February 2009 Archives

Florida state senator Stephen Wise has introduced SB 2396, amending a law that is mostly about teaching civics. He makes critical analysis of evolution item (a) and moves all the other items down one letter. The old (a) becomes (b) and so forth. Evolution is evidently the only topic requiring critical analysis. Coincidentally “critical analysis” is code for “teach creationism”. It didn’t work in Ohio once the trick was discovered, but hope springs eternal. By another coincidence Senator Wise recently wanted to teach ID, another code word for creationism.

Update below the fold

A recurring theme amongst ID antievolutionists holds that evolution really doesn’t contribute useful directions or concepts in the realm of biology or medicine. Philip Skell regurgitates the theme in a recent commentary in Forbes magazine:

“Examining the major advances in biological knowledge, one fails to find any real connection between biological history and the experimental designs that have produced today’s cornucopia of knowledge of how the great variety of living organisms perform their functions. It is our knowledge of how these organisms actually operate, not speculations about how they may have arisen millions of years ago, that is essential to doctors, veterinarians, farmers and other practitioners of biological science.”

And later:

“The essence of the theory of evolution is the hypothesis that historical diversity is the consequence of natural selection acting on variations. Regardless of the verity it holds for explaining biohistory, it offers no help to the experimenter–who is concerned, for example, with the goal of finding or synthesizing a new antibiotic, or how it can disable a disease-producing organism, what dosages are required and which individuals will not tolerate it. Studying biohistory is, at best, an entertaining distraction from the goals of a working biologist.”

The blogosphere (and probably print media) are replete with summaries and specific cases that show Skell’s assertions to be a crock. This essay summarizes one such example. I have chosen this one because it refutes, specifically, the claim that an understanding of the evolutionary history of an organism “offers no help to the experimenter–who is concerned, for example, with the goal of finding or synthesizing a new antibiotic, or how it can disable a disease-producing organism”. It also ties Skell’s uninformed comments in with another subject that causes ID antievolutionists much consternation - the origins and evolution of organelles.

Lunacy From Campolo

Writing in Christian Today, Tony Campolo unloads the familiar creationist cliches about what a big racist Charles Darwin was.

Campolo is something of a celebrity on the evangelical left, you might recall that he was a spiritual advisor to President Clinton, which makes this essay especially disappointing. In the past I have tended to view him as an island of reason in what often seems like an ocean of evangelical narrow-mindedness. To see him casually repeat a pile of hoary old smears and vile falsehoods about Darwin and his work is rather depressing, to put it mildly.

Anyway, I ponder the grim details over at EvolutionBlog. Comments may be left there.

Previous posts on the Freshwater hearing are linked at the end of this post.

The administrative hearing on the Mt. Vernon, Ohio, Board of Education’s resolution to terminate the employment of John Freshwater as an 8th grade science teacher resumed this morning for just half a day. Due to attorney conflicts and witness unavailability issues, the session was adjourned at 12:15 after hearing just three witnesses, all former students of Freshwater. The hearing will resume on March 20.

Opening Maneuvering

Today saw the resumption of Freshwater’s defense case. The first witness called by R. Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater’s attorney, was Mr. James Beroth. He is the father of a woman named Melanie Dobson from the state of Oregon who apparently overheard a conversation in a restaurant between Ian Watson, the President of the Board of Education, and an unidentified second person on December 29, 2007 (I’m pretty sure it was 2007 – see subpoena note below). Hamilton entered an affidavit from Ms. Dobson as an exhibit and began to examine Mr. Beroth on it because if would be a hardship for Ms. Dobson to come to Ohio from Oregon to testify. The examination got just far enough to establish that Beroth himself had overheard nothing, and that Melanie’s affidavit referred to Watson talking in the restaurant about “decisions” or “strategies” or “goals” regarding Freshwater when David Millstone, attorney for the Board, objected on the ground that the affidavit must speak for itself, and that Mr. Beroth could only reflect hearsay since he himself had not heard Watson. After some discussion the hearing referee upheld the objection and Mr. Beroth was excused from testifying. Immediately Hamilton handed a subpoena to Millstone requiring Ian Watson’s personal and work calendars from December 2007 to the present.

That is relevant because December 29, 2007, was after the Dennis family complained to the school administration about Freshwater burning a cross on Zachary’s arm (early December 2007) but before the independent investigation occurred in late spring 2008. Hamilton’s move here is consistent with other hints he’s made to the effect that the investigation was not actually independent but rather was a sham designed to provide justification/cover for firing Freshwater.

Hamilton then called Karl Heck. Heck is the uncle and guardian of Corbin Heck, a current 9th grader and former student of Freshwater in 8th grade science. Heck was sworn and Hamilton began questioning Heck regarding an affidavit that Corbin had signed just yesterday in front of Hamilton that reflected a conversation Corbin had with Hamilton several weeks ago. Millstone objected on the ground that Karl Heck could not testify to the content of the affidavit but only to hearsay, and that unlike Melanie Dobson, Corbin Heck is available a mile or so away at the high school.

