August 2009 Archives

Of Weasels and weasling


As everybody should be aware by now, Denyse O’Leary is offering a prize for the original code for Dawkins’ Weasel program which illustrates cumulative selection [1]. O’Leary’s offer arises from people challenging Dembski’s misrepresentation of the Weasel program, as he has misrepresented it yet again in a trivial non-id paper. To get some much needed perspective, read Joe Felsenstein’s excellent article (and its follow-up) and those of Chris Mark Chu Carroll (here and here)

Seriously, arguing over whether Dawkins “weasel” program implements locking is a bit like arguing over whether the measuring cylinder in the Measuring Cylinder/Tap model of drug clearance is emptied by a tube or a bloke with a cup. Both are simplified systems that make demonstrating a concept easy, and do much the same thing.

The point is that a leading light of the cdesignproponentsits has spent an enormous amount of time critiquing a toy demonstration of selection, and can’t even get the toy example right. Not only that, they can’t admit when they were wrong. Heck, no one in the cdesign proponetsists can admit Dembski is wrong about a toy program, even when presented with video evidence.

Let’s emphasise this again. It’s a non-issue except for the way it highlights the determined cluelessness of cdesign proponetsists. To use the metaphor of the Measuring Cylinder/Tap model of drug clearance again, Dembski is effectively arguing that Dawkins said the measuring cylinder is emptied by a man with a cup in his book, but anyone can go to Dawkins original book, read how he set it up, and understand that Dawkins specified a tube. Dawkins doesn’t specify how big the tube, or the flow rate of the tap, but it’s sort of obvious and you can easily make an analogous system which demonstrates the same things that Dawkins does. Everyone understands except Dembski who then makes a convoluted argument over the whole thing (see and read their “explanation” of Dawkins program if you have a spare half-hour of your life you don’t mind wasting).

Now there is a video showing a measuring cylinder with a tube (metaphorically, see (go to 6:15) for the real video showing the weasel program), Dembski goes “oh, Dawkins must have REALLY have used a cup in his book, then swapped to a tube for the video”. Aside from the convoluted mentality involved in this staggering piece of “reasoning”, it goes to the heart of the cdesign proponentists reliability.

When Dembski claims that Lenski et al., have “smuggled in information”, explaining why they are wrong can get quite technical, but when they claim Dawkins has “smuggled in information”, one can simply point to how deeply they have misunderstood Dawkins model, and if they can’t get Dawkins right (after being told repeatedly, having it explicitly demonstrated to them and being shown a video), what hope is there that they got Lenski right.

For more information on Dembski’s denial of the video evidence, see Dembski Weasels Out, for a wide compendium of Weasel programs old and new, including head to head comparisons of Dawkins version vs Demski’s locking version see Weasels on Parade (note it took over 23 days for the Uncommon Descent people to come up with any programs themselves). To see where I completely reconstruct the output shown in Dawkins book, see here.

[1] Why doesn’t O’Leary just ask Dawkins? The whole concept of running a competition to get Dawkins code instead of asking Dawkins is rather bizarre. While he may not have the original code, he can tell her how he did it.[2] [2] People have asked Dawkins before. It no longer exists. Just like the AppleBasic programs I wrote to calculate stimulation-induced radioactive outflow for our laboratory. Used for years but vanished into the mists of time. Seriously, even if there was a disk around with AppleBasic finding a machine to run it and make copies would be an adventure in itself.

Photo Contest Vote: Animal


Below are all our finalists in the “Animal” section of our Photo Contest. Please look through them one last time before voting for your favorite. We know it is possible to game these polls. Please act like adults and don’t vote more than once. If we believe that the results are invalid, the contest will be canceled. The photos and poll are below the fold.

And the Winner Is


After about a week of voting, the winning entry in our “Vegetable” category is …

Just when you thought it was safe to go in the water again …


… another shark appears, begging to be jumped.

One of Ray Comfort’s favorite examples of the invalidity of evolution (besides the banana) is sex. A while back Comfort objected to critical remarks about his book by PZ Myers. Comfort is quoted as saying

“Let’s go back even further (100 million years ago) to pre-pre-elephants that also contained males and females. At what point of time in evolutionary history did the female evolve alongside the male? And why did she evolve? Then explain, if you would professor, why horses, giraffes, cattle, zebras, leopards, primates, antelopes, pigs, dogs, sheep, fish, goats, mice, squirrels, whales, chickens, dinosaurs, beavers, cats, human beings and rats also evolved with a female, at some point of time in evolutionary history. Professor, I know you believe, but please, give us who are healthy skeptics some empirical evidence. Remember, stupid people like me want good hard evidence before we, like you, become believers in Darwin’s theory,” Comfort said.

In other words, if evolution is true who were Cain and Abel canoodling with? Erm, sorry about that. Wrong story line. PZ then smacked Ray around in more detail here. Comfort’s remarks are at the level of the old creationist question, “If we evolved from monkeys how come there are still monkeys?”

