June 2009 Archives

At last!

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We don’t normally do altie meds on PT, but I can’t resist Dr. Boli’s homeopathic cure for thirst.

Firefox 3.5


Firefox 3.5 is out. To celebrate, I’m going to try out the new video tag.

And all the peasants rejoiced!


Trichoglossus haematodus moluccanus — Rainbow lorikeet, Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach, California

Sackler Darwin Colloquium online


PNAS has put the proceedings of the Sackler Colloquium on 200 years of Darwin online. Nineteen papers, all free!

Via John Lynch.

Paw-Talk Interviews


I was recently interviewed by the blog Paw-Talk, as were Evil Monkey of the blog Neurotopia and Bug Girl, of Bug Girl’s Blog. Paw-Talk seems to be a blog for pet owners or self-described animal lovers, but the proprietress (known to me only as Ava) says she wants to include more science articles and interviews with scientists. Aside from the somewhat corny introductions, I was impressed by the quality of Ava’s questions, which clearly showed that she had done her homework before she requested the interviews. I did not notice any comments on the blog, but the Website also features a discussion board that looked well-attended.

The Thumb in Cinci


This week is the ninth quadrennial meeting of the North American Paleontological Convention in Cincinnati, and Thursday the 25th is “Evolution and Society” day. There are plenary talks in the morning by several people including Genie Scott and Ken Miller, and several parallel discussion panels around noon. One of the discussion panels is “Countering Creationism” with Jason Rosenhouse, Art Hunt, me, and Professor Steve Steve from the Thumb all free associating to the topic title. If you’re at the convention we invite you to participate: we need all the help we can get! Public school educators in the area have been specially invited to the day’s talks and discussions, and we enthusiastically welcome them.

Grapsus grapsus


Grapsus grapsus – Sally Lightfoot crabs, Gal�pagos Islands.

Darwin comes to Ohio


The Darwin exhibit organized by the American Museum of Natural History in collaboration with the Museum of Science, Boston; The Field Museum, Chicago; the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada; and the Natural History Museum, London, England that is currently touring North America will be at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland from June 27 through September 18, 2009. From all reports this is a magnificent exhibition, well worth the drive to Cleveland. In addition, several Cleveland institutions will have related programs through the summer, including showings of Galapagos at the Omnimax theater in the Science Center.

Big love among the ostracods


Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

How can anyone resist an article titled “Sexual Intercourse Involving Giant Sperm in Cretaceous Ostracode”? You can’t, I tell you. It’s like a giant brain magnet, you open the journal to the index, and there’s that title, and you must read it before you can even consider continuing on to anything else.

Some organisms have evolved immensely long sperm tails — Drosophila bifurca, for instance, has sperm cells that are about 60mm long, or 20 times longer than the length of the entire adult body. The excessively long sperm tail is obviously not a structure that has evolved for better swimming; instead, it is thought to act as a tangled barrier in the female reproductive tract to prevent other males from fertilizing the female, and there is also some very interesting evidence that sperm coevolves with the female reproductive tract, so some sexual selection at the level of the gametes is going on.

At the same time, sperm morphology is extremely diverse, and seems to evolve very rapidly. Perhaps these mega-sperm are a transient fad? Not all species of Drosophila exhibit the phenomenon, and those that do vary considerably from species to species. What we’d like to know is if there are any lineages that maintain these patterns of giant sperm over long periods of evolutionary time…so what do we need to do? We need to go spelunking for sperm in fossils!

Limusaurus inextricabilis

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

My previous repost was made to give the background on a recent discovery of Jurassic ceratosaur, Limusaurus inextricabilis, and what it tells us about digit evolution. Here's Limusaurus—beautiful little beastie, isn't it?