Hamilton told the hearing referee that he intended to call parents of a number of former students to testify about affidavits their children had signed, and Millstone indicated that he would enter the same objection to their testimony. Hamilton got dramatic about preserving the childrens’ anonymity and protecting them from having to testify in public. (Recall that it was Hamilton who earlier successfully urged the hearing referee to breech the Dennis family’s anonymity and have Zachary Dennis testify in public.) Hamilton’s histrionics had little effect and the referee ultimately ruled that since there was no availability issue with the students, they and not their parents would have to testify if their affidavits were to be entered in evidence. So Karl Heck was excused and we had a lengthy recess while the first student, Corbin Heck, was fetched from the school.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research


Isn’t that beautiful? It’s an ancient footprint in some lumpy rocks in Kenya…but it is 1½ million years old. It comes from the Koobi Fora formation, familiar to anyone who follows human evolution, and is probably from Homo ergaster. There aren’t a lot of them; one series of three hominin trails containing 2-7 prints, and a stratigraphically separate section with one trail of 2 prints and an isolated single print. But there they are, a preserved record of a trivial event — a few of our remote relatives taking a walk across a mudflat by a river — rendered awesome by their rarity and the magnitude of the time separating us.

Anti-evolution bill in Iowa


I am so incredibly tardy with this information that Arizonian John Lynch and the lovely folks at Uncommon Descent have already blogged this, but recently an “academic freedom” bill was introduced in Iowa. For those who may be unfamiliar, in addition to “teach the controversy,” these “academic freedom” bills are one of the new tactics for creationists who want to introduce creationism into science classrooms via the back door by claiming that teachers need the protection to teach “the full range of scientific views” when it comes to evolution (in other words, to teach creationism/ID). The bill states that:

Creationists and Stage Magic: A Nice Analogy


Update: I am advised that the video linked below won’t be up for much longer, so if you want it, grab it now.

Once in a while an analogy comes along that deserves wide dissemination. I got one such this afternoon on the Ohio Citizens for Science list, and I’ve got permission to quote it from Joe Hern, its author. Joe was musing on the video of Michael Schermer interviewing Georgia Purdom, creationist geneticist at AIG. (I don’t know how long that URL will be good, so grab it if you want it.) Joe, who IIRC is a former YEC himself, captured the creationist mindset perfectly:

The psychology behind why Creationists seem to make up stuff that fit their theology is best understood by recognizing precisely how we feel when we see a magician pull a rabbit from its hat in a magic show. We do not need to know how it works to “know” it is not really magic. We do not entertain ideas that we may be ‘missing’ a step in our epistemology. We would roll our eyes at anyone who insists to us we are not thinking critically to accept that there may be true magic involved. The key component of this thought process is that we ‘know’ we do not have to look into it… it’s a foregone conclusion that there is no magic involved.

To the creationist, this is the exact same thought process. They ‘know’ God is real, that what he wrote is literal, and there is no reason whatsoever to even begin to entertain the idea that the ‘evidences’ for evolution are really evidence. It’s a foregone conclusion that such ‘evidences’, regardless how intellectual or damning they sound, are “simply” ways man makes data fit their own ideas, as Dr. Purdom stated.

She said it best when (the only part in her talking with which I agreed) she said that once a Christian moves away from the scriptures in one area (the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, etc) then it is a slippery slope to using the same kind of logic about Mary being a virgin and giving birth or Jesus rising from the dead. I will add other biblical claims as well, such as the miracles of Jesus, his divinity, and the existence of God himself. In fact, Dr. Purdom’s point is one used by many former Christians (now atheists) who wonder why some Christians believe some of the stuff in the bible, but ignore other aspects of it. Nonetheless, Dr. Purdom goes the opposite direction by saying one must accept that evolution is not real since it’s already a fact that the virgin birth and Jesus’ resurrection occurred. “Clearly” there is no issue with agreeing that Adam and Eve began the human race ~4000 years ago.

That really is what we’re up against: presuppositionalist thinking vs. evidential thinking, in Purdom’s terms. As I remarked in my AIG creationists on the jury post last week, for creationists evidence is not a means of testing presuppositions: evidence must be interpreted so as to corroborate them or one will fall into apostasy. Therefore any ‘interpretation’ of the evidence that doesn’t corroborate them is a false and mistaken interpretation, and to accept such a false interpretation is to risk one’s salvation and that of one’s children. (For more on creationist fears in this respect see here and here.)

Freshwater Hearing Status


We’ve received emails wondering what’s going on in the administrative hearing on John Freshwater’s termination. It was due to resume Friday of last week but that session was canceled at the last minute, apparently because of schedule conflicts among the attorneys. It is now scheduled to resume tomorrow morning, Feb 26, and as far as I know – and I’ve talked this afternoon with people who should know – that’s still on.

Late Update Just got a call at 5:00 pm. The referee has canceled tomorrow’s session for some reason, but Friday is still (allegedly) on.

As some of you may be aware, over the last couple of weeks Timothy Sandefur and I had a debate on our blogs on the topic of government funding for scientific research. He argued against it; I argued for it. We wrapped up the debate yesterday. If you’re interested in taking a look at the whole thing, you can follow the link at the bottom to find the links to the entire discussion (in chronological order).

I’m going to close the comments on this post purely for my own convenience. Comments remain open on all of the posts in the debate that are found at The Questionable Authority.

Paphiopedilum hybrid


Paphiopedilum hybrid — Miller’s daughter orchid, Southeast Asia. Orchid courtesy of Lloyd Gelman, past president, Boulder Orchid Society.

Google Earth Geological Goodies

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Via Kim at All of my faults are stress related (the all-time best name for a geology blog!), a collection of Google Earth KMZ files at San Diego State University called Google Geology. How am I going to get ready to teach a 3-hour class tomorrow with all that to wander through?