However, intelligent design, we are told, is not creationism and is a much more sophisticated and ‘scientific’ enterprise. Or is it? On Uncommonly Dense, William Dembski’s group blog, we find this gem in a post by “niwrad”::

It is unimaginable that reproduction and genitals arose by Darwinian evolution (that is for random mutations and natural selection). First, as a matter of principle: evolution needs reproduction; without reproduction no evolution. Therefore how can reproduction be the effect of evolution if evolution is an effect of reproduction? It’s an impossible causality inversion. Second, for a technical reason: how could the male organs arise independently from the female organs given the cCSI they share? In fact the Darwinian processes work in the single individual. They are blind and unaware of the processes running in other individuals. Random mutations that happen in a genome have nothing to do with the mutations in another one.

”.… Darwinian processes work in the single individual”? It’s hard to conceive of the level of ignorance necessary to make the argument in that post. Apparently the notion of “coevolution” is foreign to the UD poster. But then, it only yields 186,000 hits on Google Scholar.

It’s fun to see UD in bed with Ray Comfort. Somehow I think they were made for each other. And I don’t think it was coevolution: It’s a straight lineage, ancestor to descendant.

Archilochus colubris


Photograph by Darren Garrison.

Photography contest: “Animal” category.


Archilochus colubris – ruby-throated hummingbird killing yellowjacket (Vespula squamosa). Hummingbird is territorial and attacks yellowjacket invading bird feeder. South Carolina.

Hemisquilla californiensis


Photograph by Mike Bok.

Photography contest: “Animal” category.


Hemisquilla californiensis – magnified view of a uropod, or tail feather, of mantis shrimp. Bright colors for intraspecific communication are abundant on these animals, and their visual system is uniquely specialized for advanced color and polarization discrimination.

Photographs of Extinct Animals


A half-dozen actual photographs of now-extinct quadrupeds.

Thanks to my colleague John Scales for the citation.

Brachynemurus abdominalis


Photograph by Gregory Zolnerowich.

Photography contest: “Animal” category.


Brachynemurus abdominalis – adult ant lion, whose larvae dig pits in sandy soil and prey on ants or small arthropods that tumble down the pit.

One Freshwater Suit Settled (See addendum at the end of the post)


Published reports this morning (see also here and here) says that the federal lawsuit brought by the parents of the boy who was burned with a Tesla coil in an 8th grade science class in the Mt. Vernon City Schools has been settled. According to the report

The district’s insurer has agreed to pay $5,500 to the family of the Mount Vernon Middle School eighth grader who alleged that his teacher, John Freshwater, burned a cross-shaped mark into his arm with a BD-10A Electrostatic Generator, according to a news release from the board of education. The company will also pick up the tab on the boy’s legal fees, which came in at $115,500.

This settlement does not affect the on-going administrative hearing on the termination of employment of the teacher, John Freshwater. That hearing has been on hiatus since May, and is due to resume sometime this fall. It is hanging fire waiting for the Ohio Supreme Court to decide whether to issue a writ of mandamus that would compel members of the Board of Education to testify in the hearing. It also does not affect the federal suit that Freshwater brought against the Board, several administrators, and some John and Jane Does over the summer.

The settlement has not yet been approved by the court, but no one I talked with anticipates a problem with that.

Addendum: I should mention that Freshwater is also a defendant in the Dennis family’s suit, and he is still a defendant. The settlement involves only the school district defendants.

How to do ID: (1) Find a shark. (2) Jump it.


Denyse O’Leary, she of the multiple blogs and little reliable knowledge of evolution, is offering a prize for the original code for Dawkins’ cumulative selection demonstration program (‘METHINKS …”), described in The Blind Watchmaker, originally published in 1986. The winner actually gets to choose between two prizes, a copy of Stephen Meyer’s new elaboration of the standard ID argument from ignorance, Signature in the Cell, or a copy of Dawkins’ forthcoming The Greatest Show on Earth. (Actually, for the latter prize, O’Leary says she will ask Dawkins’ publicist to provide the prize. Strange to offer a prize she can’t herself deliver.)

The comment thread is strangely reminiscent of the recent “birther” rhetoric in the U.S. A commenter called “kibitzer” replicates the birther script almost flawlessly. For example

It is simply unconscionable that over 20 years after the program has been out and used to argue for Darwinism, Dawkins still has not made this code publicly available.


But the program has been much discussed on the Internet in the last decade. So where is the code?




Of course, as programs go, Dawkins’ WEASEL is trivial and it’s easy enough to reconstruct something that’s close to it. But given the controversy surrounding it, let’s see the original program. Why is that so difficult?


We’re all beating our gums. Please, let’s see the original code. Why is that so much to ask? To paraphrase Ben Stein, Does anyone have it? Anyone?