(Click for larger image)

Photograph (a) and line drawing (b) of IVPP V 15923. Arrows in a point to a nearly complete and fully articulated basal crocodyliform skeleton preserved next to IVPP V 15923 (scale bar, 5 cm). c, Histological section from the fibular shaft of Limusaurus inextricabilis (IVPP V 15924) under polarized light. Arrows denote growth lines used to age the specimen; HC refers to round haversian canals and EB to layers of endosteal bone. The specimen is inferred to represent a five-year-old individual and to be at a young adult ontogenetic stage, based on a combination of histological features including narrower outermost zones, dense haversian bone, extensive and multiple endosteal bone depositional events and absence of an external fundamental system. d, Close up of the gastroliths (scale bar, 2 cm). Abbreviations: cav, caudal vertebrae; cv, cervical vertebrae; dr, dorsal ribs; ga, gastroliths; lf, left femur; lfl, left forelimb; li, left ilium; lis, left ischium; lp, left pes; lpu, left pubis; lsc, left scapulocoracoid; lt, left tibiotarsus; md, mandible; rfl, right forelimb; ri, right ilium; rp, right pes; sk, skull.

What's especially interesting about it is that it catches an evolutionary hypothesis in the act, and is another genuine transitional fossil. The hypothesis is about how fingers were modified over time to produce the patterns we see in dinosaurs and birds.

Mark Your Calendars


Future Evolution (SSE+SSB+ASN) Meetings:

2010 Portland, Oregon (Portland State University)

2011 Norman, Oklahoma (University of Oklahoma)

2012 Ottawa, Ontario

Future SMBE Meetings:

2010 Lyon, France

I wonder if the politicians in Oklahoma will try to ban the evolution meeting like they tried to ban Dawkins. I bet you will see some bills trying to ban state funds for being used for the conference and others that demand an equally sized creationism conference. Good luck with that.

Freshwater Hearing Delay


John Freshwater’s termination hearing was scheduled to resume tomorrow, June 18, but it has been postponed. Two Board of Education members, Ian Watson and Jody Goetzman, were subpoenaed by R. Kelly Hamilton, Freshwater’s attorney, but have refused to testify on the ground that if they testify in the hearing they’d have to recuse themselves from voting on the recommendation of the hearing referee. Hamilton has asked the Common Pleas Court in Knox County to compel their testimony and the judge has not yet ruled on that request.

I am reminded of James Hutton’s 1788 remark on the age of the earth:

The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning - no prospect of an end.

And yes, I still have those 50 pages of notes on the two days in May in my backpack.

Phyllopteryx taeniolatus


Phyllopteryx taeniolatus — Weedy sea dragon, Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach, California

Evolution 2009


Evolution 2009

Prof. Steve Steve and I are currently wandering around the University of Idaho waiting for Evolution 2009 to start. And we are not alone.

The latest issue (July/August, 2009) of Discover Magazine had a handful of splendid articles, but what really caught my eye was a remarkably detailed image of a 100-million-year-old wasp that had been fossilized inside an opaque piece of amber (p. 39). I could not find the picture on the Discover website, but I easily tracked it to here, where you may see it along with a number of other images.

According to the Discover article, Paul Tafforeau and colleagues at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility used a beam of x-rays to probe the interiors of bits of amber that are opaque to visible light. They found hundreds of fossilized beetles, ants, wasps, flies, and bits of plants, and made tomograms (or 3-dimensional reconstructions) of some of them. None of the trapped insects was bigger than a few millimeters, presumably because larger insects were not so easily trapped by the resin.

Discover notes that the team found more than 600 insects, none of which appears to be a modern species. It is not clear how many different species those insects represent, but Tafforeau says, “Each scan is a new discovery,” so I infer that they have discovered a great many new, ancient species - and that is among small insects only.

If you believe, with Lucretius and certain of our creationist colleagues, that species are not born but only die out, then all I can say is there must have been at one time one helluva lot of species.

Disco ‘Tute gets into censorship


PZ Myers has the video. Quick and dirty summary: Casey Luskin is interviewed on Fox; a critique using footage from the Fox interview is posted on Youtube; the Disco Dancers claim copyright violation for material they don’t own. DMCA fail!