LGF on Creationism

It’s great when conservatives and others who tend to support the Republican party are willing to take a stand against the creationist elements on the right. Charles Johnson may not be, strictly speaking, a conservative, but his blog Little Green Footballs is widely read by conservatives, and he’s been doing a great job defending evolution against the religious right. Regardless of your views of his politics, he deserves applause for speaking up on behalf of real science in the face of an often hostile crowd. To see what I mean, just click over and scroll down.

Gene Trees and Species Trees


One of the most compelling confirmations of the theory of evolution, in particular common descent, was the finding of close concordance between phylogenies derived on the basis of organismal biology and those inferred from molecular data. A wide array of evidence from pseudogenes, endogenous retroviruses, and functional genes generally corroborates the picture of common descent that began to be worked out in the 18th and 19th centuries mainly from comparative anatomy when even the existence of genes was unknown..

However, we know that out near the twigs, trees inferred from individual genes and species trees are not identical, and Thomas Mailund, a researcher at the Bioinformatics Research Center at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, has an excellent post on the relationship between gene trees and species trees with some great illustrations. I commend it to your attention, along with his other posts.

I want AIG creationists on my jury!


For my sins I’m on the Answers in Genesis mailing list due to having given them a valid (though not primary) email address when a group of PTers went on a field trip to the Creationist Museum a couple of summers ago. (See here for a comprehensive links list to critiques of the museum.) In addition to offers of books, DVDs and 10% off specials on stuff like “Ancient Civilizations & the Bible - Full Family Curriculum Pack,” I get a weekly dose of creationist apologetics.

As I read those apologetics missives, one message is loud and clear. The core of AIG’s message is that one must choose one’s presuppositions and thereafter interpret the evidence in the light of those presuppositions. The creationist museum makes that very clear. An early display has two paleontologists digging in what looks like a sand pit, with one of them, the kindly-looking creationist, explaining that he and his evolutionist friend (who looks vaguely Asian and never speaks) use the same evidence, but that they interpret it from different starting points, Biblical creationism and “man’s reason.” Hence each interprets the evidence to support his presuppositions; the evidence is not a tool for testing presuppositions and assumptions, it is interpreted through their lenses.

Georgia Purdom, creationist geneticist in the employ of Answers in Genesis, is also very clear about it. She says

I had a friendly “debate” with a gentleman afterwards concerning the merits of presuppositionalism vs. evidentialism. This person believed there was “neutral ground” where evolutionists and creationists can debate the evidence and that the evidentialist approach was better to use with non-Christians. I tried to help him see that neutral ground does not exist because both sides have presuppositions–creationists start with the authority of the Word of God and evolutionists start with the authority of human reasoning. If we as creationists agree to “leave the Bible out of it,” then we are starting with the same presuppositions as the evolutionists and will not be effective.

The Institute for Creation Research has the same approach. John Pieret pointed to Henry Morris, III, CEO of ICR these days, saying

We are forensically interpreting the data based on our presupposition. The evolutionists do the same thing. They have a presupposition that there is no supernatural intervention of any kind. We have a presupposition that there is supernatural intervention in the past, not in the present.

You reckon Henry watches CSI:Creationism?

Now, the presupposition of the U.S. justice system is (purportedly) that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But if we adopt the AIG/ICR philosophical/apologetic position regarding presuppositions, no amount of evidence that seems to support guilt can alter the presumption of innocence. Hence if I’m ever charged with a crime, I want AIG creationists on the jury: I’m guaranteed an acquittal, because, you see, evidence doesn’t count in evaluating presuppositions! And doing CSI becomes infinitely easier: Decide who’s guilty beforehand and simply interpret the evidence appropriately.

I think we can all cheer for this candidate. Charles Darwin for president in 2012! Rested and ready!


On February 19 Dr. Ian Musgrave posted to the Panda’s Thumb a brief rebuttal ( see here ) to Angus Menuge’s supposed “review” of the anthology Why Intelligent Design Fails (WIDF).

Ian replied only to Menuge’s treatment of Ian’s chapter in the anthology, showing that Menuge’s review of that chapter is a chunk of piffle. I fully agree with Ian’s opinion, and may add that the same can be said about Menuge’s treatment of every other chapter in the anthology. His “review” of chapter 11, of which I was the author, is a good example.(The text of my chapter is available online see here).

I know next to nothing about Menuge (I believe I heard he has a degree in chemistry) but his review of my chapter betrays his ignorance of the subject discussed in my chapter. In that chapter I demonstrated Dembski’s misinterpretation of the No Free Lunch theorems by Wolpert & MacReady. Dembski’s thesis boiled down to the assertion that the NFL theorems prohibit evolution, which, therefore, is impossible. Of course, the NFL theorems do nothing of the sort, and Dembski displayed an impressive, for a mathematician, lack of understanding of the matter.

And what has Menuge found worth rebutting in my chapter? In his review there is not a single word regarding the main points of my chapter. Instead, he found there a single statement worth (in his view) discussing, which is a secondary point, in no way crucial for my argument. Even about that statement he could not say anything of substance.

In that statement I claimed that the question of natural evolutionary algorithms being capable of climbing up the naturally occurring fitness landscapes belongs in the discussion of anthropic coincidences. Menuge referred to my statement using the words that I “admit” (rather than “state”) my notion. By this trick Menuge apparently tried to create the impression that the statement in question negated my thesis about Dembski’s misuse of the NFL theorems.

