worthy of being believed.

Bill and his strawmen


Bill (aka William Demsbki) reports on the problem Airbus is experiencing because two design teams used different CAD software and uses the following ‘argument’.

Bill Wrote:

Meanwhile, climatic scientists have nevertheless created absolutely perfect models for the world’s weather patterns extending 100,000 years back and forwards in time (and yet they still can’t tell you if it’s going to rain on the weekend). Likewise, Darwinists have conclusively shown that living creatures, far more complex than the new Airbus plane, are the result of blind evolutionary processes in which the badly-functioning assemblies were filtered out by natural selection. Right.

Count the fallacies…

Following the publications by Ryan Nichols [1] and Patrick Frank [2] we now have a paper by Elliott Sober who explains in very accessible language why Intelligent Design is scientifically vacuous.

Elliott Sober, What is wrong with Intelligent Design?, The Quarterly Review of Biology, Volume 82, No. 1 March 2007

Abstract: This article reviews two standard criticisms of creationism/intelligent design (ID): it is unfalsifiable, and it is refuted by the many imperfect adaptations found in nature. Problems with both criticisms are discussed. A conception of testability is described that avoids the defects in Karl Popper’s falsifiability criterion. Although ID comes in multiple forms, which call for different criticisms, it emerges that ID fails to constitute a serious alternative to evolutionary theory.

Triangle Meetup?


Are any of our readers interested in meeting up for lunch in Raleigh next Saturday? Prof. Steve Steve will be there. You can have your picture taken with him.

What use is an appendix?


Here's an excellent and useful summary of the appendix from a surgeon's perspective. Creationists dislike the idea that we bear useless organs, remnants of past function that are non-functional or even hazardous to our health; they make up stories about the importance of these vestiges. Sid Schwab has cut out a lot of appendices, and backs up its non-utility with evidence.

The study I cited most often to my patients when asked about adverse consequences of appendectomy is one done by the Mayo Clinic: they studied records of thousands of patients who'd had appendectomy, and compared them with equal thousands who hadn't. (Back in the day, it was very common during any abdominal operation to remove the appendix. Like flicking a bug off your shoulder. No extra charge: just did it to prevent further problems: took an extra couple of minutes, is all.) The groups were statistically similar in every way other than presence of the worm. There were no differences in incidence of any disease. It's as convincing as it gets, given the impossibility of doing a prospective double-blind study.

I have a personal interest in this: I was nearly killed by my appendix at the age of 9, and had it removed. I haven't missed it since.

Georgia State Rep. Ben Bridges of Cleveland, home of Cabbage Patch dolls and Babyland General Hospital, is a vocal critic of evolution. This former barber and captain in the state patrol has twice (1999 and 2005) introduced legislation to include non-existent evidence against evolution in public schools—one of the teach-the-controversy laws that the Discovery Institute is so fond of these days. In 2005, Georgia Citizens for Integrity in Science Education testified against his bill, causing Bridges to remark that he could have gotten “experts” as well, if he’d known that GCISE was going to be there. Earlier this week, we learned the type of “experts” that Bridges relies on.

On Feb. 9, Texas State Rep. Warren Chisum, the second most powerful member, sent a memo from Bridges to every member of the Texas House of Representatives. This memo advertised a model bill and called for the end of “tax-supported evolution science” because it “is derived concept-for-concept from Rabbinic writings on the mystic ‘holy book’ kabbala dating back at least two millennia”. Talk about bringing the crazy—but wait there’s more. Bridges’s memo invites lawmakers to visit FixedEarth.com, the “non-moving Earth & anti-evolution web page of the Fair Education Foundation, Inc.” Yeap, you read that right, Fixed—WTF—Earth.com.

Dr Michael Egnor challenges evolution!


Time magazine has a science blog, Eye on Science, and the writer, Michael Lemonick, doesn't hesitate to take on the Intelligent Design creationists. A recent entry criticizes the Discovery Institute's silly list of dissenters from 'Darwinism'. Not only is the number that they cite pathetically small, but they rely on getting scientists whose expertise isn't relevant.