Controversy? Only in the fevered imagination of Bill Dembski, who has now infected Robert Marks.

Hat tip to Glenn Branch.

Regulus satrapa


Photograph by Dave Rintoul.

Photography contest: “Animal” category.


Regulus satrapa – golden-crowned kinglet, male, captured at a winter bird-banding site near Ft. Smith, Arkansas. These tiny (6 g) birds have been in North America for eons; fossil remains of kinglets, dated to 400 Ma ka ago, have been found in tar pit deposits in California.

Tympanocryptis cephalus


Photograph by Paul Blake.

Photography contest: “Animal” category.


Tympanocryptis cephalus – blotch-tailed earless dragon. Northwest Queensland (Australia) between Mount Isa and Camooweal.

Evolution of the appendix?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

Since I just chastised the misleading presentation of this paper in the press (and I must emphasize that the odd focus on Darwin is not in the paper at all), we can now take a closer look at the paper itself. The data is actually cool to see, and represents a large amount of work; I still have some criticisms for the interpretation, though. The fundamental question is whether the structure of the appendix was specifically selected for, and the authors are on the side of 'yes'. I'll come down on the side of 'maybe'.

But first, an important caveat. Creationists have long been yammering about the appendix: they are absolutely positive that it must have an important function, because God wouldn't put it there unless it had a purpose. This paper will not help them. The heart of the work is a phylogenetic analysis of the distribution of the appendix in mammals which uses evolutionary theory: no evolution, this work vanishes in a puff of logic. If creationists try to claim this paper proves something they've been claiming all along, then they didn't read it and didn't understand it — it'll be a clear case of circular illogic.

By Joe Felsenstein,

In a previous thread here, and in other blogs, there have been many people arguing that William Dembski and Robert Marks’s recent “pro-ID” paper isn’t really pro-ID, that it is equally compatible with theistic evolution or even nontheistic evolution. William Dembski has now replied at his Uncommon Descent blog to these comments.

He argues that

The key contention of ID is that design in nature, and in biology in particular, is detectable. Evolutionary informatics, by looking at the information requirements of evolutionary processes, points to information sources beyond evolution and thus, indirectly, to a designer.


Theistic evolution, by contrast, accepts the Darwinian view that Darwinian processes generate the information required for biological complexity internally, without any outside source of information. The results by Marks and me are showing that this cannot be the case.

Dembski and Marks’s argument is (in effect) that smoothness of the adaptive landscape means that information has been built into the situation, and that natural selection does not create new information, but instead transfers this existing information into the genome. To Dembski, the Designer acts by creating this information.

There is no requirement that this creation of information happen multiple times. A Designer (or just the laws of physics) could set up the world so that it is one in which adaptive surfaces are smooth enough that natural selection succeeds in bringing about adaptation. That setting-up could have happened back before the first living organisms existed.

Should other supporters of ID be happy with such a picture? It certainly does not argue for the fixity of species, or against large-scale evolutionary change. But I suspect that many theistic evolutionists would find it consistent with their views.

Evolutionary biologists may prefer a different definition. Intelligent Design only differs from existing theories on evolution if it involves a Designer who intervenes at least once after the origin of life. If ID advocates want to argue that there is something wrong with evolutionary biology, they should put forward a theory that makes some different prediction about what happens during evolution after that origin.

Dembski draws the distinction as involving where the information comes from. Evolutionary biologists will probably prefer to focus on whether there is evidence for interventions by a Designer.

Iguana iguana


Photograph by Geoffrey C. Locke.

Photography contest: “Animal” category.


Iguana iguana – Green or common iguana, a local feral/invasive species in south Florida.

Below are all our finalists in the “Vegetable” section of our Photo Contest. Please look through them one last time before voting for your favorite. We know it is possible to game these polls. Please act like adults and don’t vote more than once. If we believe that the results are invalid, the contest will be canceled. The photos and poll are below the fold.

And the Winner Is


After about a week of voting, the winning entry in our “Mineral” category is …

Nymphaea caerulea


Photograph by David Collins.

Photography contest, “Vegetable” category.


Nymphaea caerulea – Egyptian blue lily, Zilker Botanical Garden, Austin, Texas, 2007.

I probably made my first purchase from Edmund Scientific in 1956, when they sold a lot of military surplus optics. Since then, they have grown into a fairly respectable supplier of scientific instruments to both professionals and hobbyists. I was dismayed, therefore, to learn yesterday that they also sell pseudoscientific instruments:

Remote Viewing DVD. Remote viewing is described as “similar to clairvoyance or ESP.”

EMF Ghost Meter for detecting “paranormal presences.”

3-in-1 Paranormal Research Instrument for hunting ghosts.

This is appallingly bad stuff, but especially so for a scientific supplier. It is as bad as lying to people about evolution. Edmund’s allows comments, and if you wanted to let them know of your opinion, I would not try to stop you.