In fact I had nothing to “admit,” and it must be clear to any reader of an average intelligence that my notion about anthropic coincidences in no way contradicted my critique of Dembski’s fallacious discourse. It is obvious that Menuge just could not come up with any reasonable rebuttal of my chapter, so he resorted to an irrelevant and meaningless comment about a secondary point, while avoiding discussion of the gist of my chapter. Quite likely, he had no choice as he probably just could not comprehend my arguments because of his insufficient understanding of the NFL theorems and all the related stuff, but had the gall to pretend to be capable of judging it.

In view of the above, Menuge’s conclusion that the arguments in the anthology in question are “not so fatal “ for ID as the authors of the anthology claimed is nothing more than the usual for ID advocates attempt to present their dreams as reality.

I’ve never heard of the Journal “Politics and the Life Sciences”, but it is quite eclectic. Recent articles include ,Thomas R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Barriers to SCHIP enrollment, Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, Eisenhower’s 1955 heart attack and Organ trading in Jordan.

In September 2008, they they significantly broadened their eclecticism by publishing book reviews by Intelligent Design proponents. Of interest to me, they published a review by philosopher and dedicated anti-materialist Angus J. L. Menuge of “Why Intelligent Design Fails”. I’m interested of course, because I have a chapter in this book.

Now, why they would publish a review of a book published four years ago is not clear, but at least they could have got a reviewer who actually read the book.

Richard Dawkins on the truthfulness of evolution.

Just as you entrust your travel to a Boeing 747 rather than a magic carpet or a broomstick; just as you take your tumour to the best surgeon available, rather than a shaman or a mundu mugu, so you will find that the scientific version of truth works. You can use it to navigate through the real world. Science predicts, with complete certainty unless the end of the world intervenes, that the city of Shanghai will experience a total eclipse of the sun on July 22, 2009. Theories about the moon god devouring the sun god may be poetic, and they may cohere with other aspects of a tribe’s world view, but they won’t predict the date, time and place of an eclipse. Science will, and with an accuracy you could set your watch by. Science gets you to the moon and back. Even if we bend over backwards to concede that scientific truth is no more than that which enables you to pilot your way reliably, safely and predictably around the real universe, it is in exactly this sense that - at the very least - evolution is true. Evolutionary theory pilots us around biology reliably and predictively, with a detailed and unblemished success that rivals anything in science. The least you can say about evolutionary theory is that it works. All but pedants would go further and assert that it is true.…

Evolution is true in whatever sense you accept it as true that New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere. If we refused ever to use a word like “true”, how could we conduct our day-to-day conversations? Or fill in a census form: “What is your sex?” “The hypothesis that I am male has not so far been falsified, but let me just check again”. As Douglas Adams might have said, it doesn’t read well. Yet the philosophy that imposes such scruples on science has no basis for absolving everyday facts from the same circumlocution. It is in this sense that evolution is true - provided, of course, that the scientific evidence for it is strong.

(Read the rest…)

Falco peregrinus


Photograph courtesy of Kathy Donnell, Park Naturalist, Jordanelle State Park, Utah


Falco peregrinus – Peregrine falcon

On the origin of ignorance


From the Sunday Herald via the estimable John Pieret, about creationists:

According to a survey conducted recently, 75% of British people don’t get Charles Darwin. Astounding. That’s three from four. That’s most of the two-legged beings you are liable to meet. That’s almost everyone at the check-out. That’s most of your blood relatives.

It should come as no surprise, however. Reportedly, these folk harbour “doubts” as to natural selection. They incline instead towards myths with a comforting whiff of refutation and brimstone. They are otherwise persuaded, despite a ton of evidence. People, as ever, believe what they want to believe.

Perhaps, though, they also demonstrate, at a monkey-never-typing-Hamlet stroke, that there might be less to this evolution business than the brochures claimed. Chimps will be chimps.

Speaking as a monkey’s uncle’s less popular nephew, I don’t mind. If I have read Darwin half-way right, employing both opposable thumbs to prop up the book, natural selection depends on a majority always missing the point. Then we kill and eat them.

But they tell me, while approving miracles, canonising the extra-holy, opposing stem cell research, and abortion, and birth control, and gay people, and bad words, and the simple ability to think independently, that natural selection is only a theory. Only.

As the man said, natural selection in action.

(If I seem to quote Pieret a lot, it’s because he finds this stuff faster than my Google News traps.)

Asa Gray’s Review of OoS

Andrew Sullivan links to Asa Gray’s original review of Darwin’s OoS in The Atlantic in July 1860. Interesting reading. Gray, one will recall, was a distinguished American botanist at Harvard. He was an early supporter of Darwin, an antagonist of Louis Agassiz at Harvard, and was a devout Presbyterian who one might call the first theistic evolutionist. His argument was that the variability on which natural selection works might be guided.

Steve #1000 Named

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This weekend, NCSE named Steve #1000. After much secrecy, they revealed that Dr. Steven P. Darwin of Tulane University in New Orleans was the 1000th member of Project Steve.

Dr. Steve Darwin – no relation to Charles – has been a botanist and evolutionary biologist for over thirty years. Darwin is not only a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Tulane University in New Orleans, but also Director of Tulane’s herbarium, which boasts 115,000 specimens, with a focus on flora from the southeastern United States. He is the author of thirty-five publications in the field of plant biology.