Continue reading "Dr Michael Egnor challenges evolution!" (on Pharyngula)

In 2006, the United States Supreme Court issued a little-noticed decision called Garcetti v. Ceballos, 126 S. Ct. 1951 (2006), that has some interesting—and disturbing—implications for how public employees can express themselves on the job. A January 24th decision from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, called Mayer v. Monroe County Community Sch. Corp., has now applied the Ceballos doctrine to the case of a government school teacher who alleged that she was unconstitutionally fired for telling students how she felt about the war in Iraq. And this raises the issue of whether the doctrine might be applied in cases involving government teachers who express to their students their own views with regard to evolution and creationism.

The Haeckel-Wells Chronicles

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Lately, the Discovery Institute has stuck its neck out in response to the popularity of showings of Randy Olson's movie, Flock of Dodos, which I reviewed a while back. They slapped together some lame critiques packaged on the web as Hoax of Dodos (a clunker of a name; it's especially ironic since the film tries to portray the Institute as good at PR), which mainly seem to be driven by the sloppy delusions of that poor excuse for a developmental biologist, Jonathan Wells. In the past week, I've also put up my responses to the Wells deceptions—as a developmental biologist myself, I get a little cranky when a creationist clown abuses my discipline.

In case you are completely baffled by this whole episode, here's a shorter summary.

Prof. Steve Steve at AAAS 2007


Prof. Steve Steve and his trusty sidekick Nick Matzke plan to be at the NCSE booth at the AAAS Annual Meeting at the Hilton in downtown San Francisco from 10-5, Saturday, February 17. I know many PT people and ScienceBloggers are at the meeting, so stop by and see us! (transport info)

Prof. Steve Steve, and perhaps Nick, will also be in attendance on Sunday and Monday. It looks like Saturday and Sunday have free Exhibit Hall admission on account of 2007 Family Science Days.

As with every AAAS meeting, the true goal is to get invited to the Science Journalists’ Party, which I hope is Saturday night. They always throw quite a bash, although it will be hard to trump the molten chocolate fountain from the DC meeting a few years back.

Behe vs Sea Squirts

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Recent research has thrown an interesting spanner into one of the key, but slightly obscure claims Behe makes about “irreducible complex” (IC) systems. In Behe’s discussion of the mammalian clotting system (Darwin’s Black Box [DBB], 1996, page 86, 1st edition) he claims:

”…none of the cascade proteins are used for anything other than the formation of a blood clot”.

This is a fundamental claim with important implications. If components of an allegedly IC system have other functions, this would violate his “well matched parts” condition for an IC system. Also, if these enzymes have other functions, they could be coopted from those functions to form a clotting system. If the clotting enzyme thrombin’s only function was to cut fibrinogen to make fibrin, then, if a mutation produced a thrombin-like enzyme in the absence of fibrin, natural selection would be unlikely to preserve this enzyme (but see below). On the other hand, if a general protease (an enzyme that cuts up lots of different proteins) were to gain the ability to break down fibrinogen, then its other functions would keep it preserved until a fibrinogen-like substrate appeared.

Contrary to Behe’s statement, many of the clotting proteins have other roles. Several of these non-clotting functions were known when Behe wrote DBB [1,2 and Note 1]. These roles, in wound healing and in tissue remodelling and embryogenesis, give us useful clues to their evolution. They also demolish Behe’s claims about IC.

Skeptic Magazine publisher Michael Shermer debated William Dembski yesterday in Bridgewater, VA on the subject of evolution vs. ID. Since Bridegwater is a short drive away from my digs in Harrisonburg, I decided to go check it out.

The debate was held at Bridgewater College, a small liberal arts school affiliated with the Church of the Brethren, as part of their Anna B. Mow Lecture Series. According to the small program handed out at the door, “The Anna Beahm Mow Symposium honors Dr. Mow as a teacher who walked with her students, a scholar whose life was a pursuit of knowledge, an author who conversed with her readers and a Christian whose love of her Lord enabled her to be accepting of all children of God.”

Worldnetdaily Flogs Dead Sternberg Horse

Jack Cashill, the Worldnutdaily’s resident conspiracy loon, has a column up recounting the Sternberg saga in all its distorted and highly exaggerated glory. He’s swallowed every claim in the Souder report uncritically, and even added a few of his own distortions to the story.

Continue Reading at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Comments may be left there.

Evolution v Creationism Videos

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This is pretty cool, a webpage full of videos about evolution and creationism with various scientists and philosophers that should be familiar to readers of this blog. They include Ken Miller, Genie Scott, Barbara Forrest and Kevin Padian.