Acknowledgment. Thanks to Glenn Branch for the tip.

Darwin and the vermiform appendix


Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

Last night, I asked for a copy of an article (I have plenty now, thanks!) that was getting a lot of press. The reason I was looking for it is two-fold: the PR looked awful, expressing some annoying cliches about evolution, but the data looked interesting, good stuff that I was glad to see done. Awful and interesting — I’m a sucker for those jarring combinations. My favorite pizza is jalapeno and pineapple, too.

I’m going to split my discussion of this article in two, just to simplify dealing with it. This is the awful part. I’ll do the interesting part a little later.

Halobacterium salinarum


Photograph by Matt W. Ford.

Photography contest, “Vegetable” category.


Halobacterium salinarum species NRC-1 growing around/on salt crystals on a dried-out plate.

By Joe Felsenstein,

William Dembski and Robert Marks have published what Dembski describes as a “peer-reviewed pro-ID article”. It is in the computer engineering journal IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics A, Systems & Humans in the September 2009 issue. In a post at his Uncommon Descent blog (where a link to a PDF of the article will also be found) Dembski describes it as critiquing Richard Dawkins’s “Methinks it is like a weasel” simulation and that “in critiquing his example and arguing that information is not created by unguided evolutionary processes, we are indeed making an argument that supports ID.” But what does it really say about ID?

The article does not mention ID directly, but defines a quantity called “active information” in search problems. Basically, it measures how much faster the solution can be found by a search in a problem’s space than by looking for the solution by drawing points from the space in a random order — how much faster one finds the solution than a monkey with a typewriter would. In Dawkins’s Weasel case, a monkey with a typewriter finds the solution after about 1040 tries, while one version of Dawkins’s program would take only about 728 tries. The active information is the log of the ratio of these numbers, about 124 bits.

In effect, the picture the article paints is that information is out there in the shape of the fitness surface — the way fitnesses change as we move among neighboring genotypes. So, on this view, natural selection does not create information, it just transfers it into the genotype. The information is out there already, lying around. Dembski and Marks at one point say that “the active information comes from knowledge of the fitness”. If the fitness surface is smooth, as in the Weasel case, natural selection will readily be successful. D&M would then regard the information as provided by a Designer in advance.

In that case natural selection works. If a Designer has structured our genotype-phenotype space so that fitness surfaces are often smooth, if mutations do not typically instantly reduce the organism to a chaotic organic soup, if successful genotypes are often found to be close in sequence to other successful genotypes, then the Designer is not designing individual organisms — she is leaving natural selection to do the job. Dembski and Marks’s argument would then at most favor theistic evolution and could not be used to favor ID over that.

One can wonder whether one needs any particular Designer to structure reality in that way. The laws of physics do not make all objects interact intimately and strongly. When I move a pebble in my back yard, the dirt, grass, trees, and fences do not instantly reorder themselves into a totally different arrangement, unrecognizably different. If they did, of course natural selection would not be able to cope. But as they interact much less strongly than that, only a few leaves of grass change noticeably. I can cope, and so can natural selection. Does the smoothness of fitness surfaces come from this weakness of long-range interactions in physics? If so, then Dembski and Marks’s argument ends up leaving us to argue about where the laws of physics ultimately come from, and most evolutionary biologists will not feel too worried.

Calochilus robertsonii


Photograph by James Wood.

Photography contest, “Vegetable” category.


Calochilus robertsonii – peloric mutant of purple beard orchid flowering in the Peter Murrell Reserve, Tasmania. This species is apparently prone to developmental errors so that the labellum can be petaloid or (as in this case) all the petals develop the labellum (lip) characteristics.

You’ll recall that the Institute for Creation Research—the creationist outfit that purports to award advanced degrees in the sciences—has filed a lawsuit against the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, objecting against its decision not to authorize the ICR’s granting of degrees. As I observed earlier, the original complaint in the case was 67 single-spaced pages long, and included 86 footnotes, including one that took up an entire page. It was a masterpiece of how not to write a complaint.

Well, the federal court didn’t take lightly to that, and ordered the ICR to file an amended complaint that complies with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and the ICR has now done so. The new complaint is 20 double-spaced pages…but it is 20 pages of non-stop, thigh-slapping hilarity. It contains language that appears to be randomly cobbled together through some sort of Lawyer Phrase Generator, and which I defy any member of the bar to explain in sensible terms: “There are still 2 state statutes that are potentially dispositive (in a manner favorable to the [ICR]) as to issues of ‘first impression’, so this Court needs to make some Erie v. Thompkins guesses thereon.” What the hell does that even mean?