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE / LA Coalition for Science / http://lasciencecoalition.org

National Scientific Society to Boycott Louisiana over LA Science Education Act

Baton Rouge, LA, February 13, 2009 — The first tangible results of the Louisiana legislature’s passage and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s signing of the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act have materialized, and these results are negative both for the state’s economy and national reputation. The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, a national scientific society with more than 2300 members, has put Gov. Bobby Jindal on notice that the society will not hold its annual meetings in Louisiana as long as the LA Science Education Act is on the books. In a February 5, 2009, letter to the governor that is posted on the SICB website (http://www.sicb.org/resources/Louis[…]erJindal.pdf) under the headline, “No Thanks, New Orleans,” SICB Executive Committee President Richard Satterlie tells Jindal that “The SICB executive committee voted to hold its 2011 meeting in Salt Lake City because of legislation SB 561, which you signed into law in June 2008. It is the firm opinion of SICB’s leadership that this law undermines the integrity of science and science education in Louisiana.” [NOTE: Although the legislation was introduced as SB 561, it was renumbered during the legislative process and passed as SB 733.]

Name the Baby

The irresistibly cute baby gorilla at the San Francisco Zoo needs a name, and the Zoo is sponsoring a name-the-baby contest. You can enter here.

Quite a party


I went to the Keith Thomson lecture and Darwin’s 200th celebration at the California Academy of Sciences Nightlife event last night. The lecture was great, the wine was strong, the company was nerdy but fantastic, and the music was thumpin. However, I’m not sure Darwin ever imagined there would be a dance party in front of a Darwin’s finches display:


Phallus impudicus


Phallus impudicus–Stinkhorn, Boulder, Colorado.

The Neanderthalome


Ever wonder what a Neanderthal looked like? Well now you can clone one and find out.

A Neanderthal genome has been released.

1000 Steves on Darwin’s 200th!


The 1000th Steve of Project Steve, also known as the kilosteve, is going to be announced at the Annual Meeting of the AAAS this weekend. See the NCSE press release: Who will be Steve #1000?

(PS: What’s the Discovery Institute non-Steve-required-and-often-otherwise-dubious list at? 700? Meh. The creation scientists had a better list in the 1980s.)

A Video Birthday Card

I got this from Rob Pennock:

Society for Study of Evolution has created a video birthday card to wish Charles Darwin a Happy 200th Birthday. You can view the YouTube birthday greetings at the following link:


Other details of the SSE Darwin 200 outreach projects are or soon will be posted at:


Please help SSE extend this outreach project, by forwarding the links broadly to your other professional societies, departments, groups and friends.

Happy Darwin Day!


Happy Darwin Day!

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Get out and celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the most important scientists of all time, Charles Darwin, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of one of the most important books in biology, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. It's that day!

I'm in Minnesota, and you have a couple of options here. The Bell Museum in Minneapolis is having a party!

Darwin Day Party
Thursday, February 12, 2009, 7 to 9 p.m.
Bell Museum Auditorium
$10/ free to museum members and University students

The speakers will present in the auditorium from 7 to 8 pm. Birthday cake and refreshments are served after the presentations.

Celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birthday! Part of a world wide celebration, the Twin Cities' version is at The Bell Museum of Natural History this Thursday night. Join in the fun with cake, drinks and presentations by U of M scientists and educators. They will present funny, outrageous and controversial rapid-fire, media-rich presentations about Darwin and evolution. From the big bang to the human genome, hear the newest research and controversy on evolution and Darwin.

I'm rather far from Minneapolis, unfortunately — if you live in the west central part of the state, or the eastern part of the Dakotas, we're having an open lecture here at the University of Minnesota Morris. Nic McPhee of the computer science discipline and PZ Myers of biology will be talking about "Paths to Complexity: How Biology and Computation can Build Intricate Processes and Systems" — it's a kind of anti-intelligent-design talk that focuses on the amazing stuff we do know about how chance and selection can build complex systems and efficient solutions.

We'll be on the UMM campus in HFA 6, at 5pm this evening. No charge, but come early — we expect to fill the joint up. If you can't make it, it is going to be recorded and a podcast made available later.

My kids pointed out to me that this morning Google.ca has this logo in honor of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, but Google.com doesn’t. Strange.

Addendum: UK Google and French Google both have the Darwin logo.charlesdarwin_09.gif

Darwin Day has Arrived!

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On this auspicious occasion - the 200th birthday of English naturalist Charles Darwin - hundreds of groups around the world are pausing to celebrate his accomplishments and his impact upon science and society. Darwin has been featured in numerous magazine , internet and televised specials.

What is happening in your area? Here in New Mexico, we got an early start on Wednesday 11th with a splendid talk by Anne Weaver, author of the young reader’s book “Voyage of the Beetle,” and an avid evolution educator. Anne explained that most people of the time were mired in “Essentialism” - the idea that all things, including species, are immutable, unchanging “essences.” She explained that Darwin came to realize that it was the individuals who stayed the same for most of their life, and had children that shared their characteristics. Between individuals of the same species, however, there can be a lot of variation. Species are not immutable; individuals vary; it is populations that evolve, as natural selection shapes the aggregate gene pool. Of course, biology has advanced tremendously since Darwin’s publication of the Origin; but this cautious naturalist got the Big Idea right, and for that he is rightly celebrated.