Note from Kansas


I received this note from a Kansan who asked that it be posted on PT. She said Jack Krebs (head of Kansas Citizens for Science) might be too modest (or maybe he is trying to return to normal life!).

On the day after Charles Darwins’ birthday, and the day before Valentines Day, the Kansas State Board of Education delivered its much-anticipated reversal of the anti-science standards adopted in November 2005.

Although this outcome was expected after the August 2006 primary election resulted in a guaranteed moderate majority on the board, conservatives fought to the end to amend the standards to include their non-natural definition of science and their bogus evolution criticisms. Each motion to amend was defeated. Ultraconservative Ken Willard of Hutchinson requested that the board go into executive session just before the standards discussion. According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, “He asked whether the state can endorse an idea that nature can be solely explained by material causes and whether the state can suppress information critical of evolution – two problems conservatives say the new standards would create, though opponents argue otherwise.” Willard never explained why no state includes supernatural explanations in its science standards, because he doesn’t like the answer: such topics are outside the domain of science.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Big Ideas–one of my favorite podcasts–presents Marydianne Andrade’s lecture on sexual dimorphism and mating strategies. You can listen online here.

Tangled Bank #73

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The Tangled Bank

Whether you think the current holiday is Valentine's Day, a belated Darwin Day, or Quirky Alone day, the latest edition of the Tangled Bank is for you.

I attended a screening of Flock of Dodos last night at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The film was shown in the IMAX theater – of course it was not filmed in the IMAX format, but anyone who’s been in an IMAX theater knows how many people will fit into one. And the place was packed. The filmmaker Randy Olson (and his mother, Muffy Moose, who was featured prominently in the film) were on hand to introduce the movie and to answer questions afterwards, which was a special treat.

Before I go into gripes about the film, I want to say that on the whole it was excellent and definitely worth seeing. It was above all entertaining. It made for a decent if somewhat incomplete exposé of the ID movement. And a number of nonsense arguments that the IDists promulgate were knocked down, in many cases through the documentary technique of just letting the silliness speak for itself. The recurring theme of Mt. Rushmore was the sterling example of this.

Nevertheless, in spite of the film’s strengths, my job as semi-obsessed-ID-watcher was to notice those parts of the movie where I think Olson missed the mark. Below I’m going to go into a lot of detail about this, and it could take awhile, so you might want to buckle in. This isn’t because I think Olson got a lot of things wrong – there are really only a few issues here – it’s that I think these are key points that are important to movie’s theme and the broader issue of defending science. They are therefore worth expounding upon at length.

A Pleasant Read on Darwin Day


Janet Browne’s Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography will be published in the United States in March, but was released in the U.K. last June. It’s a tidy little 151 pages (plus notes and index) that would make a very nice Darwin-day gift for your evolution-loving Valentine!

The book is one title in the series “Books that Changed The World” (for some reason, in the U.K., they only “shook” the world) that also includes Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, Francis Wheen on Marx’s Das Kapital, Simon Blackburn on Plato’s Republic, Bruce Lawrence on the Koran, Karen Armstrong on The Bible, Hew Strachan on Clausewitz’s On War, Alberto Manguel on The Iliad and The Odyssey, and P.J. O’Rourke on Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

Browne is Darwin’s leading biographer, and she manages somehow to encompass not only the development of Darwin’s thought, but its implications to the present—including the modern synthesis and creationist opposition—all in a book that can be easily read in a day. In some places, Browne’s writing seems inelegantly simplistic, but all told, the only real objection to this book is that it’s not possible to present Darwin’s great ideas in their full color in such a short space. Still, this book comes as close as possible. Darwin comes across as an exceedingly pleasant man, the very image of what a scientist should be: careful, precise, polite, honest, and brave enough to stand for unpopular ideas when the evidence supports them. Happy birthday, Charles Darwin, and thank you Janet Browne.

Darwin Day in South Carolina


There are a number of Darwin Day events going on in the Palmetto State, both today and throughout the week. You can go to the South Carolinians for Science Education website for a complete run-down of the events and links to the individual flyers. Events will be held at Furman, the College of Charleston, and Clemson. Kenneth Miller will also be speaking in Clemson next Monday.