The word “herein” is sprinkled randomly throughout, rather like the way Miss Teen South Carolina sprinkles “such as.” It occurs four times on page 2 alone–including “venue herein,” whatever the heck that means. There are italics, boldface, ALLCAPS, and all sorts of different combinations herein, of course. There are delightful spelling errors (“advertizes”), rhetorical flourishes (“as if with a ‘scarlet letter’”), and neologisms (I can’t decide if “favoritistically” or “applicational bounds” is my favorite). Of course it quotes the Bible. It even has rhetorical questions! In a complaint!

Now, judges get crap like this complaint all the time, and sadly for them, the liberal pleading rules generally require judges to allow the case to proceed if they can find somewhere in the complaint anything that would entitle the plaintiff to relief. That sometimes means doing the work of the plaintiff’s lawyers. If the court does anything like that here, it’ll face heavy work. But here is really the core of the ICR’s complaint: “[ICR] seeks declaratory relief that it may, as a matter of academic freedom…institutionally opine (as a matter of institutional academic speech),–that a given graduate student is worthy to be recognized as having earned [ICR]’s ‘Master of Science’ in ‘Science Education’ degree.…”

As I blogged before, I think there actually is something to this objection: the relationship of the state to educational institutions (however bogus) is not a simple one: an organization has a First Amendment right to grant titles to whomever it pleases–to declare John Smith to be a “deacon” or a “scholar” or what have you. And for the state to confiscate the use of certain terms (like “degree”) does implicate the constitutional rights of those organizations and the individuals who comprise them. The Texas Supreme Court held as much in HEB Ministries, Inc. v. Texas Higher Education Board, 235 S.W.3d 627 (Tex. 2007).

That’s a straightforward constitutional argument, and one worthy of being addressed by a court. But something tells me it won’t be addressed in this case, in which the ICR’s counsel alleges all sorts of virtually random causes of action. It seems to allege that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board violates the monopolies clause of the state Constitution, the Fourth Amendment’s searches and seizures clause, the due process clause, the equal protection clause, the freedom of speech clause, the freedom of the press clause, the freedom of association, the Texas Government Code, laws against defamation, the public emoluments clause, the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, anti-discrimination laws, the Texas Education Code, and even the “no titles of nobility” clause of the U.S. Constitution! The complaint even argues that for the state of Texas to regulate higher education “interferes with interstate commerce” (emphasis original, natch).

Writing a complaint is not a hard task for a lawyer. The rules are clear. There are plenty of examples to copy. It doesn’t require rhetorical skill or eloquence–indeed, you are supposed to avoid these things. You don’t have to write footnotes (in fact, you shouldn’t). It’s something that any competent attorney can do. But the ICR’s complaint is just wackiness through and through. Creationists appear to be no better at law than they are at science.

(By the way, here’s an interesting civil procedure tidbit: the complaint seeks to allege causes of action under the Texas Constitution, but the defendants are being sued pursuant to Ex Parte Young. Under Pennhurst State School & Hospital v. Halderman, 451 U.S. 1 (1980), a federal court has no supplemental jurisdiction to hear state constitutional claims in such an action.)

Controlled burn

Photograph by Gregory Zolnerowich.

Photography contest, “Vegetable” category.


Controlled prairie burn. The effects of fire as an ecological driver are a historical theme of the biological station. Konza Prairie Biological Station near Manhattan, Kansas, one of the original NSF Long-Term Ecological Research sites.

The designer’s identity solved: It’s Pixies!


In BBC blog comments I find this:

Let me repeat it for you, because you seem to be determined to misunderstand. NO-ONE is a priori excluding the presence of some sort of Primary Intelligent Cosmic Creator (PICC, pronounced “pixie”). There is no need to either include or exclude such a beastie; the only way of addressing that question is NOT by cod philosophy, but by scientific evidence.

I love the British way with words.

Hat tip to Heliopolitan, who coined the phrase.

Charles Pierce on Ham’s Creation Museum.


Video of Charles Pierce, author of Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, commenting on the Creationism Museum at Netroots Nation. Pull quote:

It’s a simulacrum of a museum.

Hat tip to Burt Humburg.

Drosera cuneifolia


Photograph by Matthew Opel.

Photography contest, “Vegetable” category.


Drosera cuneifolia, a South African carnivorous plant, in cultivation.

AIG’s Creation Science Fair


Answers in Genesis is gearing up for a science fair in February 2009 2010. The rules are here. Note that they are parasitic on the Intel Science and Engineering guidelines with two minor exceptions:

3, All projects should be clearly aligned with a biblical principle from a passage or verse.

The student should be able to explain why the verse or passage selected relates to their project. (Students should read the article “God and Natural Law” by Dr. Jason Lisle for an explanation of this concept.)

* Students should consider the context of the verse(s) they are using.

* The verse chosen does not have to directly apply to the project topic (e.g., Scripture does not directly address radio waves), but may simply relate the project to the Creator of the universe.

* Students should read the article “God and Natural Law.”


4. Students should be able, with a clear conscience, to sign the AiG Statement of Faith, which upholds the belief in the creation of the universe in six, twenty-four-hour days about 6,000 years ago by the Creator God as revealed in the Bible.