If you’re in New Mexico, there are Darwin Day events this week at UNM (Albuquerque), NM Tech (Socorro) and those Freethinkers. I’ll be talking about the Age of the Earth Friday 13th, in Socorro- come on down! I’ll be discussing how I helped Professor Steve Steve disprove creationist flood theory.

What is everyone doing to commemorate the day?

New Evolution: Education and Outreach Online

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The new issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach is now online. It is, of course, a ‘Darwin’ issue. It includes the late Michael Majerus’ final word on the pedagogical utility of Biston betularia, the peppered moth. The papers are linked below the fold. Links are to HTML versions; pdf versions are also available at the main site linked above.

…and the tune is evolution. A few things that I happened on today that give some updates on what these groups think about Darwin and evolution, now and in the past. Even if you’re one of those people who think religion is evil and moderate religion is the worst of all, it’s worth being aware of what the dominant opinions are and how they are changing in various groups.

More on Luskin, afarensis


We have already pointed you to afarensis’s deconstruction of Casey Luskin’s post on Lucy at the Discovery Institute Media/Museum Complaints Division. Luskin attempted to argue, based on his detailed study of a museum exhibit and some quote-mining, that the entire world community of paleoanthropologists has no idea what they are talking about when it comes to Lucy. Afarensis was calm and polite, which was fine and admirable, but the one danger of being completely polite when commenting on something like Luskin’s piece is that the degree of outrageousness, incompetence, and silliness in the creationists’ work is not fully exposed. For example, it’s not just wrong to say, as Luskin does, that Lucy is the most complete hominid skeleton available, it’s wildly, flabbergastingly, bang-your-head-against-the-wall obvious that this is wrong, and anyone even vaguely familiar with the field knows it. Anyone who didn’t know it could look it up in 10 seconds on google and find for example the Homo erectus specimen Turkana Boy.

Schinderhannes bartelsi


Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

Fans of the great Cambrian predator, Anomalocaris, will be pleased to hear that a cousin lived at least until the Devonian, over 100 million years later. That makes this a fairly successful clade of great-appendage arthropods — a group characterized by a pair of very large and often spiky manipulatory/feeding arms located in front of the mouth. Here’s the new fellow, Schinderhannes bartelsi:

My response to Tim Sandefur’s opening entry in our discussion of the pros and cons of government funding for basic science research is now available At The Questionable Authority. In addition, he’s posted a response to some of the comments on his original post that were left here and at my blog in a separate post at his blog.

In the interests of sanity - my own- I’m going to close the comments on this post. If you want to comment, please do so at my blog. (This way, I only have to try to keep up with one comment thread.)

Sexperts Under Fire


Abstinence-only education is a failure. Study after study has found that teenagers who receive abstinence-only education are no less likely to have sex as other teenagers, but are less likely to use protection when they do.

Now it appears that the prudes who brought us abstinence-only education in middle and high schools are targeting universities. According to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, several Georgia politicians and religious right activists have become upset that the University System of Georgia has faculty members who are experts in human sexual behavior and diseases. These culture warriors are now making a bunch of noise to get the faculty members fired, while citing budget issues. As expected, these politicians are ignorant of academia, public policy, public health, history, and the law.

I strongly disagree with the arguments of this essay by Carl Safina, "Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live", even while I think there is a germ of truth to its premise. It reads more like a contrarian backlash to all the attention being given to Darwin in this bicentennial of his birth. The author makes three general claims that he thinks justify his call to "kill Darwin".

Majerus tribute


The University of Cambridge has published a long tribute to Michael Majerus. Well worth the read, it gives an overview of the man’s career and research passions.

Pavo cristatus albus


Pavo cristatus albus — albino peacock, Folsom City Zoo

Afarensis on afarensis


Last week, Casey Luskin posted a fairly pathetic attempt to explain why the remains of the famous fossil Lucy are not evidence for the common descent of humans and apes. I saw the Lucy exhibit last year, and was going to write a response to Casey’s latest tripe, but I honestly couldn’t muster up the strength to deal with the nonsense. Fortunately for me - and all of us - Afarensis has done a beautiful job of dismantling Casey’s claims.

His post, over at SciencBlogs, is really worth a read.

Reed’s recent post urging support for informing people about the “stimulus” bill has inspired a debate between me and Mike Dunford over the proper role of government in funding scientific research. Since Panda’s Thumb is not a political blog, we’ll be debating this at our own blogs. My opening post is available this morning on Freespace.

Florida: Reliving the Past


State senator Stephen Wise plans to introduce a bill requiring balanced treatment for “intelligent design” whenever evolutionary science is taught in Florida’s science classrooms.

Of course, “balanced treatment” and “equal time” bills for “creation science” led to the 1987 SCOTUS decision in Edwards v. Aguillard that ruled “creation science” as unconstitutional. Wise’s bill, if worded as stated in the article, is likely to provide a complementary court case for “intelligent design”.

(See the Florida Citizens for Science post on this, and the original post at the Austringer)

This essay is the second of a series authored by Dave Wisker, Graduate Student in Molecular Ecology at the University of Central Missouri.