My letter to New Scientist

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In the 16 December issue of New Scientist, there was an editorial (“It’s still about Religion”, subscription required) and an article “The God Lab” (free access), which investigated the Biologic Institute, an institute that was set up with money from the Discovery Institute supposedly to do laboratory work into Intelligent Design. Not surprisingly, the Biologic Institute does not come out well. On the 13th of January, Douglas Axe, Brendan Dixon and Ann Gauger wrote a letter (subscription required) addressing the editorial, saying they are convinced that Intelligent Design will lead to good science, but they won’t talk until their research is finished. I wrote a letter myself in response, but it didn’t make it into either the print or web letters. For the record, here is my unpublished letter.

A little knowledge…


Over at Uncommon Descent, the poster Pav has a post entitled “Programmers Only Need Apply”. In it, they note, but fail to discuss this paper, Xue W, et al., Senescence and tumour clearance is triggered by p53 restoration in murine liver carcinomas. Nature. 2007 445; 656-660. What gets the poster excited is not the finding that restoration of the protein p53 can stop tumor growth (which, amusingly, drives yet another nail in the coffin of Discovery Institute Fellow Jonathan Wells’s non-mutational model of cancer ), but that the authors use the word “program” to describe the cellular senescence pathway activated by p53.

The evolution of the genetic code


Scientists from the Weizmann Institute of Science report the exiting findings of Parallel Codes In Genes

These findings are exciting since they can help further unravel the origins and evolution of the genetic code

“Our findings open the possibility that genes can carry additional, currently unknown codes,” explains Dr. Uri Alon, principal investigator on the project. “These findings point at possible selection forces that may have shaped the universal genetic code.”

These findings provide for potential answers to our ignorance, further driving back Intelligent Design, forcing it to hide it the shadows of our ignorance.

Shalev Itzkovitz and Uri Alon The genetic code is nearly optimal for allowing additional information within protein-coding sequences Genome Res. Published February 9, 2007

Abstract: DNA sequences that code for proteins need to convey, in addition to the protein-coding information, several different signals at the same time. These “parallel codes” include binding sequences for regulatory and structural proteins, signals for splicing, and RNA secondary structure. Here, we show that the universal genetic code can efficiently carry arbitrary parallel codes much better than the vast majority of other possible genetic codes. This property is related to the identity of the stop codons. We find that the ability to support parallel codes is strongly tied to another useful property of the genetic code—minimization of the effects of frame-shift translation errors. Whereas many of the known regulatory codes reside in nontranslated regions of the genome, the present findings suggest that protein-coding regions can readily carry abundant additional information.

I wonder how ID proponents will spin these results. Nothing in ID predicts nor explain these findings. But I am sure that some will spin this, despite ID being nothing more than ‘science cannot explain X’ and does not provide for any framework to make scientifically relevant predictions.

The Discovery Institute is stepping up their smear campaign against Randy Olson and Flock of Dodos, and the biggest issue they can find is their continued revivification of Haeckel's biogenetic law. They've put up a bogus complaint that Olson was lying in the movie, a complaint that does not hold up, as I'll show you.

First, though, let's simplify the debate. The Discovery Institute position is that any text that shows Ernst Haeckel's ancient diagram of various embryos is guilty of fraudulently distorting the evidence for evolution. They have accused scientists of a conspiracy of lies, of using this known false diagram to buttress evolutionary theory.

If this were the case, then the worst case of mass market fraud around would have to be Wells' own Icons of Evolution: it contains 4 versions of the Haeckelian diagram, including the original, and talks about it for 28 pages. Obviously, this is a criminal conspiracy to promote phony evidence for evolution.

Wait, wait, you protest: Wells' book was explaining that Haeckelian recapitulation was wrong, and that there were both errors and intentional misrepresentations of embryos in that old work. That should be acceptable.

I would agree, except that the textbooks Wells is damning in Icons often do exactly the same thing! Those that do mention Haeckel and his biogenetic law do so as an example of a historically significant error. Some go on to explain what was correct and what was wrong in his ideas, but basically all are merely pointing out that here was an interesting but failed explanation from the late 19th century, that nonetheless exposes an interesting phenomenon that needs to be understood.