Translation of the “The verse chosen does not have to directly apply to the project topic” is “However my experiment came out, God did it.”

If it weren’t so hot and I weren’t so tired I’d get indignant. But mostly I’m sad: Those kids don’t have a chance. This is part of Ken Ham’s solution to the Already Gone problem he sees: The abandonment of fundamentalism by young people whose doubts start in middle school and high school. Ham’s solution is simple: Lie to them earlier and more often. Pity he isn’t self-aware enough to realize that those doubts begin to arise when kids learn that Ham and their pastor have been lying to them. And that’s the counter to the Hamster: Let ‘em know they’re being lied to in the plainest possible terms.

Hat tip to Dan Phelps.

According to an article in Science this week, Microsoft has basically tried to patent phylogenetics, with their application, Clustering Phylogenetics Variation Pattern. None of the broadly written claims in the patent application are novel, and most have been used by scientists for nearly two decades. I think Joe Felsenstein should walk over to Redmond and hit them with a cluestick or at least throw his book at them.

Many systematics blogs have weighed in on this application: Kevin Zelino, Dechronization, Myrmecos, and John Hawkes, to name a few.

Passiflora coccinea


Photograph by Daniel Sprockett.

Photography contest, “Vegetable” category.


Passiflora coccinea – Red Passion Flower, Red Grandilla, being visited by an unidentified flying invertebrate. Campanario Biological Station on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Below are all our finalists in the “Minerals” section of our Photo Contest. Please look through them one last time before voting for your favorite. We know it is possible to game these polls. Please act like adults and don’t vote more than once. If we believe that the results are invalid, the contest will be canceled. The photos and poll are below the fold.

Painted Hills


Photograph by Michael Klaas.

Photography contest, finalist in the “Minerals” category.

Klaas.Painted Hills.jpg

Painted Hills – exposed strata of geological eras when this section of Central Oregon was a river floodplain. Colors are formed by layers of volcanic deposits that fell from eruptions in the Cascade Range 35 million years ago. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon.

Chris Comer appeals case in Texas


The NCSE reported on August 13th that

Chris Comer, whose lawsuit challenging the Texas Education Agency’s policy of requiring neutrality about evolution and creationism was dismissed on March 31, 2009, is now appealing the decision. Formerly the director of science at the TEA, Comer was forced to resign in November 2007 after she forwarded a note announcing a talk by Barbara Forrest in Austin; according to a memorandum recommending her dismissal, “the TEA requires, as agency policy, neutrality when talking about evolution and creationism.” In June 2008, Comer filed suit in federal court in the Western District of Texas, arguing that the policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: “By professing ‘neutrality,’ the Agency credits creationism as a valid scientific theory.” The judge ruled (PDF, p. 18) otherwise, however … In her appellate brief, submitted to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Comer asked (PDF, p. 39) the court to “review the record de novo and reverse and vacate the district court’s decision. Specifically, it should grant Comer’s motion for summary judgment, and vacate the grant of summary judgment for defendants, as well as the dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint. At a minimum, this Court should vacate the grant of summary judgment to defendants, plus the order dismissing the complaint, and remand for further proceedings.”

Hat Tip: Tony Whitson’s blog on curriculum-related matters

Huaxiagnathus orientalis


Photograph by Adrian Thysse.

Photography contest, finalist in the “Minerals” category.

Thysse.Compsognathid theropod (Huaxiagnathus orientalis).jpg

Huaxiagnathus orientalis – Compsognathid theropod.

More on science reporting: tracking the spread of a story


David Hone, a British paleontologist working in China who blogs at Archosaur Musings, has a fascinating post on tracking the reporting of a paper he recently published. Among other things, he was able to follow the ‘Chinese whispers’ or ‘telephone game’ transmission of the news stories by tracking errors that crept into the story as it was published here and picked up there:

Thus science stories can really pick up and spread this way, so although 24 hours after my press release I had only one mention in one paper, after 48 hours this was more than five and another 24 hours later this was more than twenty. One week later it’s up to about fifty and I am still getting new e-mails about this.

This spreading though is especially interesting as between the original press release(s), the paper itself and the blog post (and later interviews) I know which quotes and which information came from where and thus which errors or changes have come in at which stage and which media have picked them up from which other. It is noticeable therefore that one can track errors from report to report as they originate in one and then are copied to others (I tracked a spelling mistake of Tyrannosaurus as Tyrannosaurs across three generations of articles, and each time it appeared in basically the same sentence in the second paragraph of the report, each, theoretically written by a different journalist).

Shades of pseudogene phylogenies! Go and read it and enjoy it there, and comment there if you feel moved to do so to encourage him to keep ‘em coming.



Photograph by James Kocher.

Photography contest, finalist in the “Minerals” category.


