February 18, 2007 - February 24, 2007 Archives

Evolution of Signaling in Artificial Agents

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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.


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)

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.

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

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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.

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.

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)

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

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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

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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.

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?

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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.

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)

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