As I wrote in the previous essay in this series, Intelligent Design advocate Casey Luskin doesn’t think the fusion which produced human chromosome 2 could have become fixed in the human population:

Miller may have found good empirical evidence for a chromosomal fusion event. But our experience with mammalian genetics tells us that such a chromosomal aberration could have created a non-viable mutant, or a normal individual who could not produce viable offspring. Thus, Neo-Darwinism has a hard time explaining why such a random fusion event was somehow advantageous.

Luskin (and other ID/creationist apologists I’ve seen on internet discussion fora) maintain that the fusion which resulted in human chromosome 2 must have had drastic negative effects on the fertility of heterozygotes for the fusion. This reduction in fitness, they argue, would effectively prevent the propagation of the fusion throughout the population. On the surface, this sounds like an effective argument, since it is known that translocations and fusions can have such a negative effect by producing non-balanced gametes (see PZ Myers’s article on his blog Pharyngula for a detailed explanation). However, anyone familiar with the cytogenetic literature of mammals knows that one cannot claim that these rearrangements greatly decrease fertility with any certainty, since there are numerous examples where such an expected reduction does not occur.

This essay is the first of a series authored by Dave Wisker, a Graduate Student in Molecular Ecology at the University of Central Missouri.

Back in 2005, Casey Luskin wrote an article criticizing Kenneth Miller’s testimony at the Dover ID trial called “And the Miller Told His Tale: Ken Miller’s Cold (Chromosomal) Fusion”. Luskin took Miller to task for showing that the chromosomal fusion which resulted in human chromosome 2 was evidence for the common ancestry between humans and the great apes. His argument was ably taken apart by PZ Myers here and Mike Dunford here.

Luskin also wrote:

In other words, Miller has to explain why a random chromosomal fusion event which, in our experience ultimately results in offspring with genetic diseases, didn’t result in a genetic disease and was thus advantageous enough to get fixed into the entire population of our ancestors. Given the lack of empirical evidence that random chromosomal fusion events are not disadvantageous, perhaps the presence of a chromosomal fusion event is not good evidence for a Neo-Darwinian history for humans.

Both Myers and Dunford pointed out those heterozygotes for the type of chromosomal fusion in question did not necessarily have to suffer from genetic disease or infertility. But they did not discuss the plausibility of the fixation of the fusion in the human population. In a series of forthcoming essays I will examine this, and also address some other common ID/creationist ‘problems’ with the fusion not mentioned by Luskin. The first problem is:

The Dicentric Problem

Science Gets Cut

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US Senators Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are proposing to cut the stimulus/spending package by roughly 10%. Their staff have identified several “useless” programs included in the bill, and it appears that they consider science funding to be one of those useless pursuits.

Over the last 50 years, much of our economic development has been driven by science, and at a time when the US is faced with losing its scientific dominance to China and the EU, the US needs increased science funding. Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime. Fund fishing research, and your children all eat for a lifetime.

From the list of stimulus projects that are on the cutting block:

  • NSF 100% cut ($1,402,000,000)
  • NASA exploration 50% cut ($750,000,000)
  • NOAA 34.94% cut ($427,000,000)
  • NIST 37.91% cut ($218,000,000)
  • DOE energy efficiency & renewable energy 38% cut ($1,000,000,000)
  • DOE office of science 100% cut ($100,000,000)

While this blog takes no opinion on a stimulus package, most of its readers probably do. If you have an opinion about these cuts or the stimulus in general, you should make it known to your Senators because they will soon be voting on this proposal.

List of Senators and Contact Information



Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

Just wait — this one will be featured in some cheesy Sci-Fi channel creature feature in a few months. Paleontologists have dug up a fossil boa that lived 58-60 million years ago. They haven’t found a complete skeleton, but there’s enough to get an estimate of the size. Look at these vertebrae!


a, Type specimen (UF/IGM 1) in anterior view compared to scale with a precloacal vertebra from approximately 65% along the precloacal column of a 3.4 m Boa constrictor. Type specimen (UF/IGM 1) shown in posterior view (b), left lateral view (c) and dorsal view (d). Seven articulated precloacal vertebrae (UF/IGM 3) in dorsal view (e). Articulated precloacal vertebra and rib (UF/IGM 4) in anterior view (f). Precloacal vertebra (paratype specimen UF/IGM 2) in anterior view (g) and ventral view (h). Precloacal vertebra (UF/IGM 5) in anterior view (i) and posterior view (j). All specimens are to scale.

Just to put it in perspective, the small pale blob between a and b in the photo above is an equivalent vertebra from an extant boa, which was 3.4 meters long. The extinct beast is estimated to have been about 13 meters long, weighing over 1100 kg (for us Americans, that’s 42 feet and 2500 pounds). This is a very big snake, the largest ever found.

The authors used the size of this snake to estimate the temperature of this region of South America 60 million years ago. Snakes are poikilotherms, depending on external sources of heat to maintain a given level of metabolic activity, and so available temperature means are limiting factors on how large they can grow. By comparing this animal’s size to that of modern tropical snakes, and extrapolating from a measured curve of size to mean annual temperature, they were able to calculate that the average ambient temperature was 30-34°C (American cluestick: about 90°F); less than that, and this snake would have died.

From other data, they know that the atmospheric CO2 concentration at this time was about 2000 parts per million, and that the forests it lived in were thick, wet, and rainy. They also estimate that slightly later, about 56 million years ago, mean tropical temperatures would have soared to 38-40°C (102°F), and would have killed off many species.