Stromatolites – Fossilized colonies of filamentary cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) and other microbes. Gunflint formation, approximately 1.9 billion years old. Microscopic fossils are sheaths and external cellular secretions/coverings very much like modern cyanobacteria, which may be survivors from Gunflint time. Whitefish River, Lybster Township, Ontario, August, 1992.

Center of the Galaxy


Photograph by Fran�ois Malan.

Photography contest, finalist in the “Minerals” category.

Malan. Centre_of_the_Galaxy.jpg

The center of the Milky Way galaxy, showing Kaus Australis, Kaus Media, Shaula, Lesath, Nunki, Phi Sagittarii. Ptolemy’s Cluster (M7), and the Lagoon Nebula (M8). Photographed from the ground in Sutherland, South Africa.


A number of us had an exciting weekend. The Secular Student Alliance had their national conference this past Friday through Sunday, in Columbus, Ohio…a quick two hour drive from the infamous Creation “Museum” in Kentucky. So a field trip was hastily organized, which quickly grew and grew, until over 300 of us gathered before the doors of Ken Ham’s very silly establishment and spent an afternoon prowling through the absurdities. We now have a fine collection of articles for you to read.

Of course, the real triumph of the whole big shindig was that I got to ride the triceratops with a saddle!


This is slightly off-topic and will reveal that I sometimes read Parade magazine, but readers of Parade recently voted “No” by a ratio of approximately 4 to1.



Photograph by Quentin Cobb.

Photography contest, finalist in the “Minerals” category.


Big Stalactite at Doolin Cave. Largest Irish stalactite in the world. At 7.3 meters long it contains 33 tonnes of calcite. The Burren, County Clare, Republic of Ireland, 1976.

Darwin → Hitler? Naw.

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Benjamin Wiker, a senior fellow of the Disco ‘Tute, has made a cottage industry of linking Darwin to Hitler, evolution to Nazi ideology, and that meme is perpetuated by a variety of ID creationist flacks.

Wiker’s view depends in large part on the supposition that German evolutionary thinking about evolution actually followed Darwin. However, as a recent book review in PLoS Biology points out, what reached Germany was not the English version of Origin of Species, it was a translation by German paleontologist Heinrich Georg Bronn that was a main source of German notions of Darwinian evolution, and those notions were a distortion of Darwin’s views. Bronn had a substantially different conception of evolution than Darwin, and Bronn’s translation apparently incorporated a good bit of his own conception rather than being a straight translation of Darwin. Bronn even added an extra chapter to OoS incorporate his own ideas.



Photograph by Virginia Pasek.

Photography contest, finalist in the “Minerals” category.


Fulgurite – Glass formed as lightning strikes sand or soil. Phosphate-containing sand was fused and turned into phosphite. This otherwise unknown natural phosphite explains the existence of phosphite-eating bacteria. In the center is a small granitic pebble that was trapped during the formation of the glass. A bolt of electricity traveled along its surface, leaving permanent evidence of its passage. Tucson, Arizona, 2007.

… but now the decision is up to you, our readers.

(UPDATED) Another half-brained science headline


Update:: I received an email from the Managing Editor of National Geographic News this afternoon notifying me that the headline has been changed to “Extinct Walking Bat Found.” The email explains that they intended only to suggest (in the original headline) that a particular explanation for the New Zealand walking bat had been overturned, not that all of evolutionary theory had fallen:

As is often the case with news headlines, there was not enough space to accommodate “Extinct Walking Bat Found; Upends an Evolutionary Theory” and so we removed “an,” thinking that readers’ would fill in the blank.

Unfortunately, it seems that some readers filled the blank with “all” as opposed to “an.”

Would that they used “explanation” or “account” rather than “theory” in the first place. However, kudos to NatGeo News for modifying the headline.

(However, the link from NatGeo News’ front page still has the “upends” language.)


The National Geographic News seems to be slipping into the New Scientist mode of sensationalist science headlines. In 1999 it was taken in by the fabricated Archaeoraptor fossil. Now in National Geographic News we see this bizarre headline:

Extinct Walking Bat Found; Upends Evolutionary Theory

And how is evolutionary theory upended? It appears that instead of acquiring the walking habit via loss of flight due to lack of predators, the lesser short-tailed bat of New Zealand inherited its walking habit from Australian ancestors who walked. To be fair, the reporter, Carolyn Barry in Sydney, did a quite respectable job with no hint of the sensationalism injected by the headline writer. How the Hell finding a potential ancestor for an extant species “upends evolutionary theory” is beyond me. Shame on you, National Geographic News.

Three Amigos or Three Stooges?


We report (well really, John Lynch and John Pieret report), you decide.

The Biologic Institute is the research arm of the Disco ‘Tute, promising (but not yet delivering) cutting edge intelligent design research. Until now the Institute has been mainly the bailiwick of Douglas Axe and a supporting cast of American ID proponents. Now, however, three new additions from overseas have been added to the Institute’s roster.