‘Course, it’s consistent with the no-comments policy on their site and the modding policies on Uncommon Descent. I once mis-stated that as Uncommon Dissent, which more and more I think is the appropriate title.

Shameless as ever, David Klinghoffer of the Disco Institute has already started trying to exploit the murder of Stephen Johns to prove the evil of evolutionary science: his murderer, you see, was supposedly a “Darwinist.” Except that he wasn’t, as The Sensuous Curmudgeon makes clear. Here’s a taste:

We must ask ourselves – can Klinghoffer read? If he can, then how can he find in von Brunn’s writing anything that Darwin ever wrote? Specifically, did Darwin really write anything remotely similar to von Brunn’s claim that “the species are improved through in-breeding”? Of course he didn’t. It’s biologically absurd. Indeed, it’s well-known that Darwin was even worried about his own marriage to his cousin.… Hitler never even mentioned Darwin in his writings. As we’ve pointed out in Hitler and Darwin, in Mein Kampf, Hitler clearly indicates that he’s a creationist.


Freshwater brings suit against Board of Education


John Freshwater (search PT on “Freshwater”), the middle school science teacher terminated by the Mt. Vernon, Ohio, Board of Education last year, has filed a federal suit against the Board, two individual Board Members, two current administrators and one former administrator, the independent investigators, and David Millstone, the attorney for the Board. According to the news report

The lawsuit, filed in US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, cites free speech and equal protection violations under the US Constitution. Violations of Ohio Public Policy, religious harassment, retaliation, conspiracy, defamation, and breach of contract are also addressed in the claim filed Tuesday.

As I understand it, the suit was precipitated by the refusal of two Board members, Ian Watson (President of the Board) and Jodi Goetzman, to testify in the on-going administrative hearing on Freshwater’s termination. Apparently if they testify in the hearing the two Board Members would have to recuse themselves from voting on the final recommendation of the hearing referee (it’s a 5-member Board). At least that’s what I’ve heard as the reason for their refusal to testify.

You've probably noticed that as a soap bubble thins, it acquires a rainbow of iridescent colors across its surface. Or perhaps you've noticed that a film of oil on a mud puddle shows beautiful colors. These are common physical properties of thin film interference.

The way it works is that light entering a material with a higher refractive index is both reflected and transmitted. Some of the light bounces back with a partial phase shift, and some of it passes through. In a thin film, it passes through but doesn't travel far before it hits another boundary, for instance between the film and the water underneath it, and again, some of it is reflected and some transmitted. This second reflected beam of light, though, is out of phase with the first, by an amount that depends on the thickness of the film. What that means is that certain wavelengths will be shifted in such a way as to reinforce the first reflected beam, generating constructive interference that will make that wavelength brighter. Other wavelengths will be shifted the same amount, but they will be out of phase with light in the first reflected beam — there will be destructive interference, and that wavelength will be damped out.

The net result: the light reflecting off the film will be colored, and the color will depend on the thickness of the film. It's a simple physical process. Cephalopods use it to generate their colors — just by shifting thin reflecting membranes by a tiny distance of a fraction of a wavelength of light, they shift which wavelengths constructively and destructively interfere with each other, and thus change their color. Now engineers are exploiting the same principle to build television screens: they use a thin film that can be expanded by fractions of a wavelength of light by applying a voltage to build reflective color screens. This will be very cool. If you've got a Kindle or one of the other e-book readers, you know they use a reflective screen with no backlight that depends on ambient lighting to be visible…and that right now you only get shades of gray. With this technology, we'll be able to have color electronic paper. I'll be looking forward to it.

Unfortunately, we'll also enable incomprehending gomers. Case in point: Casey Luskin thinks that thin-film interference patterns implies design. Well, actually, it's stupider than that — he actually thinks that because TVs are being designed to use thin-film interference, and because cephalopod skin uses thin-film interference to generate color, that implies that cephalopod skin is also designed. I kid you not.