I would add that progress in evolutionary biology has led to better explanations of the phenomenon that vertebrate embryos go through a period of similarity: it lies in conserved genetic circuitry that lays down the body plan. Intelligent Design creationism has contributed absolutely nothing to either refuting Haeckelian ideas, which was the product of working biologists at the end of the 19th century, nor has it generated any better, testable explanations for the conservation of embryonic body plans.

Now what about the Discovery Institute's claim that Olson was lying about Haeckel's representation in modern texts?

Continue reading "Wells’ false accusation against Randy Olson" (on Pharyngula)

Desperate Times for ID?


At the Discovery’s Website for the Renewal of Science and Culture, Logan Gage proudly presents the statements by a British Scientist who claims that Intelligent Design is a valid scientific theory.

Professor of Design and Nature Stuart Burgess of Bristol University (UK) was interviewed in yesterday’s The Independent. This is a man who knows something about design. He is worth heeding:

I’ve been designing systems like spacecraft for more than 20 years. One of the lessons I’ve learnt is that complex systems require an immense amount of intelligence to design. I’ve seen a lot of irreducible complexity in engineering. I have also seen organs in nature that are apparently irreducible. An irreducibly complex organ is one where several parts are required simultaneously for the system to function usefully, so it cannot have evolved, bit by bit, over time.

Source: Independent

An engineer…

In the Yale Daily news, Michael Zimmerman responds to some of the more outrageous misunderstandings by Discovery Institute’s Jonathan Wells, author of the infamous (and wrong) Icons Of Evolution. In a historical repetition it seems that Wells got few of the details right.

Seems that the DI is truly concerned about the impact of Evolution Sunday and the Clergy Letter.

Darwin and neutrality


Various ID proponents have shown a confusion about Darwinism and neutrality, arguing that these concepts are contradictory rather than complementary and that the existence of one negates the existence of the other. Such a false duality is commonly found in the writings and musings of ID proponents who insist on elimination to infer the existence of one of many alternatives. So lets explore in further detail the concept of neutrality and its relevance and importance to evolutionary science (and by logical extension also the vacuity of Intelligent Design).

I am inclined to suspect that we see, at least in some [cases], variations which are of no service to the species, and which consequently have not been seized on and rendered definite by natural selection.… Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left either a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in certain polymorphic species, or would ultimately become fixed.… We may easily err in attributing importance to characters, and in believing that they have been developed through natural selection;… many structures are now of no direct use to their possessors, and may never have been of any use to their progenitors.… [On the other hand,] we are much too ignorant in regard to the whole economy of any organic being to say what slight modifications would be of importance or not.

From: DARWIN, C., 1872 The Origin of Species, 6th ed. p. 60,88,181,182,184. New American Library of World Literature, New York (1958)

1st Annual Darwin Day Essay Contest


Darwin Day is fast approaching! In honor of Charles Darwin’s birthday and his intellectual achievements, the Alliance for Science is starting an annual Darwin Day essay contest geared at high school students. We will be accepting essays from the 50 states, submissions sent by email. There will be cash prizes for the top entries, magazine subscriptions, and numerous signed books on evolution, creationism, or other relevant topics in biology available as prizes. Teachers, if your student is the winner then we will also kick in some money for your science labs!

Interested in finding out more and maybe donating to the contest?

Continue reading “1st Annual Darwin Day Essay Contest” (at Neurotopia)

And it's a dud. They've got two complaints against Randy Olson's Flock of Dodos posted, neither of which are particularly stunning.

Continue reading "Discovery Institute fires its first salvo in the War Against Dodos" (on Pharyngula)

In August of 2005, the Rio Rancho, New Mexico School Board adopted “Science Policy 401,” which was amended last April, after strong protests from scientists and teachers against the Intelligent-Design friendly policy.

After yesterday’s Rio Rancho school board elections, Policy 401 had better start looking over its shoulder. Even though the amended policy is basically toothless in comparison to the original version, the existence of this totally unnecessary policy still rankles many in the community. One of the policy’s original supporters, Kathy Jackson, decided not to run again, and gave her support to candidate Steve Dietzel. Dietzel, however, was crushed by strong pro-science candidate Divyesh Patel in a landslide vote. So, the creationist-leaning members of the board now find themselves in the minority, and policy 401 itself may be on the chopping block soon.