So there you go…this is one place I think I’d avoid if I had a time machine. It was a thick-aired, muggy, sweltering oven, with giant snakes crawling about. They were likely to have eaten large crocodilians, so I suspect a time-traveling human would be nothing but a quick hors d’ouevre. They’re still interesting, though, especially as an example of evolution and climate science meeting in a mutually revealing fashion.


Head JJ, Block JI, Hastings AK, Bourque JR, Cadena EA, Herrera FA, Polly D, Jaramillo CA (2009) Giant boid snake from the Palaeocene neotropics reveals hotter past equatorial temperatures. Nature 457(7230):715-718.



Today’s most heavily blogged science story is probably the discovery of a new species of early whale. A team of researchers led by whale evolution expert Philip Gingerich discovered the remains - a largely complete adult male, and a female that was carrying a near-term fetus - during field work in Pakistan in 2000 and 2004. They’ve named the new species Maiacetus inuus.

If you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating discovery and what it can tell us about the evolution of whales, here are a few links to check out:

The PLoS one paper that describes the species

Bora’s collection of blog links
The article about the new find at Laelaps - if you don’t read any others, read that one.

Letter from Holland


I just received the following letter from Holland:

Yesterday 3 Feb, the Dutch evangelical, TV presentator and former director of the Evangelical Broadcast Organisation (EO), Andries Knevel, openly rejected his belief in Young Earth Creationism and ID. He apologised for promoting those beliefs in the past years to his children and the public. He wants credibility, reliability and belief. He desires an open debate about God and evolution with believers and non-believers alike. He believes GOD and evolution do not exclude each other. Both science and belief have their own value. He still belief that God created heaven and earth en that Jezus is our Saviour.

On July 27 2007 it was discovered and documented http://evolutie.blog.com/1962396/ that the EO censored all evolution and old earth from the BBC documentaries of David Attenborough. Now the EO no longer denies it was censorship indeed by showing fragments they censored in the past years. This is a remarkable breakthrough and conversion. Especially hopeful in the Darwinyear 2009. There are still YEC’s in Holland, but the main evangelical television station has made a very promising move.

Gert Korthof

Collapse of a Texas Quote Mine


Jeremy Mohn, a biology teacher here in Kansas, and a strong advocate of good science education, has put together a website, Collapse of a Texas “Quote Mine”, about some egregious quote mining that took place recently at the Texas state BOE meeting about the Texas science standards.

Jeremy’s site begins:

On January 22nd, 2009, the Texas State Board of Education met to consider a draft of their new science standards. At that meeting, the Board’s Chairman, Dr. Donald McLeroy, proposed a new student expectation for the Biology standards regarding evolution.

The standard concerned the fossil evidence of evolution and would require students to:

Analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record.

In support of this proposal, Dr. McLeroy read a long list of quotes into the public record. These quotes were from various scientific books and articles that Dr. McLeroy claimed to have read in preparation for his remarks.

Based on his comments, Dr. McLeroy clearly believed that this list of quotes presented a compelling case for the existence of a scientific controversy concerning evolution. Apparently, a majority of his fellow Board members agreed, and the new student expectation was added to the current draft of the Biology standards, pending a final vote in March.

But, as Jeremy’s thorough research shows, all of McLeroy’s quotes are inaccurate and misleading quote mines. Visit Collapse of a Texas “Quote Mine” and read for yourself. Jeremy has done an excellent job of dissecting the dishonesty behind McLeroy’s presentation, and this information deserves to be widely circulated in the hopes that Texas BOE members will change their minds and rescind their ill-considered statement about common ancestry.

(And you might add Jeremy and Cheryl Shepherd-Adams’ blog, Stand Up for Real Science to your reading list.)

Jerry A. Coyne’s New Republic review of Giberson’s and Miller’s books is already stirring some controversy, and has spawned a discussion on Edge. I have some thoughts on the subject at Freespace.

Periophthalmus chrysospilos


Photo by Kelly Lyon, http://kellylyonphotography.com.


Periophthalmus chrysospilos–Indonesian mudskipper. Specimens courtesy of Denver Zoo.

Jonathan Wells recently gave a talk in Albuquerque at something called the “Forum on Science, Origins, and Design”, a conference about which I can find absolutely nothing on the web. I wasn’t there, of course, and I don’t get invited to these goofy events anyway, but I did get a copy of Wells’ powerpoint presentation from an attendee. It’s titled “DNA Does Not Control Embryo Development” — shall we look at it together? It’s really a hoot.




No, it’s not a new line of fashion. Evolution.dk is a new website, established by our evolutionary missionaries, who have finally reached the shores of Denmark. And it only took 200 years after Darwin was born.

(HT: Mailund)

Evolution Weekend and Darwin’s birthday are especially significant this year, which is the sesquicentennial of Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species and also the bicentennial of his birth. Evolution Weekend is part of the Clergy Letter Project; as I noted a couple of years ago on Panda’s Thumb, “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.” Since that time, the Clergy Letter Project has expanded to include a Rabbi Letter and a Unitarian-Universalist Clergy Letter. The Project encourages clergy and other religious leaders to sponsor programs concerning evolution in their churches or synagogues during Evolution Weekend. What follows is an update on the 2009 Evolution Weekend, which I got from Michael Zimmerman of Butler University. Evolution Weekend is 13 -15 February 2009, and Darwin’s sesquicentennial is 12 February 2009.

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