So we may soon have affordable, energy-efficient, cuttlefish inspired flat screen TVs and computer monitors everywhere. But of course, there's no design overtones to see here folks. None whatsoever.

Right. And because trebuchets were designed to use gravity to generate force, and because rocks on mountains will tumble down due to gravity, avalanches are therefore designed. We make fire by design to produce the release of energy by rapid oxidation of carbon compounds; cells also oxidize carbon-containing compounds to produce energy; therefore, cells must have been set on fire on purpose. This is what the IDiots are reduced to: if something designed and something evolved make use of the same properties of our common physical universe, that means the evolved object must be designed, too. It's ridiculous, but it's all they've got.

Fregata magnificens


Fregata magnificens – Fledgling frigate bird, Gal�pagos Islands.

Courtesy of the ever-insightful (and inciteful!) “Non Sequitur” strip by Wiley Miller, we now have an excellent cartoon version of Morton’s Demon.
(Warning: this image will only be online for ~ 3 weeks.)
June 3rd ‘toon
Non Sequiter” online


Transitions, transitions, transitions


Via Jerry Coyne, a special issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach devoted to transitional fossils. As Coyne notes, several of the papers include some very good teaching illustrations.

Bogus is as bogus does


We do a lot of whaling on creationists here on PT, as do others on the web. Suppose, though, that if we called a creationist claim “bogus” we’d be judged guilty of libel and be subject to fines and costs. That’s the case in Great Britain. The British Chiropractic Association claimed that chiropractic could be of help in treating “children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying.” Simon Singh, a top science writer for The Guardian, called the claim “bogus.”

Singh was sued by the BCA and last week the judge found in favor of the BCA and against Singh. See here for more.

The suit apparently turned on whether by “bogus” Singh meant that the Chiropractic Association knew their claim was false but made it anyway. According to the linked story, the Association claimed in the trial that it had “numerous documents which demonstrate the efficacy of chiropractic” treatments. Sure thing. And I’ve got a bridge over the Thames for sale. Cheap.

Singh is now taking what is in Great Britain a risky step: He’s appealing the decision. We wish him all the luck in the world on his appeal.

See also this by Singh himself posted just a few days ago.

I’m grateful for the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution for several reasons, and one of them is the right to call bogus claims “bogus.” And, I’ll add, to say that claims that are purely self-interested, as in the case of the British Chiropractic Association, are not only “bogus” but risk being fraudulent. Pseudoscience is pseudoscience, and deserves being called that whenever it pops its head above the parapet. Creationism is becoming more and more common in Great Britain, and our British colleagues in the war against creationist pseudoscience are at legal risk even as Simon Singh was.

For a demonstration of the difference, see Steve Schaferman’s takedown of some members of the Texas State Board of Education, and his defense of his rhetoric:

A commenter questioned my use of the words “ignorant, bigoted, corrupt, and anti-education” to describe the seven Radical Religious Right members of the State Board, saying the words were “horrible and unfair.” I admit that these are not words normally used in newspapers. Most journalists are more circumspect. Since I write a blog, and not an edited news column, I can be more frank. I stand by all four adjectives.

And he tells us just why.

I just received an e-mail from the Center for Inquiry, which begins thus:

Matthew LaClair … has alerted us that his former history teacher, David Paszkiewicz, is at it again. You may recall Mr. Paskiewicz–he’s the one who was recorded by LaClair telling students that dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark and if “you reject the Lord’s salvation, you belong in hell” (New York Times, 12/18/06). This time, he is acting as the advisor of a Christian club at Kearny High School (located 10 miles outside of Manhattan in New Jersey), called the Alpha and Omega Club, which has scheduled [a field trip to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, June 5-7].