Another of the policy’s supporters, Marty Scharfglass, was able to keep his seat, but only by a few dozen votes. His opponent, pro-science candidate Sabrina Vidaurri, ran a surprisingly strong campaign against the incumbent.

UPDATE, candidate Charles MacQuigg not endorsed by creationist group (below the fold).

Introduction to Evolution

Yesterday, I introduced a seminar of honors students at UNC to the science of evolution. If you go to my blog, you can read how it went and download handouts of my presentation.

De Rerum Natura: Introduction to Evolution (comments may be left there)

As I reported previously, evangelicals, led by Bishop Boniface Adoyo, Chairman of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, are trying to suppress a fossil display in Kenya’s National Museum. (And they’re apparently getting aid from unnamed Western groups.) The planned exhibit contains numerous hominid fossils found in that country, including the famous Turkana Boy, a nearly complete Homo erectus skeleton.

CNN has recently published an article about the museum exhibit and the evangelicals’ attempts to whisk it away to some back room where it can’t offend them. Most of the information in the article is old hat, but it’s good to see the American media finally picking up on this. There is however one part that’s new to me:

[Richard] Leakey fears the ideological spat may provoke an attack on the priceless collection, one largely found during the 1920s by his paleontologist parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, who passed their fossil-hunting traditions on to him.

The museum, which attracts around 100,000 visitors a year, is taking no chances.

Turkana Boy will be displayed in a private room, with limited access and behind a glass screen with 24-hour closed-circuit TV. Security guards will be at the entrance.

“There are issues about the security,” said Dr. Emma Mbua, the head of paleontology at the museum. “These fossils are irreplaceable and we wouldn’t want anything to happen to them.”

Insurance coverage could run into millions of dollars, she added.

Way to go creationists. You’ve successfully driven security and insurance costs through the roof because your nutty followers can’t be trusted not to destroy priceless artifacts.

(Cross-posted to Sunbeams from Cucumbers.)

Next Tuesday the Kansas state Board of Education will vote on adopting new science standards based on the work on the science standards writing committee. The committee, of which I am a member, started work in June 2004, but our work was co-opted by the Intelligent Design crowd in Kansas (remember the infamous Kangaroo Kourt “science hearings” in 2005?), and so ID-creationist standards were adopted in November 2005.

However, elections in 2006 once again brought a majority of pro-science supporters to the Board, and so now the Committee’s Recommended Standards (which we continued to work on even after we were officially dismissed in favor of the IDists) are being brought back for adoption.

Kansas Citizens for Science has issued an open letter supporting the Board in voting “Yes” to adopt the new standards. (See below the fold.)

We are asking that people in the state and around the world email Board members expressing your support for the new standards. Please keep your emails positive, even to the Board members who support the ID standards. The issue is not what is wrong with the ID standards (a subject that has been interminably discussed), but rather what is right about the Committee’s standards. Put your email in a positive pro-science, pro-education framework, not an anti-anything framework.

Help Kansas Citizens for Science stand up for science!

By the way, if you want to see for yourself the differences in the Committee’s standards and the ID standards, you can download a comparison document here. However, trust me, ours are better, :-)

Darwin Day Activities in Kansas

Darwin’s Day Activities, February 12 at the University of Kansas Theme: We have come a long way since Darwin. See here for much prettier information at the KU website!

If you’re in the area, please join us! KCFS will buy a ticket for anyone who says you read about it here on the Panda’s Thumb!

6:00 pm Museum Activities: Special exhibits and tours of the museum and the Exploring Evolution exhibit will be given

7:30 pm Costume contest: Sponsored by Kansas Citizens for Science

Anyone dressed as Darwin (any age), Muffy Moose, or a Dodo will get in free to the movie “Flock of Dodos” (see Flock of Dodos, The Dodos Gazette and the Muffy Moose weblog), and will get to lead the crowd from the Museum to Woodruff Auditorium for the show.

$100.00 cash prize for winner of each category. $50.00 cash prize for second

7:45 pm “Flock of Dodos” showing.

The cost of the movie and event is $2.00. Tickets will be available through the Gift Shop in the museum

Disinformation Theory


I always enjoy watching creationists blather about stuff that they have no knowledge about, which is of course just about anything that comes out of their mouths. I am always amazed how they can pull the most randomly backwards arguments from out of nowhere and confidently state that this one is the one that is going to trump “Darwinism”. Their arguments are really not that different from one another, but they sure can come up with some bizarre and senseless variations.