What’s delicious fun is that they’re all Young Earth Creationists.

The question at issue is whether Lynch’s Three Amigos motif or Pieret’s Three Stooges motif is most appropriate. Cast your vote in the comments.

Barrett Brown whacks Dembski on HuffPo


While the Huffington Post has some execrably bad aspects (its embrace of woo in health, for example), it does have the occasional gem. For example, this takedown of Bill Dembski is outstanding. Read and enjoy!

I have to say, though, that some of the comments are remarkably dumb. Second law of thermodynamics? Gads. And ‘That’s not evolution, it’s just adaptation.’ (Though they get a little lighter late in the thread – is there golfing in heaven?)

Via John Pieret (who else? I’m not proud). But every time I throw him a trackback I get an error. Hm.

(UPDATED) Freshwater Mandamus request filed


Update Freshwater’s request fir the writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court is here (pdf). The notification of the affected parties by the Supreme Court is here. The 21-day clock for their response began running when they received service of that notification, which would have been today or perhaps next Monday. Then the Court has to consider what it will do. I doubt that the hearing will resume on September 10.

The Mt. Vernon News is reporting that John Freshwater’s attorney, R. Kelly Hamilton, has filed a request for a writ of mandamus from the Ohio Supreme Court to compel the Mt. Vernon Board of Education to issue subpoenas to (at least) two of its members to testify in the administrative hearing on Freshwater’s termination as an 8th grade science teacher. I cannot find the request yet on the Ohio Supreme Court site. The Court has been on summer recess, but is resuming oral arguments on August 11. Freshwater’s request is not (yet?) on the Court’s oral arguments schedule. I have no idea whether the Court hears oral arguments on such requests. Is there an Ohio lawyer in the house?

This request for a write of mandamus is the next step following the Knox County Court of Common Pleas refusal to enforce subpoenas which had been quashed by the Board of Education.

Once again, the hearing is on hiatus until at least September 10 due to Freshwater’s attorney having invoked a legal provision to recess such hearings during periods when school is not in session.

According to Gawker, Ben Stein will no longer write a column for the New York times because he has become a spokesman for a scuzzy credit score reporting company.

Ben Stein’s TV ads for a scuzzy “free” credit product have finally caught up to him: The New York Times has fired Stein as a Sunday business columnist for violating ethics guidelines.

Stein was pilloried online for his endorsement of the bait-and-switch operation, which offers a free credit score but charges an outrageous $30 per month to see the credit report behind the score. As Reuters blogger Felix Salmon pointed out, consumers can get a free online report under federal law.

There’s more at Gawker.

Creation/Evolution Journal now online


The NCSE started publishing a journal called Creation/Evolution in 1980. In 1996 it was merged with Reports of the National Center for Science Education. Now the entire run of Creation/Evolution Journal has been put online. It was OCRed so it’s searchable, but it has not yet been proofread so searches may be a little wonky sometimes.

Via John Pieret.

Blogging Batholiths Part 2



I’m back from field work, and have finally gotten enough time to get my photos web-ready after returning from Batholiths Onland. (see Blogging Batholiths: Part 1 for a summary of the 1st 8 days of the adventure, and a description of the scientific goals of the project; the part 1 photo essay is here.)

The updated photo tour includes reactions to the activist who tried to sabotage the project, finally getting some data, splendid photos from team members, and more. Part 2 starts off with a hike up to the gorgeous falls in Hagensborg, BC, and can be found here.

Comments may be left here or there, but nowhere in between.

Update: a piece about the failed attempt to sabotage the project, “Eco-warrior trashes seismic experiment” by Rex Dalton, appears in the 23 July 2009 issue of Nature.

Update, Aug. 5th, 2009: Forest fires have come to the region. More below the fold.

Polistes dominula


Polistes dominula–European paper wasp, Boulder, Colorado.

Happy 265th Birthday


By Joe Felsenstein,

265 years ago today was the birth of the first major evolutionary biologist. On 1 August 1744, in Bazentin-le-Petit, France, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet was born into the impoverished minor nobility.—Who?—He is best known by his title, the Chevalier de Lamarck.

He was the first major biologist to argue that organisms had evolved, the first to suggest a mechanism for the evolution of adaptations, and the first to draw an evolutionary tree that branched. He is also unfairly criticized by many biologists.

Two misconceptions:

  • He was not a pseudoscientist or a quack, but was the great figure of invertebrate biology (he coined the word “invertebrate” and the word “biology”).
  • He was not the originator or major advocate of inheritance of acquired characters (miscalled “Lamarckian inheritance”). He accepted it and used it in his mechanism, but he had nothing to do with its wide acceptance.

His mechanism for evolution turned out not to be right, but he does deserve the designation on his statue in the Jardin des Plantes; “Fondateur de la doctrine de l’Évolution”.

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