LaClair, who is no longer a student at the school, learned about the trip from the student newspaper. He evidently alerted the school district’s lawyer and also contacted Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He convinced the school board to postpone the trip till school was out today, June 5, so that the trip would take place entirely out of hours (I infer, therefore, that the trip is no longer an official school field trip). In addition, he got the school board to remove the listing of the Christian club under history and social science.

The Center for Inquiry notes that there are still some troubling problems. School officials initially approved the trip, which suggests to CFI that they were “asleep at the wheel.” CFI adds that

a public school teacher with strong religious convictions and a record of proselytizing is being allowed to serve as the advisor of a religious club and use his position to have a public school approve a patently religious-based fieldtrip.

Religious clubs are permitted in schools, but the adviser is supposed to be “neutral.” CFI questions the teacher’s neutrality since he

has overtly and repeatedly discussed and promoted religious beliefs with his students in the past, and his proposed fieldtrip to the Creation Museum demonstrates that he continues to do so today, dangerously blurring the line between his own personal faith commitments and his obligations as a teacher in a government-funded public school system.

Endless Forms at Cambridge


The Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University has opened an exhibition called Endless Forms: Charles Darwin, Natural Science and the Visual Arts.

It brings together a fascinating range of paintings, drawings, watercolours, prints, photographs and sculptures, from collections of major galleries and museums in Europe and America. Some of the paintings are by famous artists such as Turner, Frederick Church and the French Impressionists. Other spectacular works by lesser-known artists such as Bruno Liljefors, F�licien Rops and American landscapists will be a revelation to visitors. Art works will be seen in juxtaposition with scientific material of all sorts, from geological maps and botanical teaching diagrams to fossils, minerals, and ornithological specimens. They reveal the many interactions between natural science and art during this period.

To accompany the exhibition there will be a series of podcasts and slide shows, the first two of which are up. Highly recommended.

Hat tip to Dispersal of Darwin, also recommended.

John Lynch on the DI’s purported history of ID


John Lynch, an evolutionary morphologist and historian of anti-evolutionism, dissects the selective history of ID propounded by the Disco ‘Tute’s new faith and evolution site. The pull quote:

If I engaged in such non-contextualized presentation in my classroom, I would rightly be accused of being a bad teacher. More importantly, the audience would receive no indication of how the argument ceased to be scientifically and philosophically tenable and instead became an issue of interest solely to apologists and theologians.

Read the whole thing.


I will send an autographed copy of the book Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails), by me and Paul K. Strode, to the first person who can correctly find a quotation that accurately describes evolution by natural selection and predates Darwin, Wallace, and even Erasmus Darwin by hundreds of years. To enter, just post a comment. To win, you will have to state the quotation, its author, and the approximate year. I have a specific quotation in mind, but I will consider others, as long as they clearly describe natural selection.

For the table of contents and other information about the book, go here.

In a day or so, I will declare the winner and explain why the quotation is so interesting. In the meantime, below the fold, more about Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails).

A bit more hope for Texas kids


As you may recall, the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), which recently moved from California to Texas, has brought suit against the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for the latter’s denial of ICR’s application for certification to award a Master of Science Education degree. (In addition to the Texas Citizens for Science analysis linked above also see here for another masterly takedown of that suit.)

What was less publicized was a bill in the Texas State Legislature to pull an end run around the Coordinating Board by exempting ICR’s graduate program from the regulations governing degree-granting institutions in Texas.

Another bill introduced in this legislative session would have restored the ID creationist “strengths and weaknesses” language to the Texas Science Standards.

Both bills have now died due to the adjournment of the Texas legislature. So there’s a bit more hope for Texas: Don McLeroy is out as Chairman of the State Board of Education, the creationist “strengths and weaknesses” language is not in the standards, and the ICR is still not certified to award phony graduate degrees in science education.

On the other hand, there’s talk of a special session to straighten out some budget matters in Texas, so it’s always possible that one or the other bill will come up again soon.

Hat tip to the National Center for Science Education

Phycodurus eques


Phycodurus eques — Leafy sea dragon, Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach, California

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