Good Math, Bad Math has a good take down of one such recent argument from Cordova on UD: Once again, Sal and Friends Butcher Information Theory.

Acting! On the web!


Are you a voice talent? Want to participate in an online drama? Sign up for a part in a podcast recreation of parts of the Dover trial. It should be fun, if you're into that kind of thing.

I'm not volunteering, I'm afraid. I can't act, and I'm also afraid that the closest match to my voice would be Michael Behe, and I'd die of mortification.

State Senator Dave Schultheis of Colorado Springs has introduced a “Religious Bill of Rights for Individuals Connected to Public Schools” into the Colorado legislature. I have heard through the grapevine that similar bills may be planned for all other states. You may read some of the purported motivation for the bill at Senator Schultheis’s home page, http://www.daveschultheis.com/ and in the bill itself. You may find the bill by going to http://www.leg.state.co.us/ and searching for SB07-138. Hearings have not yet been scheduled.

Briefly, the bill

Evolution Sunday February 11, 2007


Update, February 4, 2007. 570 churches from 50 states and 4 foreign countries are participating in Evolution Sunday. See http://www.butler.edu/clergyproject[…]_sun2007.htm . I will update the number here every day or so through February 11.

February 7, 2007, 9 a.m. Mountain Standard Time, 584 congregations.

February 8, 2007, 9 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, 598 congregations.

February 10, 2007, 9 a.m. Mountain Standard Time, 601 congregations.

February 11, 2007, 8 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, 611 congregations. Tomorrow, February 12, is Darwin Day; see http://www.darwinday.org/ . Click Events to find an activity in your area. I will leave this Sticky in place till midafternoon tomorrow, in case anyone wants to report on Evolution Sunday events in his or her area.

I recently received a request from Michael Zimmerman, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of Biology at Butler University in Indiana, to help him promote Evolution Sunday, February 11, 2007. Professor Zimmerman is also the founder of The Clergy Letter Project, which you can read about here http://www.evolutionsunday.org. The Clergy Letter Project is terribly important because it counters the view that evolution is inherently atheistic, and the signers of the document are the natural allies of us who want to promote good science education and keep all species of creationism out of the public schools and indeed out of the public agenda. Beyond that, I will let Professor Zimmerman speak for himself:

The Discovery Institute has certainly been busy since I last posted on a series of Intelligent Design Creationism measures introduced into the New Mexico Legislature.

They have been busy making their usual Opening Moves: claiming The New Mexico bill is not about intelligent design, and It is censorship!

After Casey Luskin’s latest tirade against “Darwinists in New Mexico,” I was inspired to make the following Cartoon Interpretation.

The punchline appears below the fold.

Over at the Discovery Institute’s Media Complaints Division, Michael Behe seems to be a wee bit concerned by the attention that a recent Nature paper is getting, moaning that, “It seems some scientists have discovered that one way to hype otherwise-lackluster work is to claim that it discredits ID.”

OK. To start with, watching Michael Behe whine about someone else using ID to hype “otherwise-lackluster work” creates a concentration of irony so dense that four mining firms have put in bids for that post. Sorry, but I had to get that one out of my system. Now that I’ve more or less managed to get that minor issue out of the way, let’s look at what, for lack of a better term, we will have to call the “substance” of Behe’s complaints.

Read more (at The Questionable Authority):

French Schools Swamped by Books Challenging Evolution

PARIS (AFP) - Tens of thousands of French schools and universities have received copies of a Turkish book refuting Darwin’s theory of evolution and describing it as “the true source of terrorism.”

The education ministry said Friday that it had warned school and university directors that the textbook is not in line with the recognized curriculum and that they should disregard it.

Entitled “The Atlas of Creation”, the 770-page book by Turkish author Harun Yahya quotes several passages from the Koran and asserts that “human beings did not evolve (from another species) but were indeed created.”

Does Prof. Steve Steve need to go straighten Europe out?

Genie Scott lecture streaming


In about 10 minutes (7:30 pm Eastern), Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, is going to give a lecture for the “Fundamentally Speaking” lecture series at SUNY-Cortland. This is for an advanced communications class, so naturally the lecture is streaming live at this link. The topic is “Conservative Christianity and Evolution” (description).

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